The Problem With Leftism Online

Please excuse grammar errors, this post was written a bit hastily. 

I will say, before I even begin this essay, that I'm a white, Jewish, cisgendered, heterosexual woman and recognize the inherent privileges and pitfalls this affords me. If this means you want to stop reading, that's cool, but this post calls out the performative nature of pretty much everyone involved in leftist identity politics, even if they have the best of intentions.

I'm going to start this off with a recount of an experience I had this week. Of course, this puts me at risk for people saying I'm not self-aware, that I'm making a tragedy about myself, which if you think that, that's fair as well. However, this isn't to bring attention to my own perceived victimhood (of which I am not), but to draw attention to a wider issue within leftist politics and something I see playing out over and over: mistakes and misunderstandings between people are not tolerated. One slip up, and it's free reign to wail on you. 

At its very nature, leftist identity politics are all about dismantling white supremacy, the patriarchy and everything that comes along with it. It's a way to amplify voices that might otherwise be lost, for people to learn to be better allies and to help educate others as you educate yourself on the issues. We all need to learn, no matter where we fall, because we all have our own inherent prejudices (this is NOT a nod to any kind of "reverse racism" or racism against white people but that we all have preconceived notions about groups of people).

But leftist politics does a very poor job of it and in turn, alienates people who would otherwise be allies. And I'll tell you why with a couple of examples that have happened to me and one I observed.

A friend of mine added me to a Facebook group all about identity politics. After the events in Charlottesville, even though I am Jewish and was, therefore, a target of the hate, I still felt that what is happening to people of color in our country is even more pressing. My Facebook feed was filled with well meaning white people who I felt, were participating in a huge performance about the situation. Although I'm guilty of reposting things, it seemed so many white folks needed to make statuses about how heartbroken they were, how to help people of color and be a better ally, etc. To me this seemed not only performative, and although well meaning, as though they were talking over other people and knew better how to be an ally than what people of color are actually asking for.

In the group, I asked how I could help people of color during this time without being performative. I said I struggled with knowing what to do because I don't want to be a "white savior," but I want to make sure people feel supported and for people to know I'm there for them if they need it, despite the fact that my own people were also under attack.

I was told I could pay for funerals of victims. Okay, fair enough. Then underneath, the same person said, "Pay reparations. All white people owe reparations."

It is likely due to my own ignorance, but I have never heard this term in the form that this person obviously meant. As I work with Holocaust survivors, to me, the term is a punishment for wrongdoings metted out to those who have been personally victimized. (And even then, the system is extremely flawed.) I questioned what he meant, and he continued to say that white people owe people of color money. In my mind, I was reading that this means individuals owe inidivuals money. I started to question this notion, as I wondered how you can decide which white people owe people money and which do not. How would you implement this? How would this occur? What about white refugees? Or white victims of the Holocaust?

The person then told me they were a person of color, which I couldn't really see from the Facebook picture. I don't assume people identify in any which way, knowing people who look white in all forms, with even white names, who are not...and knowing people who are classified as white but have very Muslim names (i.e. from the Caucus region). The photo was small, and did not clearly identify him to me. If we were speaking in person, I acknowledge, it would be different.

Because he is a person of color, I was accused of not listening to him and talking over him because I disagreed with what I perceived as his notion. I was also accused of misappropriating the term "struggle" when I said I "struggle" with finding the right things to do or words to say, since as a white person, I don't "struggle." I get called racist and that I don't listen to people of color. A white person attempts to explain it after identifying themselves as white, but still does not explain the notion other than saying that white people owe people of color monetarily for the system that places them above people of color. I apologize, but say I still don't agree with the notion, though I do agree that the system places whites above others, which isn't taken well.

I go to sleep. The next day, I have someone explain to me in clearer terms what reparations mean within the context of his argument. No, he did not mean mandatory reparations, but that white people should support people of color in businesses, giving money to funeral funds, etc., etc.

"Oh!" I think. "That does make sense. I get it now. Hopefully we can smooth this over."

I get back to the group, and I see that not only have things not been smoothed over, but I have been made fun of while I was gone. This person posted memes about how I'm a white person who have asked people of color to educate them and how I think white people's problems are just as bad as those of people of color. Someone calls me "a bitch." The original person calls me a "fuck" and an "asshole." Another tells me I don't even care about people of color, that I posted the question just for attention and points.

I try to make amends. I own that I did use some us vs. them language that was pointed out. I explain I did not mean to talk over anyone, but I really didn't understand what was being said. I'm told again that I'm a racist fuck, and then that I would never lift a finger to help anyone of color. Someone asks me what I have done to help people of color in my life. I tell them it isn't their business because answering that is performative. I'm told since I won't answer, I'm being evasive. Finally, I do, and the person is silent, but later the original person who took umbrage with me talking over them says I shouldn't have said anything.

After they finish insulting me, I am told that if my feelings were hurt, it is because I am white and fragile and because I need to reflect deeply on myself. And if I leave the group because I no longer feel welcome, I was never an ally to begin with.

 I write to this person privately. He tells me again that I spoke over him because he is not white. I tell him I apologize and that was not the intention and can we move on--I was earnestly just challenging a notion that he wasn't even arguing to begin with.

