THE TYRANNY OF CIVILITY: Part 2 in a Four-Part Series

THE TYRANNY OF CIVILITY: Part 2 in a Four-Part Series

NOTE: This series of essays are focused primarily on the use of “civility” as a social/cultural norm in the context of nonviolent revolutionary struggles in the U.S. I’m not interested in discussing the “merits” of revolutionary nonviolence vs. other forms of struggle for liberation and survival that might not easily wear that label in this series, but specifically in how “civility” is used by those with more social power to characterize some forms of nonviolent struggle and resistance to oppression by folks with less social power in U.S. society as “divisive,” “counterproductive,” and even most ironically, “racist.” Such characterizations, I’ll argue, serve to only further silence and marginalize oppressed folks in radical communities and maintain systems of privilege and power, while claiming to create a more “neutral” and equal space for all.

To read Part one of this series, please click here.

The Tyranny of Civility — Black Pain, White Tears / Black Anger, White Fear

In August of last year, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders appeared at a downtown rally in Seattle; he was intending to talk about protecting Social Security and other pieces of his larger program of democratic socialism, to be followed up a few hours later by another rally at an arena at the University of Washington. Thousands a predominantly white liberal and progressive crowd, in what is generally seen a predominantly white liberal and progressive city were eagerly awaiting the chance to hear from and cheer on the fiery old senator from Vermont.

Before he could take his place behind the lectern, three activists (two women and one man) affiliated with the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter got onstage and took the microphone. The two women, Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson, insisted on a chance to address the crowd. When they were told they could do so after Senator Sanders, they rejected that condition and instead demanded attention and silence of the attendees, stating that they wouldn’t relinquish the mike until they had had their say. This was greeted by boos and heckling, but finally some measure of quiet. The two women then proceeded to denounce the highly lauded status of Seattle as a progressive city, calling it instead a bastion of “white supremacist liberalism.” They called for four-and-a-half minutes of silence to honor Michael Brown, killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri almost a year to the day (the rally was on August 8, 2015, while Brown was killed August 9 of the previous year). This memorial silence was punctuated by shouts of “Bernie matters”, “All Lives Matter” and other types of harassment by many in the crowd.

Following this, Johnson continued to speak about Seattle’s “white supremacist liberalism,” which has blocked substantive efforts to end racist practices, particular police violence, against black folks and other folks of color in the city.1 At this point, the mike was taken from her, and offered to Sanders, who refused it. Shortly after, he left the rally. One of the organizers of the rally attempted to turn the rally back towards discussing the social safety net, but once it became clear Sanders wasn’t going to speak, the crowd began to disperse, and the rally ended.2


The 2016 primary race opened up many possibilities for Black Lives Matter activists and others interested in racial justice to press those running for the highest office in the land to be both accountable for their complicity in enacting some of the most racist policies of the past few decades and their failures to offer substantive solutions to ongoing racial oppression, including but not limited to violence carried out by police and the criminal justice system against black communities. The Seattle incident followed a similar disruption a few weeks prior at the progressive Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix; Sanders and Martin O’Malley, another candidate for the Democratic nomination both attended. Such actions were not part of efforts to necessarily find a candidate worthy of a Black Lives Matter movement endorsement — the movement is a decentralized network, with no set leadership capable of speaking for the entire movement, and while a few affiliated activists have made endorsements, the network has explicitly stated it will not endorse any candidate. They were and continue to be about speaking truth to power, and they have been producing some results.

