It’s time to write another of these posts wherein I open myself up for harassment and harm. It’s important for me to speak up, though, because I’m seeing lots of people (especially marginalized people) getting hurt. If you’re one of those people and you’re too afraid to speak up for fear of getting hurt even worse, please know that you are welcome to DM me.
My mother was a Montessori teacher for 32 years. As you can imagine, she has a valuable stockpile of anecdotes about what kids do and say. For instance, one time a little girl came running up and threw herself into my mom’s arms. “Josiah told me he hates me and never wants to play with me again!”
My mom, who had witnessed the whole interaction, patted the little girl’s back. “He didn’t say that, Queidlynne. He said he’s working on a project right now.”
Queidlynne stomped, wiping her snotty nose on my mom’s shoulder. “In my head he did!”
This has become a catchphrase in my family. Every time one of us wrongly interprets someone’s intent and accuses them of things they didn’t do, we catch ourselves and laugh. “In my head you did!”
If Queidlynne (thankfully, not her real name) had asked Josiah if he really did hate her and didn’t want to play, he probably would have said, “No, I don’t hate you. I’ll play with you when I’m done with this project.” He also might have said something snotty, or ignored her, but at that point she at least would have been sure of his intent, and have had a real reason to be upset. As it was, though, she didn’t have good reason. Queidlynne’s feelings were real, and my mom did the right thing by listening to her, comforting her, and talking to her about it. However, those feelings had no basis in reality.
Even if Quidlynne had experienced rejection from other little boys, it wouldn’t mean that Josiah was rejecting her this time. Just like other people can have hidden bias against you, you can paint them with the colors of your past experience and assume they are just as bad as all the others.
I’m seeing this sort of situation play out so often lately- but with adults, in the sphere of progressive activism. There’s a lot of emotion flying around, and a lot of collateral damage from it. People-good people, and quite often marginalized people-are getting hurt, because someone misinterprets something they say and then doesn’t care to listen to the explanation. An offhand and perhaps ill-worded comment, or unpopular but harmless opinion, can cause an explosion of anger and bile that blows a permanent rift in the community.
I’m also seeing a lot of folks excluded from marginalized communities, or from the marginalized umbrella, for not being “marginalized enough” in the first place. Y’all…just…jeez, ok?
Communities of marginalized people have existed, I’m sure, since the beginning of humankind. People who, for one reason or another, are outcast from mainstream society gather together for comfort and protection. Marginalized folks often rely heavily on these groups for companionship, support, and validation. They are a lifeline to us.
However, there’s an alarming trend of people in marginalized groups trying to exclude people and police membership requirements. Since the whole purpose of these groups was to give marginalized people a place where they belonged, it’s devastating when that group turns around and tells them they don’t belong there, either.
It’s true that people can be mega fucked up, and there are those who will lie about their identity in order to troll and prey on disadvantaged people. But those are an incredibly small percentage. Until the person has clearly shown their intent by causing (or trying to cause) real harm, YOU are the one who is causing real harm by attempting to exclude them. It’s like Trumpty Dumpty and his Muslim ban (and edicts against other residents/immigrants): until the potential immigrant has shown they’re a “bad hombre” (which would likely become apparent through the exhaustive vetting process which is already in place), the only real effect of a ban is to exclude a group which is composed almost entirely of good hombres (y mujeres).
We need to be more welcoming of each other, accepting of each other’s differences, and tolerant of the wide array of perfectly valid opinions that exist in any marginalized community. Discussion and debate is fine. But insulting someone and even questioning their identity…that’s what bigots do to us. That’s the sort of behavior we’re fighting against.
The umbrella of “marginalized people” covers a lot of different sorts of folks, and we all have different experiences of oppression. We all belong to specific subgroups (and subgroups within THOSE subgroups), but the umbrella of “marginalized people” is meant to cover us all. The entire purpose of calling ourselves “marginalized people” is to be inclusive, and to give oppressed people a place where they belong.
