I’ve been reading the wonderful Austin Channing Brown’s book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.” It’s simply amazing. Succinct chapters and ideas, but packed with so much nourishment. I know I gravitated to it because I needed a primer on how to survive in a world that has largely shrugged at my family’s isolation and erasure. No matter how much I hope, it has been a losing battle. And worse: it is a world that then asks me to give unremunerated time and labor and emotional energy to receiving expressions of remorse, justification, defensiveness, and detail-dense explication of their organization’s inability to make accommodations.
Erasure is so often intersectional too. Insert bleak laugh here. We have to parse out which of our family’s identities is being rejected at any given moment–race, neurodiversity, queerness, caste. Sometimes it’s more than one. And each rejection has its own complexities.
We are not Black. And I certainly would not wish to appropriate the rhetoric of Black writers. But I do think that we have much to learn about why we all need to show up for one another from writings like Brown’s. And unless we learn to read and listen without speaking over/for the most marginalized, what are we even doing? So this is to say, her book is wonderful, and we should all read it.
I have been thinking about various ways in which people have tried to practice accountability with me in recent months and weeks. Then I read Brown’s chapter on how white people so often confess their racist thoughts and actions to her, and how she no longer wishes to accept such confessions. Instead, she asks them how they will take meaningful action to change.
This is something I have been doing for a long while too. If someone tells me they wish they could do something for us, I ask them to see what they can do in their own community that isn’t always about charity or sharing social media posts, or getting into online arguments, or…
This usually ends the conversation, just to be clear. I love people for caring, but they usually don’t want to be given tasks. And since I know this, it’s not like I’m going to follow up.
So how should you be accountable if you, your family, or your organization has failed a family like mine in some way? It’s not merely avoiding the obviously cringey stuff like “I have gay friends, and disabled people love me.” Just things I have observed that people seem to have trouble putting into practice.
One: Learn to see marginalized people as the experts. Let them tell you what’s needed. You don’t need to start a non profit in their name. Chances are high that there are existing groups, and you’re just adding to the noise, plus you’re diluting their messaging and fundraising.
This is a lot harder than people will admit to. If you have a lot of privilege, it’s likely that you are used to seeing people like you in leadership positions. And you probably don’t even notice how you not so subtly undermine underrepresented leaders. Finally, you are probably not unique in that you have weak investment in taking down systems that benefit you. But you still have to do it if you want to be better.
Two: Don’t bluster. Even if it feels unbearable to hear how your actions harmed someone, keep your reactions minimal and let them talk. Who is your apology really for? If it’s just to make you feel less horrible, then do them a favor and say it to yourself in your bathroom mirror. There is no equality of exchange in an apology. Humbling yourself is the only option. And there is no justice in someone saying Okay, it’s fine, just so you will stop blathering.
Three: Lots of us can see past the verbiage to your actual emotions underneath. We can tell that you just want to feel we aren’t angry with you anymore, and once you’ve taken control of that by blathering so much that we are silenced, you no longer listen when we try to say what impact your past actions and present communication are having. Your wall of words has decimated any hope of mutual connection. Your primal need to not have someone be angry at you has been assuaged. You are done listening.
Four: When you are talking to someone with multiple marginalized identities, don’t do the thing. The thing where you apologize for discriminating against one of their identities while you insult another. For example, you might say “I am sorry I said that transphobic thing. I guess that was pretty dense of me, maybe I’m autistic, haha.” Or “I understand how offensive my targeting your skin color was. It didn’t offend your husband, though, I guess women are more oversensitive.”
It happens a lot.
Five: Just like people flare up and panic at something they did being called racist, but they also reserve the right to say and do racist shit, many folks do this with ableism and transphobia too. God forbid we name it. They will do the deflective dance. Oh no, it was because they were tired. Overworked. It’s just how they talk. They like me so they took liberties. How could it be bigotry. That’s the stuff that happens when people commit violence and it ends up on the evening news, not the minor transgression being discussed right now!
It’s always this or that. Not the thing itself. But it is possible that in the this and the that, there is also bias that you are refusing to examine. And when called out on it, you panic, and it’s easier to sigh loudly and say “Everyone is so easily offended. We can’t say anything.”
Also, please don’t engage in nitpicking. “What I said might have been biased, but it wasn’t transphobic.” Really, just don’t do this.
Six: Refrain from calling everything you find scary, rude, or unintelligent “autistic.” I hope you have noticed how much malice is wrongly attributed to autistic people. The truth is more often that autistic people work really hard to understand what makes people they love happy, so whatever you are reading into their behavior is likely incorrect.
And the repercussions for them are much worse if you voice your sense of victimization. They are more likely to have the police called on them. Less likely to have the immediate access to tone, words, body language that you find relatable, to explain their actions. More likely to be arrested. Creepy, pervy, violent men are often typecast as autistic. I’ve seen it tons of times re: shootings, and in reports of stalking etc.
I hope I don’t need to explain how harmful it is when people think autistic people are not intelligent. Remove words like “stupid,” “dense,” “moron,” and other slurs from your vocabulary. And do NOT label someone you think is “clueless” as autistic.
Seven: Do not turn the moment of accountability into a centering of yourself, or a demand for free education. At the very least, you owe it to the person to see them as a unique individual who is not just a representative of their race, or whatever else you are othering them for. And related to this, now is not the time to expound on how your trans neighbors or autistic nephew have enjoyed your company.
Eight: Not saying anything after you have effed up is absolutely the wrong thing to do. And acting fragile when called out, like you must now run away because the call out was so cruel–also very cowardly and weak.
Nine: I know how our Desi thinking goes, so I am going to say it here: expecting accountability is NOT a sign of the harmed person’s arrogance or ego. We are unused to humbling ourselves before people we have been taught to look down on. It is YOUR ego that is standing in the path of retribution and reparation.
This was a challenging post for me to write. I feel it in my body. So I am going to sign off now. I hope you will think on what I have written here.