Whether you’re glued to Twitter on your phone or only occasionally check Facebook mid-commute, you’ve likely encountered the hyper-political acquaintance who can’t fathom how anyone else is not as continuously outraged as they are. These criticisms are often phrased in terms of privilege: If you had anything at stake, you’d be on high alert every moment of the day, and not have time for cat videos or pedicures. Kristen Tea put it as follows, in a massively viral (public) Facebook post, directed at the amorphous privileged: “Your privilege allows you to live a non-political existence.”
Since the election, however, a new intra-left meme has emerged, taking what seems to be the opposite tack: If you’re panicking now, but weren’t before, then you must be privileged. Life has always been terrible for some, but evidently not the likes of you. Your shock at the things Trump is capable of reveals your indifference thus far, an indifference that could only possibly stem from privilege. Which… may be true, or may not, on a case-by-case basis. It’s at any rate not the best place to focus.
This approach is, or can be, born of legitimate frustration: If everyone had been on board all along, we wouldn’t have the problems (or president) we do. I think of the man quoted in The New Yorker as saying, of the Women’s March protesters, “Where were you all when we needed canvassers?” (Quite possibly, they were canvassing.)
Often, though, these remarks are not really about the past at all, but merely a lament that newly arrived activists (or white men specifically) may not stick around in solidarity with groups they don’t belong to. Worse: The new arrivals may just think protesting is trendy and fun, and may give up the moment a protest doesn’t have a signature (pink, knitted) accessory.
If you’ve been facing oppression for years, it can be exhausting, and even insulting, to hear from those who only just now learned that America isn’t utopia. It can also feel like a denial of the bigotry many Americans, African-Americans especially, have faced in this country since well before Donald was even born.
Teen Vogue ran a poem about the Women’s March by activist Johnetta Elzie, making a similar point: “We’ve been marching for years—where the hell have all of you been?” Elzie’s poem isn’t (just) asking literally where new protestors were during recent civil rights marches. As the opener suggests, it’s about America’s history of injustice: “Where were you when your ancestors set out to steal my ancestors from our homes?”
For a more spelled-out version of this argument, consider the “top highlight” from Courtney Parker West’s Nov. 9 Medium post:
“Dear liberal white people whom I often love: advertising your shock and surprise that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry are pervasive enough to hand that man the Presidency is a microaggression. Please stop.”
Activists from marginalized groups can be put off, understandably, by the presence of newcomers who appear to take a touristic approach to the endeavor. Also understandably, if a notch less so, some self-identified allies seek to guide newcomers in proper activist etiquette, including not assuming the struggle against bigotry began when you, personally, woke up to its existence. At the end of the spectrum is full-on virtue signaling, where someone super privileged, who totally started caring five minutes ago himself, announces that anyone who showed up only four minutes ago is too privileged to protest, and should probably just retreat to the cat pedicure salon from whence she came.
Point being, some shaming of new arrivals is reasonable, some just posturing. But Trump presents unique dangers, and has the potential to make life significantly worse, especially for those who baseline didn’t have it great. A balance needs to be struck between not tone-policing venting that expresses itself as annoyance at new arrivals, but at the same time keeping overall activist emphasis on what lies ahead. Prerequisites to activism should be kept to a minimum.
There has, thankfully, been pushback against the “where have you been” approach, and it’s come from activists ranging from Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, who warns that asking the newly engaged why they hadn’t shown up earlier may effectively turn them away, to Bill Dores, whose activism began in the ’60s, who objects to an approach that prioritizes “moral purity.” Garza and Dores both convey the essential, which is that to get involved, you have to start sometime.
Energy is better-spent addressing injustice going forward than wondering why any individual’s political engagement wasn’t sparked at some other moment.
I can only add that it’s risky to assume privilege was the reason someone wasn’t already politically involved. Protesting can show your privilege. Also: Not protesting can be evidence that you don’t have anything to complain about. We’re left with a tremendous case-by-case It Depends. There’s a certain type of political caring that’s simply more accessible to 19-year-old college students than to anyone else, and “anyone else” is a big category, filled primarily with people who are not particularly privileged. And that friend whose constant Facebook posts about not normalizing Trump make your other friends seem indifferent in comparison? It could well be that this friend has a not-so-demanding office job, and simply has more time than the rest of you to share every last article. Inaction stemming from indifference and from resignation can look identical.
The takeaway here ought to be that activism should be assessed for its capacity to dismantle privilege, not by measuring the exact privilege level of each activist.
Along the same lines, it’s also foolish to dismiss broader involvement sparked by the realization that one’s own rights are at risk, or that’s otherwise inspired by a privileged person’s sense that maybe they’re not as safe as they’d thought. Nothing is gained by telling someone with a “grandchild of refugees” sign at a pro-immigrant rally that they need to stop centering their own experiences. Now is not the moment to dismiss empathy, however acquired.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage. She has a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University and is currently the Sisterhood Editor at the Forward. Her writing has appeared in publications including The New Republic and The Atlantic.