“Do Your Own Work!” How to educate yourself on social justice issues.

Image from: https://harpymagazine.com/home-1/2017/12/24/tips-for-surviving-the-patriarchy-this-christmas

The sign for me that the Winter Holiday season is here is when the discourse begins regarding the movie “Love Actually” and the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. I posted on Facebook about how much I dislike “Love Actually”, and it generated yet another exhausting attempt to talk to a man about sexism in media and help him understand how that movie is in no way heart-warming or charming if one is a human woman. It just reinforces an unending parade of problematic and even dangerous tropes.

At least three women took the time to provide explanations and resources and answers to questions, but it was not enough to avoid the inevitable. He just “wants to help, wants to understand, is curious,” and then scolded us for not educating him on demand to his specifications. 

This article is written for the person who really does want to be helpful, to understand, but just isn’t sure how to get started or educate themselves on social justice issues. For starters, if you want to be an ally to any marginalized group, you have to do your own work instead of demanding other people, especially people from the marginalized group, do it for you. But how? How do you do your own work? 

How To Do Your Own Work

Short list:

  1. Use the Google
  2. Read, Listen, Consider
  3. Speak Out to Others of YOUR Group
  4. Repeat to Yourself, “It’s Not About Me”
  5. Be Gentle With Yourself and Others on This Journey

1.Use the Google. The way I learn new things on the internet is to google them. If you are looking for what’s going on with [thing] in social justice terms, good search terms include:

  • [Thing] social justice
  • [Thing] feminism
  • is [thing] problematic
  • feminist thoughts on [thing]
  • [thing] feminist interpretation

Or any of a thousand other variations on this theme. It’s not hard to learn about a different viewpoint on the internet. You can literally type a question in to Google verbatim, and often you will find resources. Some social media platforms genuinely have excellent social justice and feminist resources to offer if you curate them carefully. Turns out that’s an intensive project itself. Hey, perhaps a google search for “best social justice twitter accounts” and “best social justice blogs” would be helpful here! Maybe replace “social justice” with “feminism” or “antiracism” or “body positivity” or another keyword related to the topic you want to learn about. Or go search on your preferred platform. Look at you, finding resources on your own! Now spend some time with those resources. Some may be helpful, and some may not match your needs. Sure does take a lot of time and effort, doesn’t it? Welcome to the journey!

BUT if you have not done your work, don’t expect others to do it for you.

2. Read, Listen, Consider. It’s tempting to learn a few new things about a marginalized community, spring into that space, and start throwing around, “But what about…!?!” challenges, believing you are the first person ever to come up with your idea. I promise you, you are not. This is not a useful or helpful behavior. It’s like when people say Global Warming is false because it’s cold outside. What you say may have some truth to it (it does get cold in the winter! That’s a true thing!), but it’s also missing the point and 0% clever.  Someone has probably already considered your idea and most likely debunked it. Thoroughly. Quite possibly as their life’s work or in a book or research paper. You are not likely to walk into this space and wow everyone with your New! and Exciting! point of view. It is neither. It is exhausting. It is wasting everyone’s time and a profound show of disrespect to the knowledge and experience of members in the community. You know, the ones who live the reality of marginalization and don’t have to imagine what it might be like.

If you do ask a question (See #1 and use the google first!) and someone sends you a link to an article or search results instead of typing out a complete and fully personalized response to your individual query, follow the link and read some things. If someone sends you to a podcast, listen. If someone sends you to a video, watch it. You might not like everything you read/hear/see when your questions are being answered. It may require holding a lot of different nuanced and sometimes conflicting ideas in your brain at the same time. Be OK with being uncomfortable. The only way to be an ally is to put the endangered lives of marginalized people ahead of your own personal comfort; to realize your put-out feelings are truly a drop in the bucket compared to what marginalized people endure on the daily.

That’s why it’s work.

3. Speak Out to Others of YOUR Group. If you want to be an ally, learn things and then share them with other people who don’t already know them. Don’t try to tell marginalized people how to do their activism or how to communicate or how to do it better unless you are specifically and personally asked. And… don’t hold your breath waiting to be specifically and personally asked. Your audience should not be the activists. You aren’t going to tell us anything about our existence we, as a group, do not already know. Your audience is those who do not yet know or believe our experiences and also will not listen or believe us when we talk about them. Maybe they will listen to you, or at least take you a bit more seriously. Men, talk to other men about sexism. White women, talk to other white women about racism. Straight folks, talk to other straight folks about homophobia and transphobia. Talk to your people. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. That is part of the work.

