I just read a great post on Womanist Musings that I keep mulling over in my mind. It’s about how being an ally is not an easy job, and how despite our best intentions and deep commitment to progressive politics/activism, our thoughts, statements and actions can still be colored by the colonization of our minds by the patriarchal social order. The first step to activism is consciousness, yet it can still be difficult to monitor ourselves all the time especially when you have been socialized by patriarchy that there is a lot of internalized shit that we can’t always keep track of.
For instance, I have heard friends say “I’m so gonna rape him/her one day” when they talk about someone they are attracted to. Of course they don’t mean that they are going to force penetration of any bodily orifice of that individual. They’re just throwing the word “rape” around in a way that discounts its severity and bears witness to how pervasive rape culture is, that we can just joke about raping people without thinking about what rape entails. It’s difficult to point these out to people because they may think you are getting too hung up on one word or they may just be like “gosh, I obviously didn’t mean it, and you know it.” Abusing language like this and refusing to participate in dialogue about why it’s wrong to say things like that just reinforces rape culture and gives people a green light to not deal with the true implications of their speech.
A quote from the post:
When you grow in a racist, patriarchal, homophobic, classist, sexist culture your way of thinking becomes infused with ideas that are necessarily counter to freedom and basic human respect. Even the most conscious amongst us will continually revert to patterns of behavior, thought, or speech, that are counter to our stated beliefs. Due to a constant desire to privilege our experience and our existence over another often we do not even recognize these lapses.
The last sentence really rings true to me and reminds me of people I know who are very open-minded, progressive and concerned about social justice issues who try to speak about oppression for oppressed people. How can you articulate exactly what oppression feels like for an unemployed black queer man, or a Japanese trans-woman, or a low-income, physically handicapped woman of color if you’ve never experienced it? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important for everyone to learn about the different forms of oppression and how they intersect, but you can’t be an advocate for a marginalized group if you’ve never quite experienced the oppression they’ve experienced. You can be an ally, but you can’t claim their oppression as your own if you’ve frankly never experienced it.
We can never fully understand the experiences and struggles of marginalized individuals if we ourselves have never been marginalized in the same way. The oppressed do not have many spaces where they can constructively and honestly engage in conversations about oppression with others who may be more privileged. Sometimes the experiences of the oppressed are not validated by the less oppressed unless they have statistics or academic research backing it up, which is ridiculous because what can be more validating than experiencing oppression every single day?
If you are gay or lesbian you’re an expert in heterosexist culture and how it marginalizes the various sexualities because for the entirety of your existence you have had to negotiate it to be able to survive. If you are of colour you are an expert on white privilege and racism because for the entirety of you life you have been assaulted by it. If you are differently abled you are an expert on abelism because for the entirety of your experience you have been denied access by others, or told to capitulate and remove yourself from any and all social actions. The oppressed are experts because we live it every damn day of our lives.
It is insulting and infuriating to continually have to repeat the basics to others because they refuse to see beyond their experience to validate the life of another. If your first response is what about me, there is clearly something that you are missing. Not every conversation needs to focus on the socially dominate bodies. To demand that the few spaces that are dedicated to fighting oppression continually regurgitate 101 basics stunts conversations and amounts to the tyranny of the majority. If you are a privileged body most of what you will see, read, and hear is already dedicated to you. From mainstream media to every other agent of socialization the message is clear; unless you are necessarily white, cisgender, male, and heterosexual your life is inconsequential. (Bold emphasis mine.)
For me, the bold parts of the quote are right on point and are the answer to all the “Why isn’t there Men’s Studies if there is Women’s Studies?” or “Why isn’t there Heterosexual Studies if there is Queer Studies?” or “Why isn’t there White Studies if there are all these cultural studies?” questions I’ve heard over the years. It frustrates me because I’ve had wealthy, straight, white males ask me why there’s no space for them and I just want to scream UM, IT’S CALLED THE WORLD!
It is definitely legitimate to understand privilege (especially white, heterosexual, upper-middle / upper class male privilege since that is at the top of the patriarchal hierarchy) and how that enfranchises a small portion of the population while disenfranchising the others, but at the same time since mainstream society favors such a small fraction of society it’s necessary that the marginalized groups can carve out a space for themselves where their oppression is recognized and validated. When you’re up against a rigidly patriarchal society, you need these arenas and tools in order to educate and enact social change.