author – activist – faculty – mom
Last night, when I should have been sleeping, I tweeted a critique of something Bernie Sanders had written. It proceeded to go mini-viral. That is, as I looked at the screen of my phone, I kept getting notifications that it had been liked and retweeted. From then til I fell asleep, I couldn’t refresh my mentions fast enough to keep up with the activity.
Here’s what Bernie Sanders had tweeted: “Yes, we need more candidates of diversity, but we also need candidates to be fighters for the working class.”
And I responded: “Here’s what Bernie should’ve said: Yes! We need more POC candidates+I will back progressive POC to fight for the working class of all colors”
I know it hit a nerve, because, as of this writing, it’s been liked and retweeted over 375 times. This is a huge response for someone like me who only has 3K twitter followers. In addition to likes and retweets, I also received a number of responses from white Bernie supporters telling me I was wrong, I couldn’t read, I was nitpicking.
A crucial lesson I’ve learned about communication is that when you put a “but” in a sentence, it has the effect of invalidating everything you have previously said. In the politically charged context of racism and the white left, this kind of invalidation and dismissal is a crucial mistake. We need leaders like Sanders to wholeheartedly validate women/POC. I teach writing for a living, and I edit people’s work to make it clearer and more persuasive. I offered Bernie an edit because we have much in common and I want to move our shared progressive agenda forward in these urgent times.
I had basically jumped into a fight, siding with Mikki Kendall, a well-respected black feminist writer, and we battled for about an hour. She reached her limit first, as she had already been fighting for a while, by the time when I got there.
The defensiveness I encountered was as entrenched as it was illogical. One woman insisted that my argument wasn’t valid, because Bernie didn’t compose his own tweets. But the tweet itself was an exact quote from the piece Bernie had written. Is she suggesting he doesn’t write or approve his own 240-word posts on Medium? Of all the pushback I got, one Bernie supporter did concede that they could see my point.
But my take-away from the whole experience completely validates the recent paradigm shift I’ve experienced with the results of the election and reading the analysis of Steve Phillips in The Nation. Here’s the breakdown:
Right now overt and explicit racism among conservatives (KKK, Alt-Right, Nazis) is taking over the white house and keeping us terrified. However, it is VITAL that we engage in the battle against RACISM AMONG LIBERALS, because that is what’s keeping us from winning this country. In his book BROWN IS THE NEW WHITE, Steve Phillips breaks down how we already have the majority to win state, local, and national elections with a coalition of progressive whites and POC. However, strategies infected with liberal racism that consistently dismiss and minimize the importance of POC have sabotaged our victory at the electoral level. As we resist Trump, the key fight right now is for control of the Democratic Party, which will allow us to take back the congress in 2018 and the white house in 2020. I didn’t used to say “we” about electoral politics, but Democracy in Color‘s work is inspiring me to believe that we can have progressives in the white house and at all the highest levels of government. But not without a fight, and not without uprooting the racism that has plagued liberals in general and the Democratic Party in particular.
One of Democracy in Color’s major points is that in order to win national elections, Democrats need a strategy of community organizing among POC, not corporate ad-driven TV campaigns that target white swing voters. Community organizing strategies are proven to work. Corporate media strategies have no demonstrated effectiveness, but they enrich corporate media and the white consultants who coordinate them. As someone who has not historically prioritized electoral politics, I am inspired by the work of millennial POC like Jessica Byrd, who blend grassroots organizing efforts with electoral strategies.
Here’s what I was saying, “there is a subtle message of dismissal here that is revealing his implicit bias against women and people of color.” His supporters’ inability to accept or even listen to or consider my position led me to believe that they share his bias. Few of them asked questions, empathized, or did any of the things that a good community organizer would do. I can summarize most of their perspectives as follows: you’re wrong. You have no idea what you’re talking about. You should be happy for the progressive and pro-POC stances Bernie has taken. They are a serious symptom of the problem. Many of them couldn’t see the difference between what Bernie had said and what I wished he had said.
Here’s an analogy.
It was as if someone proposed to me by saying: ‘We’ve been dating for a while, but let’s get married.’
And when I reject the proposal by saying: ‘you know, I’d be saying yes if you had proposed with: ‘We’ve been dating for a while and I really want to marry you and have a life together.'”
And then I get the response: “That’s what I said. Why are you splitting hairs? You’re lucky anyone’s proposing to you. Don’t you know how much work I’ve put in dating you?”
It’s the sense of entitlement that we are pushing back against. The message we’re getting from Sanders and the left is that they feel entitled to our support. If their attempts to court us are in any way tone deaf, too bad for us. Shut up and say “I do.”
Let’s say my criticisms of Bernie were actually wack and off base. The way to change my mind wouldn’t be to dismiss me, insult my intelligence and insist that I didn’t know what I was talking about (even if I didn’t). Any community organizer knows that you listen. You ask questions. You validate.
Me: There’s a subtle tone here that is really putting me off.
Effective organizer: really? tell me more about that.
Me: it’s the “but” in that sentence. It really sounds like he’s invalidating the importance of POC in the equation.
Effective organizer: You’re right. I can see that. And it’s a shame, because he has been taking strong positions lately to back candidates and political leaders of color. I think in his zeal to make sure class is on the agenda, he’s unconsciously subverting the need for racial progress.
Me: yeah, because I care about race, gender AND class.
Effective organizer: Bernie does too. You can tell by how he ends with King’s dream.
Me: But that King’s dream stuff appeals to my parents’ generation. He’s really out of touch with that stuff.
Effective organizer: what would you suggest?
Me: a world where Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland would be alive and voting.
I hope people can see the difference. I want Bernie to communicate enthusiasm about POC leadership, because there’s a history of POC being excluded. His tone is of a more grudging acceptance, and that’s not gonna work to engage POC in this historical moment. Even if Bernie is actually enthused about race/gender equality, his statement is not communicating enthusiasm. There’s a disconnect between his platform and his communication. And since he hasn’t consolidated the support to actually enact his platform, his communication to the community currently comprises the core of his leadership.
This is why POC aren’t responding to Bernie’s proposals. This is the problem with the white left and the Democratic Party. The white supremacy and power-grabbing agenda of Trump and the Republicans must be stopped. The Democratic Party needs new, multi-racial leadership NOW. White progressives need to learn some basic community organizing skills. They need to back POC leadership, and to listen and engage our communities. White progressives need to change their tune so we can win.