Kindness is, I think, what will redeem us in the end. The kindness of friends, people in my online communities, and strangers– it’s brought me through dark and terrible places more times than I can remember; it has literally saved my life, several times. It’s one of the lights by which I try to live; Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai’s poem “kindness over genius” is tattooed onto my brain.
And yet. And yet.
Again and again, I’ve seen the idea of “kindness” — this demand that we be kind to those who harm us — abused and twisted, used as salt in wounds, or smaller blades to drive the injury deeper and make people who have been wronged bleed.
I’ve seen people use “keep YA kind!” to try to silence those who are speaking out against injustice and that most fundamental unkindness: the refusal to see certain other people as fully human. I’ve seen people bemoaning the lack of kindness in their communities even as they allow those who are most vulnerable, those who daily face the thousand thousand papercuts and bruises of microaggression, to face their battles alone. I’ve seen people hold their belief in kindness up as a banner proclamation of their refusal to take a stand against oppression, injustice, the perpetual dehumanization of their fellows, because what’s most important to them is the appearance of gentleness rather the prevention of further harm.
This isn’t kindness. This is cowardice. This is further callous, cruel harm — no, it isn’t just “standing by”, it isn’t “refusing to pick a side”, it’s the active causing of pain, and to be honest often it hurts more than the initial instance of harm.1
Your kindness isn’t kindness. It’s only another face of injustice.
When people talk about how marginalized people should react in situations where the power of the center is used against them, they often like to bring up several “truths”:
- You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
- Turn the other cheek.
Leaving aside whether flies prefer honey to vinegar, it’s interesting to note that the saying contains this assumption that the addressee would benefit from catching more flies. (Okay, let’s say… butterflies. I would like to catch more butterflies.) In fact, the benefit to the marginalized person of getting people of privilege to agree with them is– practically nil. Even if a brown person being incredibly patient and ~kind~ about educating somehow magically persuaded a white person to stop being racist to every person of color they met– how does the brown person benefit, personally, for themselves? Indeed, is this even a fair exchange to consider, to theorize about, to expect? Is the hypothetical cessation of harm so meaningful that putting oneself further into harm’s way — because make no mistake, fitting oneself to invisible, irrational expectations of “kindness” is allowing very real harm to be done to oneself — somehow becomes a worthwhile endeavor?
You’ll notice that the onus, even here, is still on the marginalized person. We must do the work of remaining civil, of fitting ourselves to impossible standards of good behavior2 while the person who already holds all the structural and societal power benefits: they’re getting an education without paying anything for it. Why are we setting out honey for the flies, I ask you? Can the flies not find their own sustenance without our labor? That is, can privileged people not find the resources that will teach them about their own wrongs, and leave us to lick our wounds — wounds they’ve inflicted on us — in peace?
Corollary to “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is the pattern of complaint whenever people are met with “educate yourself”. I choose to see “educate yourself” as shorthand for “I am exhausted from my daily struggle to survive in a world that is bent on my annihilation; I will not perform kindness for your sake as I refuse to accept your demands for my emotional labor; Google exists or there are also other search engines out there, such as DuckDuckGo, which has the benefit of having a very cute name.”
On turning the other cheek– well.
The thing that got me out of bed this morning as I absolutely had to write was the idea that many people who tout kindness as a response to injustice (“I fully agree black lives matter, but they don’t have to be so toxic about it! I’m happy to engage with anyone who can be calm and respectful!”) point to Jesus Christ as an exemplar of this type of kindness. “Look,” they say, “he even said turn the other cheek!” How radical, how revolutionary, how very wrong.
Isn’t it possible that turning the other cheek, far from offering the oppressor another opportunity to do harm, is instead a form of defiance? I read this via hellotailor on Tumblr a while ago, and it is so cogent I am quoting it here:
This specifically refers to a hand striking the side of a person’s face, tells quite a different story when placed in it’s proper historical context. In Jesus’s time, striking someone of a lower class ( a servant) with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance. If the persecuted person “turned the other cheek,” the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. Another alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect putting an end to the behavior or if the slapping continued the person would lawfully be deemed equal and have to be released as a servant/slave.
The discussion further down is so good, too.
I also wanted to point out that Jesus, far from being a person who accepted injustice without complaint, actively fought against injustice: he raged against those who had turned a place of worship into a place of commerce, or are we conveniently forgetting that in what is called the Cleansing of the Temple he overturned tables and drove people out with a whip? Jesus was a radical revolutionary, driven by anger at injustice and compassion for the oppressed, by a passion to see the world transformed; he was so dangerous the authorities had to have him killed to maintain the peace. People who point out kindness as if it were an antithesis to anger at injustice are vastly oversimplifying both things, and in so watering them down deprive them of their strength. Because kindness, and anger at injustice, come from the same root.
