The importance of shutting up when white


I’m going to try to keep this short.

Last night, after reading through my Twitter timeline and seeing one more white woman using her feminism to silence, ridicule, and harass Black women, I posted the following:

White people, sometimes (and a lot more often than we’re willing to admit), we need to just shut the fuck up. Seriously. Just stop.

I was asked to elaborate on what I meant by this statement, and agreed to come back to it this morning. So, here I am, trying to figure out how to address this without additionally co-opting space which isn’t mine to inhabit.

Here’s the thing. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re even conscious of it, as white people, we take up a lot of space in the world. I’ll go even further to say that we take up as much space in the world as we can get our hands on, and sometimes still don’t feel like it’s enough. Our narratives are the default, prescriptive, the “right” way to do things. This is individual, and it’s systemic.

I’m trying to be careful to recognize the space I take up, to listen more than I speak. I’m not perfect at it, and I appreciate when others take time to call me out (though I also don’t expect other people to actively teach me to to be a more thoughtful considerate person – nobody owes me their knowledge). I also feel some responsibility in addressing the space we collectively take up, because this isn’t just about me, or any other one white person. It’s about how 2/3 of the students in my school district are children of colour, and 2/3 of their teachers are white. It’s about how family structure and kinship care doesn’t always reflect the standards reinforced by white-dominated structures (even when those families who deviate from the accepted norm may also be white). It’s about how while this isn’t the Oppression Olympics, the impact of settler colonialism and trans-Atlantic enslavement do mean that our world (and our people) continue to assume that some people are more human than others.

When I say that white people need to stop talking, need to shut up and listen, I do mean all of us. And I hope that when other white people read me saying it, they understand that this isn’t about individual people and their individual acts and behaviours. This is about acknowledging that no matter what our conscious understanding, no matter how we frame ourselves as accepting, anti-racist people, we have systemic skin-colour advantage that validates our stories over all others. EVEN when we’re women. EVEN when we’re poor. EVEN when we’re queer, or trans, or disabled, or all of the above. ALL of us need to shut the fuck up and listen. I stand by that statement, and this sadly won’t be the last time I’ll find the need to say it.

This is already a lot longer than I’d hoped it would be. I hope it provides some clarity.

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10 Comments

  1. alcockell said,

    August 8, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    So I’m “deficient” as I’m autistic – and I must accept I’m subhuman because of it? Fuck you.

    • August 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      I honestly don’t know what your comment has to do with what I just wrote.

      • alcockell said,

        August 8, 2014 at 12:58 pm

        Just blew up. As a white heterosexual Asperger guy who was raped by women when 13, all this calculus that tells me how worthless I am gets on top of me..

        And the radfem calculus that would have me as a waste of oxygen as well….

      • August 8, 2014 at 1:01 pm

        I’m sorry that happened to you. It should never happen to anyone.

        I didn’t call you worthless.

      • alcockell said,

        August 8, 2014 at 1:07 pm

        Sorry – just sounded the same as all the feminist stuff recently. I was an equal-opportunity victim… in Anger phase at the mo…

      • August 8, 2014 at 1:16 pm

        Well, this is feminist stuff, as everything I write comes from an intersectional feminist framework.

        I’m not sure what “equal opportunity victim” means in the context of recognizing privilege and doing something proactive about it. While I do write pretty extensively on sexual violence, that’s not what this post is about. I hope I’m misinterpreting you, but I’m hearing from your words that you blame feminism for your sexual assault. Misogyny (the hatred of women and perceived femininity (read: weakness)) and colonialism affect us all, and that means that men can be victimized by and women can be perpetrators of sexual violence.

        But. I’m feeling a bit derailed from the thesis of this post, so thank you for your feedback, and I wish you well.

      • alcockell said,

        August 8, 2014 at 1:20 pm

        Feminist girls abused me, my tutor (feminist) threatened to get me done by the police for complying with a demand to expose myself to escape an abusive encounter; and this was in 1984 – so Dworkin messgaes were telling me I was a “latent rapist” all through this time…

      • August 8, 2014 at 1:56 pm

        Once again, no one should ever be abused or victimized. I have never argued otherwise. The comments you have left have absolutely nothing to do with the content of my post. This has happened to me: I have experienced knee-jerk reactions to things I’ve read, because one or two words, or the placement of them in the same sentence, triggers a PTSD-like reaction in me. The actual content of the piece I’ve been reading is lost as I deal with my trauma response.

        I’ve learned over time to hold that reaction back, because I don’t trust it. It’s a long-held coping/safety strategy, but it has gotten in the way of my wellness, and my ability to interact with the world as an autistic person and trauma survivor. When I feel that reaction, I leave the tab open, walk away, and give myself some literal distance from my computer. Then I come back, re-read, and am thankful for the self-restraint I’ve exercised.

        If you choose to walk away and come back with a fresh perspective, I welcome your feedback. If you continue to believe that your comments are in any way relevant to my post, so be it.

  2. August 8, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    I’m not taking issue with your point as much as I am about the phrasing. By saying white people need to shut up, you come across as saying that a white person can have nothing of value to add to the conversation. Yes, we need to listen more. Yes, we need to stop jumping to the “solution” in the first minute. Yes, we need to understand the intricacies of a problem before speaking about it. We need to stop telling others how they should do things. But to not speak at all? It doesn’t seem right.

    Ultimately, rights are gained when the privileged party decides to give up some privilege. In other words, short of outright revolution, rights are not won, but ceded by the privileged. (What does that say about power imbalance?) So by telling them to shut up, you are disengaging them from the process, making them less likely to consider whether their position is moral and just, and less likely to act in a way that would cede privilege.

    But in general, everyone needs to shut up and listen more.

    • August 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      Fair. Agreed 100%. 140 characters often lead me to taking more aggressive-sounding short-cuts, for sure.

      Sometimes, though? When people aren’t interested in ceding privilege, when they’re actively engaged in maintaining the power differential, when there is genuinely no hope of connecting, it’s really hard to not fall back on those two words.


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