Why "Stepping Aside" Can't be the Only Approach for Allies in the Battle to End Discrimination
For the past several posts I've been writing about privilege, criticism, empathy, and some of the challenges wrapped up in social justice efforts. This post is a continuation of my previous post entitled, Trying to Avoid Straighstplaining While Speaking Out Against Injustice. In it, I was trying to engage with a particular strain of criticism that comes up when a privileged person (in this case, me, a straight Christian man) attempts to step in to the space of using or leveraging their privilege for the sake of trying to eradicate the conditions that granted them their privilege in the first place (and I explain why I think that matters, here).
As a jumping off point for exploring these things, I used a tweet that a guy typed out back when my book first launched. But just to be clear, this is not some year-in-the-making working out of my hurt feelings about the tweet. This isn't even about the tweet or the guy who sent it. It's about the very interesting things that get brought to the surface in this space of activism and privilege and so on. I want to talk about those things, and using a personal story as a means to get in to it is more interesting to me, rather than just talking about it in the abstract.
So let me pick up where I last left off...
Finally, the third thing I want to say to those who feel that I should not have written my book--merely because I am a straight man and the book involves the subject of homosexuality--is to ask, "what is the alternative?"
In other words, if you think my straightness ought preclude me from writing a book that at all has anything to do with the topic of homosexuality, what then should I be doing with my education and awareness around these issues? And then, to put a more specific point on it, who then will write the books that need to be written to challenge long held prejudices against LGBTQ people?
There are massive injustices happening around the world as a result of people misusing the Bible on homosexuality. And it needs to stop.
But it won't stop by itself. We all know this. The battle to end the discrimination and oppression of LGBTQ people is still being fought, especially in our churches.
I know that my interlocutors in this are not suggesting otherwise. They are not saying, "Colby, the war is over. LGBTQ people are treated as equals and there is no more work to be done. Stop fighting unnecessary battles."
No, of course not.
They just don't like the particular way in which I am fighting one aspect of the battle.
But that brings up the really interesting question of, "what is a better use of my platform/influence/privilege?"
And here is what I hear more than anything else in response to that question: you need to get out of the way, de-center yourself, and lift up the voices of LGBTQ people who are doing the work.
Or, as one guy told me this week, the only thing us cishet guys should be doing is to "be a door stop, so those unlike myself can gain access to the places my privilege allows me but not them."
Let me be very clear, this move (to de-center the privileged positions and elevate the marginalized) is absolutely crucial and absolutely needed. I cannot agree with it more.
Where I get stuck, is when people think that this is the only approach that has merit. That this is the only way in which a privileged person ought use his/her privilege. There is a certain narrow minded arrogance that can creep in to progressive circles where activists spend more energy criticizing one another for not doing it right--for not being a specific flavor of progressive--than actually spent on the work itself. (I want to write more on this in the coming days. For now, here's a brilliant article that several people have sent my way recently.)
So this is the sort of pushback and criticism I receive most often:
Colby, you should not write a book that engages with, nor should you talk about, the issue of homosexuality.You identify as straight. So sit down and shut up. You need to listen more and simply sit with the discomfort (in other words, stay in steps 2 and 3), and if you really want to act (aka, move to step 4) then the only thing you should be doing is elevating LGBTQ voices.
But I'm sorry, as good and important and crucial as that is, there are spaces where that's not going to cut it. Where that won't work. There are some battles that will require a different approach if we have any hope of winning the war against discrimination and injustice.
Who is going to educate Joe from Tuscaloosa that God does not hate gay people? Who is going to show Linda from Tulane that her Sunday school teacher from 2nd grade was wrong, and that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah does not reveal a God who hates homosexuality? Who is going to help Bob and Sarah from Sacramento reconcile their conservative religious convictions with their son who just came out to them?
The progressive-minded individuals that think I'm doing it wrong would then respond, "point them to books like Torn by Justin Lee, or God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, because those are both gay men. Elevate their voices. Let them tell their stories."
But here's the sad reality, many people who need to read such books never will simply because the authors are gay.
Joe, Linda, Bob, and Sarah dismiss these authors outright because they have a dog in the fight.
So if I listen to the critics who tell me that my only valid option as a cishet Christian dude is to get out of the way and lift up the voices of my brothers Matthew and Justin, then where does that leave us with the Joes, Lindas, Bobs and Sarahs of the world?
I suppose we can say to them, "you're so stupid and ignorant! Just stop believing what you believe." Or we can say, "you're just wrong, and I'm cutting you out of my life." We can say, "will you consider reading this book?" and hand them something they'll never read because they disagree with the "lifestyle" of the author.
We can belittle them, move on without them, or be perpetually frustrated that they won't listen.
we can keep on striving for ways to educate. We can resource people with tools to explore the Clobber Passages in fresh, less-threatening ways. We can decide that these people still matter to us, and not give up on them.
This, I think, is one way where straight privilege can enter the battle field. I've heard from so many people that they gave UnClobber to their friends and family because "if they're going to read anything, it just might be this."
It is because I'm straight, because I come from the evangelical tradition, that a space is created where people can open up their hearts and minds in places where they might otherwise be closed off.
So yes, I'm a straight person who wrote a book that gets in to the weeds of one aspect of homosexuality: namely, how the Christian religion has misused certain Bible verses. If you insist on attacking me (or others like me) for this work, accusing me of straightsplaining or of centering myself and profiting off of LGBTQ people, that is your right. And as I said in my previous post, I understand it.
But the work is too important for me to be derailed by such critics. Too many young LGBTQ kids are killing themselves because their family rejects them, and that rejection is typically rooted in the Bible. Too many people are still accepting the wrong conclusions that God--via the Bible--does not support same-sex relationships. Too many people are experiencing rejection, oppression, and homophobic attitudes from those with faulty beliefs.
Getting out of the way, shutting up, and elevating the work and voices of the marginalized is so important. And there are ways in which I am doing precisely that.
But it cannot be the only approach.
Some things can only be changed from the bottom up. Some things can only be changed from the top down. Movements needs the voices, perspectives, stories, experiences, and wisdom of those who have been marginalized. Movements also need the power, influence, access, and witness of those with privileges who've had changes of heart and mind.
I'll wrap up by acknowledging just how clunky all of this can get.
It's a nasty thing that there are people who, simply because the color of their skin or because of who they're attracted to or because where they come from or how much money they have, that they get treated worse for it. It's awful the number of people stuck in holes of discrimination and oppression.
The work of digging out of those holes is and will be messy. And often times good intentions can cause more pain than relief.
So even though I'm committed to using my privileges in whatever ways I can to work for a more just and equitable world (see this post, where I explain that further), I know I won't always do it right.
And just as I commit to listening and learning along the way, my hope is that those in the margins with whom I'm trying to come alongside and work with in ending discrimination and injustice, my hope is that they would have equal patience and grace for me as I (and others) sometimes trip over myself in wanting to help. As I stumble through the process of trying to talk, think, and act toward the liberation and empowerment of all people.
We've got a long way to go, still. It's going to take lots of different people utilizing lots of different approaches.
Can we hold space for those who do it differently than us? Can we focus our energy on the work, instead of policing the process?
May we continue to listen to and learn from one another.