I have a confession to make: sometimes I get frustrated at social justice spaces online. I get frustrated by all the information that I have no background for, the conversation that at times evolves so rapidly I can’t catch up, the continual learning, the process of over and over realizing that something else is oppressive which I didn’t realize was. It’s a gut reaction, and it’s not one I’m particularly proud of. And I fully realize, it’s not anyone else’s fault. It’s me, and my past, and my anxiety. So I deal. And I learn. And I grow.
I’m writing this for other people like me, people who come from very sheltered or far-right backgrounds and often feel out of their depth. People with a lot of privilege and a lot of misinformation who are learning to be better and to do better. People who are socially fragile and sometimes feel like all they do is fuck up. Here are some ways I’ve evolved of interacting with tons of new information without being a total dick about it.
Some days I feel like an alien, dropped onto this planet a week ago, having to figure out everything from scratch. I still don’t get the majority of cultural references people make. Nine times out of ten when my boyfriend mentions a fairly well-known person’s name I have to ask, “who is that?” When anyone I respect or admire mentions a book or an author who I haven’t read or haven’t even heard of, I just nod and smile along and think self-deprecating things. And just when I feel like I’m getting a handle on everything, like I actually understand what’s being said and why it’s being said the way it’s being said, once I feel like I’m not failing very very hard at ad-libbing life, something comes along that throws me for a loop. Someone uses a new slang term or AAVE phrase which I can’t figure out from context, or says that a particular word is a slur, or critiques something I like or something I do, and my first reaction is anger and frustration. I’ve put in so much work to try to know what people are talking about and to try to overcome my terrible, bigoted past, and I’m still failing?
But you know what I don’t do? I don’t attack anyone. I don’t say a word. I sit with it. I take a few deep breaths. And I figure out, after a minute, that this has nothing to do with me. It’s not a personal attack against me. And frankly, anyone who will be hurt by me using a word I just found out is a slur will likely not care about my long sad story of self-taught socialization. Unless this thing was directed specifically at me, I am not a relevant factor in the equation. I can learn from it but I don’t need to be upset by it.
When I am thrown off by a new word or concept, I take a minute to reorient, and I do not, under any circumstances, immediately post my first reaction online. If it’s a really big concept that I need time to work through, I talk it out with a couple trusted friends, seek out more information, and maybe journal about it. If it’s just a new word, I keep my eyes open and, eventually, figure out what it means and whether I’m allowed to use it.
And, when I need to, I take a break from the internet. I’ve had to catch up with over 20 years of missed information in the past few years and it gets exhausting. When everyone’s talking about a TV show from the 80’s that I never knew existed, I don’t try to figure out what’s going on. I log off and go do something else for awhile.
For all of us who are still handling some measure of ex-homeschool or ex-fundamentalist culture shock on the internet, self care is extremely important. Especially when we feel as though every use of a word we don’t know or every brand new concept is some kind of personal attack. Especially when we find it difficult to figure out who’s being an ass and using their knowledge to condescend to us and who’s a good, trustworthy person who just happens to know more than we do. Especially when we are trying our hardest to learn and to defeat the bigoted, oppressive habits and patterns of thought we learned and the old “you’re not good enough” “you’re a bad person” voice from the past comes crashing in. I know each of these experiences and I promise, it’s ok. It’s absolutely okay to shut up and listen and not immediately tell everyone your first gut reaction. It’s okay to step back, to process, and to take care of yourself. It’s okay to retreat for awhile, if need be. And it’s absolutely, 100% ok to realize that many, many things are not about you.
But you know what? It’s not ok to attack someone else because you don’t fully understand something they are talking about, especially if they aren’t talking directly to you. I know the feeling of wanting to snap at someone, but unless they are the person who denied you the socialization, information, or education you would need in order to be all caught up on whatever they’re discussing? It’s inappropriate to lash out at them. Also, if they are not talking directly to you (as in, say on Twitter), you need to think long and hard about whether you could find out more information on your own, rather than asking them to explain (unless of course you are paying them to teach you).
While there are days that I check out, withdraw, go do something else, there is no time when I shut off my desire to keep learning and becoming better. And while I might feel a momentary anger and frustration, I am determined not to lash out or attack other people over introducing new concepts into my life. If I have to explain my feelings, for instance if a critique or concept is directed specifically toward me, I might say something like, “This is a lot of information and I think I need some time to process it before I respond,” or, “I’m really trying not to fuck up right now, so please help me by telling me if I’m doing this wrong.” I have set out to live in this world in a positive, beneficial way, to be a good fucking person, dammit, and I’m not going to give up that goal, even when it hurts. Even when it’s overwhelming. Even when it feels like I’m failing. Even when it means biting my tongue or admitting I might have been wrong or admitting I don’t know everything.
The fear of fucking up comes from a lot of possible places, but if it’s coming from a healthy place of not wanting to hurt others and knowing you’re kinda culturally illiterate and likely to make mistakes of ignorance, proceeding with a lot of shutting up and a lot of humility will get you pretty far.