Many people want to help in the ongoing struggle for equality and equity, but they don’t know what to do. Activist DeRay Mckesson explains how we can all show up and stand up.
1. Own your privilege.
“Acknowledge that there is a privilege you have [if you’re white], and use the privilege to disrupt that privilege itself. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well, I didn’t benefit from white privilege.’ [You need to realize] every Band-Aid in this country looks like your skin and not mine, baby dolls look like you, and the color ‘nude’ is your skin color. That’s what the privilege of whiteness looks like — it’s not about what you’ve done; it’s about what society does when it treats white as normal. It’s about you saying, ‘I have privilege, I have power, and I will seek out how I can use that privilege and those resources. I’ll ask marginalized people, ‘What is the help you need?’, as opposed to just saying, ’I think this is what you should do’.”
2. Talk about what’s uncomfortable and what’s important.
“There’s no winning in silence. If we allow white supremacist ideology to spread without being challenged, people continue to replicate it. And the question is: what do you do? You need to talk about it — you can’t change what you don’t talk about. And while we’ve had a great conversation [in the last year] about the symbols and about Confederate monuments, there is still so much work to be done that we actually don’t talk about — like what to do about police violence, or bail, or rehabilitation for people who are coming out of prison, or the opioid crisis. You don’t always see the trauma — it doesn’t show up in the same way as a man running a car through a crowd of people — but the impact on people’s lives is as disastrous as anything else.”
3. Be strategic in what you say and how you say it.
“People don’t respond well to being shouted down at the dining room table. If your goal is to change somebody’s mind, that isn’t the most effective strategy; if your goal is to make a point, then that isn’t an effective strategy. Try to show people what you mean, as opposed to just saying, ‘I’m right.’ It’s a long-game solution. Rarely do people come out of one conversation and say, ‘You know, my whole worldview has changed.’ It’s about setting a foundation, so that people over time can change. This isn’t everybody’s work — some people are much better at having conversations than other people.”
4. Activism isn’t just about protests and marches — it means voting, too.
“Many of the things that will change people’s lives are structural, so it’s about voting where you are and pushing for or against legislation in your city and town. Use your institutional power to change structures and systems. Who shows up to the hearings about police violence? Who is working on welfare reform? Who is working on bail reform? Are you willing to come out for three weeks of hearings, sit, and say, ‘This is an issue that is important to me, too’? Even when it may not be convenient? That’s what it means to show up.”
5. Figure out where and how you can do the most good.
“I think there’s a role for everybody. The things I care about might not be the things you care about, and vice versa, which doesn’t mean they aren’t all important. For some people, their space is being on Twitter and on Facebook and pushing out messages. There are some people who are better in the street than I am, and some people who need to skip the street because they can just go to the governor’s mansion. If the governor is your friend and you can talk to him in his dining room, do that. We don’t all need to play the same role. The cacophony of all of us doing work together will actually lead to systemic change.”
6. Start where you are.
“Harriet Tubman knew that something could be done. She started where she was and started small, and it turned into the Underground Railroad. It can often start with you and another person, or you and two people, having a conversation about what the world can be and here are the steps you can take. You need to take concrete steps — small ones, like steps on a ladder — to get to systemic change. Ask people what they need, stand in concert with those who’ve been doing the work longer than you, listen, ask more questions than talk. Those are all the hallmarks of the people I’ve seen who are the most effective.”
7. Ask yourself: what do I want the future to look like?
“When we think about resistance, we focus almost exclusively on the absence of oppression. We think: How do we end mass incarceration? How do we stop the disparities with regard to police killings? How do we stop police killings altogether? But when we tear down these repressive, oppressive systems and structures, something has to replace them, something that’s better. For example, we know there will always be rules, there will always be people who break the rules, and there will always need to be consequences. Do the people who enforce those consequences have to be the police? No. Does that enforcement have to mean prison? Absolutely not. We need to spend more time now talking about potential solutions. How do we help people imagine a conception of safety that doesn’t center on the police? How do we help them imagine a world where every adult can read? How do you help people dream in a big way that will actually change lives? It’s hard because we haven’t lived in that world before. But it doesn’t mean that world’s not possible.”
8. Feel the fear — and act anyway.
“Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ It bends, because people bend it. There are so many people who understand the power they have. They’re standing up across the country when the odds look like they’re against them, and they’ve learned to make sure fear doesn’t overpower everything else even if fear is still present. There are just so many incredible people who are willing to put something on the line to make the world a different place. That gives me hope.”
These remarks were taken from a Facebook Live conversation conducted with DeRay Mckesson at TED headquarters in New York City. To learn more, watch the video.
Thanks to Robin Storey for this article, musing about the writer’s life. Enjoy!
Since becoming a full-time writer I’ve become a cliché – I love writing in coffee shops. I’ve written in a previous postabout my local library being my favourite office away from home, but coffee shops come in as equal favourite.
IT’S A TRADITION
In my defence, I’m continuing to uphold a fine and noble tradition of writers working in coffee shops and cafes, from TS Elliott, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald to many modern writers. The most famous is J.K. Rowling, who wrote much of her early Harry Potter novels in the Elephant House in Edinburgh.
