For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this Martin Luther King quote that gets shared a lot:
“The time is always right to do what’s right.”
Partially, this is because MLK Day just passed. And it’s a time when lots of MLK quotes get shared, and every year, more and more people in my circles form a jury on whether or not the quotes being shared are examples of “Whitewashing” or not. So I’ve been wondering if this quote came from radically-approved, authentic King, or if it’s emblematic of Whitewashed, makes-oppressors-comfy King.
But it’s also something that’s been on my mind, on a big picture level, for several years now.
During the two years prior to my writing my first public essay, we were in the midst of a presidential nomination and then election in the US. And it was hinging on hot-button social justice issues. It didn’t feel like the right time to be calling into question many of the new norms within justice movements and feminism when we were on the verge of electing the first female president (who most assumed would be defeating an outlandish caricature of an anti-social-justice person). There was already a lot of infighting within the progressive left, and the feeling that sexism and misogyny were rampant.
I figured that once Hillary Clinton was president, we might be in a better place to talk about dogmatic tendencies within our movements that might be getting in our way. Then Trump was elected, and the timing seemed even worse.
Between Trump’s election and inauguration, the examples of SJD I saw in my world felt equivalent to that of the past few years combined. I went to DC to participate in the record-breaking Women’s March. I was still bouncing around speaking at social justice conferences and events. And I was, as always, a fly on the wall in progressive social media circles.
People everywhere were doubling down on absolutism, essentializing identities and stances, “enemy of my enemy” rationalizations, and every cornerstone of social justice dogma had its moment in the sun. And despite all of this, the time felt even less right to talk about it.
It’s hard to talk about SJD without people immediately connecting the conversation to party politics, tracing every dot to a political figure or platform, and we were in a moment when everything was politicized. The election, and specifically the Democrat’s nomination process, was being continuously re-litigated (a word I learned then, and have hear a million times since), with Hillary and Bernie devotees at each other’s throats, blaming the other camp for Trump. Bringing up dogma felt like tossing a tomato into that food fight, and it was hard to see whose face it would end up on.
But it felt increasingly important for us to start publicly talking about these overarching themes, because it seemed clear to me they were influencing everything else. They were contributing to the food fight. It just was too soon, or we were too raw, to talk right then.
I finally published my first essay at the end of 2017, a full year after the election, not because it felt like the time was right, but because I couldn’t wait any longer. For one thing, I wanted to avoid repeating that history.
I started dipping my toes in the water of talking about these things, knowing that a misstep might mean drowning, regretting that I hadn’t started sooner.
Two years later, about a month ago now, I was sitting with a similar regret. In the two years past, I had been talking about SJD more publicly than ever before, but I was doing so prudently. Cautiously. Slowly. Trying my best not to cross any lines that couldn’t be uncrossed.
I was living in the reality of being back in the almost that exact same political moment, with all the same party political pressures and accusations and alliances and dogma running rampant – even most of the names are the same. Watching history repeat itself.
This hesitant approach did me no obvious favors. I had speaking and performing offers rescinded, was asked to step down from leadership roles in non-profits and to distance myself from some colleagues and former collaborators.
I can’t say for sure what would have happened had I jumped in fully, instead of toeing the waters – whether it would have been catastrophic or not too dissimilar from where I am now.
But my slow stepping allowed me to see all the dogmatic things I was talking about continue to build steam, while I was inching along behind them. To have theories that “this is going to be a big thing soon,” talk about it with a few close friends, then see it happen. And to feel like, in some way, I was complicit.
Along the way, there were dozens of essays and speaking topics that I didn’t move forward on because the timing didn’t feel right. Only for the timing to never feel right.
Some of those ideas exist in the essays I’ve been publishing this month, in the process of publicly writing this book.
But some of them I’m still keeping vaulted. Hidden away. And it has started to bottleneck me. Because the time’s not right.
Last Thursday, I got a message on Facebook about an essay I had recently published, “Teaching Oppression”. My friend wanted to alert me that a popular social justice organizer group they’re in was discussing it, and they shared some screenshots of the conversation with me.
Someone had posted the essay to the group specifically because of this part (bolding for emphasis):
In response to the centrality of identity, we’ll often hear, or wonder ourselves, “Isn’t the goal to move beyond labels? Or to not factor in who someone is, and treat them well, and have society not discriminate against them, regardless of their identities?”
Or people will paraphrase MLK: “What happened to the whole ‘contents of our character,’ not ‘color of our skin’ idea?”
