This is written for anyone who has friends who annoy you with their “preachy activism”. You may roll your eyes as they are “at it again”, policing your right to free speech and challenging you on your views which they find problematic. This friend may be active in one or more social sectors, and may regularly call you out on the things you say or do. This is written for anyone who considers themselves to be apolitical. You may not vote because “politics doesn’t affect” you. You may be fed up of hearing the same debate time and time again, and don’t understand the value of these discussions because “we are all equal”. This is also for anyone who considers themselves to be right-wing. You may be angered by immigration, bored of feminism, enraged by gay rights, confused by those who don’t conform to gender constraints and indifferent to climate change.
Your priorities lie with protecting your privilege, and react to the enhanced equality of others as an attack on the comfortable hierarchies you have grown accustomed to. You are often sensitive to criticism and do not respond well to being called out when you vocalise your views. You probably won’t like this.
This is written by me on behalf of people like me: activists and minority groups everywhere who are navigating friendships with people whose views directly oppose our own. We are exhausted, having to defend our humanity to friends and associates whose views advocate for a denial of our basic human rights. Our rightful instinct would be to put as much distance between ourselves and that friend as possible, but there are many reasons which make completely cutting ties impractical.
This is written on behalf of the black person who is tired of being told “racism doesn’t exist anymore!”; the person of dual heritage who is accepted as “okay because they were born here”, whilst their ancestors are simultaneously vilified by anti-immigration rhetoric; the LGBT+ person whose friends use homophobic slurs as banter, the trans person whose identity is up for public debate, and any other individual who face micro and macro aggressions which are reinforced by the people around them.
This is for everyone who sees their friends repost problematic content that mocks or denounces their existence. This is on behalf of all who feel it necessary to call them out on this as, despite anticipating the tiresome discussion to come, you feel you’d be doing yourself and others a disservice if you remain silent. That silence serves to only reaffirm a person’s views if they remain unchallenged.
This is for anyone who has ever had to defend their lifestyle, culture or experiences in an act of having to convince the people who are supposed to love you unconditionally that you are worthy.
First things first: politics should affect your friendships.
I come from a former industrial town, with a large working class population. It has a longstanding Labour majority, but there is an undercurrent of suppressed bigotry. Once dormant, managed by political correctness and shame, the rise of rightwing rhetoric in the mainstream has provided a platform for many to voice perspectives that would previously have been taboo. This has created an environment where you can walk past a friend’s parents house and see a UKIP flier stuck proudly in their window, or go online and see someone you consider a friend share some of Piers Morgan’s vitriol.
People are no longer ashamed to voice their hatred, their ‘controversial opinions’. If you are one of these people, it’s likely that you have a very narrow scope of the world which doesn’t stretch far beyond your own privilege. Often, it won’t stretch far enough for the views and feelings of your minority friends to be considered. In an attempt to vaguely rationalise this, my observations are that rather than seeing us as a minority person, you see you as a friend, as your equal, someone who you are not referring to when you denounce other people like us.
You fail to see that you are directly or indirectly advocating for a rhetoric which seeks to dehumanise me, your friend, as a minority person. What I have found is that whilst the rhetoric you spout has a direct emotional effect on me, regurgitates years of emotional trauma and challenges longstanding battles of identity and belonging, your “right to an opinion” overrides my right to emotional safety.
This has never been more potent than in the wake of the 2019 general election. The party you voted for is an indication of the views you hold dear and is the most overt red flag for an activist. The party you voted for and align with speaks volumes on where your priorities lie and the people in society you do and don’t care about.
Friendships are political because for minorities, our lives are political. From how we wear our hair to whether or not we can access public services, our entire existence is a political act.
For me, last year’s election cemented the idea that I no longer need to make space for those whose views directly oppose mine. The people I considered friends have absolutely no intention of actively unlearning their unconscious biases.
If you are not committed to learning from others, we as activists and minorities will be faced with a barrage of fragility tactics which show a disproportionate amount of attention on your own thoughts and feelings, turns the tables on to your own vulnerabilities, and attempts to discredit our lived experiences in a method of tit for tat.
