When the “voiceless” speak

(In response to the disruption of a Bernie Sanders campaign rally by Black Lives Matter activists in Seattle this week.)

A phrase I dislike: ‘giving voice to the voiceless.’ I don’t like this because no one is voiceless. Everyone has a voice. When students write that phrase in their papers, I flag it, and comment ‘everyone has a voice’. It may be very quiet, it may speak in a language that you don’t understand, it may stammer and stutter and use words in a way that the hearer is not used to, but the voice is there. And, let’s be real: the ‘voiceless’ are people who are not listened to, not seen, people who are ignored, discounted and pushed away.

Using multiple, diverse voices as part of an organizing strategy is a useful tactic. I believe it is critically important for men to talk about sexism, for straight people to talk about heterosexism, for white people to talk about white supremacy and racism. It makes sense for those with more social power, those who have access to the halls of power, as it were, to take advantage of their placement in the hierarchy and use it for the purpose of dismantling it. This best happens in the context of community and under the leadership of the marginalized because we know best what sexism/heterosexism/white supremacy is doing to us. It is a matter of urgency. It is life or death. The problem with the notion of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ is that the one who is giving mediates, talks over and often changes the message of the so-called voiceless.

When so-called allies (I prefer the term ‘currently operating in solidarity with’ see Mia McKenzie/Black Girl Dangerous post ‘No More Allies‘) are more interested in policing tone and tactics than dismantling systems of oppression, it’s easy to see why giving voice to the voiceless is so attractive. It’s easier to shout down and/or distance yourself from the people society has already decided are a problem. It’s much harder work to figure out what being in solidarity means by actually being in community and conversation (you know, speaking and listening) with marginalized folk. Insisting that dissent be polite, withdrawing support for a movement because you don’t understand and/or agree with tactics sends a message – deep, substantial change not desired.

ROJ App IconAlthough I’m mostly talking about organizing strategy here, I’m also talking about everyday life… the days when you decide you are not going to go out of your way to appease whiteness, maleness, straightness.

And yes, we know it can get us killed. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Language, Allies and Privilege

Welcome to the Roots of Justice Blog.  Here we will be posting information about trainings and other events, resources, and news of interest to people who are engaged dismantling systems of oppression.  I’m Regina, and I’ll be blogging here with a couple of other people in the Roots of Justice collective. 

A bit about me: I was one of the co-founders of the Damascus Road Anti-Racism Training process.  I currently teach at a small Christian liberal arts college in northern Indiana.  


This week I am thinking about the language of anti-racism strategizing and organizing. As we near the middle of the semester, classroom readings and discussions are at the point where we have (hopefully) successfully gained a common understanding of the ways in which social identities are socially constructed. We are talking about the ways that this social construction of identities, and the meanings attached to them also structure inequality and oppression. We see how the system is broken, and the inevitable question, or perhaps, more accurately, we see how the system is structured to provide power, resources and tangible benefits to one group at the expense of others. We know how it happened, and how it keeps happening. How do we change it?

In the reading journals, on the discussion boards, and in the classroom there is a marked impatience at the prospect of creating long term, sustainable changes in oppressive structures and systems. What are the tools? How do we use them? For me, a primary tool has to be narrative. The way we tell the truth of what has happened, what is happening. We wrest the power of naming reality away from only a few voices. We name ourselves. And then we begin to speak into a new reality. Only in this way can we begin to live into one. This is, of course, messy work, especially when privileged people and marginalized people attempt to do this naming and reshaping together.

This week I’ve read or reread three different articles on the role of white allies in the task of dismantling structures that support and uphold white racist oppression. They illustrate the importance and limitations of the way we use language, the way we do naming, in the work of dismantling oppression. The first – Paul Kivel’s Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies. Whenever I read this, I’m nodding my head: Yes, notice how racism is denied, minimized, and justified. Yes, notice where the centers of power are. Yes, listen to people of color as we describe our experiences.

Not a day later, I come across Mia McKenzie’s excellent “No More Allies.” My head nods even more furiously as McKenzie illustrates the ways in which those who are supposed to be allies often recode and reinforce white supremacy by making it all about them:

It’s not supposed to be about you. It’s not supposed to be about your feelings. It’s not supposed to be a way of glorifying yourself at the expense of the folks you claim to be an ally to. It’s not supposed to be a performance. It’s supposed to be a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.  (Mia McKenzie, Black Girl Dangerous, “No More Allies”)


I also read Andrea Smith’s “The Problem with Privilege” in which she examines the language of privilege and the practice of confessing one’s privilege. In the context of anti-racism training, these confessions, Smith asserts, allow participants to think themselves into a new subject position, but these individual confessions are just that – individual and on its own unable to respond to structural oppression. Once again, whiteness is the focus.

“Although the confessing of privilege is understood to be an anti-racist practice, it is ultimately a project premised on white supremacy. Thus, organizing and intellectual projects that are questioning these politics of privilege are shifting the question from what privileges does a particular subject have to what is the nature of the subject that claims to have privilege in the first place.”  Andrea Smith, Andrea 366, The Problem with Privilege

For those of us who work within religious spaces, the language of confession is particularly seductive. It can be very individual and private. It is the acknowledgement of our failures and our frailties. It is the claiming of a force more powerful than ourselves to hold us together.

Confession can feel (and is) significant, but it is one movement. Strategies for change must be collective, long term, and sustainable. Collectives that work together across boundaries of difference must be clear about naming themselves and identifying their respective positions and then go on live in the world they dream of creating. We must act as if the future we want to build is already here.

How do we fix it? Where are the tools? How do we use them? I still believe in the necessity of multiracial coalitions working together to dismantle oppressive structures. I am also more and more convinced of the necessity of being skilled at naming, and then de-centering whiteness.