The Line of Dismissal: Part 1
What is at stake when we risk dismissal from our own privileged community?
I breathed deeply, feeling my heart pounding and my feet under me on the creaky wooden stairs leading to the conference room. This time, I thought, I will fight for justice.
I once served on the board of a non-profit that provided services to mostly low-income people of color. The administration and board of the non-profit (myself included) were almost all white and not originally from the neighborhood being served. When the white executive director announced she was retiring, she tried to install her son as the next leader via a closed-door process.
This happened while I was starting to see how racism plays out in every arena and institution of American civic life, and I decided I had a duty to speak up. If this non-profit’s mission was about “community empowerment,” why not give the community a chance to be a part of the selection process of the next executive director? I took that very question to some people in the community who I thought would want to know about this opaque hiring process.
That meeting made a stir, and word got back that I had been talking about private board business in public. Since this was true, when confronted about it at the next board meeting, I owned up to my actions. I explained to the board that what we were doing was an expression of liberal white supremacy — denying poor people of color the chance to have a say in the fate of an institution that purports to serve them.
At the next meeting, I was fired from the board for breach of confidentiality. Case closed.
When I look back on that episode, I don’t regret taking a stand; I regret crossing the line of dismissal without a solid strategy. By going public with a grievance without first sounding the alarm to my fellow board members and giving them a chance to join me, I crossed an invisible line that made it easy for them to marginalize me.
“Can you believe he said that — ‘liberal white supremacy!’”
“He’s new; it’s his first board.”
“It’s so unprofessional.”
“He’s just got white guilt.”
And like that, I was gone. I had become dismissable. And in making myself dismissable, I fumbled the responsibility I carried in that moment, which, as Assata Shakur teaches, is not only to fight, but to win.
TO FIGHT AND TO WIN
What does it take for safe, comfortable people to fully join fight for collective liberation? When I joined the Momentum organizing community a year ago, they asked the audience if our organizing work was about driving or supporting a popular movement. As I continued organizing and reflected on this question over the course of a year, I realized that as a person living a privileged, protected life, I have a responsibility to do both.
First, there’s support work — showing up to support movements led by people at the margins of society, like the movement for Black lives, or the Native water protectors fighting big oil interests in North Dakota. This support work might be fundraising, offering logistical support such as food, childcare, or transportation, or putting myself physically on the line in direct action. This support work is difficult and fraught, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes as I’ve tried to show up. I commit to that work, including growing through my inevitable missteps so that I can sustain my resistance for the long haul.
As a wealthy white man, I do this support work not out of guilt, but because I dream of living a life of integrity with my own values — such as freedom, justice, and democracy — all of which are out of reach in a system of racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and so many other kinds of institutionalized hatred. My children are born harnessed into the same complicity that I’ve been forced to live in. And this is why I fight.
But showing up to support movements is only half of my responsibility to the movement. The other half is to go back to my privileged communities to drive movement, recruiting others to join me in supporting movements at the margins. That work might look like hosting house parties, going to public meetings, writing editorials, holding trainings, and participating in protests. In short, it’s mustering the courage to face my own people and challenge them (and myself) to do better.
That work in my own communities is fraught too, although in a different way. As my experience getting kicked off the board shows, it’s not easy for me to consistently maintain a clear awareness of the line of dismissal, especially when I’m afraid.
I want to learn to skillfully navigate this line of dismissal, so that I can firmly and consistently challenge my peers without losing so much credibility that I can be marginalized as “too radical/angry/guilty/far gone.” I want to maintain just enough peer group credibility to stay in the struggle for the long haul.
And there may come a time when I have to cross that line. However, when I do so, it should be with intention — not as a knee-jerk reaction. Because when I cross that line of dismissal, I run the risk of no longer being able to relate to my privileged peers. When that happens, I am in danger of no longer being able to offer my unique contribution to the rebellion. Conversely, when I succeed at riding the line, I am able to do the long-haul work of sabotaging from within the culture of destruction that I was born into.
INDIVIDUAL AND SYSTEMIC SOLUTIONS
At this point, some readers might accuse me of not being truly dedicated to collective liberation. One common response to this framing goes something like this: if you truly want to help people get free, then why don’t you just give up all your money, power, and influence to live out what you say are your values?
