Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
Can I end relationships (platonic, romantic, sexual, all kinds) if the person treats me well personally, but holds political views that I believe are contrary to the goals of my activism? I hear a lot, “You should be friends with people who disagree with you.” I think this line is often used as a way of silencing those who experience oppression, and I think it makes it seem like oppression and exploitation are attitude problems, and if someone from the exploited groups works hard to love everyone else enough, then we'll surely be able to find a way forward.
Others see the work of maintaining friendships with those who espouse beliefs that serve to marginalise and exclude them politically as a radical act of love and compassion. They see it as an exercise of patience in using one's social position on the margins to help those in the centre access a world view they would not otherwise be able to. They see it as perhaps necessary to maintain friendships with those who espouse political views that harm them personally, as a tool of resistance.
I get their point, and it's powerful. But I think it's also problematically idealistic to suggest that if you try hard enough to befriend someone, over time their views will naturally drift towards yours.
So tell me, am I being callous? Or just not as loving as my own fairly radical politics demands by ending the relationship rather than trying to stay with them and love them through their differences?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
To clarify: It is not incumbent upon you in any way to try to be in a relationship, of any volitional kind, with people you describe as being contrary to your goals.
I have some qualifications to my “nope,” and also probably you’d get better nuance with asking a fellow woman of colour about this, like badass smartypants Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha over at Ask Shark Mom or maybe Hussy Extraordinaire Tangerine Jones (though she doesn’t have an advice column, per se, she does address questions on her social media sometimes. Also, someone should give Tangerine Jones an advice column if she wants one). But you wrote to me and so I am going to just go ahead and answer, as a white person who is usually read as a guy, under the assumption that you want to hear what someone like me thinks about this. And what I think is: No. You do not owe these people your time, your thoughtfulness, your generous spirit, your educational efforts, or anything else at all. You especially do not owe them your labour, your energy, your time, or your patience for free.
It is one thing to be friends with someone with whom you disagree about whether camping is fun, if Apple products are overpriced, whether vegetarianism is the best way to save the planet, or even about whether religion can legitimate and valuable or is just a lot of bullshit and theft. Those are the kind of opinions that, generally, people can hold in opposition to each other and still be friends if they want to. What’s the difference? One does not actively work against the liberation of the other. I can be friends or lovers with people I disagree with on all manner of things. But there’s no room for intimacy with someone whose beliefs or actions elsewhere attempt to infringe on my rights or delegitimize the existence of people like me—for me, that’s the litmus test. And it sounds as though you are describing people who are nice enough to you but also volitionally support systemic racism and/or sexism and/or homophobia. I do not think you have to be friends with them if it hurts your heart, which it seems like it does (especially in some parts of the letter we had to edit for length and confidentiality). Life is hard enough. Draw close to the people who support you, who live in solidarity, who make you feel seen and safe and maybe even a little swoony with the joy of feeling so known.
From here, a few things more. First, I want to touch on people doing their own work, because that is a place where I find that I am able to be most generous and where people have often been very, very generous with me. When you have a person who is struggling to understand, who is doing their own reading and not just trying to get you to be their BIPOC Answer Gal, who is clearly and non-performatively trying to figure out how to understand something—that can be a good time to spend whatever energy you have for people who need to learn better. There are people who have simply never thought about a question in the correct way, but you can see them being almost ready. There are people who swallowed what they were told as children whole and are having some trouble vomiting that shit back up even though they’re trying. My advice would be: If you have something to give toward the ongoing project of educating people with more privilege, use it on them.
Because really, what we’re talking about here is erasure and oppression with which you and other women of color have been disproportionately burdened. In light of that, does it really seem reasonable for the world to ask you to take on the additional burden of having to educate people who are profoundly misinformed? While also trying to like them? I don’t think so.
It also feels useful to talk about who should be doing this work, if you’re not going to. Because someone has to tell those people the hard truth about their beliefs—it’s not going to work to just let them go about, being racist. This is where you want your white allies/co-resistors (language about that is probably an entire doctoral thesis at least, but here’s Aya de Leon on the topic here at Bitch magazine) to step up. They can use some of the energy they’re not spending on wading through microagressions and responding to insulting or clueless questions to back you up or address themselves to whatever nonsense is cropping up. As a white guy, I usually like to check in first and say “Should I come collect some people here?”—I try not to assume that my help is welcome. But the feedback I get from BIPOC friends and community members is that when people come around with the 101 again, it’s useful for me to chime in to say things like, “No, there’s no such thing as ‘reverse racism’ and here’s why.” “Yes, I really mean that we should completely ignore or resist ‘Thanksgiving.’” “No, there’s no time blackface is appropriate.” “That’s not a Halloween costume, it’s a racist caricature of an entire culture.” Etcetera. If someone needs to tell those people things, maybe that’s work that your co-resistors an take on.
Late one night at a conference this summer, I was sitting around with a bunch of cis gay men (and perhaps a few alcoholic beverages) and talking about what exactly, specifically, I wanted them to do about the ongoing problem of transphobia in the gay/lesbian community. I looked at them, young and cute and perhaps actually considering this question for the first time and said, “When someone says transphobic things, when they shit on our foremothers or act like we’re an embarrassment or misgender us on purpose for fun? Don’t sleep with them. Maybe if you take it personally, other people will start to grasp what’s at stake. And so will you.” Half of them took it seriously and half of them thought it was a big joke, but I meant it. Lysistrata described this technique in 411 BCE, and it persists because it is effective. But more, I wanted them to experience that thing as I experience it—having their social world profoundly impacted by the unruly and revolting specter of transphobia.
Brave Correspondent, let me tell you this: You do not have to bring anyone close to your heart or your genitals or even your kitchen table if they are not working for your liberation and the liberation of everyone with whom you share identities. You are not a public utility. It is not incumbent upon you to do the emotional labour of trying to love people into doing a better job as human beings, and you don’t have to do any bit of it until or unless you feel like a particular person is maybe going to turn out to have been worth the effort. I’m going to say, save your energy for the people who nourish you, for the people who have sweetness and knowledge to lavish upon you. Because even though the powers that be in the world like to make women of color feel conditional, expendable, and suspect; even though our culture makes it seem like of course you should set aside your feelings of safety and your happiness in order to school some people? You don’t. That is not your worth. You can—and I would even venture to say you should—use all that smartness and kindness, all that generosity and ferocity too, for yourself and whoever in the world feels like your people. Good luck.
Love and courage,