This Article is For You
This article is for you. I don’t care who you voted for in the US election. I don’t care if you voted at all or even if you’re American. Like it or not, race and oppression are part of a global conversation. Many white progressives thought that we’d settled these questions. Racism bad, sexism bad, pass me a latte.
I don’t think people of colour or transgender people or women thought these questions were settled, but white progressives are waking up to what marginalized people have been saying for awhile now. We’re waking up. Thanks for joining us. We need to talk. And I don’t care whether you feel like “white progressive” describes you or not. This conversation is for everyone, so hear me out.
Does Oppression Really Exist?
Lots of people think it’s overblown, if it exists at all. So ask yourself, do you believe that some people are just born with a raw deal because of who they are? If the answer is “no; we’re all born equal”, I want you to ask a second question. How do you know this? Really. I mean, deep in your heart, how do you know?
I grew up white and went to middle class schools with lots of racial, if not economic, diversity. When I was fifteen, one of my good friends told me she used to be called a Chink in the school yard. I had never hear this word in my life. I had to ask her what it meant. She told me it was because one of her parents was Chinese. I’d never heard the word “wop” either until I was in my twenties. Guess what? That was my privilege.
If you’ve never gotten on a bus and scanned the empty seats to find the one that is safest, beside the person who is least likely to touch you inappropriately, that has been your privilege. If you’ve never been afraid to hold hands with your soulmate while walking down the street, afraid that you might be seen or even beaten, that has been your privilege. These are your privilege blind spots and they’ve lead to a lot of misunderstandings.
Heroes and Villains
If you feel your back getting up, if you feel your defenses closing in, bear with me. I don’t believe that privilege inherently divides us into good guys and bad guys. We all exist on various sides of multiple, different privilege lines. You may be privileged in terms of race, but not in terms of gender identity. You might be full-on heterosexual, but your skin is dark enough for people to look at you suspiciously. We all have many identities and positions of privilege or non-privilege. We are not inherently heroes or villains because of these accidents of birth.
Wait, hold the phone, you say. What if I’m a white, middle-class, hetero cis-male WASP? Well, then you won the lottery. Maybe it doesn’t feel like it, though. Maybe you feel demonized and picked on whenever someone talks about privilege. Maybe you’ve been told that your personal opinions aren’t important. This isn’t true. You’re a beautiful human regardless of which lotteries you’ve won or lost.
What you need to understand is that, for generations, people who won the same lottery as you have been making the laws and writing history. Your voice matters, but we’ve heard it a LOT. We’ll hear it again but right now we’re asking, in the name of understanding, for you to work on listening. The voices are there. They always have been, but they’ve been hard to hear. So, just for awhile, please please listen.
Here’s Where Spiderman Comes In
Let’s look at these privilege lines. Whether you prefer Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire’s webbed hero, I think most people agree with this statement: “With great power comes great responsibility.” But guess what? That’s true even without great power. It’s true with run-of-the-mill, average, everyday power. We all have some power. Nearly everyone lies on the “privileged” side of at least one privilege line. Once you understand where your power lies, you know where your responsibility lies.
Let’s Talk About Sex
OK, I’m really talking about gender, but Salt N Peppa’s title is catchier. Do you believe that everyone should be equal regardless of gender? Then you’re a feminist, whether you like it or not. Here’s where I lie on the “raw deal” side of one privilege line.
I’ve noticed that the most life-changing act for many men, the one most likely to wake up their inner feminist and wipe away their gender privilege blind spots, is having a daughter. Raising a daughter will make you notice limitations that you never saw before. From the messages that girls get with the toys we create for them, to the magazines we write for them, to the jobs we accept for them, the limitations are there. But, since “have a daughter” isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish, and may not be on your to-do list at all, I’ll give you a few other places you can start.
Start with spending time with women. Ask them about how they see the world differently. NOTE: You may want to ask questions to be reassured that you, personally, are not the bad guy. You may want to bring up the subjects of inequality or sexual assault like this:
“I’ve never raped anyone. I’m not part of the problem, but what do you think about…”
“I think women are a lot better off than they think…”
“How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?”
Please don’t. Just ask about their experiences and be the kind of guy they’ll be honest with. Then listen. You’ll hear about being overlooked for work projects because they have children. You’ll hear about them covering their chests with documents when they talk to creepy male colleagues (and all the other male colleagues in the room who don’t notice or, worse, don’t speak up). You’ll hear about being groped on public transit at the age of 15, or 12. You’ll hear about stuff that’s uncomfortable, and things you would never do.
But you need to listen. That’s how you’ll understand what it is to navigate the world as a woman. That’s when you’ll start to get that rape jokes hurt. A lot.
Calling All White People
I offer the same advice to you, fellow white people. You’ve never lived in any other skin, so it’s time to ask. Again, don’t ask like this:
“I’m totally not racist, but…”
“Is it fair that someone gets a job because they are a minority?”
That’s not asking. That’s reassuring yourself that you’re one of the good guys, or baiting someone to agree with you lest they be discounted. You can reassure yourself on your own time. Ask. Then listen.
When you listen, you might hear sadness or anger or fear. You might not want to hear it, but you’re tough. You can take it. But, for the love of all that’s sacred, resist the temptation to take it personally. Believe people when they tell you how they experience life. You would expect the same courtesy from them.
Once you’ve figured out where your privileges and responsibilities lie, once you’ve listened — I mean really listened with an open heart — there’s a next step. This is where you get to talk.
Find your privilege peers (your fellow white people, men, heterosexuals, what have you) and talk to them. Help them understand. Help them ask, and help them listen. Here’s where you can process your opinions and sort out what it means to be white or cis-gendered or heterosexual. If you haven’t thought about what it means to be white, for example, that’s because you’ve had the privilege not to. With the current global situation, with divisions that are getting nastier and more blatant by the day, no one should have the privilege of ignoring the conversation any more. The stakes are too high.
So you’ve asked and listened. At this point, you might want to take action that feels more concrete. That’s fine. That’s great, in fact. But remember that the struggle for equality predates you. You’re the new kid on the block. So figure out the lay of the land first.
You are in a supporting role, here, because women, or people or colour, or whoever you’re trying to support, have been fighting this fight for a long time. Don’t jump in and tell them how they should be doing it. See tactics that you don’t like? That’s fine. Instead of telling what they’re doing wrong, go find the tactics you do support. Ask them what support they need. Trust them to answer thoughtfully.
But step one is to talk to your own groups. Help them remove their privilege blindspots. Help them ask and help them listen because trying to hear and understand is a radical action. Radical means “at the root”. Listening and understanding are at the very root of what separates us. It’s time for people on the privileged side of every oppression line to take their power, and therefore their responsibility, seriously.