Throughout my life, I have been raised in affluent, white, liberal New England towns. Rather than growing up subject to many stereotypes of what it means to be Latin@, I am white-passing, I was raised in an middle-upper class household, and I have two parents who both hold postgraduate degrees. Although my identity often conflicts with itself in the social world (stereotypes of Latin@s do not go hand-in-hand with dominant white culture), it also allows me to view many issues with a dual lense of understanding. Although I identify as a Latina, and although my father was an immigrant from a lower-class background, I consider myself a privileged progressive. Privileged progressives are those who are liberal in their political ideology yet also hold social positions of power, such as being affluent and white. I have often found myself smacking my head against the wall when it comes to discussing minority issues with other privileged progressives, and this frustration came up again during the 2016 election season.
This past August, two protesters associated with the Black Lives Matter movement protested a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, ultimately preventing Sanders from speaking during the event. There have been several debates regarding this action, such as whether it was productive for the activists to disrupt the rally in this manner and whether the protesters had ulterior motives. However, this article is not a critique of those protestors. Instead, this article is about the reactions of the crowd and the subsequent backlash by privileged liberal actors. According to the Seattle Times, when the activists took over the microphone, they were met by a “a largely white audience [that] booed and chanted for protesters to let the senator talk. A few yelled for police to make arrests.” In fact, during the 4 minutes and 30 seconds of silence in memory of Michael Brown, some in the crowd continued to hurl profanities.
Listen, I get it. It is understandable that some people in the crowd felt frustrated because they came to hear Bernie Sanders speak. Yes, even I felt a little touch of annoyance when I first heard the story and read some of the conspiracies surrounding the disruption. But then I took a step back and realized that the severe reactions by privileged progressives was much more outrageous than these activists protesting. After the rally, my Facebook newsfeed was sprinkled with articles and images referring to the BLM activists as “miscreants”. Many privileged white liberals condemned the BLM movement entirely, asking why activists would attack a politician who “marched with Martin Luther King Jr.” and who also has spoken in favor of policies that would benefit communities of color. On the surface, these statements appear isolated and perhaps understandable, but this reactionary response by privileged progressives is not a new phenomena.
Over time, I have come to realize that we, privileged progressives, have a problem. When a minority group or minority activists criticize a form of our progressive values, our immediate reaction is both volatile and personal. Instead of considering the content of the criticism, our response is to feel personally offended and attack the disrupters, calling them belligerent and accusing them of “race-baiting”. Believe it or not, I can empathize with this feeling. When I watched the video of the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle, I felt frustrated. I thought to myself, “Why criticize the one politician who has an economic plan that would be incredibly beneficial to people of color?
Sanders is by no means perfect, but in our political world today, isn’t he good enough?”
It’s embarrassing to admit I had these initial thoughts, but they highlight the phrase so often utilized by the left to silence criticisms by minorities.
The phrase that as liberals, what we’re doing is good enough.
I have heard good enough used in defense of privileged progressives over and over again, in both the political world and in our mainstream culture. For example, fans of Miley Cyrus will be quick to point out her work helping the LGBTQ+ homeless community and her “free the nipple” campaign, yet quickly come to her defense when she is criticized for blatant cultural appropriation. Privileged liberals champion Bernie Sander’s economic justice platform yet they are quick to criticize those who are critical of his silence around racial justice. Again, this reaction is understandable, but irrational and reactionary. Progressives see themselves as the only better alternative to the conservative platform, and thus see themselves as the only allies to minorities. When minority communities criticize a progressive figure or idea, the initial reaction from the privileged community is to feel attacked. Many will respond, “At least I am better than the alternative!” in order to silence the communities that are perceived as the agitators, thus ending the uncomfortable dialogue.
But when we shut down the debate by comparing privileged progressive values to conservative ones, we commit a hypocritical act that prevents the growth and development of the progressive agenda.
Why did we get so upset at Donald Trump for calling Latinos rapists, yet applaud Amy Schumer (a beloved white feminist comedian) after making a joke that all sex with Latino men is rape? How can we support activists in Baltimore and Ferguson for standing up against racism, yet insult and attack them when they offer valid critiques of our platforms? How can we, as members of the Mount Holyoke College community, champion our open-mindedness and liberal values, yet allow religious students to be unfairly scrutinized and feel like outsiders?
This tiresome cycle not only alienates minority communities from the progressive cause, but it ultimately destroys any opportunity for discussion and consensus. It is a technique that is utilized to silence something uncomfortable, but it also stifles progress in our society.
So how do we, as privileged progressives, break this cycle? In a simple phrase, it is time for us to put our money where our mouth is. We need to recognize that criticisms from minorities that are aimed at liberal ideology are not personal attacks, but instead are valuable perspectives meant to make our ideas stronger.
Without challenges to the way we think, we lose the opportunity to develop better policies that ensure justice and fairness. By silencing the BLM activists, we are effectively stunting our own growth and opportunity for understanding. Yes, sometimes it will feel like you are trying your hardest and yes, it is frustrating and uncomfortable to be criticized despite that fact. But not only is this process of “tough love” important, it is necessary for a healthy democratic society. Silencing the dissenters creates an atmosphere of tension and distrust. By allowing each person space in our political arena we, the privileged progressives, may truly live up to our standard of equality for all.
Photo at the top courtesy of Salon.com