Why #notall_____ is a Derailing Tactic

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When marginalized people say [insert privileged group] do/don’t do x, they aren’t saying “every single member of that privileged group.” They are saying, as a political bloc, that (for example) straight white men don’t care about women’s rights or queer rights or people of colour, etc.. Not that you, [specific person], don’t. And we know that, again as a bloc, straight white men don’t care about women’s rights or queer rights, etc. because we know how straight white men en masse vote. And how much power they wield. And how they wield it.

It’s a rhetorical tactic used to show that this is not an issue of individual men (or white people or cis people, or, or, or), it’s an issue of certain groups of people being privileged and given power over other groups of people. Power that necessitates that other groups don’t have power.

By loudly declaring that you, [specific person] are not like THOSE men (or white people, or straight people, or, or, or), you try to assert an individuality that lets all straight white men (or other members of privileged groups) off the hook. Because by making it about how not x you are, you reassert the idea that it’s an issue of individual choice rather than systemic power and disenfranchisement.

And so now, not only have you obfuscated the immense systems of power that you benefit from, you have also shifted the conversation away from a pressing human rights issue into one about your feelings. We can’t even talk about racism or misogyny or capitalism or, or, or because now we have to either soothe you and celebrate your #notall_____ness or argue with you about the harm that centering yourself and individualizing the issue does, which is generally the equivalent of banging one’s head against the wall.

If it’s not about you (the individual), then don’t make it about you (the individual). If it is about you, the individual, then do better. If you find yourself getting defensive and angry when the privileged group to whom you belong is pointed out as having immense privilege, remember that one of the ways that privilege protects itself, one of the ways that it operates, is by making talking about privilege excruciating for privileged people. White people hate talking about whiteness because we have been taught that it is the default, normative state. And that assumption of default status has profound consequences for people of colour and profound benefits for us. Benefits that have been invisibilized (because that’s how power operates) and that have tricked us into thinking that we are where we are based on merit alone. And so when it is named, it can be downright painful because we are quickly asked to reckon with the truth of our lives–not just that we have benefitted immensely, but that others have been profoundly harmed. And that our perception of the world is fundamentally wrong. It is made wrong by white supremacy. And white supremacy protects itself, in part, by making that revelation so painful that we will do nearly anything to avoid it.

Which is why white people derail conversations about whiteness and racism. And why men derail conversations about toxic masculinity and misogyny. And why straight people derail conversations about heteronormativity and homophobia.

That is privilege raising its ugly head. And it is that fear and discomfort that leads us to demand people know that we aren’t like all those other [group]. Because we have cognitive dissonance we need to resolve and our privilege is threatened and needs to be obscured.

So the next time you’re tempted to say #notall[group], take a breath. Realize that the political bloc you belong to, the group with power over others and power at the expense of others, is implicated. That your privilege is feeling threatened and acting out, not unlike a tired toddler. Sit with it. Breathe through it. Walk away and come back, if you need to. Just don’t tell everyone how different you are.

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