There are many problems with this line of thinking, but I’ll focus on the problem of trying to resolve a systemic problem with an individualistic solution. White men are not more likely to be rich and powerful because of our individual effort, but because of a system of privilege that gives our effort unfair leverage. Individual atonement alone won’t fix this problem — changing the system will fix this problem. That doesn’t mean we don’t also have an individual responsibility to redistribute wealth and power, but liberation will take a combination of individual action and collective movement. When I, as an individual, seek absolution or purity through a “heroic” single act of sacrifice (such as giving away everything I have all at once) the resulting alienation I create towards my white guy peers means I fumble the opportunity to organize them.
MAPPING MY LINES OF DISMISSAL
So how can I prepare to bring the struggle to my own communities in ways that make me both challenging to the status quo and undismissable?
This is no simple task. Every social circle has different lines of dismissal. And every person within that circle will experience that line differently, both as people risking dismissal AND as people with the power to dismiss others (yes, I am both at the same time). Moreover, these lines are constantly evolving as the social and political weather changes.
There’s at least one thing I know for sure: I am going to need allies in this fight. Isolation guarantees my ineffectiveness. Conversely, being part of a posse, however small, makes me harder to dismiss. So I commit to building a community of fellow rebels as I map my lines of dismissal.
One way I can begin this mapping is via visible, worn messages (t-shirts, buttons, and hats). These don’t require me to “do” anything beyond putting something on my body, and yet such an act is often perceived as a direct challenge to people in the dominant culture. And if I’m willing to speak up when confronted, this can open the door to building up a base of rebel support around me.
For example, as a man, I could wear this shirt when I go out for a beer with another man who I already know and trust.
I can let him in on what I’m doing, once we’ve gotten past the raised eyebrow and jokes that he might respond with. I can use this as an opportunity to be honest with him about my own discomfort, and why I’m leaning into it, and how this shirt is actually a strategic part of my resistance training. Who knows, he might end up joining me! At the very least, he will respect me as a man willing to live out my principles. As my friend, he will almost certainly not dismiss me for this act of disobedience to the patriarchy.
Another low-stakes way to begin mapping my lines of dismissal is by intentionally changing the language I use. Again, I can begin to flex this muscle by trying it out with a friend who likes and trusts me already.
As a white person, I can play what Rev. Thandeka calls “the race game.” In conversation with a white friend, I can intentionally use the adjective “white” to talk about any white people that come up in the conversation, even when we’re not talking about race. It will startle my friend, and probably make them laugh uncomfortably, and it will make a great opening into a conversation that might actually bring us closer together. I will not be dismissed for this verbal rebellion.
To be clear, these two examples are quite small acts of resistance when we consider what we’re up against in 2017. But these muscles, once flexed, can quickly grow until they become reflexive and strong.
THE REBELLION OF 2017
Zoom out: a neo-fascist and his team of billionaires control the White House, the Senate, and the House. This man has directly threatened every demographic imaginable (except for his fellow white men). The atrocities are already in motion, and history tells us that anything is possible under his rule. We, privileged people of conscience, are soon likely to witness things that will haunt us for the rest of our lives. We may even be put into situations in which we must carry out unforgivable acts of violence, forcing us to take on flimsy “we did what we had to do” excuses.
If I haven’t made peace with my relationship to the lines of dismissal in my communities, what will I do when my friend needs an “illegal” abortion, or when my colleague is being surveilled, or when paramilitary squads begin targeting people I know and love?
Will I dare to cross that line of dismissal?
And could I live with the consequences of my failure to do so?
FOR OUR CHILDREN
As we consider our role as protected people in movements for liberation, we should feel out the lines of dismissal not just so that we can be more effective resisters, but also because we need to actually feel the invisible chains that privilege harnesses us into. We need to commit to the fight not just on behalf of others, but because we refuse to live a life of complicity in a society in which the lives of human beings are able to be thrown away like garbage.
Our children are born into a society that is capable of throwing them away. That should be the fire burning underneath the soles of our feet every day as we walk in this world.
HELP! Have you experienced the line of dismissal?
I am gathering anecdotes from real people about their grapples with lines of dismissal. Is there a time you went “too far” with your political views around your privileged peers, and got dismissed? Or did you find yourself too scared to stand up to your peers’ actions and now you regret it? Or what about a time when you successfully pushed your peers to shift their behavior without becoming dismissable?
Please consider sharing your story via this Google form.
I plan on publishing a collection of these anecdotes to help everyday people see that they too can join the rebellion from wherever they are. You can indicate your desire to be named or remain anonymous. THANK YOU!!!!
If my writing resonated with you, please consider clicking the ❤ button below and sharing. Thanks to Olivia Woolam, Ariel Pliskin, Chris Messinger, Sandra Kim, Eleanor Hancock, and Ben Morse for editing.