I hate it when I’m right about things like this but I don’t make any apologies for bringing it up either. Less than a week ago I complained (and complained, and complained) about the identity-politics death matches that now pass for political mobilization campaigns for so many liberal organizations. Contests pitting minority groups against each other–or people with multiply intersected group affiliations literally against themselves–in order to identify the group with the most politically powerful things to bitch about at a given time, with everyone else expected to nurse their grievances silently like good little children for the good of the movement. Or something like that.
This weekend, a few fellow progressive folks in my social media promoted a public event built around exactly that kind of intersectionality Hunger Games. And exactly as I expected, when I pointed that out, I was shouted down by self-appointed liberal leaders taking it upon themselves to speak for–and dictate to–members of minority communities of which they are not a part.
The event in question was specifically branded as a major conversation on national immigration and refugee policy, covering the experience of multiple immigrant and refugee communities, as any debate on national policies in these areas should. The tag line? “Why Should We Care?” The organizers and supporters? A minority journalists organization, a major university, local TV media, and a media-training nonprofit.
More interesting than all that, however, was the actual panel. Six people, five representing the combined immigrant and refugee experience of African Muslims, and one Hispanic. That’s kind of a narrowly focused program for an event billing itself as a wide-ranging debate on national immigrant and refugee policy. The policy absolutely impacts African Muslims in a heinous way. But if you’re going to bill your event as a globally inclusive debate, then you don’t stack your panel like this.
Did I mention the lone Hispanic was the moderator? Not even on the panel, but with the unenviable task of representing hispanohablante America from the margins. Speaking as a Hispanic, that’s audacious tokenism. It’s also exactly what I multiply called out last week–the growing tendency in liberal circles to say we’re standing together while throwing each other under the bus.
When I complained about the almost total lack of Hispanic voices at this event, the executive director of the media-training nonprofit, a (perhaps now former) personal acquaintance, used half a dozen paragraphs to essentially tell me that they as a leader of a sponsoring group–and pointedly not Hispanic–knew better than I did regarding whether anything unfair or unequal (or really, backhandedly racist) was represented by the panel’s makeup and branding, and that I was so “off base” that I basically didn’t have a right to say otherwise.
Those six paragraphs also hemmed and hawed about the lengths that their liberal organization and others have gone recently to tell the story of my particular community, as if I should be grateful for my community to have been included previously, if at all. Or as if having been included at other times makes it okay to be pointedly excluded now.
And those six paragraphs justified the near-exclusion of Hispanic voices on the grounds that the main event organizer was a group representing a different minority community, as if the event branding specifically chosen by the same organizer and supported by the sponsoring groups happened accidentally (which it didn’t), or has no meaning (which it does.)
That’s racism, folks.
Deciding that you have a right to define what is racist and what is not for members of minority groups to which you do not belong is casually racist.
Telling members of a minority group to which you do not belong that they should be grateful that their right to be included in debates that directly affect them has been respected at all is casually racist.
Justifying to the members of a minority group to which you do not belong that they shouldn’t expect their fellow minority allies to include them fully in events that claim to include them fully is casually racist.
The response from the main organizing group was far more understanding, and I imagine that somewhere along the line a really awful disconnect happened between the planned emphasis of the event and the way in which whatever PR shop was used for the event decided to spin the branding. Honestly, this has asleep-at-the-wheel PR move written all over it. Clearly, if a debate is not meant to be a globally inclusive, diverse debate–which is totally cool–it shouldn’t be branded and promoted as one.
It astounds me that the head of a liberal media organization wouldn’t immediately get that. But what concerns me more is the level of completely unexamined, “I’m not a racist” casually racism wrapped around the response I got.
Let me set that response straight.
Actually, as a Hispanic American, I do get to say, “Whoa, there, where the hell are the Hispanic voices in an allegedly representative debate on policies clearly affecting Hispanics?” But no matter how shiny you think your bona fides are, unless you’re Hispanic, too, you don’t get a free pass on attempting to invalidate my ownership of my own ethnic perspective.
That any liberal organizational leader would say things in that manner and not even realize they were doing so is everything that’s wrong with our current politics on this side of the political aisle and unfortunately a bona finde, shining example of everything I blogged about last week. The other minorities in the virtual room got what I was saying. Why didn’t the progressively credentialed Caucasian non-Hispanic? It makes it hard to continue to call out Republicans for objectifying and delegitimizing the life experiences and perspectives of American minorities when we on the left have made that such a central practice of our contemporary #Resistance organizing that we don’t even recognize when we’re engaging in it anymore.
Casual racism and exclusionary politics are fucked up. Engaging in them is fucked up. Not owning them after you engage in them is fucked up. It’s sad. It’s wearying. It’s dispiriting. It grows a sense of political homelessness among anyone on the left who doesn’t agree to be objectified or silenced in that manner.
And I don’t have any responsibility to be quiet about that, or to be nice about it when I call it out. I’m not interested in being anyone’s teaching moment. I bear no responsibility for being your learning experience. I’m not apologizing for pointing out when your racial and ethnic sensitivity is asleep at the wheel. In 2017, no matter who is in the White House and especially on the left, it’s actually your responsibility to not be casually exclusionary and racist. I don’t have to beg you not to be that way.
And you don’t have the privilege not to be called out on it.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.