There are many who would seek to own that entire umbrella, and try to leave the rest of us out in the rain—or at least huddled on the fringes, drenched in the runoff. They are the people who say, in one way or another, “You can’t possibly understand what REAL oppression is like, because you don’t belong to X subgroup.” We can all hopefully spot the sickening irony in that statement: that the one speaking similarly has no way of knowing what the other person’s experience in Y subgroup is like, either. I have also, horrifyingly, seen people try to exclude others in their own subgroup. If someone doesn’t agree with them on an issue, they attack them for “not being X enough” or “not doing X right”….and then they often turn around and say the other person is the one being oppressive.
Maybe in their head the person who doesn’t agree with them is being oppressive, but in the real world THEY are the one who is excluding the other person, centering themself in the other person’s experience, talking over them, and erasing their feelings. They’re saying very clearly, “I don’t want to be in the same group with the likes of you.” They’re, in fact, doing what non-marginalized people do to us. Furthermore, they’re gaslighting, and they’re forcing the other person to join in the Oppression Olympics by making them justify their right to have an opinion by pointing out all the ways in which they themselves are marginalized. (And then often, are forced to endure being told “you’re really trying to be oppressed, aren’t you?” and “stop playing the marginalization card” and “stop using your marginalization as a shield”, a tactic which is also flaunted so disgustingly by Tronald Dump, who does something, then tries to divert attention from the fact he’s done it by accusing everyone else of doing it. So yeah…those people are in great company, right?)
But no one owns that umbrella, and we shouldn’t try to. We should be happy to share it with others who need it, because doing so doesn’t decrease the amount of space available for us. It’s a super-special sparkly magical umbrella that gets bigger and more effective the more people it covers. All of us have a right to stand under it, and an equal right to speak up as a marginalized person. This applies to other inclusive groups (like Own Voices) or inclusive subgroups (like disabled people), as well. None of us owns the experience. All our experiences are valid, and letting all our voices be heard can only add to the conversation.
If I am speaking as a marginalized person in general, I am not attempting to speak for you, or as a member of your subgroup. It doesn’t matter if you think you are MORE oppressed than I am, or that I don’t understand your experience (of course I don’t, and I’m not trying to say I am). I am a marginalized person, and therefore I have a right to speak as one. Period.
It doesn’t even matter if I name another subgroup and say something like, “I have seen people saying this is happening to X community, and now it is happening to my community as well.” No part of that sort of statement is me trying to speak up as a member of X community. It is me trying to give people context for what is happening to MY community, by using another situation that people are more familiar with. It is also my attempt to point out the (very real) commonalities in our experience. I am not saying my oppression is greater than or even equal to yours: I’m just pointing out valid observations. Furthermore, I’m not causing you any real harm by doing so. Maybe in your head I am, but in reality, YOU are the one causing ME (and others in my group) harm by saying, “People like you are not worthy to be in the same paragraph as me.” That message is damaging not only to mental health, but to public perceptions of that group of marginalized people. It results in erasure of that group’s experience. It’s an attempt to say that group is “whining” or “faking” or “being a snowflake”. It deepens that group’s oppression, which is supposedly the thing we’re all fighting against.
If it does rub you the wrong way if I mention someone from your group while speaking about my own experience as a marginalized person, take a good look at yourself and ask yourself why you feel that way. As the person causing real, immediate harm, the onus is on you to examine yourself and your motives. Do you have a bias against my group, and you think it’s just gross to stand next to us? Do you think you completely understand our experience and can judge that we’re not really marginalized, we’re just making it up? Or is it, more forgivably, just a misunderstanding—you think I’m trying to speak for your group specifically instead of exploring and pointing out commonalities across the spectrum of the marginalized experience as a whole?
If you think that someone is mistaken and that the commonalities don’t exist, that is definitely a matter for discussion, but if you are saying unilaterally that “you don’t experience that—that’s a thing only my group experiences”, then you’re trying to police and erase that person’s experience, and you’re wasting a very good opportunity for both of you to learn about the other.
