Disrupting Complicity

By: Tara Fuller

Complicity (noun): involvement with others in a crime or in another activity that is wrong.*

I often reflect on the concept of complicity as it relates to social justice and equity because I believe I can be doing more with the privilege I have and want to inspire others to do more as well. I know I am faced with my own complicity when my hope for the world and the communities in which I operate diminishes. I have faith in humanity and in our connectedness. So, when I feel hopeless about my role, I know I need to reset and figure out how I can show up differently and do better.

Humans are complicated and none of us can be all things for all people. We experience pain and trauma, which can leave us feeling numb and disengaged. No amount of privilege makes anyone immune from trauma, but every person has a responsibility to explore themselves, so they understand how that trauma can come out as harm toward others.

I have deep-rooted faith in humans and believe we have an intrinsic desire to do good. This desire can be suppressed by our own experiences with pain as well as generational trauma. Because many of us live in constant survival mode, it’s possible our complicity is unintentional and unknowing. I’m of the mindset that most people don’t wake up in the morning intending to bring malice to others. If I believed otherwise, I would not be able to do the work that I do.

It is important to remember the following about complicity:

  • Silence is complicity.
  • Intentionally staying uninformed about the events of the world is complicity.
  • Not reflecting on how you show up in the world in relation to others and taking up space without understanding the impact is complicity.
  • These are some broad ways people “check out” and work to avoid their own discomfort.
  • Putting your comfort over someone else’s safety is complicity.

I engage in this work to shine a light on complicity with the hope that others will feel compelled to speak up and speak out in order to challenge it. Unintentionally upholding systems of oppression is not a free pass. Ignorance is not a defense, and once you learn what you may not have known before, your behavior should change. You can’t unknow the information. Instead, each person is tasked with choosing how they will use the new information to create positive change.

Disrupting your own complicity is the first step in the process toward breaking down deeply embedded systems and issues like White supremacy, sexual violence, cyberbullying, gentrification, cisnormativity, and climate collapse. It is crucial to understand your actions and decisions do not only affect your life and the lives of those close to you, but they have a ripple effect in the world. Where you shop, what you buy, how you engage with technology, what modes of transportation you use, where you choose to live, go to school, and what art you consume are all ways social capital is used to either work to keep things status quo or work to dismantle systems of oppression. A significant step in creating change is examining how our decisions impact the world around us.

Focusing on language is underrated when it comes to disrupting your own complicity. I frequently share that I am not promoting an idea of “political correctness,” instead I ask humans to choose language that name things as what they are and widens vocabulary so it applies to more people. If we can use language that includes rather than excludes, why wouldn’t we? Dismissing the importance of language with “people are so sensitive now” or minimizing the importance of words as “political correctness” is a way to exert power and protect privilege. Change is uncomfortable, but the common good is more important than individual comfort.

I once had a person I was working with on LGTBQ inclusion say, “the LGB.., LG.., T, the whatevers,” which demonstrated to me they did not find this community of people important enough to take the time to learn something new. And if learning a new sequence of letters was not important to them, then my safety as a LGBTQ-identified person was certainly too time consuming and uncomfortable for them to learn more about. One could say I made a lot of assumptions about this individual based on one misstep, and I might not disagree; but, what people don’t understand is that in order to stay safe as a member of an oppressed group, anything signaling non-acceptance of a particular identity signals a potential lack of safety–even the misuse of language.

Disrupting the ways in which you and your communities are complicit in systems is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be over-complicated. It takes time to educate, unsocialize, and learn new ways of being, it takes mental and emotional labor, and it’s uncomfortable; but, if incrementally, you can take steps toward challenging the status quo, you will realize that serving the greater good has a more positive impact on you than staying comfortable.

*From Cambridge English Dictionary