And by that, I mean: How to Talk to Someone Who is Marginalized About Marginalization, Especially When You Think They Are Contributing To It*
You’re having a conversation about social justice and equity, and a person who may be a member of an underrepresented group pipes up and says something that your social justice education has taught you to see as harmful to the cause. What do you do?
Let me start by saying, this is not simply a hypothetical. I was inspired to write these rules down after watching a series of Facebook fails that included, for example, a Black man telling off someone who turned out to be a Black woman and accusing her of not understanding the Black experience. In another example, a bunch of white people told a Latino guy that he didn’t understand racism and marginalization. The people involved in these conversations were all scientists, so I wrote up what essentially amounts to an algorithm because I thought they might respond well to that.
First things first: it’s a good idea to google someone before you seriously call them out for an infraction against a community. For example, my Facebook profile picture is not of me, and my appearance can be confusing for people trying to categorize me. You might think my name helps, but people often grab the wrong information from it. My name includes Hsu — by marriage. I am not actually Asian American. Prescod is of English origin, which is not a particularly helpful racial identifier. People often assume that Weinstein is my married name (usually a racist assumption), but it’s not, and I am in fact ethnically Jewish. My husband’s last name is Taiwanese. He’s also Jewish, by conversion not ethnicity. You can’t guess that from his name. I am Black, but you can’t guess that from my name either.
So, if you can, do not assume you know anything about the person’s identity based on their last name or some random profile picture. Many people of color like me have Jewish last names, many Jews have Anglo last names, many Native peoples have Spanish-sounding last names. Moreover, many people of color (POC) can be light skinned or white passing but are nonetheless POC. I think this can be particularly true for Native American people, some of whom see their Native identity as a matter of culture and citizenship, not race.
It can be deeply harmful and triggering for a POC to be told they are white and treated like they are not a member of the community(ies) that they identify with. The same goes for misgendering someone who may be trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, nonbinary or otherwise not cisgender and/or cissexed. And as we know, you never know when someone is queer. I’m married to a man. I am still super queer. And this should go without saying but there are lots of other axes where this rule applies: (dis)ability status, immigration status, religious status, etc.
Do your best to figure out who you’re talking to before you make assumptions about someone’s identity. If you’re not sure, try to stick to what they’ve said and not who you think is saying it. In discussions about race, it is fair to discuss how skin colorism and the power dynamics of lightness can affect a person’s point of view, but this is really better off as an ingroup conversation rather than coming from an outsider.
If you are aware that you are talking to someone who is marginalized along an axis that relates to the topic of discussion and you are not marginalized in that way, this is one of the times that you should consider tone policing yourself, especially if they have said something you think is messed up. Tread with caution. Why? Because the power balance between you and the other person is uneven, and it is up to you as the more powerful person to ensure that you don’t abuse that disparity.
Also be aware that sometimes marginalized people have absorbed dominant narratives and are not sympathetic to progressive views on improving things for marginalized people. It is okay to challenge someone but be aware that what other minorities have told you may not jive with their experience. We are not all one monolith, and it is -ist/-phobic to think otherwise. Sometimes we are going to disagree. Sometimes within groups we will have privilege relative to one another. For example, white Jews and Jews of color have a different experience with white supremacy. Light skinned Black people have a different experience from dark skinned Black people. Etc. It is okay to challenge people who are engaging in dominant narrative practices, but do it with care and awareness of the power dynamics at play.
Just because you are marginalized along one identity axis does not mean you understand being marginalized along another. BUT, you can and should use your own experiences with marginalization to build empathy with other marginalization experiences. That said, empathy does not include thinking that someone should police their tone just because you police yourself. Don’t project your shit onto other people ;-)
If at any point you’re not sure what you’re doing or if what you’re saying is okay, stop. There is no reason that you have to respond before you’ve had a chance to think things through and make sure you’re standing on solid ground.
1. Try to know who you are talking to before you assume that you know
2. Be mindful of the power dynamics of privilege that could be at play between you and the other person
3. Go out of your way to choose your words carefully when you’re addressing a marginalization that affects the person you are speaking to but not you
4. Be aware that minorities often disagree about minutiae as well as big things. Some minorities are more aligned with dominant narratives than progressive minority narratives.
5. It is okay to challenge someone’s views, but try to focus on facts and recognition that monolithic experiences don’t exist.
6. If at any point you’re not sure what you’re doing, STOP.
7. Don’t project your shit onto other people. This is especially important for people who are members of marginalized groups that differ from the ones under discussion.
And of course, all of the usual rules about talking to marginalized groups still apply to every conversation and none of what follows is meant to overwrite any of it. Be aware of power dynamics. Don’t join the tone police. Don’t call people aggressive. Don’t whitesplain: someone may understand the concepts at play and simply disagree with you. If you have fucked up, apologize. If you’re not sure, stop and spend some time thinking before responding. Also, it pays to give credit when credit is due. Marginalized people have to deal with people who have more power than them stealing their ideas all the time. It sucks. It’s a good contribution to let people know how much intellectual labor marginalized people do on behalf of the community. More on the usual rules later.