Self-Reflection and Lessons on Useful Advocacy

Through a series of conversations and interactions dealing with white supremacy and advocacy on Twitter, I’ve learned some lessons on what it means to begin being a useful advocate. I wrote a short thread on some of those lessons, but I wanted to write them down in a more permanent spot and to expand on some of them in a more meaningful way. This is mostly a way for me to continue to reflect on those conversation, but I also hope that it helps other white people be better advocates for marginalized people.

The conversations in particular were around a white woman broadly tone-policing people who do diversity and inclusion work in tech; a white man who broke into those conversations and attacked participants - especially several Black women - who were trying to educate the first woman; and another white man who entered the conversation by prioritizing the need for niceness over the needs of the people being harassed, as well as calling out a Black woman who was doing (and does) a lot of work to advocate for diversity & inclusion in tech (it’s actually her job).

I’ll start with some definitions that Kim Crayton highlights in her work - you can see them on her website along with some others.

  • Privilege: is about access. Defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”
  • Underrepresented: is about numbers. Defined as “insufficient or inadequate representation.”
  • Marginalized: is about treatment. Defined as “treating (a person, group, or concept) as insignificant or peripheral.”
  1. When a racist or bully (henceforth known as $JERK) is showing themselves to be a racist or bully, believe them.

  2. Giving $JERK the benefit of the doubt in their motivations contributes to the harm they’re doing. For one thing, it allows them to continue their harm for longer. But it’s also important to know that the benefit of the doubt is often a privilege reserved for white people. Marginalized groups are forced to prove themselves ten times over for something that white people can be given the benefit of the doubt for. When we’re talking about whether someone was “racist by accident” or “they said {racist thing} but they’re not really like that”, it’s incredibly damaging and harmful for the people on the receiving end of that racism. You can begin to be a useful advocate by resisting your urge to give that benefit of the doubt, but you can continue your advocacy by looking for receipts of past behavior - they’re often easy to find.

  3. Engage without the assumption that $JERK wants to change their behavior. They likely don’t, and engaging them in good faith allows them to continue doing harm. A lot of racists and bullies will respond in ways that seem that they want to be helpfully educated and invite thoughtful conversation, but they are really setting themselves up to continue repeating their harmful and racist behavior. If you respond, do so with the assumption that you are not leading $JERK toward a path of enlightenment about their behavior, but maybe with the hope that a bystander will learn something. It’s also okay to respond to them without any politeness or niceness at all - telling them to scram is acceptable. Being a useful advocate means supporting the people being harmed, and sometimes that means standing up to $JERK and telling them to GTFO.

  4. Make sure you’re not speaking FOR someone. During my participation in the conversations, I was trying to advocate for a few Black women who were being harassed and bullied by $JERK, but I ended up speaking over another Black woman who was actually doing the work to counter $JERK. She wasn’t being bullied, and she didn’t want me associating her as his victim.

  5. It was hard for me to say the words “you’re supporting white supremacy.” We see all the time how society shies away from speaking plainly about things that make people with privilege uncomfortable, e.g. “racially charged” instead of “racist.” Call it what it is. This country was built on white supremacy. The infrastructure of pretty much everything rests on that foundation. As a white woman, I can be a useful advocate by speaking the truth, even when it’s hard, which reduces the ability for someone to hide their racist behavior behind less impactful words. Allowing $JERK to hide behind wishy-washy phrasing supports their racist behavior.

  6. When someone calls you out on your own behavior, swallow your defensiveness and apologize for your action or impact without centering yourself. Then do better.

  7. Make sure your desire to be an ally doesn’t overrun someone else’s desire to be removed from the toxic conversation that’s happening. If you decide to continue engaging the person doing harm, consider whether it’s appropriate to keep the people being harmed in that conversation. Don’t let your eagerness to be an ally end up continuing to force the toxicity/abuse/etc into their space.

  8. Don’t center civility over truth. Tone-policing is often employed to support white supremacist and racist behavior. It can take the form of a $JERK saying that they’ll listen to your side, but only if you speak calmly (followed by a callout of your angry tone and how you’re actually the one being toxic here). It can take the form of white people at work assigning angry or rude behavior to Black men and women speaking passionately about something, or even just using a regular conversational tone.

  9. Amplifying the voices and work of others can be more useful advocacy than adding your own voice to the mix.

  10. As Kim points out in this tweet, I don’t get to call myself an ally. “Only those who you support can determine through your consistent, demonstrated behavior if your efforts are valued as an ally.” But I can work to be a useful advocate by supporting, sponsoring, and amplifying people who are marginalized. So other than a specific bullet where I use the word “ally” to indicate that it’s often a title people strive to attain, I’ve transitioned to using “advocate” instead.

My goal is to take these lessons to heart and learn how to be a better, more useful advocate. I might mess up sometimes, and I hope to learn from that too, and I hope it’s in a way that doesn’t cause more harm. I can also learn from other advocates doing the work, and sharing their lessons as well.

Written on October 28, 2019