Sunday, 29 July 2012

The difference between bad things happening and being marginalised

One of the eternal frustrations with trying to talk marginalisation with privileged people is the ignorance of what persecution actually means, what being marginalised actually means. Yes, I know, blink and step back “surely it’s obvious!?”  right? I mean, groups that are marginalised are treated horrendously in a myriad of ways for centuries – how can we not know what that means?

And yet – how many times have we seen a marginalised person described some event in their lives where prejudice has screwed them over and you have some privileged person saying “oh, yeah, that’s just like what happens to me!” And then we to resort to the marginalised serenity prayer – give me the serenity not to kill this person with axes. Increasingly it seems I am lacking in serenity, on the plus side, I have no shortage of axes.

However, axe murdering does rather stain the carpet, and putting out plastic sheeting every time is a nuisance so can we actually address what marginalisation is and why privileged people don’t face it, even if they think they do?

So, let us begin with the “that happened to me too.” Ok, but does it feed into a societal pressure and habitual victimisation? Do things like that commonly happen to people like you, for that reason? Does it reflect or build on a major societal pressure?

Because this all matters. Say tomorrow I am walking down the street, leaving my firm and someone decides that he really really hates lawyers and decides to violently attack me with my own axe. Woe, I have been attacked, due to my profession. I have been victimised. Yet, if we take exactly the same attack and change one thing – that my attacker tried to kill me for being gay instead – and we’ve got an entirely different situation.

Being attacked as a lawyer wouldn’t make me worry about it happening again. It wouldn’t make me check the news for other attacks on lawyers and feel that fear every time I see it appear. I probably wouldn’t actually see any other incidents, or very few. I wouldn’t change my behaviour or worry about how I’m acting and what I’m saying. It wouldn’t send a message to all other lawyers that they’re under threat and their lives aren’t valued. I wouldn’t walk into a room full of non-lawyers and worry about being safe. I’d be pretty sure that it wasn’t part of societal attitudes to destroy me, drive me out or render me invisible (well, except for people who’ve seen one to many of those “I’ve had an accident” Underdog adverts, but even I want to punch them. After I’ve tracked down the Go Compare opera singer anyway). There won’t be powerful forces in authority encouraging people to discriminate against me for being a lawyer, to condemn me for it and to add to a culture of violence against lawyers. I can expect the press to report on my attack, rather than ignore it, I can rely on them not demonising me for being a lawyer. I am confident that, being attacked as a lawyer, my attacker will be treated like a criminal, I will be treated as a victim, I won’t be blamed for my attack, my attacker will be sentenced appropriately, the crime against will be treated as a grave one.

And this is just a surface scratch of the differences. Even though it’s the same offence – there’s a vast difference once a marginalisation comes into play. Or, to put it another way, no, it didn’t happen to you, too. The context matters, the societal history and pressure matters. Because no crime (or other prejudiced incident) against a marginalised person happens in isolation.

Ok, so that’s the first item, now let us address a second common item of privileged whining why do they get special treatment?! Waaaah, waaah waaaah. Why is there no straight pride parade? Why are there no safe places for straight, cis, white men? And the simple answer is, of course, why do you need them? Seriously, if we created buildings, clubs, community centres, bars, whatever exclusively for the use of straight, white, cis, able bodied men – what would you do in them that you couldn’t just as easily do outside? (And, no, “being a rabid, bigoted arsehole without having to look over my shoulder” is not an answer that will earn you any points.)  The world is the privileged safe space. Every month is privileged history month. Every day is a celebration and enforcement of privileged pride and privileged power. Privileged people don’t need  specific times and places that are dedicated to them – that’s the base state of the planet.  These times and places are refuges in a world that is hostile to marginalised people, their existence isn’t proof of “preferential treatment”, their need is proof of marginalisation and the sheer hostility of the world.

And let’s move onto the third and last (not that there aren’t more, but there has to be a limit to even my wordiness), ZOMG! Anti-privilege discrimination yes, the spectres of “heterophobia”, “misandry”, “anti-white racism” and all their oh-so-lovely friends that just make me want to attack things with axes. This is very similar to our wonderful second item.

If a marginalised group is getting something that a privileged group doesn’t – then that’s normally something the privileged group doesn’t need – like safe spaces, or time to celebrate our heroes and historical figures who are ignored, or media content that doesn’t deny our existence or reduce us to tokens. This is why there are minority-based scholarships, this is why there are media and book awards just for marginalised authors. And when privileged people whine about the Lambda Awards or the Orange Prize for Fiction excludes them, they do not sound like campaigners for justice – they sound like selfish whiners who have to make absolutely everything theirs. This is why there are woman’s centres that don’t want men in and gay bars that ban Hen Parties (and, really? REALLY people?)

Alternatively it could be an off shoot of societal prejudice – which, again, privileged people look whiny for complaining about. Like the Australian Olympiad who is whining about anti-straight discrimination because gay couples can room together but straight couples can’t. No, silly straight person, what we have is typical gender segregation and a complete disregard of same-sex couples even existing (but you’ve got to love the idea that there are apparently dozens of gay Olympiads able to screw like bunnies throughout the Olympics because of the nasty heterophobic rules). But how many of these do we see? Women and children first is sexist against men – totally not a reflection of our societal habit of infantilising women, right?

And, of course, I couldn’t mention privileged people grossly misunderstanding prejudice if we didn’t mention slurs, insults and sweeping statements. Because saying something about all whiteness or straight privilege is totally as bad as speaking negatively about black people or GBLTness, right? Wrong. For two reasons: firstly, marginalised people speaking out about privileged folks are referring to an oppressive force that is actively hurting them. They are speaking from pain, from anger, from marginalisation – and against a force that all privileged people share but repeatedly deny (including an inordinate amount of people saying “but not meeeee, I’m one of the good ones!” Yes, you, you as well!) Secondly, think of it as a push. When a marginalised people pushes against the privileged, it’s a nudge. When privileged people push against us, it’s not a shove – it’s a speeding freight train slamming into us, backed by the weight and power of generations of prejudice, societal power, dehumanisation, insult, persecution, genocide and general badness.

Is it unfair? Is it unfair that the marginalised get to use words and statements that the privileged can’t without being called bigots? Well, here’s a deal, you get to say nasty things, and we get the freight train of societal power – because I’m more than happy to swap.

It’s annoying to have these conversations. It seems beyond ridiculously basic to continually explain what marginalisation actually is – but with the ridiculous idea that being marginalised is somehow cool or fun, as well as a continued muddying of what marginalisation is by a great deal of appropriators, coupled with the eternal, inordinate number of privileged people who just don’t see what privileged means, it seems we’re continually having to return to the basics.