The person who shared it added the curiosity bait question, “Are we living MLK’s dream? Or a nightmare?”
In the hundreds of comments from group members that followed, I was called everything from “white supremacist sympathizer” to “literal human trash” for referencing that Martin Luther King quote from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Now, there are two frustrating things about this (that I’ll address – there are millions of frustrating things about this): (1) I wasn’t sharing the quote myself, I was talking about other people referencing the quote; (2) the essay wasn’t about that quote, nor was it an “MLK Day”-focused essay at all.
But nonetheless, in some small way, even though I didn’t throw my hat into the ring, I still managed to get wrapped up in an MLK Day jury trial about whether or not I was invoking him in a social-justice-(dogma)-approved way, or a White supremacist sympathizer way.
This rattled me, because I realized that anything I might publish the next few days could be interpreted as “MLK Day” content. Me weighing in on the holiday, the man, his legacy, etc. And because everything I’m writing about is related to dogmatic activism, it wouldn’t be too big of a reach.
The essay I wrote on Friday, which I still haven’t published (and maybe never will publish), I immediately ruled out as a safe candidate. Connecting it to MLK wouldn’t be a reach at all, and the implication that I was publishing it in this moment – on purpose, or to make a statement – wasn’t something I wanted to dance with.
I found myself struggling to answer, “What can I write that, as a White person doing social justice, doesn’t put me on the MLK Day chopping block?”
And simultaneously thinking, “This whole ‘MLK Day chopping block’ thing is ringing with social justice dogma, but now’s obviously not the right time to talk about it.”
I ended up, as anyone who has been following along closely realized, not publishing anything. Not that essay, and no others, all throughout the weekend and MLK Day itself.
I didn’t feel like the time was right to talk about it. It still probably isn’t. But I also know I’m not the only person struggling with the time.
A friend of mine – whom I’m going to write about here vaguely enough that if you read this, you might know this is you, but you won’t be sure-sure, so it won’t feel like I’m implicitly calling you out (but if you feel that way, text me!) – has been in a long struggle with this “the time’s never right to talk about social justice dogma” thing.
They noticed years ago the ways I was treated in social justice activist and educator circles were different from them – and not good different – because they hold germane marginalized identities (that are, if you’ll pardon the ironic phrasing, prioritized marginalized identities) parallel to some of my dominant group ones.
In these circles, their voice was unquestioned and they were constantly uplifted, while my even having a voice was questioned, and my platform a constant target for erosion.
This all adds up if you follow the social justice power inverse line of thinking, combined with a little Trickle-down action and some passing of the mic, so there’s not a lot more that I feel like I need to say about those bits.
My friend talked to me about this, shared that they weren’t happy with how things were developing within our shared community, and in the “communities” of their people (i.e., social group memberships), and, when the time was right, when they had built enough of a platform with their work, they were going to speak out against it.
In the years that followed, as their platform continued to grow, we occasionally talked about this, and I waited patiently for the time to be right. But over time, I started to bring it up less and less, until I finally stopped bringing it up at all.
I understood, and I still understand: the time’s never right.
Earlier today, I almost published a different essay, and wrote two others, before writing this instead. Hopefully, I’ll publish this soon, but I’m not confident I will. I might can it like the other three. Just a few days of not publicly writing were enough for me to lose my nerve.
What led to me writing this, today, now, was that MLK quote above, “The time is always right to do what’s right.” I was running it through my mind again, having seen it shared on Facebook, and feeling really, truly stuck.
Every day I feel more overwhelmed by all the conversations I’ve had privately over the years, and haven’t acted on publicly. The weight of them, the urgency. The missed opportunities to avoid repeated harms. To at least try. But the time has never felt right. It’s felt continuously and unequivocally wrong.
I decided to search for the source of that MLK quote, to read the full speech, or letter, or whatever the source was that contained it, wondering if I was missing something, and what I found cracked me up.
This wasn’t an issue of Whitewashing MLK, or even something for that jury to contemplate.
It’s never mattered if the time is right or wrong. The time was never “right”, and Dr. Martin Luther King himself might have agreed with me on that, and he wouldn’t have been in contradiction to his own words, because he never said those words.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote, “The time is always ripe to do right.”
“Ripe.” Not “right.”
And with that I emphatically agree.
All the time that I, and everyone I’ve been talking to about social justice dogma, postponed – the articles and resources and talks and other cans we kicked down the road for until the time was “right” – now feels more than wrong, it feels spoiled.
We need to take every chance we’re offered to do right, or we risk feeling rotten.