Where white men have to lead, so I’ve been told, is in conversations about racial injustice and gender inequality, when the audience for or members of that conversation includes other white men.
(Immediate clarification: white men do not have to lead women, trans people, or people of color in conversations about racial injustice and gender inequality.)
Used to be I’d’ve thought the opposite, that white men needed to sit back and shut up and, ideally, listen in such conversations. But as a colleague once explained to me, calls for justice and equality sound different to white people’s ears when spoken by other white people.
Her unspoken implication was that white people, by virtue of our history of being underchallenged on these topics, have developed a knack, consciously or otherwise, of being deaf to POC voices. Or of granting those voices low priority. Or, worse, of hearing marginalized people’s own arguments for equality as “black people once again making everything about race.”
In other words, when white guys make something about race, other white guys tend to finally listen to the conversation about race.
Oh, I remember thinking. My discomfort is an effect unbefitting my intention. (I was probably less articulate in the moment.) I wasn’t racist, and I may not in my lack of action have been a vehicle for racism, but nor was I in my lack of action putting an end to racism. When another colleague of color later spelled out the burdens I put on my already-burdened students of color by waiting for them to tell me of their discomfort with any racist goings-on in the classroom (goings-on I may have been ignorant of), whereas what they were looking for was for me to call it out, if anything as the person nominally “in charge” of the classroom, that sealed it.
I did not want to have to lead in topics and conversations where I felt ignorant or unskilled, and so because not leading in those conversations is a form of violence, I had to stop being ignorant and learn some skills.
After the current wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests began across the country, the initial message white allies shared across social media channels was some version of this one:[*]
Learning what I’d learned, it felt appropriate: by choosing not to talk about racial injustice we enable its perpetuation, which is clearly continuing to lead to the murders of marginalized people. Now was not the time to stay silent.
Then, as too often happens on social media channels, emotions and conformity pressures took priority over strategy and messaging, and overnight white allies were committing to silence so that marginalized voices could be better amplified. Fair enough; if the conversation is full of POC voices, we white allies do not need to talk over them.[†]
But then, on #blackouttuesday, nearly every single white person I knew on social media posted a black square, seemingly forgetting that a post is the opposite of silence. What got amplified was the performative fact of that silence. That was Tuesday’s useless message.
If online activism has any use over people-on-the-streets activism it seems to be in spreading useful information, which is how Twitter graduated from a microblog and joke-distributor to a globally vital property after the #ArabSpring protests. But more often does online activism take the form of stating one’s positions or allegiances. Every post ever says This is me. Here I am, too, and in the ways that mass action asks us to drop our individualities in the interests of the collective, social media seems multiply ill-fit for effective activism.
Unless, that is, there’s information to unloose. Here I’m talking about a much more minor but related hashtag movement that swelled up not long after #blackouttuesday: #PublishingPaidMe. This hashtag asked writers to be candid about what they were paid in advances for their books, to show what has long been suspected but never fully clear: POC authors get lower advances than white authors.
#PublishingPaidMe took off over a weekend when I did everything in my power to take a break from Twitter and watch Dynasty, clean the apartment, sort through things at our storage unit, and generally let myself have a weekend. When I logged on Monday morning, I felt excited, because people Do Not Talk About Money, and that’s another form of silence that enables all kinds of inequality to continue.
But here was Rebecca Skloot talking about money. Here was Roxane Gay, Jessmyn Ward, and Lydia Kiesling talking about money. Here weren’t, as the conversation quickly pointed out, many men talking about advances and very very few white men.
This was pointed out in ways fashionable on Twitter:
“Their silence is deafening,” others said. What was hard to find, and thus ultimately to understand, was what “white straight male authors” were being called on to provide and why. Instead, there was all-around this daring, shaming tone of derision and disbelief. White men’s being late to another conversation begun by women of color became evidence of their complicity in the violences of systemic racism.
I’m not a straight white man, but I’m enough of those three that I can recognize myself as a bearer of the privileges that figure is meant to embody. And I also recognize that in having those privileges, it’s much easier for me to be part of the problem than it is to work toward solutions. But not being part of the problem is a commitment I made a long time ago, and insofar as any white male brotherhood exists (believe me they’d kick me out for wanting to fuck everyone), I know I’m not alone among them in having made those commitments.
For a white man to tell the world how much money he was paid for his work does any number of things, but foremost it’s a form a vulnerability that signals such a commitment. It tells secrets when keeping secrets has been causing harm. It exposes the inner workings of a system we all seem to agree needs to change, and in doing so provides us with the blueprints to change it.
It also risks far less than people might assume. I was paid an advance of $20,000 for the taxidermy book, an impossible-to-sell nonfiction debut, which forever I thought was a lowly, beyond-modest figure (white friends had made more money on their debuts), until I learned that Roxane Gay got just $15,000 for Bad Feminist, which everyone has heard of. But I know I’m not guilty of anything in my $20K, other than having a good agent.
What I’m saying is that despite all the antagonism toward white male writers on Twitter, sharing my advances there hasn’t harmed me. The harm lies in what book publishers presume about POC writers’ “salability”; in the battle to open their eyes and lower the disparities, my figures are useful, much-needed data. My chosen silence would only contribute to the injustice.
My white male friend was the one who helped me understand all this, in his tweet revealing his debut’s advance. I know how that sounds: I’m revealing myself to be the kind of white man who only listens to white men. Maybe that remains true, but what I guess this post has been trying to argue isn’t about listening so much as inclusion and allyship. My friend effectively recruited me to the cause by spelling out what it meant for white men to be part of the cause. Once I saw I didn’t have to be an antagonist, didn’t have to be in the way, the decision was easy to make.
Many white men have not (yet) joined the cause, and in this post I both (a) hope to convince some of them to, and (b) commit to having more discussions with white men about the part we can play in ending injustice. We just need to act, and we often need help figuring out how to. That’s easy to shame and make fun of, but as you know I’m done, these days, with shame.
- Appropriated, for those who care about the history of activism, from the “SILENCE = DEATH” pink triangle of AIDS activists in 1980s NYC (which itself took the triangle from badges Nazis assigned queers in the concentration camps).↵
- There was also a quieter but for me more welcome discussion about the demonstrated effects of burnout among activists of color once white allies get on board, which you may want to read more about in this study here (PDF).↵