In the case of the Seattle disruption, Sanders added a racial justice plank to his platform and announced the hiring of Symone Sanders (no relation) as his new national press secretary within a day or so following the incident. Ms. Sanders is a black progressive activist who had worked with Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen and as youth chair for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, among other organizations, and she expanded efforts by the Sanders campaign to reach out to communities of color. Senator Sanders began talking more often – however superficially in some cases – about mass incarceration and ending the war on drugs. A key issue remained, however: most of his discussions continued to foreground economic policies as the primary way to address racial disparities, with little analysis or nuance of how to talk and understand racism outside of that class-based context. This is part of what the Seattle and other BLM activists – among many others – have been arguing, and continue to argue.3

The issue of Sanders’ racial analysis or lack of racial analysis, however, isn’t what I find most interesting about this incident, but the response of most of the crowd at the rally, as well as Seattle and the left in the U.S. over the days following – even among folks not supporting Sanders’ candidacy.4 There are far too many perspectives to include, but reactions included everything from feeling “sad,” “heartbroken,” and “disappointed” at missing this chance to see Sanders speak, to anger and the belief that the BLM activists had “hurt their cause” by acting so “disrespectfully.” Alongside these sentiments was a large amount of patronizing scolding around the fact that Sanders’ democratic socialist vision was the most in line with the politics of Black Lives Matter. There were even some conspiratorial takes, such as folks asserting the two women were Clinton supporters looking to damage Sanders, or even Republican provocateurs.

Lost in all this was the issue of violence practiced against black bodies in our society every day. And underneath it all was the narrative that this rally, this space was not the proper place for issues around black death and suffering to be discussed. As such, many folks – white and non-white – stated they no longer supported Black Lives Matter.5 Media coverage and discussion reinforced the framing of many of these perspectives labeling the action as counterproductive, and detrimental to Black Lives Matter. But that frame deflects responsibility from both the media and (supposedly) racially conscious whites and folks of color to question those denouncing these activists’ actions as to precisely why the tactic itself was such a flashpoint for them (beyond simply being upset about missing a chance to see Sanders speak). What was it about this incident that could make it so easy for folks to “write off” Black Lives Matter – a crucial movement in the larger movement for racial liberation – or to even see that as an option?

The answer isn’t all that difficult: such responses are based in white discomfort, the same white discomfort Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (see Part One of this series for a more robust discussion of this concept). King identified white comfort as bound up in white privilege and dominance over society, and white discomfort as an inevitable reaction by whites – even those supposedly committed to racial justice – to folks of color’s efforts to dismantle racial oppression and hierarchy. Whites basically have two options in addressing this discomfort: 1) work through it, understanding it as a necessary part of progress towards the end of white supremacy challenges to white supremacy, or 2) do whatever is necessary to reimpose comfort in a situation where white supremacy is challenged, even if such actions sabotage the efforts of folks of color working towards ending their oppression.

This second option the much more common one leads to all kinds of tactics through which whites derail of the agency of folks of color, including criticizing not only how folks of color engage in struggles for their own liberation, but even how they talk about their own oppressive experiences. These are frequently masked in seemingly neutral arguments, but always prioritize white comfort and social power at the expense of folks of colors’ freedom (of expression, of action, of thought, of emotion). This seeming neutrality leads to the use of such tactics by not only whites who consider themselves anti-racist, but even other folks of color seeking to promote a “better” (i.e., more “reasonable” and thus, less “threatening”) approach towards discussing and fighting against racism. To explore this a bit more, I’m going to look at two such tactics/frameworks – respectability politics and tone policing.


The responses of many to the Sanders rally disruption were based in a concept that has come to be called respectability politics. Its Wikipedia entry provides a basic definition, saying that respectability politicsrefers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference.”6

What’s useful in this definition is how it points out that respectability politics is a call by some folks of a particular identity and oppression to others sharing that identity and oppression to adhere to larger societal norms, with the intention of making that particular oppressed community seem “mainstream,” as opposed to distinct. According to this definition, an example of respectability politics in action would be black folks calling out other black folks for acting outside of or even against social norms supportive of what’s held to be “mainstream values” – in everything from appearance to speech to action, including social change struggle. But in a society based on white supremacy, “mainstream values” are usually just code for norms supportive of whiteness (meaning supportive of the current state of hierarchy in society which provides whites the most social power) and white comfort.

