Thoughts from a Privileged Person Writing About Privilege
Friday, April 12, 2013Tweet
As someone who writes often about issues of privilege, discrimination, and minority groups, and who is herself a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied female, I run into a multifaceted dilemma about what I should and should not say and do.
Here are the reflections I find myself having.
If I were to "write what I know" -- that is, write for and about other white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and otherwise privileged individuals -- I could, perhaps rightly, be accused of ignoring the realities of those who are different and less privileged than myself in a variety of areas. I could be skewered for the fact that I have the luxury of not writing about things like heteronormativity because it does not directly impact my life, and thus I can "stay in my bubble" and ignore the difficulties faced by others who have less privilege in one way or another.
So, instead, I try to be inclusive and write about and for a wide variety of people, and to use my platform (such as it is) to tackle issues of privilege and discrimination. Yet in doing so, I run the risk of putting my foot in my mouth, of being accused of attempting to speak for a group of which I am not a part and therefore cannot truly understand. As much as I might try to be accurate in what I say, I could rightly be told that I will never actually know what it's like to be Asian or transgender or blind from birth, and therefore my attempts to speak about such groups are hopelessly tainted by my privileged viewpoint.
Of course, one solution would be to solicit feedback from one or two people within my network who do belong to the group about whom I am speaking. Then, though, I could be said to be making the mistake that privileged people often make (so I am told) of asking a person to speak for an entire minority group. In other words, when I speak, people recognize my viewpoints as those of an individual and not of "all white people" or "all straight people," but someone who is black or gay might be asked what "black people think" or "gay people think" about something. It would feel too much like this to go to a person and say, "Hey, you are disabled, tell me how this piece comes across to disabled people."
I could instead solicit feedback from a wide variety of people belonging to a particular minority group, but this starts to sound like an in-depth research project, which 1) is too much work to do for every blog post and 2) circles back to an earlier question, asking, "Am I even a legitimate person to carry out such research, or is it better to come from someone within this particular group?"
Even in situations where I'm not writing about privilege, discrimination, and the like, I try to be inclusive in my language but fear that I will never be inclusive enough. Will I offend a trans person if I mention "women" and don't clarify that I mean everyone who identifies as a woman and not those assigned "female" at birth? Will I offend someone who is physically disabled by an offhand remark about walking or hearing? Will I offend a genderqueer person when I say that there are Nice Girls as well as Nice Guys and don't digress to note that not everyone fits into one of two genders?
The more time I've spent in the activist/feminist blogosphere, the more I have these kinds of thoughts. I see comments like "I won't read this activist because he uses transphobic language" or "I recommend this article on privilege, except for the use of bi-gender language" or "This discussion of self-care is ableist because it doesn't apply to such-and-such people."
While I appreciate and understand the importance of inclusive language and do my very best to be mindful of it myself, I fear that there has developed a kind of impossible standard -- the "perfect activist" -- whose language is inclusive of everyone and offends no one. But I don't think such a person can actually exist. After all, as we've just discussed, the people who make up any given group are individuals, and thus there may very well be someone in that group who is offended even when most are not. And as anyone who has tried to be ultra-inclusive knows, you can end up with so many parenthetical clarifications and equivocations that your main message may be in danger of being lost.
I fear that setting up such an impossible standard may actually discourage the very conversations that need to happen about topics like privilege, discrimination, and how people with different backgrounds, abilities, and identities interact with one another. I fear that those who are just starting to become aware of their own privilege, or who may even be fledging activists broaching topics on what platforms they have, are going to be beat back by any and all of the above criticisms.
I'm not trying to argue that we should throw out the attempt to be inclusive altogether. Not at all. But I do want to suggest a few guiding principles for fostering these needed conversations while not avoiding the need for inclusion.
Be tough on problems, but gentle with people.
By all means, use your platform -- whether a blog, a Twitter account, or a newspaper column -- to explain what ableist language sounds like, to break down the problems with assuming a bi-gender society, or to educate people about their invisible privilege. But unleash that fury on the problem itself, not on an individual person who says the wrong thing. As an analogy, people who find out I'm an editor often fear that I'm going to get upset if they speak or write something without perfect grammar or spelling. But while I would gladly teach a class or write an article on the proper use of a semicolon, I would never blast an individual person for misspeaking or not writing properly. To do so would be a misuse of my own literacy privilege, particularly when I don't know whether or not the other person was ever even taught proper grammar in the first place.
Focus on the message more than the messenger.
I am a member of a less-privileged group as a woman, and this can mean that I sometimes view a man writing about gender or male privilege more critically and suspiciously than a woman writing about the same topic. But I don't think that's right. If an argument is legitimate and well-reasoned, it's legitimate and well-reasoned whether it's written by a man, a woman, or a genderqueer person. If it's faulty, it must be faulty on its own merits, not solely because of who wrote it. It would not help to further the conversation to make personal attacks, like, "You clearly don't understand this because you are a cisgender man and have no idea what it's like to be female." If there's something wrong with the piece, I should be able to explain the problem by referring to the words themselves.
Avoid labeling and writing off a person forever.
People learn, change, and grow over time. Slapping a label of "classist" or "homophobic" on a person -- as opposed to on something they wrote or said -- disallows the possibility that their language may become more inclusive over time as they learn more. And if you are tempted to judge someone for having a limited, privileged, or discriminatory viewpoint but can't point to anything they have actually said or done, then perhaps you are making assumptions about how another person sees the world because of the privilege you believe to be inherent in their position.
Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees.
There are times when a message is so exclusive and riddled with a privileged perspective as to be almost meaningless, and times when a message is so overtly offensive that it's not worth digging through for seeds of truth. But there are plenty of times where a person might not recognize how their message is privileged or potentially problematic in one way or another, yet they still have important things to say that are worth listening to. That message is not completely invalidated by the language used, and I think it's important to engage with people where they're at rather than faulting them for not being further along the path of inclusive enlightenment.
To be clear, this is directed less at people who are speaking up on their own behalf and more at activists who want to be the knights in shining armor of every single underprivileged group. I do not think it's the responsibility of any person to educate those who are more privileged (which is why I try very hard to educate myself as much as possible, and why I read so many activist-type blogs in the first place), but I don't have an issue with the person who speaks up to say, "I felt excluded by what you wrote, and this is why." I am more concerned by the overzealous desire of some to be so inclusive that they would point out all the ways in which my writing falls short of the "perfect activist" standard without stopping to address the substance of my message.
I will continue to write about issues of privilege and discrimination, even if I do imperfectly, because I think they are important topics. And I will continue to educate myself by reading perspectives different from my own. I hope that you will help me continue to learn, by engaging with the main message of what I write (whether you agree or not), by giving me grace for the things I say imperfectly, and by speaking out and sharing your own perspective on your platforms.
Your thoughts on this topic are welcome!
Related reading: Grace for the privileged too? by Rachel Held Evans