"Sometimes I feel like I am a bad activist. The other day at school, this boy was making sexist and racist comments about one of my classmates to her face. I was standing right there. I could have stepped in and stood up for her, but I didn’t. It was the same boy who has followed me home multiple times yelling “faggot” the whole way there. I guess my question is how do I not be afraid? I hate how much a stranger has scared me into not sticking up for what I believe in. What should I do?”
- Question submitted by Anonymous and answered by Sara Kyle as part of Everyone Is Gay: Second Opinions
This is a tough question, and let me tell you, you’re not the only one who has ever felt this way. I’m going to respond to your specific situation first, give you some general tactics that I use, and then we’ll talk about “bad” activism.
First of all, I can very much empathize with feeling like you know what you believe in, firmly, but then running into a hostile situation like this and not speaking up—and then feeling bad about not speaking up! But an important element of your question and the situation you’ve described is that it sounds like the boy who was bullying your classmate and you is an active, repeat offender. He didn’t just say something passively that may have been offensive, and you didn’t just miss a simple “teaching moment.” This person seems to habitually use biased language to intimidate others, and in a situation like this, my first instinct is that you do need to consider your safety before speaking up. I’m not saying you should fear words alone, or that you should never say anything, but if this specific person has followed you home while harassing you, I would be a bit wary, too.
I’ve run into some similar situations recently. In one case I was home from college, hanging out with old high school acquaintances, and started hearing things coming out of their mouths that made me want to launch myself across the table at them. But I had to consider that there was alcohol involved, there was no way for me to get home that night, and I was really outnumbered. As offended as I was, I didn’t feel safe speaking up to them in that situation. It bothered me every day for quite some time that I didn’t say something to “teach them all a lesson,” but I did what I could in the moment and tried to move forward with intention—more on that later.
If you weigh the risks of a given situation and find that you feel safe speaking directly to the offender, one of the most important things is to stay calm. The other person may raise their voice, pigeonhole your arguments, and do whatever they need to do to prove that you’re in the wrong. These reactions can be really upsetting, but even when your blood is boiling, I’d advise speaking as calmly and rationally as possible. Let me be clear—your emotions are valid. You should give yourself the time to embrace and digest them fully. However, when we fight with emotions, people in defense-mode are quick to declare us hysterical and ignore all of our words. So. Try to avoid pettiness, ask questions, and speak from your own experience if you can. For example, if I think someone would be receptive to constructive criticism from me, I might say something along the lines of, “So-and-So, what makes you think X? … I used to think X too, but I learned ABC and now I believe Y…” and move on from there.
Sometimes, you won’t feel safe speaking up. That’s okay. There are other things you can do to help the situation. If you hear someone using the terrible language you’ve described loudly, publicly, and often, they’re probably trying to draw some sort of attention. Whether they’re fully aware of the meanings of and damage caused by the words they’re using, or they’re just ignorant, they’re flexing their muscles and trying to show that they have power over you and others. This doesn’t mean you’re a “bad activist,” it means that this person is good at making other people feel bad. One of my rules of thumb: disengage to disarm. Don’t laugh at their joke, don’t antagonize, and remove yourself from the conversation if you need to and if you can. I also think one of the most important things you can do is offer your support to the other victim. Even if you can’t change the bully’s mind forever, right now, by yourself, you can still make a positive impact on another human by letting them know that you heard what he said, firmly believe that it’s wrong, and have their back. Maybe she’ll say the same to you.
Finding allies within and across communities is super important to affecting change. No one can do it alone, and unfortunately, the oppressor seldom listens to the voice of the oppressed. However, when the voices of the oppressed come together, incredible change becomes possible. Your classmate can be your first ally in this, maybe there’s a student organization you two could join to grow your support network and voice your concerns. Perhaps you can find a teacher and/or counselor to keep an eye on things and help discipline the bully at school. If your school isn’t supportive, maybe someone’s parents, a coach, or some adult person can, at the very least, try to help protect you and catalyze change. Find likeminded people, engage with them about this, and I can almost guarantee you’ll feel more empowered than you did on your own.
When I ran into similar hostility at the high-school-reunion-gone-bad, I was really frustrated with myself at first for not speaking up. In the moment, I stepped out of the room to collect myself and think about what I was feeling and what I would even say. I found someone else who was hurt by what was being said downstairs, and we approached our friend who was hosting the get-together to explain why we were uncomfortable and opened up a dialogue with her so that in the future, she can stand up to her other friends on behalf of us, or at the very least we can go into another scenario like this knowing we have her support. It didn’t cure the problem, but it helped. I still felt like a “bad activist” for days on end because I didn’t fix the problem I saw. But I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ll tell you how I’ve made peace with it.
I think that it’s easy to fall into thinking we’re not good at activism because we can’t always immediately fix the problems we see, even when it seems so simple. But there are SO MANY PROBLEMS in the world, and one person can’t solve all of them. One person can rarely solve one of them. It’s so daunting. To set yourself up for more success and less fear, I would start by throwing out the term “bad activist,” and thinking about what it means to be a “good activist.” I think that “good activism” is a lifelong pursuit.
You may not overthrow the bully or revolutionize the system overnight, and you may not be immediately or widely recognized for your work. I think, though, that there are certain elements that will help you stay on a “good activist” path for life. Be passionate about a cause, listen to the experiences of others, educate yourself constantly, take small actions in your own life and local community first, and align yourself with likeminded people. Don’t feel like you have to shoulder entire movements by yourself, but be intentional and purposeful every day. Keep humanity and justice in the front of your mind, and just keep going. If you can touch one life, that’s worth it.