“then they came for me”: why my activism is not a choice.

It’s been years since I read this quotation by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of Hitler’s Nazi regime:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

I don’t think I ever fully appreciated what Niemöller meant: after all, I am neither a staunch Socialist, nor was I a union member until I started working, nor am I of Jewish descent. I used to think that there would be very many “and then they came for…because I was not” before I would be forced to speak out about anything. I see this happening with many of my friends, who refuse to speak out, or who think that their behaviors or attitudes don’t matter, because they believe that they and their friends aren’t affected by issues of homophobia, sexism, or racism. I used to think that way too. Until I started to realize that those who are out to injure, destroy, and shame….are a lot closer to coming for me than they are not.

I used to think that I could just wait. Wait for language to change, wait for slurs to be slowly phased out until they become antiquated. Wait for policies to be changed by those who are actually in power. Wait to have children, so that I could raise both my boys and my girls to be sensitive about gender/sexuality/race/class issues. Wait. Just wait.

I can’t do that. And I think that if most of us think long and hard about it, neither can any of us.

—————————-

First they told me they were glad I was not or did not look like a lesbian or a man,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I identify as cisgendered and heterosexual.

and then I realized that it is erroneous to equate appearance
with a particular kind of sexuality or gender
and that if i were gay, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from men who rage about the humiliation
of having accidentally hit on a woman they didn’t realize was a lesbian
and that if i were transgendered, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from those who would consider me “monstrous” or “unnatural”
    and so I have decided
    that I will never have my sexuality or gender
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made jokes about black people.
and at first I did not speak up–
because I am only a quarter black.

and then I realized that if this were the 1950s
that it would not matter how little black blood I had
that I would be told I was a second-class citizen
asked to use separate entrances
and drink from separate water fountains
and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they denied their white privilege.
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am only three-quarters white.

And then I realized that being able to “pass”
as ethnically ambiguous
as closer to white than some
has protected me from a lot of racial violence
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made fun of uneducated workers,
and at first I did not speak up–
because I have a university education.

And then I realized that I have had the great fortune
of the access and means to paying for an education
not least in part because of the financial means
of the middle-class family I was born into
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my intelligence or my knowledge
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said that prostitutes were asking to be raped,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not a sex worker.

and then I realized that the response and support I have received
when I finally reported and sought help for my own rape
were largely because both the law and society
still thinks you’re a more credible victim if you’re
virginal and non-sexualized
   and so I have decided
    that I will not have my justice
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said all of those things,
and they also said that accessibility was not a concern
that healthcare for refugees was not a priority
that access to nutritious, whole food was merely a triviality
that land claims and the historical legacy of racism not their guilt to bear
that financial support for seniors was adequate

and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not disabled
a refugee
or hungry
or Indigenous
or elderly

but in the end
because I AM a human being
I will not have
my liberty
my health
my freedom,
my identity
my sexuality
my gender
my sense of self
my humanity
    come at the price of another’s.

Advertisements

5 comments

  1. I am glad you posted this, and though it’s been years since i’ve read Niemöller’s quote, it rings more true today than it did when i last stumbled across it.

    I am especially appreciative of your contribution, “because I AM a human being I will not have my humanity come at the price of another’s.”

    There was a moment recently where I stood up for a group of people that were being publicly shamed, humiliated, and i responded by pointing out the unfairness of the judgements these people were to negligently casting… the total lack of care for humanity that their comments showed. But I felt shaken afterwards and wondered if I had overstepped some type of social boundary. “Maybe I made a big deal out of nothing?” “I hope I didn’t make these people feel too badly…” “They were just having a bit of fun” etc.

    But today, after reading this, I am throwing those doubts out the window. When the moment came for me to champion the humanity of others, I went for it, resolutely. It made me uncomfortable, and it made them uncomfortable, but this is a fair price when i think that in that moment i didn’t shy away from lending my voice to someone else.

    Sometimes, moments of discomfort are only growing pains!

    1. So glad that this resonated! I still struggle so much to get the courage to speak out in the moment, but I think you’re right: the discomfort is definitely worth it! I’m reflecting a lot more lately on the way in which many of us (especially women) are socialized not to speak up, or to “be polite” – sometimes it’s just not the time or place for silence or passive politeness. Assertiveness is a difficult thing to learn…especially when the backlash can be so hate-filled.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s