Respectability politics should then be seen as an assimilationist approach to addressing oppression; this is because its underlying narrative is that the more folks of color work towards satisfying existing social scripts and norms, folks in the “mainstream” (always meaning whites) will be more capable of seeing their humanity as equivalent to their own, so racism will seem less and less reasonable, and thus, become less and less prevalent. While this narrative appears to offer some level of social safety as result, it does so at the cost of constraining black freedom, and doesn’t usually recognize the fragile nature of that safety. Instead, respectability politics creates a type of victim-blaming dynamic, where instead of whites taking responsibility for treating folks of color as less valid than themselves and social practices and systems that do the same, folks of color are continually faulted for their own oppression for acting in ways that disturb white comfort. And black and brown folks that push this narrative, thus, are effectively making the choice of prioritizing white comfort over racial justice and liberation – one of the things MLK denounced as an obstacle to social change in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

This tool is used by prominent folks of color (including President Obama), all the way down to the intimate level of immediate community and family in communities of color. But a crucial point not clear in the definition above, however, is that respectability politics can also be used by folks of “mainstream” identity (whites) to attack particular members of a marginalized group (brown folks, black folks) and/or the marginalized group as a whole – for “failing” to live out “mainstream values” (whiteness) as well. In either case, though, respectability politics serves as a powerful tool in defending racial hierarchy, by defining the normal, the socially acceptable, in ways that reinforce white supremacy.

While I tend to see and experience its racial resonance most directly, this flawed narrative of liberation through assimilation has been (and continues to be) used in many other struggles against different oppressions as well – in feminism, in queer liberation movements, in fights against poverty and ableism. In each case, there is both “internal” policing (between folks sharing an oppression, such as women or queer folks) and “external” policing (by those doing and benefitting from the oppression, such as men and straight folks) of those not seen as acting in accordance with “mainstream values,” which usually means acting in ways that disturb the comfort of their oppressors – by being “too loud,” “too angry,” “too emotional,” all of which boil down to refusing to be “properly” deferential towards those with more social power.

Many folks bring up these critiques of respectability politics when others try to impose its narrative onto discussions of oppression and struggles against it. But the reason that I think the term “tyranny of civility” is more useful in examining this assimilationist project is because it more precisely lays bare the power dynamics underneath it. The term “respectability politics” feels far too vague to me. It conceals the fact that the “respectability” (or “civility”) to be striven for is based on a set of norms always set by those with greater social power, norms that presented as neutral and objective, and not to be unpacked, as I have attempted to do above, to point out how they may serve the interests of maintaining that power at the expense of others. I believe that calling this social control mechanism a “tyranny” is much more accurate, and helpful in naming this narrative as complicit with power.

To say this more plainly: one way white privilege works is by allowing whites a greater freedom around actions that are considered socially acceptable than folks of color, and in fact, aligning the socially acceptable with the interests of white social power. Whites are also allowed a full range of emotions and perspectives in our world, while folks of color are not allowed to express things which make white folks feel uncomfortable or threatened. But denying folks of color the same freedom is a denial of their full humanity. The social norms around “respectability” (another way of evoking “civility”) are oppressive, because they are generally used to protect white comfort over advancing brown and black autonomy and liberation.7

The result of this in many communities – even those deemed as progressive – are struggles against racism where white folks feel entitled to dictate how folks targeted by oppression or trauma are allowed to process their pain/trauma, and challenge their oppression. This usually happens in multiracial spaces and movements, but also happens regularly when folks of color do autonomous social change work; white folks feel entitled to judge how whether this or that group of POC folks are fighting racism in an appropriate way (just look back over the history of Black Lives Matter, including the Seattle rally disruption above, for recent examples).

This emphasis on “respectable” forms of activism or social change work leads to increasingly less transformative actions, carried out in fairly scripted ways (permitted marches, unconditional respect for police behavior, a commitment to reforming existing institutions instead of abolishing or disrupting them, and working within existing structures instead of creating alternatives, etc.). Acts that could be seen as more confrontational (from disruptive civil disobedience/claiming of spaces to strategic property destruction and sabotage) are deemed unacceptable out of hand, and increasingly equated with violence (more on this later). Media is unquestioningly courted as carrier of the message, despite long histories of distortion and failure to tell stories of struggle in “objective” ways. The guiding principle cited for all this is nonviolence, but as King laid out in “Letter From A Birmingham Jail”, revolutionary nonviolence and disruption are not separate, but complementary elements to creating social change and ending oppression.

