Yelling at the Vegetables

Ever since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, some very effective essays have been written to challenge the complacency and shallowness of white liberal support. From tweets to long thinkpieces, people of color have called upon whites to step up and be effective allies: to put aside feel-good platitudes and vague expressions of support and tone policing. And the tones taken in these essays have been impatient, demanding, cutting or sarcastic and stinging.

These words have been smelling salts to the drowsy.

But when white activists take the same tone with other white people, does it have the same value? And increasingly, I see essays that are just that: white people angry, shocked, disappointed and impatient with other white people who are insufficiently down with the cause.

I ask: by what authority?

As a white activist struggling with white people against white racism, you are going to run into three types of white people.

You are going to run into people who implacably opposed to this movement. Unless you already love them because they are like family, let them go and move on. Why waste your time?

You are going to run into people who are ready to step up. What do they need? They may need a little information, or to be hooked up with some activists, or a little encouragement. Of course, they need some education. You do, too. So, organize them.

But mostly, you are going to run into people who have not yet seriously engaged with the issue of white racism. Their thinking is within the bounds of conventional thinking; they don't know the history; they accept without thinking the perspectives that their privilege affords them. They have not decided yet whether to support or oppose this movement. They are uncommitted. Hey, they look and sound like you six months ago, or a year ago. So, your role is to engage, organize and educate them. If not you, who else? After all, somebody organized you.

But, you have no authority to be angry with them. You're not Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting in the Birmingham jail.

After all, if the white people who are frustrating are so unchangeably committed to white racism that they make you angry, you should probably just move on.

If you are a gardener, you pull up the weeds, pick the crops that are ripe and cultivate and feed the fruits and vegetables not yet ready for harvest.  No gardener yells at their unripe vegetables.


  1. I love the title of this piece.

    Today, fathers day, with all that patriarchial overburden, I happened to reread H.D. Thoreau's chapter "Sunday" in his great piece "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers". I'm not going to quote it here, but there's a long section on native american and white man's gardens.

    I was bowled over by how sensitive Thoreau is to the way native peoples used the land, compared to the white man. He doesn't shy away from discussing race and culture, not one bit. This is the piece in which T lifts up the notion of natural sabbath, still so much a part of out tradition. What I was not prepared for was his insistence that we embrace our tradition at a that is paid by others.

    Has I been yelling at the vegetables today, I would be advising them to read our own scriptures. Get clear about how we got where we are. We've got prophets too, but we don't pay much attention to them.

  2. Anger doesn't require authority. It's an emotion. We all have every right to express our emotions in a way that feels appropriate to the moment. I find the emotional flavor of this piece to be super paternalistic (comparing people to vegetables? Really? Does it matter that we use the word "vegetable" to describe a brain-dead person?) but who cares? We're friends, we're cool, we don't need to waste time policing each other's tone, right? Part of what makes me frustrated and angry is the endless loop of UU tone policing when we have bigger fish to fry.

    See you at GA and we'll have a drink. Love ya.

  3. PB, It takes a willful misreading of the piece to say that I am comparing people to the brain-dead. Fox News would be proud of that rhetorical literalism.

    We do need to police each other's tone in this movement. The single emotional tone which is on display everywhere (I am so mad at everybody who is not as anti-racist as I think I am right now!) is as potentially fatal an organizing error as "the we don't need any organization" trope was to Occupy. Like I said, it's one thing when black activists challenge white people to step up and go out and organize white people against racism. There's some authority there. But by what authority do white people take that tone with other whites? What gives us the right to be so impatient? If our only authority is the right to express our emotions everywhere and anyway we want then we shouldn't be surprised when people push back.

    And F**K me if I sound paternalistic. I earned it just by living this long, watching more than a few movements come and go, and studying a few more.

    Of course, we are on for drinks.

  4. I think that your argument depends crucially on a belief that racists can be gently led towards enlightenment. And I think the persistence of racism despite our society's long history of coddling racists decisively refutes this notion. On the other hand, the way the anti-Confederate-flag bandwagon has rapidly accelerated shows what does produce progress: naming and shaming. The goal is not to convert racists, it's to demoralize them until they withdraw from political participation and impotently nurse their grievances in private.

  5. I want to share with you why I'm impatient, and why I've started engaging the people around me with my sense of impatience and frustration. Not in tweets, or articles, or blog posts - but rather in person, when I can see someone face to face, and they can hear my voice breaking and see the tears in my eyes.

    Since the Black Lives Matter movement started, my husband (who's black, and a leader in our congregation) has asked repeatedly for support. He's told story after story, asked leader after leader, and gotten nowhere. He doesn't feel safe to go to protests because if something happens to him, our family could lose our only income. I've stayed silently in the background so that his voice is the one that is heard, so that I have the emotional strength to comfort him when (once again) white people don't listen, don't step up, don't stand next to us and with us.

    I'm tired of feeling alone in this fight. I'm tired of feeling like no one will listen to my husband because of the color of his skin, because his experience is so outside theirs. I'm tired, angry, and at the end of my rope - because unlike all of my white friends with white families, I'm scared every time he leaves the house. If he's a minute late coming home from work, I'm afraid it's because he's in an ambulance on the way to the hospital after getting pulled over, and a huge wash of relief comes over me when I hear the door open. I'm tired of telling people time and time again to listen to him. I'm tired of hearing stories of nifty road trips to see the native flora in our region and being encouraged to stay at a particular B&B, knowing full well my husband and I can't venture off the interstate because we've had him threatened with shotguns for just for trying to get gas in small towns.

    I can't keep waiting. My husband can't keep waiting. And if it takes me impatiently alternating between raising my voice and sobbing uncontrollably in front of someone, telling them why I need them to walk beside us right now, then so be it. Because so far, it seems to be the only thing getting the white would-be-activists we know to finally choose to do something.


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