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
I Corinthians 13:4-7, King James Version
Here’s another thing I’ve seen often. “Look,” people who want me to be kind and patient say, “if you truly had love in your heart, you would [behavior that requires a great deal of emotional labor on my part so I can minimize the discomfort of the person who harmed me]! Because you have to be patient and kind, Mia!”
Yeah, it even says there, see, that love suffers long. Which, you know, I do. I do, and one thing privileged people seem to completely overlook is that marginalized people already endure a great deal without saying anything, otherwise we would get literally nothing done; we’d be consumed by our pain and our rage. We are long-suffering; you just don’t see it. Nor are we easily-provoked; it’s a survival skill.
And indeed: love is kind. Love, however, does not tolerate untruth or wrong. And this is where, I think, a conflict comes for some people: one cannot be kind and still fight oppressors; one cannot have love and tell racist writers to their faces, “that was racist, it has done me great harm” or speak to other people saying, “this is a terrible, racist book”. How unkind and unloving.
What kind of simple, naive reality do you live in?
It was fiery, sharp, bright and ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light: it was Charity, not as mortals imagined it, not even as it has been humanised for them since the Incarnation of the Word, but the translunary virtue, fallen upon them direct from the Third Heaven, unmitigated. They were blinded, scorched, deafened. They thought it would burn their bones. They could not bear that it should continue. They could not bear that it should cease.
That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis
I’ve been told to answer hatred with love. The thing is, I do. Love isn’t a sheep to the slaughter. Love is not a coward covering her face. Love, too, is a sword. And if we’re looking, again, at readings of the Bible, at the nature of the Divine, we’ll see that angels, messengers of the Divine who exist in close proximity to that perfect radiance of love — they are hardly easy to look at. They aren’t comfortable beings to confront. They say, “do not be afraid!” — they burn.
And so this is where I’m at, standing in this place where every terrible perpetuation of injustice is met with rightly deserved outcry — and the outcry is then condemned, every comfort is laved upon the offender, and little thought given to the unseen and the vulnerable whose worlds have been just that little bit more shattered, their hearts a little bit more bloody and broken.
I have no time to spare for people who are only interested in furthering oppression; whose desire to learn about social justice is prompted primarily by the need to know the acceptable degree of harm they can cause; who, when taken to task for the injustice in their words, double down and explain that the readers have it wrong, it wasn’t their intent, and in any case, couldn’t you have been kinder doing it? –No. I notice that things like “keep YA kind” always seem to act only in one direction: we must be kind when we confront those who have hurt us, when we speak the truth of the marginalized to the powers in the center — but there is no kindness for those who have been hurt, who see themselves once again turned into monsters, savages, people not deserving of humanity or redemption. There is never enough kindness in the margins.
So what I’m doing is using more of my energy to try to be kind in the margins, rather than reaching out to the center in the belief that any attempts to educate it will work and make it, somehow, more kind.3 I’m tired of the expectation that I must pour out my heart’s blood in the hopes that white “allies” or straight people will, somehow, attain a degree of empathy through dipping their fingers into my pain. Kindness toward the center, it feels, is an impossible demand: there is never enough that I can give.
Instead, then, here is my kindness and here is my love: I will create for myself and for my kapatid in the margins; I will thrive and flourish and rejoice and that will be my defiance of hate; I will hold on to love as light and warmth and refuge and shield — and also love as a sword, as a blade of truth, just as kindness is not merely the open hand but also the hand that protects the most vulnerable and oppressed from the harm dealt by the powerful.
- For instance: I fully expect racism from people like Sad and Rabid Puppies. You know what I don’t expect it from?* White people who talk about diversity, but then say work centering brown people is “difficult to relate to”. White women who talk over me when I speak about being fetishized, about my experiences about street harassment which — of course — are always, always racialized. (*This is a simplification, of course. One learns that even white “allies” — especially white allies — may cause one harm. But sometimes one trusts, or would like to.) ↩
- I say impossible because it absolutely is. Note, for instance, the stereotype of the angry black woman. ↩
- Tade Thompson brought up interesting points when I was talking about diversity panels the other day, and given everything I’m more and more inclined towards his position. Diversity panels are essentially education for the privileged. Whether benefits exist for the marginalized people who enact labor for these panels is in question. ↩