One last point to make about the particularly racist implications of respectability politics: under white supremacy, all folks of color are essentially considered non-normative and therefore, suspect. Racial profiling isn’t just the practice of police, but everyone living in a racist society even sometimes folks of color. (The black writer Kiese Laymon says this most pointedly in his book How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: “Blackness is probable cause”.) The narrative of respectability politics fails to recognize the fact that no matter how they carry themselves in society, black folks and other folks of color are generally seen as a social threat by whites (and as noted above, sometimes other folks of color) by virtue of their very existence, while whites are not. This is true not only when engaging in acts of struggle directly oppositional to existing social systems of control, but in everyday acts of living (which under white supremacy, perhaps could be said to be the same). Every day, in interactions with police, white folks get away with all kinds of confrontational and even violent behavior, while significantly less confrontational or even deferential behavior by folks of color just going about their lives results in targeting, arrest, violence, and death. When this disparity isn’t acknowledged, it maintains the racist idea that police actions towards folks of color are always justifiable (“they must have done something for that to happen”). Respectability politics should be seen as built on a dangerous and racist illusion of safety for folks of color who act “properly,”one which can be easily used to blame them for their victimization when they “act out” — meaning do anything that troubles white comfort. The racist piece of this is that the distinction of what is acceptable action is entirely in the hands of white folks, who have the power to penalize folks of color who don’t conform.


Another tactic that shares some similarities to respectability politics is tone policing. According to a great webcomic article on the website Everyday Feminism entitled “No, We Won’t Calm Down – Tone Policing is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege” by Robot Hugs, “Tone policing is a silencing tactic. That means it’s part of a set of tools used by people holding privilege to prevent marginalized individuals or groups from sharing their experiences of oppression…[it] works by derailing a discussion by critiquing the emotionality of the message, rather than the message itself. ”8 As Hugs says, “At its core, tone policing suggests that people distance themselves from their own emotions of anger, frustration and fear in order to be heard,” even as these emotions are central to the issue being discussed. “A key part of tone policing is that it allows privileged people to define the terms of a conversation about oppression in order for that discussion to continue.”9

When folks with greater social power refuse to engage in conversations around oppression that include emotion – particularly the trauma, anger and frustration many oppressed folks feel as direct result of their oppression – they are able to maintain their power and comfort. This is usually framed as simply a reasonable resetting of the discussion as something more “calm,” more “rational,” more “productive,” more “civil,” but this is itself another act of oppression. Hugs again: “It allows a person to regain control over a conversation that is going in a way that makes them uncomfortable by framing the speaker as overly emotional, and therefore unreasonable. Whether used intentionally or not, tone policing allows people who hold privilege to avoid the discomfort caused by being exposed to the very real fallout of oppression and discrimination.”10

Tone policing is thus just another manifestation of the “tyranny of civility,” where a false neutral ground for addressing various forms of oppression is imposed, with the stated intention of creating something positive – a more “productive,” more “rational” discussion. But instead, it simply denies marginalized folks the freedom to bring their full selves, and full humanity to the table. Again, we have another missed opportunity for folks with greater social power to wrestle with how their privilege hurts others, and to figure out ways to work against it. This can and does include not just those who don’t accept the reality of their privilege, but also those who genuinely believe in ending oppression, but just can’t deal with the essential discomfort necessary to do so.

