With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have heard a lot of accusations of activists being “divisive” by asking white protesters to take a back seat at rallies. This is not a new thing; in feminism there is a long history of white women telling women of colour to stop talking about race, that the movement is about ALL women and that they should stop being divisive by pointing out that women of colour have a different experience that goes ignored in feminist circles.
However, accusing people of being divisive is a dangerous thing to do in activism, as it is silencing and can veer into mimicking the very sexist or white supremacist oppression that we are trying to destroy. The problem seems to be that there is a mindset that goes like this: I am taking part in anti-oppression activism, therefore my intentions are clearly good, and we should all just focus on doing that good instead of picking on each other and destroying the movement from within.
But what this mindset fails to acknowledge is that just because you are anti-oppression, does not mean you are magically immune to perpetuating systemic oppression. The fact is that we have all grown up in these oppressive systems, and just because we are aware of them and are attempting to fight against them does not mean we do not still replicate those dynamics within our activist spaces. This is clear in feminism when men like H*** Sch***** (typing his name would inevitably attract his vitriol) become spokesmen for the movement and are considered more legitimate and relatable and a great asset to the movement. Oppressive systems are so pervasive in our lives that we model them without even realising it.
Thus, a huge part of activism is not just to protest against systemic injustice. It is also to constantly look inwards and analyse our own motivations and roles in a movement, to recognize when we are perpetuating an oppressive dynamic that we have learned. That is a huge amount of work, and not something everyone is willing to do; however, it is an integral part of being an activist. This is why activism is someone’s entire work and life – it is hard work. Activist spaces are constantly trying to unlearn oppressive behaviours and systems and create new ones; because if you do not know how to undo oppressive dynamics in your own life and spaces, how could you possibly know how to undo it on a societal level? You cannot come into an activist space, claim to be an activist, and then wonder why other activists are asking you to do the hard work that activism involves.
White people at a Black Lives Matter rally yelling the chants that do not represent their own experiences, acting as if they are affected the same way as their black co-protesters are not practising activism. Viewing people who ask these protesters to step aside and leave room for black protesters as being “divisive” is a dangerous viewpoint to hold – it is usually held by white people. White people do not get to decide where the lines are drawn in activism around racism, just as men do not get to decide what is important or necessary in feminist activism. We as privileged people do not get to define the oppression that we may perpetuate, and we do not get to ignore the voices of the people who are marginalized by a system we are part of. Telling us to take a step back is not a petty demand for people to be utterly perfect; it is a plea for us to take our activism deeper and heal the wounds we have carved into our own activist spaces.