Passive patience is oppressive, but active patience can help us all

Does your commitment to justice override your desire for comfort?

Breeshia Wade
5 May 2017

Two people sitting on a couch while touching each other’s hands and smiling. Credit: Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

She held me as we lay in bed together, falling asleep. We had only been dating for two months.

“I just ask you to be patient with me.”

I didn’t respond. I lay there thinking, “Not today, Becky. You gots to go.”

You see, I’m a Black woman, and my partner is a (white) Jewish woman. I am no stranger to white women asking me for patience without understanding that the trauma of being a queer Black woman in America means that we don’t have the same access to time.

I started pulling away from (what I perceived to be) the all too familiar request to honor a white woman’s experience(s) above my own. She felt my energy.

“Listen, there’s a difference between active and passive patience. I will never be passively patient with you.”

I was stunned. In 25 years, I had never heard this distinction.

More poignantly, I had never heard a white woman use the term patience in a way that didn’t center on her own experience, thus erasing my own.

Intrigued, I asked, “What’s the difference?”

She responded, “You’ve had a lifetime of white women talking. I’d rather show you.”

For the past 25 years, I’ve almost exclusively heard patience used in a passive, oppressive way. It’s been used as a tool to silence those seeking justice and relief.

It’s been six months, and my partner still hasn’t defined active—or rather, “radical”—patience verbally. Every distinction I’ve gathered has been from observing the way she shows up for justice, both in our relationship and in her work.

The personal is political, and observing the ways that she embodies active patience has given me context to explore the difference between active and passive patience politically.

Here are ten differences between active and passive patience.

1. Passive patience is stagnant—it doesn’t grow or change.

Passive patience doesn’t work towards changing the conditions that cause harm.

It just asks us to stop complaining, resisting, and demanding to comfort and appease folks who are being asked to change.

For example, when white women demanded the patience of trans women, Native women, and women of color during the Women’s March, what they were really saying is: “We meant well. Stop being divisive by reminding us of your oppression—that is both uncomfortable and inconvenient. Let us have this moment of solidarity, even if it comes at the expense of your erasure.”

In some ways, I understand their distress.

Change can be difficult, painful even. But pain and discomfort are inevitable and temporary parts of moving towards change and resolution, both ebbing and flowing in presence and intensity.

Our relationship to it often shifts, as opposed to remaining stagnant.

Suffering, however, is often either caused or inflicted and is the indeterminate and irresolvable experience of pain. It’s long-term, and its psychological, physical, and emotional impact are devastating.

When marginalized folks point out the ways that the actions of our oppressor(s) cause suffering, and our concerns are greeted with an insistence of silence, stagnation, and/or cooperation in our own suffering, as opposed to discussing solutions for change, that’s passive patience.

2. Passive patience conflates acceptance with complacency.

We’re taught that we must accept who and where we are, even if that means accepting one’s harmful tendencies, in order to change them.

But acceptance doesn’t mean that we’re complacent.

For example, if someone is on fire, a complacent reaction would acknowledge that someone is burning, but do nothing to address their suffering.

However, the process of acceptance requires one to acknowledge, or accept, that someone is burning in order to know what steps come next, like finding water to put the fire out.

White cis women must be willing to accept that historically and presently, they contribute to the oppression and erasure of the experiences of women of color. But first, that involves active listening.

They must be willing to listen to the experiences of women of color and accept their participation in white supremacist culture before they’re able to dismantle it.

3. Passive patience centers one’s good intentions over one’s hurtful actions.

In my experience, most people aren’t intentionally sexist, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and so on.

But that doesn’t change the harmful impact of their actions.

Often, when well-meaning people are confronted with abuse of privilege, they often get defensive because the reality of their actions challenges the person they’ve imagined themselves to be.

However, living in a society built on the oppression and marginalization of non-white, non-male, disabled bodies inevitably causes us to internalize oppressive behavior.

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t good people. It just means we have a responsibility to be self-aware.

Unlearning oppressive behaviors via self-awareness is a lifelong process, but that doesn’t mean that one has to wait a lifetime to stop causing harm.

4. Passive patience both maintains the status quo and is coercive.

Most of my life, I’ve heard the term patience both used against me, and other women of color, in a way that mimics gaslighting.

Women of color are asked to be patient when institutions inadvertently acknowledge their lack of diversity, let alone inclusion. Yet, support for our efforts to create a more welcoming, intercultural, and anti-oppressive social climate are either subpar or non-existent.

And in the case of Black women specifically, we often begin to doubt our own experiences and develop Black Superwoman complex in a search for the strength to develop more (passive) patience, to withstand affliction from another person.

When we complain about the pain we experience as marginalized folks, or walk away because we’ve had enough, we’re told that we just aren’t patient enough, that we need to wait a little while longer until things change.

We’re made to feel as if our inability to passively sit with suffering is the root of the problem, not an institution’s unwillingness to work to change hurtful and oppressive conditions.

While it’s true that one or both parties may have to deal with hurt feelings and unprocessed trauma, it’s important to recognize that privilege requires an oppressor to carry greater responsibility in the effort of reconciliation.

Marginalized folks desire safety and healing like all beings. However, oppression often puts the onus on us to carry our own generational trauma while carrying the burden of our oppressors emotional discomfort and/or complacency.