While it definitely occurs with all oppressions, I usually tend to see tone policing as a particularly gendered way of imposing civility, through which men work to control discussions of misogyny and gender oppression. But the rejection of emotional experience as a valid form of knowledge or information in discussions of oppression and the emphasis of “rationalism” and “logic” as seemingly objective, neutral grounds through which to examine social reality can play out towards similar effect across different oppressions. These obscure the fact that racism, gender oppression, ableism and other forms of oppression are not just material, but emotional experiences, and that freedom to express and challenge the emotional dimension of oppression is essential to the liberation of oppressed folks. Instead, as with respectability politics, oppressed folks are stigmatized and corrected by those with privilege for being “too angry,” “irrational,” “too loud,” “too emotional.”

The term “tone policing” is much more explicit than “respectability politics” in discussing how calls to civility itself can constrain the autonomy and freedom of oppressed folks; the inclusion of the word “policing” makes it more clear that an act of power is occurring. But I still think it’s inadequate in describing this phenomenon in the same way that the term “tyranny of civility” does. My sense of it is that tone policing is still generally understood and invoked as something that happens in mostly interpersonal interactions in person, on the Internet, etc. as opposed to on a larger community or institutional scale. Also, that tone policing really seems to be centered more around creating certain norms about what people say, but not necessarily what people do, while respectability politics can include both. (It’s possible these distinctions might just grow out of my own experience in coming to understand tone policing, but I do think there is something to this interpretation.) But like respectability politics, tone policing is all about containing the freedom of oppressed folks to fully challenge their oppression, and by extension, containing any potential disruption of the dominance of whiteness.

In the days following the Seattle BLM/Sanders rally disruption, I wrote on Facebook that white folks are fine with riding black pain, but not black anger. Progressive white folks are perfectly fine with identifying with the trauma of racism and using it to promote their ideas for social change, but only if it’s in a way that doesn’t highlight their complicity in systems that perpetuate that trauma, or reveal to them their true inability to understand it. When folks of color dare to tell supposed white allies that what they are doing to end racial oppression isn’t what folks of color want, that it isn’t working, or that it’s not enough, they threaten those white folks’ sense of superiority; consciously or not, whites think they understand everything better than folks of color even racism.

And so, black folks fighting against black death are told to get with the program, i.e support Bernie Sanders as well as other (white) progressive causes, and that folks of color not doing so are either not intelligent enough to “get” Sanders’ vision as the solution to racism, too brainwashed by the corporate media, or even worse, traitors to the struggle for social justice. The possibility that black folks and other oppressed folks might have their own visions for what a more liberated world would look like can’t be acknowledged, because doing so challenges white social power and dominance — present even in movements to create radical social change.



Respectability politics and tone policing are two tactics through which white folks and even sometimes other folks of color work to contain black anger concerning racism. As discussed above, this is oppressive in that it denies black folks their full humanity. But if we assert that anger has a place in our struggles against oppression, how do we use it to create change?

In a keynote presentation entitled “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Storrs, Connecticut in 1981, Audre Lorde spoke of the constructive use of anger in challenging racism; she was speaking specifically in the context of racism in white-dominated feminist spaces, but her observations are incredibly useful for discussing racism in a broader sense, as well as other oppressions. In this presentation (since published in different collections of her writings), Lorde stakes a claim on the validity of her anger as a black woman living under white supremacy, and its potential value in creating change (emphasis added):

My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also…

…Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives11

There is so much here, but I’ll take each point at a time: first, Lorde starts by saying that her anger is a response to racism; in other words, she is clearly stating that her anger has a cause, which is the reality of racial oppression, and that it is a valid and reasonable response to her experience of it. Despite her attempts to ignore it and her fear of it, her anger is an ongoing presence in her life, because of the pervasiveness of racism. Instead of simply carrying that presence as a burden (“in silence, afraid of the weight”), Lorde chooses “learning how to use it.” This usefulness is best realized through anger’s ability to fuel action directed “against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being” to create change. And this change is meant to be radical in nature, not just a shift or shuffling that reinforces a “negative peace” (reaching back to MLK’s “Letter…”) or a “lessening of tensions,” but real change — change meant to end the injustice generating such anger.

