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Thoughts from a Privileged Person Writing About Privilege

Friday, April 12, 2013

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Thoughts from a Privileged Person Writing About Privilege | Faith Permeating Life

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

9 comments:

  1. Yes! Focus on the message and not the messenger.

    I have also found that when people start to identify themselves as unprivileged for whatever reason, sometimes they become blind to the privileges they do have and the biases they do show.

    At worse, this blindness can cause them to engage in and justify the same bullying and discrimination that they claim to oppose.

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    1. Yes, I think it's important to understand that people do not fall into "privileged" and "unprivileged" boxes. Each person has certain privileges and lacks others.

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  2. WOW YES! So many things here I totally agree with/ have been thinking about lately.

    I've seen examples in the land of internet feminism where people get super-over-sensitive about everything and it kind of makes me scared to talk to those people- like, if I'm trying to learn and ask questions, and I use the wrong word, are they going to go all crazy and say I'm totally a terrible person and blah blah blah?

    For example, I saw one blogger writing about wanting to de-friend everyone who changed their fb pic to the red equals in support of marriage equality. This blogger was saying that the HRC supports marriage equality but hasn't been supportive of trans people and therefore HRC is terrible and SO MUCH ANGER at everyone who changed their profile pic to the HRC equals sign. And I'm thinking, "Seriously? We're trying to help here. We're showing support for gay people. We didn't know all those details about the HRC's history with trans issues."

    Also your points about fighting against a MESSAGE rather than a PERSON- this is totally something I've been thinking about and I'll probably blog about soon. It feels like on the internet it's too easy to just label people "oh this person is good, he/she blogs about cool stuff I agree with" or "this person is bad, he/she isn't on our side" and it makes me really uneasy, labeling a PERSON... And I do it too... I want to know how I can love someone and respect them, but at the same time say "These ideas you put forth are really harmful and wrong and I need to speak out against them."

    Also- feminism tends to be about institutionalized injustice- self-perpetuating systems that are in place and aren't really noticeable to people with privilege. So when someone says something kind of sexist or whatever, it could be just out of ignorance- because that's how this works, the injustice just perpetuates itself and exists in our culture without being obvious (to the privileged). So we should go easy on them- use it as a teaching moment, not "I can't believe you're such a horrible person and you hate women/ whatever group."

    But I can tell you I'm really bad at doing that. I just wish I could remind myself that a few years ago, I didn't know about any of this stuff either.

    (Wow so this is a really long comment. I should DEFINITELY blog about this. ^_^ )

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    1. The HRC example is exactly what I'm talking about -- it's like it's not enough to be pro-marriage equality, you have to be pro-marriage equality in the right way and with the right associations, as if you should only associate with organizations that have a 100% perfect record in every area. There's a difference between educating people on HRC's history (I still haven't heard a clear explanation of why exactly they are considered anti-trans or whatever) and railing against everyone who associates with the HRC in any way.

      I don't pretend to be perfect on any of these counts either, and I think it can be particularly tempting when you first dive into activism/feminism to want to point out every instance of exclusive language or evidence of privilege. But just as it's important to understand that every Christian is at a different point in their faith journey, it's necessary to recognize that no one is going to be perfect when engaging in these very difficult issues.

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    2. I did some digging on HRC, and they have indeed done some things--specifically they have organized against legislation that would protect transpeople. Out of respect for the transpeople in my life, I removed the = but didn't tell everyone else to do so. At the same time, I saw some people complaining about ALL those who support marriage equality, saying that it's biased toward a particular view of family structure.

      A couple weeks ago, everyone was joking about "Star Wars Day" (May the Fourth). One person tweeted that she thought it was insensitive to people who lisp. I mean, seriously? Some people just seem to appoint themselves as Internet Police and feel the need to monitor every. last. thing that gets said.

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  3. Everything about this. Yes. I not only blog, I write fiction as well. I've never worried too much about what I say on my blog, because I've never offended anyone other than white, straight cis men. But sometimes, I worry about what I write in my fiction. Am I, an able-bodied, straight, white, cis woman, allowed to write characters who are not those things? And if I do, have I made them *whatever* enough to satisfy people who are not those things? It's hard to navigate these waters.

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    1. Agreed. I feel like I've seen white writers attacked 1) for writing primarily white characters, 2) for attempting to write "in the voice of" another race or ethnicity by making them a main character, and 3) for writing characters of color only as secondary characters. I'm not saying that there aren't problems in the representation of people of color as it pertains to fiction as a whole, but putting an individual writer in a triple-bind where they're attacked no matter what they do is not a helpful way to solve that.

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  4. YES.

    Wow, I can't thank you enough for saying something I've wanted to say for so long! I feel so silenced by this hyperactivism. In a way it's worse than trying to talk to men in the church blogging circles about women in ministry because (to some extent) the discussion remains rational. This is just so frustrating because nothing I do will be good enough when talking about privilege. Honestly, I was actually surprised to study privilege in college to find it's not exactly what's preached through megaphones on the internet. That, like you said, there's no such thing as privileged and unprivileged. Privilege is one of the most useful ways to examine injustice but it doesn't seem like it was ever intended to cancel people's experiences from conversation. I get that privilege does mean you're experiences are different from the injustice many experience, but that shouldn't negate them. In a lot of ways I feel like this makes a box of boring white people who are privileged and a box for colored people *said intentionally* who are "cool." This is still down right racist.

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    1. Privilege is one of the most useful ways to examine injustice but it doesn't seem like it was ever intended to cancel people's experiences from conversation.
      Yes. Privilege is a framework that explains our social structures that affect individual people, but it should not be used as a shaming tool to silence people. Encouraging someone to listen to and seek to understand others' experiences is very different from telling people that their experiences are invalidated by their privilege.

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