Good people with bad information

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Not to brag, but I have two Black men in my DMs arguing with me about racism. I am a white woman, in case you’re new here (welcome!).

I met one of them for a chat IRL. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I wanted to catch up regardless of where the conversation went.

We ended up arguing, of course, about things like the role native-born Black culture plays in the Black/white wealth gap. There was a moment where I felt a familiar rage.

He was talking about the impact racism has had on his life. For him, it was mostly microaggressions. If anything, being Black in America has been a boon for him.

It reminded me of a time a close friend took me to a girls’ night in with some ladies I didn’t know well. The conversation turned to misogyny in tech. I’m sure it often does when seven or so women who work in tech gather in a room with no men and plenty of alcohol. (Does “tech hoes” work for the female equivalent of tech bros?)

One woman piped up. Her gender, if anything, had helped her in her career.

I don’t remember her exact words. And it’s entirely possible I misunderstood her. I hope I did. But the message really seemed to be, “These women whining about misogyny in tech are exaggerating and making the rest of us look bad. Instead of complaining they should just try to be better at their jobs.”

Reader, far be it from me to deny the validity of her lived experience. I have no doubt that she saw some benefits from being a woman in tech. I saw benefits from being a woman in libertarian commentary.

I would have simply preferred for her to have given some indication that she has at any time briefly considered whether the fact that she’s beautiful, young, thin, able-bodied, white, cis, straight-passing if not straight, intelligent and grew up in Silicon Valley raised by well-educated parents might have made any difference for her.

Is it possible that her experience of misogyny in tech is not, shall we say, entirely universal? Is it within the realm of possibility that a woman who is old, fat, clearly disabled, non-white, trans, queer, not conventionally attractive, and grew up outside Silicon Valley might have experienced more explicit misogyny than she did?

Is it possible that telling women who have been passed over, talked over, underpaid, condescended to, harassed, and disrespected on account of their gender to stop whining and perform better is incredibly insulting and utterly lacking in basic empathy? Is it possible that telling women to buck up instead of telling everyone to stop being so fucking misogynistic protects abusers and reifies existing structural misogyny?

I don’t know, ma’am. But I’d like to think you’ve considered the questions.

I basically said all of the above, but even less eloquently and with more spittle. Which is why my invitations to girls’ nights are few and far between. And I’ve accepted that.

The reality is that I got so angry because she reminded me of who I used to be. Actually, the reality is that I got so angry because she reminded me of who I am afraid I still am sometimes.

So when this man I was talking to described his experience of racism, for about four seconds it took everything within me to not launch into the Black version of the monologue above. Two things stopped me. One, I’m not sure it’s a great look for a white woman to argue with a Black man about racism. Two, I really was there to listen.

And what he told me was that he resented being essentialized. He resented when people looked at him and made assumptions about him based on his race. He resented stereotype threat.

I understand that. I also resent being essentialized. I resent when people look at me and made assumptions about me based on my gender. I resent stereotype threat.

I told him that. It was interesting to me to have found common ground there.

I felt empathy for him, and by extension for other people I feel downplay racism or misogyny. For them, it can be a way to downplay or even challenge racial or gender essentialism. Usually the quip I go to is, “When you say you don’t see race what you’re actually saying is that you refuse to see racism.” But for some, when they say they don’t see racism what they’re actually saying is they refuse to see race.

At the end of the day, neither of us want a world in which women or Black people are in charge. We want a world in which power is distributed in such a way as to benefit everyone, regardless of race or gender.

Later, I thought about what made that unique conversation possible. I think we laid it out at the beginning. We both engaged honestly and earnestly. The goal was to learn, not to “win.”

We took pains to make it safe for the other to say what we meant. It was lovely to feel safe comparing misogyny to racism. I didn’t have to qualify that I’m not saying they’re morally equal or similarly sized problems. And that’s part of the privilege of privilege. Because he feels mostly insulated from racism he’s not on a hair-trigger when discussing it.

And we trusted that we both wanted the same thing in the end. We have enough common ground in libertarianism and a certain amount of cosmopolitanism to create a baseline level of trust.

I’m a gender abolitionist. I’m not opposed to racial abolition. I haven’t thought that much about it, to be honest. I still don’t personally believe that downplaying or ignoring racism or misogyny is the best or fastest way to defeat them.

But here’s another thing I believe. This came up on a different outing with a different man. He was saying it wasn’t the white, cis, upper crust gays of the Mattachine Society writing tracts about how homosexual sex actually doesn’t pose a threat to the social order that led to gay rights. It was violent, revolting drag queens burning down bars. It’s not that simple, I said. You need every aspect to get it done. You need the money and organizing power of the Mattachine Society AND the molotov cocktails to get it done.

And so maybe that’s true here as well. Maybe we need the people who don’t see race and the people who wail about racism to get it done. I don’t know.

What I do strongly suspect, however, is that you don’t change hearts and minds with molotov cocktails alone. People change their minds when their hearts change. And their hearts change when they’re touched, not shoved. Well, that’s not true. There’s nothing like getting shoved to wake you up to injustice. But if you’re a comfortable straight person and a queer is doing the shoving, that’s not going to work by itself. Comfortable people’s hearts soften to the plight of the marginalized when they feel empathy.

When I’m convinced of something, I throw verbal molotov cocktails. I’m good at that, and I enjoy it. And I do think there’s a place for that. Just as there was a place for the Compton’s Cafeteria riots and the riot at the Stonewall Inn.

But when I want to learn, it usually involves putting the firebombs down. It often involves getting to a place where I feel safe not knowing everything. It involves extending empathy and feeling it extended to me.

At a different point in the conversation, the guy I was talking about the Mattachine Society with asked me if I remembered certain points where I changed my mind about things. Yes, I told him. Of course I remember points along the line from George W. Bush-voting, Ann Coulter-reading, anti-immigration, Evangelical Christian, pro-life, anti-tax conservative to UBI-supporting, pro-choice-on-everything, open borders sex worker.

But those changes aren’t the important ones, to me.

The most important shift I’ve made is realizing it’s entirely possible to be wrong and do wrong without being an irredeemably bad person.

I deeply regret many of the things I did when I was a conservative. I harmed people when I raised money for “crisis pregnancy centers” and wrote letters in favor of abortion restrictions. I harmed people when I talked about homosexual sex being a sin. And I was going on the information I had access to at the time. I do believe I had a moral responsibility to be curious about how abortion restrictions impact low-income women in rural areas. And I also know that I was actively taught to resist my curiosity about anything that might challenge my faith.

As I’ve begun to forgive myself for being wrong and doing wrong and resist the conclusion that it means I’m an irredeemably bad person it’s opened up the space for me to safely re-examine my beliefs.

That newfound space and safety is the change that is far more central to who I am than any conclusion I’ve come to as a result of the re-examination they’ve enabled.

I think social change requires all kinds of people at all levels doing various kinds of work. But one thing I’d like to see more of, and maybe one area I could do more of, is encouraging more people to come to the same conclusion that I came to. That people aren’t good or bad. We are all doing the best we can with the information we have access to. That a good goal is to show yourself and others radical empathy. Because it’s only in those safe, empathetic spaces that we can share and incorporate the best information and truly be open to the conclusions that follow from it.

So that’s a thing I want to work on. I want to continue to work on truly forgiving myself for throwing molotov cocktails in the wrong direction. And I want to work on truly believing that I’m a good person who sometimes has bad information. And I want to work on remembering that most people are good people who sometimes have bad information.