In her description of this “well-stocked arsenal of anger” arising from oppression and potential in transforming social reality, I don’t believe that Lorde is referring solely to the experience of women under patriarchy, but instead is using an experience they can understand to get the crowd of predominantly white women to consider how oppression along different dimensions of identity they do not share (such as her blackness) results in this useful anger. She is pushing them to consider that her anger as a black woman under racism is as valid as their (and her, and other women of color’s) anger under patriarchy. And that the change it speaks to an end to racial oppression is no less crucial than that of ending sexist oppression.

Lorde also addresses white discomfort (as experienced by her audience of white women) when confronted with black anger over racism and whites’ attempts to avoid it. A classic response among many white folks who believe themselves to be against oppression is to focus on their own guilt about their privilege; this enables them to recenter discussions of oppression on their own experience, instead of focusing on how they can challenge racism. But Lorde clearly states that her anger is not meant as a call to guilt, but a call to action, based in the truth of oppressed folks’ experiences. Whites need to move beyond this guilt (this discomfort), recognize the validity of black folks’ pain, and accept responsibility for what they do or do not do as result of their witness. She says (emphasis added):

I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees. If I speak to you in anger, at least I have spoken to you: I have not put a gun to your head and shot you down in the street…12

Again, without apology, Lorde is staking a claim to the truth and fullness of her humanity, which includes her anger arising from racism and her freedom to act upon her anger towards the goal of ending racism. She identifies those with social power (white women, whites in general) who are unwilling to move past their discomfort and guilt resulting from her anger no matter how well-intentioned as another obstacle in the struggle to create a less oppressive, more liberated world. Instead, she claims space for her anger, and places the responsibility for these resulting feelings back on their shoulders, making it clear that they have another choice to work through such feelings and act alongside those fighting to create that world. Asking her or any oppressed person to contain their anger as a way of avoiding such discomfort and guilt is to erase their experience of oppression, and their capacity to fight it.

Finally, Lorde clarifies that being expressly angry (i.e., uncivil) is not the same as committing an act of violence. This image speaks directly to the sense that black folks (and other oppressed folks) refusing to prioritize the comfort of white folks (and others folks with greater social power) over their own freedom are categorized as a larger social threat under racism and other oppressions. Civility, as noted above in our examination of respectability politics and tone policing, is always constructed and perpetuated in such a way to provide white folks a wider measure of emotional and actual freedom, and thus, a more full measure of humanity than black folks. But the struggle against racism and other oppressions, Lorde says, has to make space for the expression and use of anger by those targeted by such oppressions.


Respectability politics and tone policing are just two forms of the “tyranny of civility,” through which whites and others with greater social power work to control the emotional experiences of oppressed folks, avoid their own discomfort, and thus, diminish possibilities by oppressed folks to substantively disrupt and end their oppression. These and others including the politics of empathy, the subject of the next essay in this series all need to be rejected. The liberation of oppressed folks is tied up in their freedom to express and live out the fullness of their humanity. Moments of discomfort, of tension resulting from their efforts to assert this humanity shouldn’t be shut down, but need to be cultivated and embraced as potential openings for transformative change, which can enable that humanity to be ever expansively realized.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

1 Personal note: I lived in Seattle for roughly 16 years, and was involved in various activist communities and groups, including a few directly focused on addressing racism in various forms throughout the city and police violence in particular. I can attest that the dominance of white liberalism in Seattle that Willaford and Johnson talked about at this event is all too real; it pervades all sorts of political and social issues in the city — housing, poverty, transit, social services, income inequality, and others — and actively works to defuse autonomous efforts by communities of color to challenge and create change. From anti-war organizing to struggles for healthcare access to police brutality, whiteness prevails.

