Kindness and Privilege
Bruce Reyes-Chow
March 29, 2022

For this evotional, we honor our fast from whiteness this Lent by prioritizing the voice of Bruce Reyes-Chow through a chapter of his book, In Defense of Kindness…

I once had a conversation with someone during a protest and the taking over of a roadway in the San Francisco Bay Area. The protest occurred during the early stages of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The social atmosphere in the United States was charged, to say the least. The conversation about this life-or-death reality boiled down to this response from a bystander: “If they didn’t inconvenience people so much, I would be much more supportive of their cause.”

Kindness that merely placates those who are inflicting trauma, violence, or oppression may be a valid survival technique, but it centers the aggressor and allows them to dictate the future.

Kindness cannot be boiled down to specific, concrete, never-changing actions. How we express kindness depends on our own social context, experiences, culture, and privilege.

Likewise, it is not kind to tell someone who is expressing righteous and disruptive indignation to be “civil” or “appropriate.” Historically, these kinds of admonishments have been code for “Stop creating discomfort,” “Know your place, “or “Shut up!” While I understand the desire to be more compassionate and to have more thoughtful engagement around disagreements, we must be careful that such a desire does not turn into a modern-day manifestation of “civilizing” those who do not fit into our understanding of normative behavior. Sometimes our norms oppress and marginalize others.

When acts of kindness and calls for civility are fueled by social, economic, and racial privilege, these acts are often more about doing just enough to keep the status quo and not about transformative change for those who are experiencing struggle. This call for civility is dangerous. It assumes that well-intentioned people or organizations will actively seek out their flaws and correct them without any prodding from others, whether insiders or outsiders. We know this to be untrue. Protest, disruption, and “uncivilized” behavior is precisely what compels individuals and organizations to change, sometimes willingly and with integrity and sometimes because market forces compel them to change or go out of business. The existence of any protections for and the civil rights of people of color, women, workers, LGBTQIA+ people, and countless others were all the result of people taking to the streets to protest injustice and unfair practices that needed to be named.

Not every expression offered in the face of injustice is justified or should be accepted simply because it is protest. Our first reaction to others pointing out injustices that might create discomfort in ourselves, our institutions, and our social status cannot be “We’ll listen if you just stop yelling and talk calmly. Then you might have more impact.” No doubt there will have been multiple attempts to work through the system, to use processes set up by the institution, and to be “appropriate,” “respectful,” “civil,” and otherwise not make a scene. When those tactics do not result in change, it’s appropriate to resort to public protest.
For many of us, being uncomfortable about public protests or what we perceive as aggressive expressions of frustration simply identifies our privilege and our ability to shield ourselves from the struggles that others are facing. May our call to civil discourse be more about listening to the genuine struggles of our human sisters, brothers, siblings, neighbors, and strangers than about protecting our own spaces of security. Most people do not engage in public protest or in expressing anger that may put risk on their life, work, or status. So when groups of people are pushed to their boiling point, the least helpful thing to do is to silence them.
Expressions of kindness in times of social change and public protest should focus on those who are seeking justice and liberation and not on the ones whose privileged worlds are being disrupted by the leveling of a social playing field or a correction in disparities of access, power, or authority. If someone is seeking civil rights through public protest or sharing their frustration in a way that causes us discomfort, rather than adopting a posture of defensiveness, a kinder response is for us to listen with empathy in order to seek true understanding. The second, third, and tenth acts of kindness are to discern how this knowledge and experience will affect future actions, all while keeping at the center of the conversation the voices of those whom the change will benefit. It takes control and wisdom to listen to justified expressions of frustration. That too is an act of kindness.

For Reflection:
When have you participated in public protest, and what compelled you to do so? When have you witnessed a protest and thought that it was “too much”? Why did you have that reaction?

Try This:
Scan your newsfeed for a protest happening somewhere in the world and note your initial reactions, then do some background research about the reason for the protest to see if your perspective changes.

God of love & justice, help us to be more kind and to show kindness to others. Not kindness that keeps the status quo, but kindness that can lead to transformative change for those who struggle, and to create a more just and equitable world. When we are uncomfortable or lack understanding, may we prioritize listening to those who are seeking justice and liberation, to understand their passionate cries and continue to center their voices.  Amen.