If you are committed to being a less bigoted person and a less problematic friend, then this is for you. Instead of becoming defensive, and being more entrenched into your ways as a result, I encourage you to apply the following:
- Check your privilege – without an understanding of the ways you benefit from society due to your given social factors, you will not posess the foundations to build your socio-political understanding. You must unlearn engrained narratives, examine unconscious biases and question what you know to be the status quo in relation to yourself and others, and then commit to relearning through the lens of social justice. It is important to remember that no one is blaming you for having privilege, so there is no reason to be defensive. Choosing to be apolitical in times of societal upheaval however, is an act of exercising your privilege by ignoring inequalities which do not impact you. Ignoring the ways in which this privilege benefits you however only serves to oppress marginalised people – including your friends – further.
- De-centre yourself – once you are able to acknowledge your privilege and how it has served to benefit you, at the detriment to others, you must be able to decentre yourself from the discussion. This self awareness is key. Having the scope to see the big picture, on a local, societal or global scale allows you to understand the complexities of the world. Recognising social issues as injustices should inspire anger. It should be a call to action, so that you can use that privilege to those more disadvantaged through allyship.
- Listen to your activist friends – recognising that your privilege means that you are not the authority on social issues permits you to afford the right respect to those who not only have lived experiences as minority people, but also who may have dedicated learning and knowledge to these topics. This respect allows you to listen and learn, but will ensure you do not place the burden of unpaid emotional labour involved in educating someone on your friend. Dedicate time and energy to doing your own research – research that your friend has done before you – Google, read books, and question all you once accepted. The most important thing to remember throughout is that if your activist friend is willing to take the time to check you on something, this means that we see value in you remaining in our life. How you respond to that determines whether or not that is plausible.
- Respect the boundaries enforced by activist friends – simply, we are not obliged to accommodate bigoted people. We are not obliged to accommodate bigoted people regardless of our history with them. We are not obliged to interact with you at social functions, we are not obliged to provide explanations as to why we no longer feel it necessary to put on a fake smile and greet you fondly (especially if that explanation is predicted to be met with hostility). If we do feel it’s appropriate to open that discussion, our delivery does not need to be polite in order for you to receive this information, and we don’t have to centre your feelings whist we do so. Boundaries enforced by your activist friends are there to protect us, not you. And it is important to remember that before you respond. By disrespecting those boundaries in an application of fragility tactics, you only serve to prove our point – that you are beyond reasoning with and that our boundaries are valid.
- Regulate your social media posts – being conscious of what you post will save both you and your activist friend a lot of time and agro. Absentmindedly posting content which you find funny will often have sinister connotations that others will find triggering. Be mindful of how those posts reflect your views – reposting Katie Hopkins for example shows that you not only align with her bigoted perspectives but you also are not ashamed of people knowing it. Also, question whether or not it is appropriate to post content of support. Is using the Black Lives Matter hashtag an offensive display of performative allyship when you are not committed to doing the work off screen, or when you previously have been quoted to say things like “we are all equal” and “all lives matter”?
There is immense admirableness in being able to accept criticism without resorting to playground tactics as defence mechanisms. Calling out someone who is open to their own social development looks something like this: “thank you for making me aware of this, I will delete said post, and look into this further myself, sorry for any harm this may have caused” (use Rihanna’s use of ‘spirit animal’ as a reference).
Calling out someone who is open to their own self development means that the need to call them out should reduce as they commit to their own growth. Activists should be able to see tangible change in your views, how you speak of others and you treat others. We should be able to witness the proof.
Ultimately, the burden is with us as activists to decide when our friendship has run its course, but this is only influenced by the multiple opportunities that we have given you, which have been missed. As activists, and minority people, we have no interest in maintaining friendships with you if your views devalue us as individuals. Lack of interest in changing those views only shows us you do not value our friendship. For a minority person or activist, commitment to socio-political self growth is the best of allyship and friendship we could ask for.