2 I did not attend this event myself, but heard about it afterward. This account draws primarily on that of Rich Smith and Sydney Brownstone of Seattle arts-weekly The Stranger: Rich Smith and Sydney Brownstone, “Black Lives Matter Activists Interrupt Bernie Sanders at Social Security Rally,” The Stranger, August 8, 2015,

3 At the time of this writing, I identify as a Bernie Sanders supporter, or more accurately, as a supporter of many of the elements of the democratic socialist vision he is promoting. That said, I definitely agree with many of the criticisms of Sanders’ vision, which I believe emphasizes class over race. I don’t discount any of his past work against racism, which extends far beyond simply “marching with Dr. King” in the 1960s to housing struggles and even some work as a public official, but I also don’t think he does enough to acknowledge how class intersects with other forms of oppression in the U.S., resulting in different situations even for those who could be labeled as working poor or working class along dimensions of race, gender, ability, immigration status, etc. The Sanders campaign, to me, is thus a missed opportunity to significantly challenge various types of supremacy at the mainstream political level; without better drawing out these distinctions, the “revolution” and movement he is pushing for is likely going to end up looking like a more left-leaning, but still white-dominated version of the Democratic Party. Which to me, is just a starting point.

4 As stated above, there are far too many perspectives on this event to include a full overview, but feel free to search “Black Lives Matter Bernie Seattle”, and read the comments of the articles that come up, such as Charles Blow’s “Activists ‘Feel the Bern’?” in The New York Times. But for a select sampling of news coverage and commentary following this incident, check out the following: Letters to the Editor, “Readers Respond to Shutdown of Bernie Sanders Speech by Black Lives Matters Protesters,” Seattle Times, August 10, 2015,; Bethania Palmer Markus, “Black Lives Matter Protesters Interrupt Bernie Sanders Speech In Seattle,” Alternet, August, 9, 2015,; Waleed Shahid, “The Interrupters,” Colorlines, August, 14, 2015,; Ericka Blount Davis, “Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and the Search for a Black Agenda,” The Root, August 13, 2015,

5 For perspectives on the incident by Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson two months following the incident, see Sameer Rao’s interview with the two, “Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson Talk Bernie Sanders Interruption In New Q&A,” Colorlines, October 8, 2015,

6 There are likely many basic definitions for respectability politics; for ease of reference, I’d suggest checking out the Wikipedia entry: “Respectability Politics.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified December 7, 2015. Accessed May 6, 2016. Another interesting article is: Jarune Uwujaren, “Respectability Politics Wont Get Us Half As Far,” Everyday Feminism, June 27, 2014.

7 A prime example of respectability politics as it plays out in the political realm is the situation of President Obama. Obama is the most powerful man of color in the world, and yet he can’t appear to be genuinely angry or outraged about anything (most notably racism) without being accused of somehow being divisive, too black, illegitimate by many whites. Black folks understand this game, as we all have to play it all the time in navigating white supremacy. But it’s obvious that many whites simply aren’t willing to respect his authority as President and see him as legitimate, no matter how much he play the game and constrains his emotional self.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, however, can say all manner of things — true, false, offensive, ridiculous, fascist — and yet still be viable as a candidate for the Presidency. Trump has actually incited violence by his supporters against folks protesting him at his rallies, with even some of conservative commentators saying these folks have gotten what they deserved. Mass disruptions of his events — such as the one that happened in Chicago earlier this year — are instead cast as violent and threatening to public safety, i.e. white comfort. The same is true of many prominent white politicians; they can say sexist things, transphobic things, racist things, attack the poor, and likely face little consequence other than a negative few days in the press. None of these folks are held to standards of “civility” or “respectability,” and in the case of Trump, actually appear to be rewarded for rejecting them. The reason is clear: their whiteness affords them more freedom to act without accountability.

8 For a little more context on “tone policing,” check out the following articles: Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “What’s the Harm in Tone Policing,” Medium, May 13, 2015, and Robot Hugs, “No, We Won’t Calm Down – Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege,” Everyday Feminism, December 7, 2015,

9 Hugs, “No, We Won’t Calm Down – Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege.” See link in previous note.

10 Hugs, “No, We Won’t Calm Down – Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege.” See link in above note.

11 Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Storrs, Connecticut, June 1981. Accessible online at

12 Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger.” See link in previous note.