My friend Julie coined it. Julie and I met through World Relief Chicago. World Relief helps local refugees learn English, find housing, apply to jobs, put their kids in school, et cetera. After the November shootings in Paris, Illinois’ state governor Bruce Rauner announced that he would be banning all Syrian refugees from entering the state.
Don’t worry: Bruce has no mechanism to enforce a ban. But he wasn’t the only politician who mounted right up on the tragedy as an excuse to warmonger against muslim communities. The point was to capitalize on citizens’ shock, fear, and anger to drum up support from potential constituents. But Bruce’s incendiary statements incensed a large number of Chicagoans in another direction entirely. World Relief Chicago’s January volunteer orientation, the first since Bruce’s statement, had three times as many prospective volunteers as the coordinators had ever seen.
I met Julie at this orientation. A few weeks later, she visited my house along with four others who would make up our neighborhood volunteer team. As I raced around washing and filling my only two cups to provide coffee for six people (I didn’t have my shit together), everyone went around and explained what had drawn them to World Relief Chicago.
And that’s when Julie said it:
“They want to stop refugees coming to Illinois. And I was just like, fuckkkkk that.”
Everyone sitting in my living room nodded in agreement. We all felt the same way.
The Fuck That Response doesn’t fit into our social educations. Our parents and teachers tell us that kindness is generally good, but it’s never connected to a place of anger. Our favorite works of fiction show us powers for good combating powers of evil, but they’re not doing it with kindness — they’re doing it with weapons, just like the evil guys. We don’t learn to see kindness itself as a display of retaliation. But the Fuck That Response is just that — a fundamentally combative display of kindness. In order to have a Fuck That Response, there exists a That, which we are Fucking.
And that’s a paradox. The Platonic ideal is for us to always be kind, in whatever measure we can. The Fuck That response is people going out of their way to help as an act of vengeance. Its existence is an ignominy for our woefully inadequate attempts to draw hard lines between right and wrong. And the Fuck That Response has tremendous potential as a source for good.
Too bad we don’t teach it. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like we have to. None of the people sharing my two coffee cups in the living room had been asked or told to retaliate with kindness. They felt pulled to do so on their own.
And the more chances people have to retaliate against tragedy with kindness, the more I become convinced that the Fuck That Response is real.
It happened after the Pulse shooting in Orlando. Granted, it took a while. Queer people, and especially queer people of color, felt struck by shock, grief, and fear. Muslim communities felt the fear, too, as politicians started blaming them for the shooting. Straight allies, though perhaps angry, didn’t necessarily know what to do or say. The vigils were held in gay neighborhoods, and mostly queer people went to them. But slowly over the following weeks, people starting asking questions about how they could behave as allies outside of just being “cool with” queer people.
I didn’t want to explain it because I don’t want people getting the idea that it’s the job of a target group to educate them about how to be helpful, instead of putting in that time and labor themselves. But in my workplace people seemed a little lost, so I ended up talking to the group about allyship in times of crisis. The talk time was not ideal and my coworkers are used to my outspokenness on matters of diversity and inclusion, so I didn’t expect many to attend. As it turned out, we ran out of chairs, so people stood in the kitchen area and around the edges of the space. I think the Fuck That Response contributed to the high attendance for the talk.
The response to the Pulse shooting did one more thing. It inoculated people.
Inoculation describes introducing a live immune threat to the body in a controlled way to induce an initial immune reaction.
This chart explains why it works:
The first introduction of an antigen to the body triggers the first immune response. It’s underwhelming. It’s kind of delayed. It doesn’t last very long. But the second time the body encounters the antigen (as it might if it faces the disease ‘in the wild’), the immune response is much faster, much stronger, and much slower to peter off. So you’re much less likely (in some cases, negligibly likely) to get sick.*
*Yes, biology people: this is a simplification, and different pathogens engender immune responses differently. This discussion isn’t actually about microbiology, so we’re going to ignore all those details for right now.
I think the Fuck That Response has some similarities to the immune response. And I think Orlando, for those in my circles, was their first exposure (in a long time anyway) to the tragedy antigen. And the response, predictably, was relatively small. Kind of delayed. Not especially long-lasting.
And then, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed.
These two men — both black men, both killed by cops — are the most recent victims in a long, long string of incidents of preventable and unnecessary police brutality against black people. Every time it happens, there are protests, and rightfully so.
But this time it was different, because this time, more than in recent memory, white people showed up.
Not just a few white people: 30–40% of the crowd at the D.C. White House protest were white. It’s still not enough, but it’s more than we’ve seen at a protest that large.
There’s also an organization called SURJ that specifically organizes white people to show up for racial justice. The idea is for us to use our privilege to fight racial injustice without placing additional burdens on the people we want to fight for. I got connected with the organization this weekend because I realized that, despite everything I’ve learned about diversity and inclusion since joining the tech community, my chalk-white self has no pucking clue what to do. But I want to do something, and evidently I am not alone. In fact, I’m less alone than anyone who has ever joined SURJ. The organization’s leadership is currently managing, evidently, unprecedented numbers of membership requests. In the past 72 hours, over 5,000 people have expressed interest in joining their ranks nationwide. The response to Orlando took weeks, and this one took days. It’s strong. It’s fast. As depraved as it feels to me to attach the word ‘optimistic’ to a chain of events like this, I’m optimistic about what this Fuck That Response can accomplish.
The secondary immune response is not only stronger and faster, but also more longer lasting than the initial response. I don’t know yet whether that will be true of the Fuck That Response. For how long will this enlarged group of advocates remain active in the fight for change? Will it depend on how activist groups handle the massive influx of volunteers?
Hopefully we get some encouraging results and learn some best practices for involving more people in social change.