Reflections on Ignorance
Recently, I was at an event where transwomen were speaking about their lives and their work. During the Q&A session, some fairly terribly invasive language was used that misgendered them, and equated biology to gender. Despite having these questions be decisively answered by other audience members, cis-queer men in the room continued to use such language to badger the speakers.
At this point, a well-meaning audience member said, “Let’s cool things down. A lot of us here are ignorant and we want to learn.” While on the surface this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to say, the rhetoric of ‘educate me’ can actually be harmful and disingenuous.
It is interesting that in most circumstances, people are usually unwilling to admit their ignorance. It can be embarrassing and oftentimes an admission that people find difficult to make. To admit what you do not know requires strength and humility. The vulnerability of ignorance, and the ensuing trust you then place in the person willing and able to educate you, is an act to be celebrated.
However, in discussions of social justice, the opposite seems to happen. People seem more than eager to admit their ignorance. In fact, they seem to revel in it. What is worse though, is that they use it as a justification to demand an education from other people, people who are often already marginalized themselves.
In this case, cis-queer men kept asking questions on transitioning that were personal and invasive, and made assumptions about trans people and their bodies in a way that stripped them of their agency, and instead reinforced the gender binary. If this was painful for a cis-hetero person such as myself to listen to, I cannot even imagine how it must have felt for the trans people in the room to be discussed in such a dismissive way, made worse that these were statements made by members of a group that are supposed to be their allies.
Other people in the audience pointed out that the language used is essentialist, and answered these questions. However, that did not stop the questioners. Instead, they continued asking these questions in the exact same manner as before, and then all of it was conveniently swept under the carpet by the exclamation that they simply did not know better.
When people have already explained to you over and over again why what you are saying in unacceptable, ignorance is not a claim you get to make. Lack of knowledge and a lack of understanding are two different things. You have been given the information, and just because you are unable or unwilling to understand it, does not mean they have to continue explaining it to you.
Instead of thinking, “Hey, someone has explained this but I don’t understand it, so let me now continue asking my painful and terrible questions,” you need to think, “Hey, someone has explained this but I don’t understand it, so maybe I should learn to Google.” The onus is not on people to explain their oppression to you, it is on all of us to understand them.
Ignorance is not an excuse, and people need to stop using it as a catch-all for being unwilling to do the work themselves. Ignorance is not an excuse to hurt people. Ignorance is not an excuse to be asking invasive and painful questions that you have already been told are invasive and painful. Ignorance is not an excuse for you to act hurt and angry when marginalized people are rightfully unwilling to educate you because they are just simply tired.
It is important we understand that no one owes you an education. Marginalized people do not have to explain their oppression to you for you to treat them as human beings, or accord them their full rights as one. No one should have to prove their humanity to you. The truth is that if you cared enough about something, you will spend time and effort finding out about it.
I always tell people, if you can Google One Direction, you can Google this.
Saying we are ignorant and then sitting back smugly satisfied waiting to be taught is what oppressors do to maintain our own position and evade responsibility for our actions.
If you are actually concerned, you would take the initiative to do some research yourself instead of showing up at an oppressed group’s event demanding a list of explanations from them for things that are easily available online. When you are demanding an education, you are saying you have no obligation to them or to your own learning.
Recognize that you are demanding labour from people. Recognize how entitled you are to demand it. Recognize how privileged you are to not even understand this is labour.
People have a right to be angry. People have a right to be upset. When we have done and said things to hurt them, how can we then sit there and expect them to ever-smilingly explain things to us? What kind of entitled nonsense is that? First you hurt people, and then you expect them to explain nicely why what you have said hurts them, and then when they don’t do it to your satisfaction or full understanding, you continue to hurt them and use that as an excuse? It is cruel to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression.
And if they don’t educate you? Does that mean you will continue to treat them as less than human? You are not going to do anything about it? You will continue to abuse them and perpetuate injustice?
If you answer is “No, but…,” what you are really saying is you will only treat people better if they spend time prioritizing your education, instead of their own existence, and the right to walk away from situations where demands are being placed on them by people who already profit off their oppression.
Expecting marginalized people to disregard their own emotions to calmly educate you is the epitome of entitlement. Proudly proclaiming your own lack of knowledge while doing this is an act of aggression.
I am writing this as a cis-hetero person, and I am talking to people who are sharing any or all of these identities with me. When queer and trans people are upset at our questions, we do not have the right to continue asking them. We need to understand there is a reason they are upset, even if we do not understand those reasons themselves. We need to understand that our need for knowledge does not trump their need to be in a safe space that does not question their right to exist as they please. We need to understand that they do not exist to educate us, entertain us or serve us.
All privileged people need to take the responsibility for educating ourselves. We cannot call ourselves allies if we expect this from the very people whose oppression allows us our privilege.