Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Being Better Allies

[Note: This post contains a discussion of privilege and various oppressions. It contains one specific instance of explicit misogynistic language.]

True story:

On the facebook, one of my friends, who is black, posted an article that offered suggestions for how white people could learn to talk about race. In response to this article, another of my friends, who is white, commented (to parahprase):

"I appreciate this article, but as a white person I often walk away from conversations about race feeling bad about myself. So, I think what's frustrating is that people of color don't give us anything we can actually do to fix things. So, I'm just not motivated to have these conversations about race when they just make me feel bad."

Shorter Friend: It's important for white people to deal with racism, but more important than that are white people's feelings.

True story:

On my blog, a male commenter recently expressed that he doesn't think I hate all men but he nonetheless gets a vague "feeling"
from my blog that I do "hate all men"
. He was unable to articulate aspects of my blog posts that gave him this "offended feeling" and confessed that he had "no solutions" that I could implement to help him stop feeling offended. He then suggested:

"Perhaps this is why feminism doesn't get much male support - not because we don't think women should be equals, but because of the offensive nature of the arguments."

Shorter Guy: It's important for women to be equals, but more important than that are men's feelings.

True Story:

Big discussions have been had on popular blogs and in major mainstream newspapers about how it makes some people who get paid to "defend marriage" feel badly when they are called "bigots" for opposing same-sex marriage. Some anti-equality commentators have threatened to walk away from conversations in which the "b-word" is uttered.

Shorter Anti-Equality Folks: If LGBT aren't extra nice to us, we won't even talk to them about how and why we're denying them equality.

Now, I predict that the latter part of this sentence will make some people defensive, uncomfortable, and offended, but these comments are indicators of incredible privilege.

For as much as some people criticize social justice activism's "PC Gone Too Far" culture that is supposedly based on people's feeeeeeelings, it is made abundantly clear in many conversations between the privileged and the marginalized that this criticism is a projection: The marginalized have picked up on the fact that what really needs to be prioritized in society are the feelings of people of privilege.

And, accordingly, many people of privilege not only view it as the responsibility of the marginalized to give them concrete tasks so the privileged can feel better about their privilege, but they view it as the responsibility of the marginalized to present their criticisms in a manner that will never be perceived as "offensive" to the privileged. (Hint: No matter how civilly it's framed, it's usually perceived as "offensive.")

But, unlike white people, many people of color don't have the luxury of being able to Just Walk Away From Thinking About Race. Unlike men, many women don't have the luxury of being able to Not Think About Sexism Against Women And Misogyny. Unlike heterosexual cisgender people, many QUILTBAG* people don't have the luxury of Not Thinking About Sexual and Gender Prejudice.

Unlike members of privileged classes, we can't take our balls and go home if we think people are being mean to us or playing unfairly, because walking away from conversations means that (a) the conversations won't happen or they'll only happen in an echo chamber of privilege, (b) those who hold problematic views won't re-examine those views, and (c) racism, sexism, and homobigotry are thus perpetuated.

People of relative privilege (and I include myself in this group) who are in agreement that racism, sexism, and sexual/gender prejudice are moral wrongs need to do a better job of accepting discomfort as a part of the social justice process. (Although, it is worth noting that it's questionable as to whether many "marriage defenders" have an interest in social justice or being allies to marginalized people. I have included that example nonetheless because heterosexual "marriage defenders" have the privilege of walking away from conversations about same-sex marriage that "offend" them).

Francis E. Kendall has written**:

"Allies understand that emotional safety is not a realistic expectation if we take our alliance seriously. For those with privilege, the goal is to 'become comfortable with the uncomfortable and uncomfortable with the too-comfortable' and to act to alter the too-comfortable."

To this, I would add that people who experience -isms don't have an unconditional right to engage in aggression against privileged people. We don't. It is a habitual human respose to react to aggression with further aggression, and it takes a really aware person to not react in this habitual manner.

At the same time, it has been my experience that valid, reasoned, and legitimate criticism is often received by people of privilege as an aggressive personal attack. Being told that you've just said something *clears throat* problematic is uncomfortable, awkward, and feels bad. For instance, very often, making an argument that a particular statement is sexist, is perceived as being much worse than the sexist statement itself- which is why we have to call it "problematic" instead of the more accurate descriptor of "sexist."

To some men, for instance, suggesting that a man is evidencing some entitled, privileged behavior is in the same moral category as, and therefore justifies, calling all feminists "angry menstruating bitches."

So, learning to distinguish between (a) out-of-line attacks and (b) legitimate criticism is a key skill for allies to learn. Having conversations with marginalized groups is going to be uncomfortable for people of privilege and it's going to feel like an attack on one's very being. Such conversations often imply that maybe not everything we've earned in life has been based on merit alone. They often imply that, no matter how well-intentioned we think we are, we might be a part of making somebody else's life more difficult. These conversations often imply that maybe our perspectives aren't as objective as we think they are. They can imply that maybe it's our statements that are offensive to marginalized people and their critiques of our statements that are an accurate representation of reality.

Knowing the extra burdens that people of privilege place upon the marginalized can be helpful in making the distinction between aggressive attacks and legitimate criticism. These extra burdens are (a) expecting marginalized people to be on the receiving end of aggressive -ism(s) while being sufficiently polite about bringing these -isms to light, (b) expecting marginalized people to Not Offend people of privilege when discussing privilege, even though the very act of exposing privilege, no matter how civil it is framed, feels very "aggressive" to people of privilege, and (c) expecting marginalized people to put more time and effort into making privileged people feel okay about themselves than the privileged people put in towards understanding.

Understand that, as a person of privilege, it is an act of privilege to state that you will only participate in the conversations that do not "offend" you or make you feel uncomfortable. Understand that, accordingly, those are probably not the conversations that will be embiggening to your understanding or that will provide meaningful contributions to solving the issues you claim to care about.

Feminist social justice work, in my experience, has not typically involved skipping topless and braless through the tulips hand-in-hand (that only happens occasionally). Far from being a PC-Gone-Awry-Too-Scared-To-Speak-The-Truth echo chamber that many critics claim it is, feminist social justice blogging is, in my experience, a culture of expecting more and calling people out, even those who might be allies with respect to other issues.

Social justice activism, to me, is based on the premise that people's feelings are very important, but more important than that is social justice.

*Tip of the beret: Jarred. I'm liking the QUILTBAG acronym- not only because it's a pronouncable acronym, but because it's more inclusive than LGBT.

**Tip of the beret: EDB5Fold

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