Chinese-American designer and trans activist Frances Lee said social justice movements need more compassion and humility, especially with people learning about an issue for the first time.
Lee, who wrote about the subject in an article for Catalyst Wedding Magazine, joined Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell to discuss what happens to people who believe in social justice but are shunned by leaders for not being radical enough. Below are highlights from their conversation.
On how the ‘sacred texts’ of social justice activism can be problematic
Frances Lee: In my essay, the example that I give is the website Everyday Feminism. That site is an intersectional feminist site and they have more than 40 really amazing writers who write for them on a bunch of different topics, and it’s all on anti-oppression topics. When I was first starting out learning about these issues, learning the language of activism, it was really helpful for me to get a handle on the conversations people were having, the language that was being used, the language wasn’t being used and so forth. These articles are shared pretty frequently online within my communities and probably outside too.
And as my understanding of activity has grown over the years, I’ve been a little more critical of sites like Everyday Feminism, not because of the content, but because of the way that they’re really telling people what to do. I feel like some of the articles give the false notion that you can look at a list of behaviors, follow them, and you will be a better activist. And it’s really not that simple. There’s really so many more perspectives and so much more nuance to it than that. I also think that sharing those lists really contributes to this subculture of fear, like if I don’t read this article then I’m messed up in this way and I’m not meeting this sort of goal, so which again can bring me back to my religious upbringing of constantly needing to keep up with the newest dictates and what is the right thing to do.
On examples of social justice activism done right
Lee: I’ve been thinking a lot about Alicia Garza and her work. She was one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. She has this article online that she wrote shortly after the Women’s March, and it’s called “Our cynicism will not build a movement, our collaboration will.” And she talks a lot about being open to having newer people come into the community and be part of the movement. Not just be open, but recognize that it’s necessary for these movements to be successful. Movements require a lot of people, because the systems that are working against us are huge. I think the way she puts it is really great, she just really gently reminds us that our movements have to include people who aren’t like us, people with whom we won’t fully agree with, and people with whom we might always have conflict, and that’s coalition work. Because ultimately, according to Alicia Garza, building a movement is about restoring humanity to all of us, even to those of us who have been inhumane.
On why Lee wrote the article
Lee: I wrote this essay based out of my personal experiences being in activist communities, and queer- and trans-people-of-color communities over the past couple of years in Seattle. And a lot of it was kind of reflecting on the fear that was growing in myself being in those places. But especially online, of making comments about something or asking questions or presenting some alternate views, and seeing the way that people responded to me online, or the way that people responded to other people’s genuine comments of inquiry online in a way that would shut people down or just be really antagonistic.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced by Julian Hayda and edited by Vera Tan.