Any model of patience that treats those being harmed like props by insisting that the person(s) experiencing harm remain silent is passive – and violent.

5. Passive patience demands self-sacrifice and martyrship.

Passive patience requires that the oppressed use our physical, mental, and emotional energies as fertilizer for their dreams.

In other words, it requires the oppressed to place our full center in causes, institutions, and actions that don’t value us enough to listen when we’re hurting.

For example, to insist that women of color and/or trans women participate in a march that actively excludes them for the sake of able, cis, white women is messed up.

Now, I want to state that I have privilege in some areas and am marginalized in others. I’m marginalized as a queer, neurodivergent, Black woman, but my educational background, lighter skin, American citizenship, and able body give me privilege.

However, I notice most often that passive patience is demanded of me when my emotional labor is expected in the education of well-intentioned folks who would rather debate my humanity as opposed to listen when I explain why something is hurtful.

Having a conversation with a person who’s contributing to my suffering requires energy, especially when the person is unwilling to accept my truth.

It’s very uncomfortable for many of us to sit with our own ability to cause harm, especially unintentional harm. Yet, marginalized folks are expected to do this labor, despite the emotional ramifications to ourselves.

We’re expected to engage. We’re expected to be passively patient while our oppressors work through their own processes.

6. Active patience is an active commitment toward change.

As mentioned earlier, passive patience is coercive.

Instead of relying on mutual agreement towards a common goal, it demands the participation of those being harmed for the benefit of the oppressor.

However, active patience is not coercive.

Everyone involved uses their agency to agree on a goal. And when everyone agrees, all parties can move toward a common goal. Everyone can actively move toward change.

7. Active patience respects the autonomy of each being involved.

Often, the comfort of an oppressor is privileged over oppressed folk’s need for safety.

For example, when Native women complained about the appropriation of their culture(s) and the erasure of their histories by white folks during the Women’s March, an actively patient ally would have not only engaged in active listening, but would have sat with their pain.

They would’ve sat with the discomfort of their own complicity in another person’s degradation and began searching for ways to minimize the direct harm they caused in that moment while committing to strive towards larger structural changes in the future.

They would’ve asked questions to understand the concerns of the oppressed as opposed to silencing them.

In short, they would’ve respected their voices and perspectives as autonomous beings as opposed to reducing them to stereotypes, treating them like props.

8. Active patience isn’t perfection.

So, I’ve laid a lot out here, and it probably sounds like active patience leaves no room for fuck-ups. But never fear.

We’re human, which means that fuck-ups are expected.

There will often be setbacks on the path of healing and change. But active patience doesn’t allow setbacks to turn into complacency.

Just because something is hard and/or we struggle to “get it right” doesn’t mean we give up on the pursuit, especially when it leads to justice and healing for another person.

Active patience continues growing and shifting, collectively.

9. Active patience doesn’t guarantee lack of conflict.

Conflict is inevitable, even in the healthiest, most nourishing relationships.

However, we aren’t talking about healthy relationships. We’re talking about fucked up dynamics between privileged and marginalized communities. So, conflict is expected.

Marginalized folks desire safety and healing like all beings. As I mentioned earlier, oppression often puts the onus on us to carry our own generational trauma while carrying the burden of our oppressors emotional discomfort and/or complacency.

Living in colonized cultures come with a lot of biases, wounds, and assumptions.

When conflict occurs, one or both parties may have to deal with hurt feelings and unprocessed trauma, but it’s important to recognize that privilege requires an oppressor to carry greater responsibility in the effort of reconciliation.

For example, a white person may be offended when a Black person calls their actions racist because that wasn’t their intent.

Conflict itself is a healthy aspect of any relationship, but there’s a difference between conflict, abuse, and oppression. We need conflict to grow and learn. It can be used to guide us, and facilitate connection.

Active patience recognizes that there will be conflict, but it uses conflict as an opportunity to reevaluate and adapt.

10. Active patience doesn’t settle for ‘good enough.’

Active patience accepts setbacks as something that happens on the way to change, but it doesn’t settle with “good enough.”

It doesn’t give up on the pursuit of healing and progress but adapts.

If Hillary Clinton had won the election, rejoicing over her victory would have been settling for “good enough,” given her history of racist statements and ideologies.

Settling for microaggressions over overt discrimination, opting for mildly offensive as opposed to in-your-face offensive, doesn’t address the root of the issue.

Rather, it allows us to ignore underlying causes and settle for “good enough.”

Cultivating active patience in a society that doesn’t promote accountability is hard. Active patience requires trust, and it understands the difference between forgiveness and a pardon.

Trust requires being present to the experience(s) of oneself and of others. It requires being honest and non-judgmental.

It’s difficult to expect any form of patience from marginalized folks when trust is fraught through centuries of oppression, decades of inaction, and silence around our pain.

Without trust, active patience is impossible. And without active patience, we perpetuate oppressive systems thru passive patience.

Not many privileged folks are willing to take on the challenge of establishing trust with marginalized people because it’s inconvenient. It requires extensive personal and structural changes, and in many cases the total uproot of one’s way of being.

It’s important, then, to ask yourself: Does your commitment to justice override your desire for comfort?

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