I recently shared this screenshot of a tweet to my Instagram story with the caption “A WHOLE MOOD”:
A friend of mine replied, “The lit base on this topic is huge, and many academics (of all sorts of backgrounds) think non-violence is the best strategy for defeating oppressive power structures. Not sure why you think these arguments are only made in bad faith by racist white people.”
I think the dangers of the “fetishization of non-violence”, as it is put, is something a lot of (white) people Just Don’t Get™, so in what follows I will recount my response to my friend and explain my stance. My aim is to facilitate a better understanding of why I and many other POC oppose the “always be kind and peaceful and respectful” ideology privileged and/or white people push.
So, the first thing to address is that “violence” here is vague. When we think of violence we often think of aggressive actions (rioting, use of weapons, fighting), but the concept of violence could also be expanded to include aggressive words (candidly expressing anger, blunt language, etc.). And indeed, it seems people often do consider this to be a form of violence – especially within this context: Whenever I see a POC angrily express a general statement about white supremacy or use the terms “YT”, “cracker”, or “wypipo”, there is inevitably a white person who will respond with something along the lines of, “This is a big too aggressive. No one is going to listen to you if you talk about them like that. You need to be more respectful if you actually want people to hear what you have to say.”
So if we’re talking about what sorts of things to include under the umbrella of “violence” in this context, it seems more than fair to include the blunt, harsh, or aggressive manner of speaking that POCs sometimes use when discussing white people, white supremacy, and white privilege. Lastly, this conclusion is further supported by the fact that Twitter user uses the term “non-violence” in response to a piece of paper with the heading “BE KIND”. To avoid confusion between the colloquial sense of violence and the sense of violence I am using here, I will hereafter refer to the latter as POC aggression.
With this in mind, we now turn to the second thing: The mistaken assumption that the only – or even the primary – goal of PoC aggression is to end oppressive power structures, namely, white supremacy and white privilege. There is, I suggest, another purpose for POC aggression: affirming self-worth.
In a society in which POC are systematically oppressed, we are constantly receiving (both implicit and explicit) messages that we are less valuable and less respected than our white counterparts. Our accents are mocked, we feel pressure to assimilate, our cultures are stripped or appropriated, and we do not see ourselves represented in the media, government, or other powerful institutions. I could go on at length about how POC are disrespected and mistreated in modern day American society, but this is not the place for that. The point is that we are.
Thus, POC aggression can also serve as a means of affirming one’s self-respect and self-worth. The idea here is that the transgressions POC face are not to be taken “sitting down”, that is, not to be passively tolerated. In responding aggressively, POC are sending the message, not only to others, but more importantly, to themselves, that they are valuable, and that the way they are viewed in society is unacceptable.
It was at this point that my friend admitted that he found a lot of what I said compelling, but nonetheless insisted that it doesn’t justify what is said in the tweet: that white people use the promotion of non-violence to attack POC.
My reply to this is simple: POC aggression is an important means – and sometimes, the only means – with which POC can affirm their self-worth in a society that systematically denies them that. Thus white insistence on non-violent expression is a form of attack because it denies POC these means.
Thus we can draw two conclusions. The first is that POC aggression is permissible and justifiable as it serves an important and necessary purpose for the aggressor. The second, probably more shocking, conclusion is that it is wrong for white people to attempt to suppress this aggression, as it is in effect an attack on the dignity of POC.
A potential objection which could be raised against the second conclusion is that white people are not intentionally attacking POC by denouncing and suppressing their aggression. Their intention in doing so, rather, is something else: perhaps to facilitate more peaceful and productive discussion, to defend themselves because they feel unfairly generalized – whatever the case may be, it is something else. They are ignorant that their actions are in effect attacking POC. Thus, they are not doing something wrong in pushing for non-violence.
This objection relies on ignorance as an exculpatory factor, but I do not see why we should accept this outright. Surely there are times when ignorance can function in this manner, but it seems just as clear to me that surely there are times when it does not. Take, for example, someone who leaves their infant in their car on a hot day while they go grocery shopping. The parent did not realize the car would be several degrees hotter than the air outside nor did they know this is a dangerous situation for the baby to be left in, but nonetheless this is wrong because they should have known.
The case of a white person pushing for non-violence, I argue, is also a case of such culpable ignorance. White people do not understand the anger of POC. They don’t understand it because they can’t; as white people they have never experienced systematic oppression due to their race. Furthermore they should recognize this fact. Just a man can never understand the fear of a woman walking alone at night, just as a person born into wealth can never understand the plight of the poor, a white person can never understand the societal and institutional harms that befall POC simply for being POC. And thus they also cannot understand their anger towards white privilege and white supremacy. The culpable ignorance comes in the form of criticizing something they cannot understand, and should know they cannot understand.
I stand by my conclusions, however uncomfortable they may be to stomach: POC aggression is justifiable. In most cases white people are wrong to attempt to stop it.
A note: I am considering expanding this into a paper. Please do not redistribute or circulate without permission.