What’s harder than trying to become aware of, and understand, your own privilege? Perhaps getting other people to do the same. From this week’s Facebooks discussions, I have learned people don’t usually like it when you:
– Ask them not to use oppressive language. They’d prefer to be able to talk how they like, and use words according to the associations they give them, no matter how other people perceive them. I learned this by pointing out to some fellow able-bodied people that some words they were using could be construed as ableist. It turned out that we couldn’t agree on one of the words and its meaning, and since we didn’t know for sure it was ableist they didn’t really want to give it up. Some said they could stop doing it in the Facebook group we were discussing in, and some didn’t “really use it anyway”. But we did spend a lot of time arguing over the true meaning of the word, even if I told them everyone I know perceive the word as a derogative term for people with developmental disabilities (which was a slight exaggeration, but love and war and all that…). So you know, even if they didn’t, there was guaranteed to be people out there who did. Which I think should have settled the debate except people are people. God, we’re so people.
– Tell them not to try to define other people’s discrimination and oppression and/or dismiss their experiences of said oppression. A woman in the same Facebook group posted this fantastic, funny, angry, sad piece she’d written about the double oppression of being an Asian woman in Sweden. About the types of racism and sexism she is exposed to on a regular basis. She directed the text at white middle class feminists who don’t care about her struggle as a WOC (woman of color), and whose feminism doesn’t include her, criticizing them. And of course the white feminists responded by questioning whether this was truly a unique type of sexism – “sexism is sexism” – and if, for example, being sexualized and harassed by strangers is worse for an Asian woman than for a white woman. Some said of course it’s awful being subjected to both racism and sexism, but that doesn’t mean that the sexism isn’t the same as the sexism us white women live with. And that she shouldn’t dismiss our experiences of sexism. Et cetera. There were lots of great comments too, and some of the offended white feminists had both clever and dumb things to say… One even changed her mind after one of my rants directed to her (yay!). But it still bothers me how many people disagreed or kept discussing these, to me very basic and obvious, things that I said:
1. You and I are white. We cannot possibly know what it’s like for [the girl who wrote the text], so we can’t discuss whether her experience of oppression is legitimate or not.
2. Our hurt feelings over anger or possibly misdirected criticism should never be allowed to overshadow stories and messages of oppression, and our similar experiences (like white women’s experiences of being harassed) shouldn’t be used to dismiss them.
3. We should listen to WOC themselves, and base our view of their experiences on their own stories, not ours or our own personal brought-to-you-by-the-head-of-a-privileged-white-woman ideas of what sexism looks and feels like for everyone (else).
A lot of this seems so simple to me. Then I remember it wasn’t so long ago my mind was almost completely preoccupied with the problems of people with the same types of privilege as me – even if I discussed racism once in a while – and I feel I should get off my high horse. But then again, what’s the point if you can’t be upset by people who are acting as obstacles to dismantling structures of oppression? One of my greatest fears is to be criticized for being oppressive. To have someone be (rightfully) angry at me. But I also know that anger is both legitimate and healthy. It serves a purpose. So I’m going to continue being annoyed and upset and hope/fear that people are annoyed and upset with me when I’m being an obstacle to progress, or acting badly. If that means looong Facebook discussions that make my head and eyes hurt, and the occasional feeling of guilt, then that’s the life I’ll have.
A really frustrating, stimulating, difficult, interesting life full of confrontation and people challenging me to be and do better.
ps. If I use any ill-fitting words or expressions in this blog post or others, I urge any reader who notices this to tell me. Apart from me talking about someone else’s oppression and discrimination, I’m new to discussions on some of the subjects I bring up. I try to look at how other people have described them before me, but I’ll probably make a lot of mistakes before I learn (and then when I think I’m “finished” I’ll find even more ways to screw up, because that’s how it works).