Wednesday, 24 February 2010

If you are privileged, then you don’t understand

This piece originally appeared at Womanist Musings where Renee has very generously allowed my random musings to appear on her excellent blog

There are many things I could say about privilege – but most have them have already been said and in far more eloquent manner than I ever could. I sometimes think the “Invisible Knap Sack” series and “Privilege 101″ checklists should be required reading for the populace.

One of the things all these posts have in common is that they try to teach people how to understand privilege – understand and acknowledge it’s existence, which is vital.

But I’m going to address a different element of privilege:

Being privileged makes you ignorant. Not only does it make you ignorant – it makes you IRREVERSIBLY ignorant. When you are privileged, there are some things you simply cannot understand – no matter how much research, how much effort and how much work you put into this. The mere presence of privilege makes it impossible to understand some of the aspects of marginalisation. No matter how much of an ally you are – it doesn’t mean you are not privileged and it certainly doesn’t mean you are immune to privileged ignorance.

Recently there was a statistic (isn’t there always?) saying that 36% of people in the UK think homosexuality is wrong (which you then have to factor in to “36% of people in the UK are willing to ADMIT they think homosexuality is wrong.”) It was another depressing statistic in a long line of depressing (and likely meaningless, skewed and inaccurate) statistics, but it came back to me while I was in town doing some emergency lunch break shopping (because, y’know writing milk down on the shopping list when you empty the bottle is apparently such a challenging and taxing task – but I digress) and it hit me that I was surrounded by scores of people, nearly all of which would be straight. And I thought “a third of the people around you think your love, you life, your very being is wrong.”

And I was scared. I had a moment of panic. I checked my reflection in a nearby shop window to see if I had somehow sprouted rainbows or some other clear sign of gayness, tucked my hair into my jacket and hurried back to the office to come to my senses – and to wallow in shame at succumbing to the instinct to hide yet again.

I discussed this with my friend, a straight ally. And he told me how foolish I was and how silly gay people were to hide. He told me at great length how he thought homophobia would end tomorrow if all closeted gay people were to come out and reminded me repeatedly that I had sworn not to hide anymore and how stupid it was to be scared all the time.

Basically, a classic case of privilege blinkers, even from someone who tries to be an ally. He knows that gay people are attacked and abused, but he’s never lived it, he’s never been attacked, he’s never known the fear. He doesn’t understand the need to be on guard or what it’s like to be so very careful all the damn time. He has heard of, but doesn’t understand the risks and personal costs of coming out.

In another incident, I was discussing various marginalisations and was told, “you’re ok, gay people can hide.” In one simple sentence, the whole destructive and toxic element of the closet was glossed over and ignored – even lauded as a good thing. The endless lies and acting, the repression and self-hate, the legacy of trying to “change” gays were all happily brushed away.

And, going back to my university days, where our local GBLT society was overrun by well meaning but almost comically clueless straight “allies.” They spent an unbelievable amount of time lobbying the university to move our discreet, relatively out of the way office, to a larger more prominent location – all the while the actual GBLT people were saying “some of us are closeted. Some of us need the privacy, some of us appreciate the discretion.” but they didn’t listen – they were too busy telling us what we wanted. They were all allies, people I’d call allies (well, maybe not the university gang. But they tried to be) they all spent a lot of time trying to reach out to GBLT people; however, they still didn’t understand

So what does this mean?

Aye I actually have a point – not just rambling away (though I do so like a ramble). My point is that this ignorance is important and no matter how much of a friend you are, how intense an ally or how hard you try – that ignorance will remain. And that’s not a bad thing, but it means that you will always be an outsider and never truly get it

This means that you don’t know better than we do about what does and does not offend us – or what should or should not offend us. Sure, marginalised people can make mistakes – but they’re more likely to be right than privileged people.

That means that if a marginalised person is hurt or angry or sad by prejudice – and even if you don’t know why – they probably have a reason. Belittling, questioning or demeaning or minimising their hurt is not ok – and certainly unworthy of an ally. Questioning their reaction is unfair, demanding they act or react a different way is grossly wrong. You do not know the cost. You do not understand how difficult it is, the courage it takes.

That means that you have to tread hellaciously carefully if you have a criticism of the marginalised community as a whole (and, y’know, probably better not to. Because you’re in severe danger of sweeping statements there) or their fight for rights in particular. No-one needs to hear what a white person thinks all black people need to do. No-one is particularly eager to hear what a straight person thinks gays are doing wrong. That doesn’t mean there can’t be legitimate criticism – but there’s a very very good chance that you are stomping big ignorant boots all over someone’s sore spots.

That means don’t tell them what they need or want (or should need or want). They know.

Hmmm, this is longer than I expected (and didn’t include nearly as many digs about Beloved not putting milk on the shopping list as I intended. Which he didn’t. And ruined my coffee) but ultimately it comes back to the first rule of allydom:

Listen more than you talk and follow, do not lead.