An urban myth grew up that she wrote there because she couldn’t afford heating in her flat. But she disputed this in a radio interview, saying that walking her baby in her pram to the coffee shop put her to sleep (the baby, not J.K.), which gave her free time to write.
The Elephant House must have a great creative vibe, as Inspector Rebus creator Ian Rankin and The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith have also slaved away there. When I was in Edinburgh a few years ago I visited the Elephant House and had a coffee there. I sat in the back room where JK Rowling had sat overlooking Edinburgh Castle and imagined myself in her shoes, scribbling away madly to get as much done before the baby woke up, wrestling the demons in her mind that told her it was crap and no-one would ever publish it. (I am taking a bit of literary licence here, as I have never heard her admit to the demons, but as most writers experience them, especially with their first novels, I think I’m safe in this assumption). May Lord Voldemort cast a curse on me and torture me with snakes if I’m wrong.
THERE ARE MANY THEORIES
Theories abound as to why writers are attracted to coffee shops. One of the main reasons may be visibility. Psychologists say that for a role to be internalized, it has to be observed in public. As writing is a solitary occupation, maybe we writers feel the need to be acknowledged, that we think we’re not real writers unless people see us writing. Or it could just be pure pretension.
The problem with that observation is that it’s so commonplace these days for all types of business people to sit in coffee shops tapping away on their laptops or tablets that unless you have a sign beside you saying ‘Writer at Work,’ no-one else has a clue what you’re writing.
TIP: Try looking up from your work occasionally, staring pensively into the distance as if invoking the Muse, then resume writing furiously as inspiration has suddenly struck you. This, combined with the occasional sigh or creased brow, will signal to other patrons that you’re not just writing an email to Mum or the annual shareholders’ report, but are engaged in an Important Creative Process.
I don’t have a favourite coffee shop – part of the fun is going to a different one each time. The surrounding buzz and chatter provides just the right amount of background noise for me to be able to focus on my work. The big plus is that there are no distractions, (apart from eavesdropping and people watching, but they are part of a writer’s job description) so I can’t put off my writing by doing the washing or taking a nap on the couch.
THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT
For those who still want that same vibe without leaving home, there’s an app called Coffitivity, that provides background coffee shop noise. But not, of course, the ambience – to a coffee shop purist, it’s like serving them instant coffee and trying to convince them it’s the real thing. Unless the app comes with the aroma of fresh coffee beans (high on my list of favourite things) and a barista who makes a full-bodied heart-starter of a cappuccino, I’m not interested.
IT’S FUN AND PRODUCTIVE
There’s also an element of fun in writing in coffee shops – it doesn’t feel like work. Non-fiction author Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point and Blink Fame, long ago eschewed his office in favour of cafes and restaurants. He’s quoted as saying, ‘Writing seems like a fun activity now… it’s more seamlessly integrated into my life and that’s made it much more pleasurable.’
Many writers, myself included, find our productivity is highest when writing in coffee shops, especially when we’re in creative, first draft mode. Psychologists say that when we’re alone in a public space we have a fear of being seen to have no purpose. So we think it’s not acceptable to sit in a coffee shop alone if we’re not doing something – which explains why non-writers who frequent restaurants and cafes alone usually engage in some activity to look busy – check their phones, read a book or magazine etc. If we’re seen to be doing something purposeful, we can’t be accused of loitering and management are less likely to throw us out – even if we’ve been there for two hours and only had one coffee.
THERE’S A TIME LIMIT
And that brings me to the main disadvantage of writing in coffee shops – limited time. Just how long is it acceptable to sit in a coffee shop on the strength of one coffee? It’s not that I’m mean – I’m not able to drink more than one cup of coffee in the space of a few hours. I make it last as long as I can, but one hour is usually my limit. After that, I feel as if I’m overextending my welcome. It does mean that I get a lot of writing done in that hour, but then I have to get up and go elsewhere – usually the library.
I’ve heard of writers spending all day writing in the one coffee shop. I can only assume they eat their lunch there and drink copious amounts of coffee during the day to keep the management on side. One writer I know of turns up to his favourite coffee shop each morning at 7am when they open and is there until 6pm. That’s true dedication for you. Or caffeine addiction.
THIS NOVEL IS SPONSORED BY MY LOCAL CAFE
At the very least, he’d have to offer the proprietor a free, signed copy of his book upon publication. Unless, of course, the coffee shop was sponsoring his novel. Which, come to think of it, is not a bad idea. In return for the privilege of ensconcing myself all day in my local coffee shop with a constant supply of coffee, delicacies and neck rubs, I’d be more than happy to have inscribed on the cover of my next novel ‘Sponsored by The Raw Bean Cafe’ and even the odd ad inside.
The possibilities are endless.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you think writers in coffee shops should have an arrow pointing at them that says, ‘Pretentious Arty Type?’ Should they be entitled to free coffee in exchange for a certain number of words (eg every 1000 words = one large latte with an extra shot), or failing that, tea and sympathy?
Chime in, writers and non-writers alike.