He then writes a post underneath saying that he is a victim of my racism, that I don't understand how racist I am, that I have gaslighted him and that although "I think I'm not racist" and my friends likely think this as well, I "definitely am."

Instead of what could have been a moment in which we both learn from one another, realize wires cross, and I get rightfully called out on some language I shouldn't have used, it became a witch hunt. And it was heard loud and clear: mistakes are not tolerated. Any infraction means you will be subject to ridicule, and if you are defensive, then all the worse.

I understand it is not a person of color's job to educate myself or anyone else on oppression and that it is likely exhausting to explain ways in which they are oppressed. I experience this myself as a disabled woman. However, these infractions that occur within the spaces of the leftist sphere are often not someone asking someone else to explain their suffering or oppression, but a blunder, miscommunication or misstep that escalates into putting people on blast, which only serves to further divide people.

To be clear, I am not advocating that people of color, women or any minority group engage in any debate in which someone literally asks for examples of their oppression or says, "I'm just being logical, please show me where your life is more difficult than mine." I don't refute that it is, which is why I'm here.

However, sometimes things come up, well-meaning people make mistakes, and it's okay to correct them without villifying them.

In some ways, I wonder if some of this villifcation, especially from white people on these topics, comes from a self-congratulatory pat on the back. They would never make that mistake. They are more woke than anyone who just made a blunder. They know exactly how to support people of color or any other minority without taking time to reflect. They know it all. 

Similarly, on my personal Facebook page, I asked how I can support people of color during this time. I felt frozen. I see them asking if we are here, and I am, but am I doing enough in my role? Is my privilege being used in the best way possible in this situation of crisis to help people feel supported, that they aren't alone and to work to dismantle systemic oppression?

I had read a few articles about allyship. What I read was when in doubt, ask.

So I did.

As a Jewish person, I appreciate people asking how they can support me, and I appreciate those who have asked about helping during this crisis. As a disabled person, I appreciate someone asking how they can help me or be a better ally. As a female, I appreciate when men ask how they can help instead of contradicting my experience with the old, "But I'm just being logical." line.

While most people were lovely, a few of them told me (all white, of course), "Congratulations you just made this entire situation about yourself." or "It's called Google. It's not anyone's job to teach you how to treat people like human beings." (I don't recall asking, "How do I treat someone who is not the same color as me?") or "Don't ask stupid questions."

Several people messaged me privately saying they were appalled by the way I was spoken to. Does this make me a victim? No, of course not. But what it is is simply an example of the way people on the left make no room for error. Maybe the question was offensive. Maybe it wasn't appropriate. But I'm unsure why villication makes up for it, or indulges people in self-reflection.

I've been there before on the other side. I've seen people make frustrating statements from well-intentioned places and I'm sure I've called people racist or sexist. However,  I acknowledge, and we need to acknowledge as a movement that this is not productive. When I have done that, predictably, it has not gone over well and the person disengaged. Unpacking the situation has typically been more helpful.  And if people of color are exhausted of unpacking situations with people (which is more than understandable) it is the ally's job to roll up their sleeves and to the work--not further inflame the situation with hateful rhetoric.

Yes, there is such a thing as white fragility. But there is also such a thing as general common sense, that people typically don't react well to being called out in an inflammatory manner, and making fun of people usually doesn't lead to self-reflection on their end, even if they said something that's problematic.

In these cases, I think often of my parents and people of their generation who do not engage in discourse on Facebook. If they did, they would not stand a chance. My parents are well-meaning people who have worked to combat their own prejudices and racism that was ingrained within them from the way they grew up. I have seen pretty big strides in them. But they don't engage in discourse online everyday. Occasionally, they slip up and use outdated terms that used to be acceptable, but have fallen out of fashion and are now offensive. Typically, simple explanations fix those kinds of issues, but it seems leftist discourse isn't interested in that.

Most people who are trying are interested in being called out. We really are. But labeling people and making fun of them for slipping up or for trying and getting it wrong leads to further division and people pulling away from engaging. White fragility may be silly, but insulting a person's very character for a misunderstanding or misstep does not help anyone.

The last story I want to reflect on is the performative and hijacking nature of leftist identity politics, particularly amongst white people who want everyone to know they are NOT RACIST OR SEXIST.

A woman in a Ravishly article recounted an experience she had "advocating" for women's rights. The woman had a friend from high school who announced she was pregnant and the gender of the child at the same time. The parents included a hashtag to the nature of "She's not dating ever" and held up a onesie declaring their daughter a princess. While all of this is inherently problematic to feminism in general and something that should be worth a discussion, this woman took the time to call out her friend publicly on her pregnancy announcement.

Predictably, it didn't go well, and the woman wrote an article whining to Ravishly about it. While her points about the nature of the image are all very valid, one must reflect on whether or not this is truly the right time, place and forum to have the discussion. Literally, any other time could have been used to call her attention to it or form a discourse. But instead, the woman had to let everyone know she was ~not okay~ with it.

I get the need to call people out when they are making problematic statements, I truly do. But especially for white people, we need to examine how we are speaking to people, when is the right time to engage and be willing to move past mistakes or miscommunications, especially those that are well intentioned. Otherwise, we risk alienating people further from the movement, which then contributes further to the divide we already have.

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