The practice of “radical vulnerability” has made it’s way into social justice communities over the past 5 years or so, and it’s something which I first encountered on Tumblr.
The premise – as I’ve seen it applied within my social context – is that candid public disclosure of trauma and other personal struggles is a radical act that fosters transparency, connection and trust within community.
I definitely think vulnerability can be a powerful thing in a therapeutic context, and that it is necessary for intimacy and emotional connections to form – which is important when we’re talking about nurturing relationships within community. But over the past few years, there’s something that’s been bothering me about how I’ve seen the concept of “radical vulnerability” applied. I’ve been thinking about how vulnerability operates within social justice spaces – who is comfortable being vulnerable, in what ways, and to what ends? In what circumstances is vulnerability healthy or appropriate, and when is it not?
I’m not sure of the original intended application of radical vulnerability, and so I don’t want this post to be a critique of the full potential of this concept. However I do want to critique how I have often seen it used in (mostly online) social justice spaces in recent years, specifically by white middleclass women and nonbinary people.
Many women of colour such as Rudy Hamad and Sherronda J. Brown have written articles within the past year about the weaponization of white feminine emotions in interactions with Black and Brown people. While this is a phenomenon that has been discussed and theorized about for years, awareness of a racialized and gendered emotional power imbalance finally seems to be making it’s way into progressive white consciousness.
These ideas about the weight of white emotion got me thinking: does the practice of radical vulnerability necessarily facilitate open and accountable discussion, or can it be another avenue for white people to center our emotions and shield ourselves from criticism?
The first thing that strikes me about acts of self-described “radical vulnerability,” is the often public nature of these disclosures. Vulnerability is generally something that happens between individuals in a form of mutual intimacy, but in a context of a broad-reaching social media post, there is a relatively low cap to the level of intimacy or reciprocity that can be had in that context.
Because of this public nature, radical vulnerability can feed into trends of obligatory disclosure, establishing an idea that those who publicly share their trauma or difficult personal realities are inherently “radical,” and “approachable,” and those who do not are not as friendly or open, have something to hide, or must not have their own traumatic experiences. This kind of thing is what lead to the 2013 Tumblr norm of (often extensively) “listing” points of privilege and oppression on one’s profile, which of course lead to many awkward interactions where someone who hadn’t listed some aspect of their identity would be assumed to be privileged by default.
We need to talk about is how the ability to disclose personal information safely can be a mark of privilege in itself. Survivors of sexual assault, for example, are not always safe or comfortable outing themselves to others, especially publicly, and have no obligation to do so. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a survivor talked over in conversations about sexual violence, because they’d never publicly disclosed their experience, and were thus assumed not to have had such an experience.
Among the white middle-class there is often a failure to appreciate the mundanity of oppression. Because many queer or disabled white people come into our experience of oppression later in life (even if that’s childhood), it often strikes us as something jarringly abnormal. We often don’t understand that for many people, the experience of violence is so commonplace that it doesn’t elicit the kind of public indignation that middle-class white queer people often demonstrate. For many low-income and racialized people, oppression is so pervasive it could not be expressed in a post, a zine, or a slam poem. Acts of self-disclosure are not inherently liberating – for many they can be emotionally draining, triggering, or the things that could be disclosed would be seen as “too much” for social media.
People avoid vulnerability for justified reasons, and we need to remember that we never really know who someone is just by what they say – or don’t say – about themselves on the internet or in public. In order to be vulnerable, there needs to be an expectation that you will be listened to, that your experience will be honoured, and that the disclosure will not negatively impact or re-traumatize you. For many people this is not the case, or they simply just don’t feel that they would get anything positive out of such a disclosure. No one owes anyone else their trauma or their life story, and likewise, the disclosure of intimate details of one’s life is not always an inherently positive thing.
It’s important to look at what exactly is being disclosed when we’re practising public vulnerability. I can recall instances over the past few years of people “vulnerably” disclosing times they enacted racism or transmisogyny, and then refusing to engage with the criticism that resulted. If potentially critical responses are not factored into the decision to disclose, then it’s not really vulnerability, so much as it is centring ones own emotions in situations where one has caused harm, and seeking to be absolved of guilt or negative emotions through performative disclosure.
Perhaps rather than vulnerability, what is really needed at times is to develop the radical ability to receive criticism, hold space for negative emotions, self-regulate and process them privately or within our close circles, so as not to rely so heavily on public validation.
White people can also use experiences of oppression to obfuscate our whiteness and class privilege. Marielle Devereaux points out that, “some white gays believe that their status as a ‘minority’ translates to being worse off than straight people of color, which erases the experiences and oppression that people of color face.”
In social justice spaces where we are attempting to centre the voices of the most marginalized, it’s a lot easier to feel like your opinion holds weight as a neurodivergent queer person (for example) then as a middle-class white person, even if both are true. The “radically vulnerable” disclosure of an experience of oppression can, in certain contexts, be used to distance ourselves from whiteness by centring our identities along other social lines.
True vulnerability is an important part of establishing trust in relationships, and trust is essential to building community. But when it comes to the normalization of intimate public disclosure, we have to be sure that building trust and accountability is actually what we’re trying to do. While I don’t think that this practice is always necessarily harmful, it is a tool that can be used in different ways depending on the intentions of the person using it. When those who practice radical vulnerability tend to be white middle-class people, we should be critical of whether this tool is being used to build connection, or to center the emotions of the privileged.