Sound familiar? It’s probably spewed all over your social media at some point in the wake of a tragedy. You may have seen it at the head of websites, opinion pieces, and articles about the horrors that continue to exist in the world -- a young Black man shot for carrying a bag of Skittles and a soda through a white neighborhood, for example. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself.
Maybe you’ve also heard this phrase before: “White folks, please come for your people.”
White folks, I’m coming for you, because you are my people, and I’ve had enough of you using this as a rallying cry. If I see/hear/encounter/smell/touch one more instance of this “we are all” bull-pucky, I swear on a stack of ice cream that I am going to lose it. We’ve had entirely too much of this and it’s time for y’all to stop.
Because, newsflash, no you are not all Savita. You are not all Beatriz, or Trayvon, or whoever your soon-to-be-forgotten cause célèbre is on any given week. And to claim that you are is completely ridiculous; you may be attempting to work out your white guilt by “expressing solidarity” but this is anything but solidarity. Instead, it’s just an appropriation of other people’s experiences.
I have Trayvon Martin on my mind a lot lately because the George Zimmerman trial is underway in Florida -- curiously, people keep referring to it as the “Trayvon Martin trial,” as though a dead Black teen is the one on trial for being shot by a white man.
In a way, he is, though, because we live in a twisted, backward, deeply racist society. What happened to Trayvon Martin was, to begin with, a clear consequence of racism. It was also appalling and gross and disgusting and infuriating, and the thought that Zimmerman may get away with it because of racism makes me enraged.
Acknowledging all this, I am still not Trayvon Martin. I never was and I never will be. Trayvon Martin was a young Black man -- that’s an experience I’ve never lived, never will, and will never completely understand.
I can walk through almost any white neighborhood doing pretty much anything and be reasonably assured of getting away with it. I certainly wouldn’t be shot at; at most, someone might ask me what I was doing, or possibly call the police.
I’m not Beatriz, either. I’ve never been a Latina woman living in a nation where abortion is banned and I desperately need one to save my life but certainly can’t hope to travel to a country where I could access one; I’ve never been Savita, either, being left to die rather than receiving a needed abortion because the laws in my home nation are so restrictive. I have never been, nor will I ever be, any of these people.
These phrases may be designed to express the idea that these are horrific things that can happen to anyone as a result of living in an oppressive society, but that’s not quite accurate. They could happen to certain people, those who live at the bottom of a complex social and cultural hierarchy, and there’s not enough nuance in a catchphrase to capture that. Consequently, the signs become appropriative rather than somber statements of fact when they're held by the wrong people.
To say “I am Savita” is an appropriation of the experience of a real woman, a woman who lived, suffered, and died. Savita has become an icon, an emblem of injustice, and she has become a rallying point as people push for changes to Ireland’s restrictive and awful abortion laws. The fact that Savita had to die for public outcry to become significant enough to push for change is tragic, but most of those people holding up signs saying they’re Savita? They’re not. And they never were. And they aren't at risk of becoming her.
It’s possible to express solidarity without appropriating and overriding an experience. For me to say, for example, that I as a white person recognize the role that racism played in Trayvon Martin’s death, and that I as a white person am complicit in, and benefit from, systems of racism in US society. I can also say that stand your ground laws are rooted in racism, and should be abolished; that concrete action is needed to prevent the death of more young Black men.
And I can listen to what members of the Black community -- those who knew Trayvon Martin, who have known other men like him, who will know other men like him -- have to say not just about the case, but about racism and its role in society. I can take my cues on how to act in solidarity from the people who need my solidarity, rather than waving around a sign saying “I am Trayvon Martin” or wearing a T-shirt to the same effect.
The qualitative difference between a group of Black men wearing hoodies or holding up signs expressing solidarity versus a group of white people doing the same is huge. It doesn't mean we whites can't participate in protest, can't express outrage and fury, and can't work with the Black community to repair racism in society -- but it does mean that we need to do so with respect and care.
There are a lot of different ways to express solidarity and work with members of marginalized communities, particularly those reeling from preventable tragedies. And maybe some communities genuinely do want a bunch of white people waving around “we are all” signs, knowing that, thanks to the roles of privilege and power in society, those people will be profiled, will attract public attention, will force people to confront an issue they could otherwise ignore.
But I kind of doubt that, and I’d rather take my cues from the communities directly affected than from people outside those communities imposing their own version of “solidarity” and “protest.” Because when the dust settles and the incident is forgotten by outsiders, it’s insiders who will have to deal with the aftermath, and it’s insiders who will be left with the legacy.
Where are all the people who informed us they were Oscar Grant? Charles Hill? Trayvon Martin? Milton Hall? Amadou Diallo? Kelly Thomas? Unlike the people their signs proudly commemorated, they’re not dead, so why are they so silent when it comes to long-term actual reforms that might make a difference when it comes to preventing more police deaths, more shootings justified under “stand your ground,” more social injustice?
Remember how a white feminist activist held up a sign at Slutwalk (an already fascinatingly troubled institution) reading “woman is the n-word of the world,” aping a famous quote? And didn’t seem to get why that was a problem? And sparked a whole lot of controversy as people alternately condemned and defended her?
She’s indicative of a larger problem, this strange sort of desire on the part of my fellow white folks to simultaneously constantly attempt to atone for their white guilt while also trying to figure out new ways to be marginalized, since apparently that’s trendy these days (seriously, check out Tumblr sometime). It’s not enough, for example, to be a white woman dealing with sexism, which is a serious social issue -– no, you have to compare yourself to the Black community, as though the two oppressions are equivalent, and as though there are no Black women experiencing a unique combination of sexism and racism.
You can’t just be a fat white woman -- you have to be a victim of “the last acceptable prejudice,” apparently, because some people genuinely seem to believe that fat hatred (or ableism, or any number of other things) is “the last acceptable prejudice.” With all these things warring for last acceptable prejudice status, I think it’s safe to say that we’re still fighting prejudice on a number of fronts, yeah?
I think we can stop playing Oppression Olympics.
I don’t have all the answers. I don’t do the right thing all the time. But I do know this: if I’m spending more time focusing on my internalized guilt than on fixing social problems, I’m ultimately engaging in self-indulgent navel gazing that benefits no one but me. And if my version of solidarity is appropriating other experiences, I’m actually harming the very communities I’m claiming to help, and ultimately, I’m harming my own community, too.
As a disabled person, for example, I don’t need to compare myself to other marginalized communities -- because we all experience prejudice, yes, but it takes many different forms and it has different meanings.
As a person who experiences prejudice I can sympathize across common ground while acknowledging that what I experience is not the same as what others (including other disabled people!) experience. And I can do that without falling into the trap of believing that all prejudice is one prejudice, and that one experience equates to another. And I can work in solidarity with people and hope that they’ll work in solidarity with me on my own fights, without an expectation of quid pro quo service to each other.
I’m acutely aware that holding up an “I am ____” or “We are all _____” sign is a performative demonstration of activism; it’s a handy catchphrase, it makes a great hashtag, it’s quick, easy, and doesn’t require thought.
But what does it do for the ______s of the world, past, present, and future?