What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?
In the mostly white professional-class suburbs where most of my friends live, I have frequently seen this bumpersticker:
It tends to show up on Volvos, Priuses, and other cars popular among middle-aged women with advanced degrees, though now and then it appears (in the company of many other stickers) on a less expensive car that is as much billboard as transportation.
The point (which is well understood by the kind of people who have spent their lives testing whether a glass ceiling will break if you hit your head against it hard enough) is that playing by the rules may keep you out of trouble, but it probably won’t get you where you want to go.
In the 70s and 80s when this sticker was becoming popular, the rules in just about every bureaucracy and corporate ladder in the world were made and adjudicated by men. So if a woman played by them, kept to the agenda, didn’t interrupt, waited her turn, and colored inside the lines, she would likely wind up in whatever place men had left on the org chart for a well-behaved woman, a place safely isolated from the levers of power. So the turn she was waiting for would never come. The evidence and arguments she had assembled in her carefully-written memo would likely never be read, or, if read, would never be taken seriously.
In some parts of the economy and government we’ve gotten past that by now, to the point that many young women don’t grasp why confrontational feminism was ever necessary. But even today, when women reach for the top rungs of the ladder, the standards are different. A Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina has to walk a narrow path that Donald Trump (or any male candidate) isn’t constrained by: She must be forceful without sounding angry or shrill, authoritative without talking down, dressed to perfection but not obsessed with appearance. Those rules — still mostly made and adjudicated by men — will tie a woman in knots if she lets them.
Even today, a well-behaved woman has trouble making history.
Now let’s think about well-behaved black women. How much history are they going to make?
That’s the question to start with if you want to understand disruptive protests like the one that kept Bernie Sanders from talking about Social Security in Seattle.
The Seattle protest makes no sense if you come at it from the point of view of an aging, white, progressive, Sanders supporter who came out wanting to hear about Social Security: Neither you nor Sanders had any ill intent. The meeting wasn’t a plot to maintain white supremacy. There was an announced topic, a topic that needs the public’s attention. Sanders wanted to talk about it and you wanted to hear him.
And then those damn women got in the way.
Their tactics are easy to criticize: By targeting Sanders, they’re pissing off the whites most likely to be on their side. On TV, they looked really rude and obnoxious, making white viewers less sympathetic with their cause. It would have been a lot braver if they’d disrupted a Republican rally, where they might have wound up in jail or worse.
“Why are you picking on us?” the progressives wonder. “We’re the good guys. If you’d just asked nicely, we might have paid attention to your issue.”
Why can’t you behave? Wait your turn. We’ll get to your concerns at a more appropriate time.
On her Facebook page, Dominique Hazzard answers:
People are always wanting to know- why are black people rioting? Why are twoc of interrupting the president? Why are those black women disrupting the Netroots panel? Why are they shutting down Bernie’s campaign stop? Why are the coloreds doing things that *i* consider to be unstrategic?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.
In later post, she addresses the “Why Bernie?” question:
IF YOU WANT TO BE STRATEGIC, you target the people with power who are in your sphere of influence, and who can actually be persuaded to give you what you want. A lot of the time (not all of the time, but often), those people are your allies- allies who are close to getting it right but not quite there.
(Bernie Bern is not ‘there’ yet. Last time he got interrupted, it was disruptors wanting to talk about the criminalization of black women. He centered his answer on unemployment… mere days after Sandra Bland died *on her way to a new job*)
Disrupting a Huckabee rally would be a worse idea, because not only would he not listen, but
your action might backfire, causing Mike Huckabee to double down and racists to respect him even more, rewarding him with more votes.
But however it looked to white suburbanites watching on TV, the Sanders protest got results. A new racial justice page appeared on the Sanders web site, with detailed proposals that met with substantial approval.* The bar has been raised for Clinton and the other Democrats.
Even more than that, though, is the mirror this event places in front of white liberals. (Protests are always part street theater, and the response a protest evokes is part of the production.)
Racism in America today is largely underground, and among liberals it’s completely underground: Nobody ever comes up to me throwing the N-word around and asking how we’re going to keep “them” in their place. But underground is not the same as gone, and a lot of us don’t see our own racism until we’re confronted. That’s why it was instructive to watch how angry the crowd got in Seattle, and how quickly all the paternalistic let-me-tell-you-how-to-protest-better responses popped up.
Very few white liberals’ first reaction — not even mine, I have to admit — was to ask: “Why do you feel like you have to do this?” And even those who asked that question seldom waited for an answer or listened to that answer.
Bernie, to his credit, seems to have listened: not immediately, not in the moment, but within a few days. Maybe the rest of us can follow his lead.
* A legitimate question is: What was wrong with the Sanders platform before this racial justice page was added?
From a BLM point of view, the problem was that Sanders’ message had been class-based and largely color-blind, as if the problems faced by black people in America were just artifacts that stem from being unemployed or underpaid or living in dangerous neighborhoods or having bad public schools. Just create more good entry-level jobs, and solve the crime and education problems in general, and black people will benefit.
And that’s true as far as it goes: If blacks are disproportionately poor and the poor are disproportionately black, helping the poor will help the black community. But what BLM is trying to get across is that race is not a side-issue; the obstacles blacks face do not arise merely from unfortunate circumstances or historical accident. Racism is a very real problem here and now. White people may not like to talk about race, but you can’t solve racial problems in a color-blind way.