Jerry, George and Elaine visit a new soup stand. Jerry explains that the owner, Yev Kassem, is known as the “Soup Nazi” due to his insistence on a strict manner of behavior while placing an order, but his soups are so outstandingly delicious that the stand is constantly busy. – Seinfeld, 11/2/95
The Biden presidency will officially begin on January 20, 2021. On that day his cabinet will begin the work of trying to turn around, clear up, and stop the destruction that the Trump White House has crapped onto us. We, too, must get to work. As we various voices have mentioned in this space at BGIM Media (and elsewhere) countless times before, the work did not stop when Trump lost; the work does not stop when Biden is sworn in. The work has to keep going and the new work, as it is, will require us to turn around, clear up, and flat-out stop some of the nonsense that prevailed—on both sides of the fight—in order for us to create progress and equity.
I’d like to propose a New Year’s resolution: For white people to vow to give up performative activism. I want them to give up their harmful participation in toxic activism. I’m talking about the type of anti-racist activism that is tied to abuse and gaslighting. I think it’s time for white people to give up their obsession with being treated like shit and calling it activism. Repeat after me: “New year, new me! Having another person humiliate me because they do not think I am performing up to their standards of anti-racism is not activism.”
As the Trump presidency wore on, many Americans realized that we were in a bad way. Don’t get me wrong; we were always in a bad way. But the last four years have brought along a whole crop of folks who wouldn’t believe it if you pointed it out to them on a police body cam. Lots of people, white people especially, showed up and began to lean into the work, study the philosophy, and dig into the frameworks of anti-racism.
We also saw the (re)emergence of a particularly toxic form of white activism, something I like to call “woke trips.” Unlike guilt trips which usually center around Catholicism (or what a terrible Catholic I am…), or being a cheapskate (I ain’t getting my mom nothing for xmas…), or the countless other things people try to use against us (it’s not my fault I sleep so much!!!), “woke trips” are based around wokeness, or the lack thereof. Unlike guilt trips, where almost anyone can make you feel guilty, a “woke trip” can only be administered by a “woke” person. A “woke” person who believes that by simply being an asshole, what they are doing is “teaching you.” A “woke trip” is when a person shames, guilts, yells at, shuts down, and basically abuses a white person in the name of…I’m not sure exactly what.
“Woke trips” are not the domain of any one race or ethnicity. Nope, all you need to be able to administer one is a false sense of confidence, an overarching belief in your own superiority about anti-racism, and serious lack of self awareness. Throw in a few marks who are willing to let you do it to them in public and you are halfway to being an anti-racist star!
Let’s commit to not taking shortcuts in 2021. There are plenty of folks out here claiming they can cure you of your racism. Read some of these books, they say. Listen to some of these speakers, they suggest. Don’t question me or my motives, or that makes you racist! they insist. Some white people are so desperate to wash themselves of the original American sin that they buy up all the stuff these snake oil salesmen have in their travel cases, and wear it with pride. Meanwhile the rest of us doing the work wonder where that white person got that rash from.
The truth is that the only way to cure ourselves of the original sin is to create paths forward that recognize the atrocities committed to get us here, while at the same time committing to rejecting the benefits and privileges that come from those atrocities. It means committing to uplifting the voices and perspectives of our marginalized community members and rejecting easy answers in order to achieve progress. It means not perpetuating systems of abuse. Being yelled at because you are white is not a thing. It may feel like a thing, but trust me, it’s not actually a thing. You just make all of us look stupid and Fox News look like a Pulitzer-winning organization. Please don’t make Hannity think he is right.
It’s toxic to the community of anti-racist activists who spend the time and energy crafting and delivering their perspectives and knowledge. It’s harmful to folks who are actually putting in work, putting themselves on the line in order to create equity. It’s the worst kind of performative activism—it’s built on a foundation of outrage and shutdown. For the last four years (and especially the last few weeks) we’ve lived in an ecosystem running off of outrage and shutdown. It gives white people the idea that in order to be anti-racist they first step is to give up your dignity. That’s the opposite of what we need. We are fighting for dignity.
In the Seinfeld episode I alluded to at the top of this post, “The Soup Nazi,” none of the crew (Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer) are willing to stand up to the Soup Nazi because his soup is just too damn good. They compromise their dignity in order to be a part of a special group of people—people who get the soup. Sure, maybe the soup is seriously good; maybe it’s the best soup they’ve ever had. But the problem is that the soup will eventually run out. The shop won’t be there forever. In real life all of the damage that the crew sustains, all in order to be a part of a select few, will have lasting effects. I see “woke trips” in the same way. It may work for now, but you are creating real harm when you participate, whether as the victim or the perpetrator. We need standards in this work. One standard should be that we do not use humiliation, degradation, and verbal abuse as a strategy. Another standard should be that we do not elevate those who do that.
We should always speak truth to power. We should be willing to stand for what we believe and we should be willing to say those things out loud. There is a time and a place to correct folks, and I would argue there is a way we can do that where they will hear us and listen to us. My strategies and my approach to the work will not work for everyone and. at the same time, they are not the same things for everyone—there is no one-size-fits-all approach. I am not saying my way is the right way—there are plenty of right ways—but I am saying that there are definitely strategies that are dead ends. Anything that requires you to feel bad about yourself, anything that purports to enlighten you by making you feel bad, that’s a dead end. Some might even argue that it’s gaslighting. Repeat after me: “Guilt is not action. Guilt is worthless without action.”
On January 20, let’s stop giving oxygen to Trump and his garbage posse. But before that, on January 1, let’s stop supplying culture vultures, opportunists, and woke trendsters with the attention they need to survive. Let’s leave abusive activism in 2020. No more “woke trips” in 2021. Trust me Karen, we can make you feel like shit while you work on interrogating your fears of Black men—we just won’t insist that you have to feel that way in order to progress and create change.
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