4. Keep Repeating To Yourself, “It’s Not About Me”. This is a big one. It may be your first foray into social justice issues or this particular topic, but other people in the community may have been doing this work for years. Years of reading and learning and educating and pouring time and energy into a hope for a better future for everyone. Hoping to give people just one more tool to use to critically analyze the world around them and start to notice the things that send toxic messages or support inequality and injustice.

Everyone who grew up in this toxic culture has some blind spots. Don’t feel guilty or make a big show of beating yourself up about oppressive systems. White guilt, male guilt, straight guilt, all are useless and a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Acknowledge there were things you didn’t know before. There are things you still don’t know now. Same goes for me and everyone else. We’re all learning.

Sometimes you may notice that people respond to basic “Social Justice 101” questions in ways that are not necessarily cordial. What is this perceived “impoliteness” about? Consider that many of us have had that same or similar thankless conversation dozens or hundreds of times over the years of trying to increase awareness. We have already tried so many times to get through to tpeople who refuse to listen, refuse to put forth the effort, want to speak in hypotheticals or play devil’s advocate as if our lives and existence are a thought experiment.

We’ve tried being nice. We’ve tried being helpful. We’ve tried patiently answering every question in depth and with references and resources. The result is almost always the same: sealioning, moving goalposts, ‘splaining (whether mansplaining, whitesplaining, straightsplaining, ablesplaining, or whatever else), endless loops of ‘Yeah, ok, but what about…’, or paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs of pedantic text with super pretentious vocabulary that ultimately say nothing and are impossible to fully respond to because when something is just THAT WRONG it’s hard to know where to even start.

Are marginalized groups angry? You bet. Is that anger justified? A thousand times, yes. Should we have to choke down our exasperation and put on a sugary smile to be considered “reasonable” and “worth listening to”? Hell no. After being bitten by a thousand mosquitos, can you blame us for sometimes flicking one off our arm before it has a chance to bite? Or not giving much credence to its plea, “But I haven’t even bitten you! Not all mosquitoes!” Sometimes we can’t afford the costs associated with benefit of the doubt. People of color, white women, members of the LGBT+ community, people with disabilities, have all paid for benefit of the doubt with their lives throughout history and are still paying today (read Schrodinger’s Rapist for a more thorough treatment of this concept).

Please try not to take this personally and make it all about your hurt feelings. Don’t scold, guilt, or shame someone for not giving you their time on demand. Say it with me again: “THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.”

It’s about structural inequality and having dealt with a culture full of people with very common attitudes that can range from uncomfortable to toxic to deadly. If you want to be treated differently, understand the context in which you are working and behave accordingly.

5. Be Gentle With Yourself and Others on This Journey. This work is hard. It feels bad sometimes. Privilege is a hell of a drug, and the first step to combatting a problem is to acknowledge it exists.

Having privilege doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It doesn’t mean you didn’t earn any of the nice things you have. It doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard. It doesn’t mean you never had any hardships. It just means other people have different or sometimes more hardships on a societal level, ones that you have never experienced or noticed. That’s all it means. Recognizing that does not diminish all the work you have done in your life, nor does it change your worth as a human being. Be gentle with yourself, and also be gentle with the people who are dealing with things you may never be confronted with in your life. Believe people’s experiences. Listen with compassion. Be gentle with yourself on this journey, and be gentle with those who are on it with you.

Are you gonna mess up? Yup! So am I! We’re all going to screw it up left and right, because it’s hard to be a people. Being on the journey, working through pitfalls, and continuing to grow are all encouraged and supported. Acknowledge mistakes and figure out how to improve your behavior in the future.

But if you waste our precious time and energy with your lack of effort and easily-fixed-by-google ignorance? We will not be gentle.

I can’t even begin to count the number times I’ve tried to talk about racism, sexism, toxic masculinity, toxic femininity, ableism, classism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia (and the list of systems of oppression that goes on and on and on and on) and it has only ended up being exhausting and futile, exactly like the incident that spurred this post. When I try to point them to resources, try to help them get started, I get told I’m not doing activism right and the person asking the questions knows how to do it better. Do you see how that can be discouraging? Have I mentioned this is exhausting?

Also, boring.

Please do your own work instead of demanding it of others.

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