Rules Are Overrated

Heidi Carrington Heath
4 min readJun 27, 2020

White friends, can we talk for a second?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that have shaped this moment we are in. I’ve been trying to get some clarity for myself about my own complicity. I’ve also been thinking critically about the systems of power and oppression at play.

Listen y’all. I’m a rule follower. I like rules and structure. I yell at my spouse for making u-turns where they aren’t supposed to etc. It’s a standing joke in our house. I’m also a white woman who was socialized to be a peacemaker and to pacify or avoid conflict. It’s a major piece of white privilege how much we are taught that if we just follow the rules, it will all be okay. Because that’s only a message given to white folks. We learn to send an email after the meeting to say “I really appreciated what you said,” but avoid speaking up in public so as not to “rock the boat.” This is a piece of my own complicity.

And, I have been an organizer and an activist long enough to know that these qualities are part of the problem. We don’t arrive at a moment like this without a lot of people from the most privileged among us being more afraid of breaking rules than standing up for what is right. Children do not end up in literal camps on our border without a lot of good people being unwilling to break rules. See also: those who said things would never get this bad and pushed out radical voices who warned of this YEARS ago.

We don’t end up with Black and Brown trans women being murdered in record numbers and a pandemic of Black death flooding our streets without a lot of white folks claiming “trust the system.” We do not end up in a culture where looting a store front matters more than a Black life without a particular emphasis on “following the rules.” “Nice white liberalism” is complicit in this moment shaped by an ethos of working within systems and playing by the rules.

So, from one rule follower to another, it’s past time to get serious about how rules and order will not protect us. Black women in particular have been telling us this for years. This moment is about breaking the societal rules designed to keep us quiet. This is a moment for not remaining silent. Because playing by the rules, being nice, good girls, is a tool of systems of power to keep us down. It keeps us more focused on the person who breaks a window than the Black body bleeding to death in the street. It turns us against one another, instead of uniting us against the forces of oppression who harm all of us. Niceness will not protect us. The opposite in fact.

For white folks, this moment is about understanding that our perceived risk of what will happen to us if we break a rule is likely different than the actual risk. But even and especially when there is actual risk, we’ve gotta do it. Because the risk is still less to us than to so many others. Putting our bodies on the line for Black and Brown lives, for queer and trans lives, for folks on the margins and at the intersections, is what having actual skin in the game is all about. This is a moment in which there cannot be neutrality and we are going to have to get loudly disruptive. There is going to be some intensive altercation. But the call is clear. Get in the game. Stop being nice. The rules will not protect us (regardless of what our whiteness taught us).

White beloveds we’ve got to do our own work. There’s no time not to. This isn’t a time for order. It is a time for revolution. Get a caucus of trusted people in which you can examine your whiteness. Play Black women for their labor, and follow their lead. Learn to step up IN the room, and not just on the email afterwards. Put your body on the line. Donate your cash. Put a sign on your lawn, and be willing to stand by it when the neighbors give you heat. Learn to say Black Lives Matter without stumbling over the words. Read a book (but don’t stop there). Get serious about examining why it is your organization cannot retain Black and Brown folks, and how you might be part of the problem. The list goes on and on.

Audre Lorde taught us that our silence will not protect us. Trust Black Women. Be a rule breaker, and get to work.

Recommended reading: Standing Up for Racial Justice’s Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture. It’s a great tool to keep returning to in our work. https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html

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Heidi Carrington Heath

The Rev. Heidi Carrington Heath (she/her/hers) is a preacher, teacher, activist, writer, holy mischief maker, and proud queer femme.