Trying to unify a group is NEVER a harmful intent, even if it doesn’t work, or is, in your opinion, misguided. That might require discussion to hash out, but there is no discernable reason to attack a person—especially another marginalized person—whose intent was to do good. However, attempting to divide our groups, exclude people, and do real damage to people’s reputations, employment opportunities, friendships and mental health…that is true harm. That’s not just harm in someone’s head. And, if you are doing real harm—especially to other marginalized people—in the name of preventing hypothetical harm, you’re inarguably the real antagonist in this story.
Another irony of the Oppression Olympics is that it takes a lot of privilege to participate. You have to have the cognitive ability to follow convoluted arguments, the eloquence to respond, the social skills to respond in a way that people might listen to, the emotional stability to endure stressful and emotional situations…not to mention the time and spoons it requires to become involved in these semantic battles. In a practical sense, a lot of marginalized people don’t have the resources to respond appropriately in these situations, and when you attack them, you are taking advantage of their weaknesses—weaknesses that are part and parcel of their experience as a marginalized person—in order to further your own ends. The practical aspects of survival always have to take precedence. We have to earn money somehow, take care of ourselves (eat, bathe, go to the doctor, take our pills), etc.—which can be quite difficult for a marginalized person for a lot of reasons. When you attack them, you are displaying your own privilege in an attempt to harm someone who is already oppressed.
Harming a marginalized person is bad (really, harming any person is). No ifs, ands, or buts. It’s just bad. If you’re doing it, you’d better have a damned good reason. Ask yourself what practical benefits you’re reaping from this exercise, and what your intent was in the first place. Avoiding harm in your head isn’t a good excuse. Simply “being right” isn’t a good excuse, because how can you think you’re right in the first place if you’re harming a marginalized person? If your attempt is to educate, look at the practical results: have you educated anyone? People aren’t going to listen to someone who is insulting them, oppressing them, hurting them. If you get out the belt and severely beat a child in order to teach him not to steal cookies…yeah, maybe the kid shouldn’t be stealing cookies, but who is the one truly doing harm in that situation? Who is the one who really needs educated?
And if your excuse is that you really do have it worse than the other person, ask yourself how you can possibly know that if you have no experience with their situation, and why it’s so important that you prove it in the first place?
If your excuse is that these seemingly-benign comments or opinions display “passive-aggressive bias” and “hidden prejudice”,you may be right. But frankly, I’ve always found those types of bias reveal themselves in their gross, naked glory if you take the time to scratch off the veneer and see the driving force behind the words. There’s no need to guess. We don’t always have the energy or spoons or ability otherwise to take that time to figure it out, it’s true. But if we don’t, why should we waste the time/energy/spoons we supposedly have a dearth of by being angry at a person who possibly meant no harm, and who caused you no harm except in your head?
And I’m not trying to stray off into “not all X people” territory, I’m just stating something that I, as a marginalized person, have (because of past experience) made incorrect assumptions about a person’s bias more than once, to my (and the other person’s) detriment.
And yes, even if someone isn’t personally displaying bias, they’re still part of the system of bias, which definitely bears thought and scrutiny, but if you attack someone for this you usually get locked in an intellectual battle which rarely has any practical benefit. For instance, if you start screaming at me about how capitalism is my fault because I’m part of the system, that conversation is going to go badly (and not just because I’m less a part of that system than most). So, unless it was I who jumped into your conversation about socialism and said “not all capitalists are bad”, just leave me the fuck out of it. I can only answer for my own actions. That’s all any of us can answer for.
If we’re really going to change the systems of oppression, we have to not model them.
Intent does matter…and practical outcomes matter even more. So if the practical outcome of your behavior is hurting marginalized people, alienating them from their communities, and deepening their oppression, you’re not doing good in the world.
The Oppression Olympics are a sick game that no one can win. We all lose.
Endnote: I’m perfectly willing and even eager to discuss this post with anyone. I will clarify, and own any mistakes, ill-wordings, misinterpretations, or subtleties I may have missed. If I am flat-out wrong somewhere in your opinion, I welcome you to tell me, because that is what conversation is about, and we should always seek to have greater understanding in all things. But really, cue people reinforcing all my points by attacking me…