I just read yet another blog post by a straight white cisgendered male (SWCM) that goes on at length about how SWCMs need to “shut up and listen.”
To paraphrase Ed Lin, “c’mon white people!”
Now, I don’t read much sci-fi so I don’t know much about John Scalzi, and so this isn’t about his intellect or the quality of his writing which I’m sure are considerable. But I did notice that his post is chock-full of stuff allies like me like to read and write:
- Getting cookies. Since we’re enlightened enough to know that nobody’s going to give us any cookies for exemplary service as an ally, we use posts like these to bake them for ourselves.
- Hogging the mike. Scalzi makes no effort to lend a voice in support of the people who lack his privilege. There’s not a single mention of a book or website or blog entry by, say, a woman of color or anyone queer.
- Dipping a toe into the oppression olympics kiddie pool. Scalzi mentions that he grew up poor. Perhaps to underscore that he really “gets it” and maybe to dull the sharp edge of his own privilege just a little. If we try hard enough, we can all come up with a disability or disadvantage that we can use to demonstrate our understanding of intersectionality.
- Receiving applause. The comments feature a parade of SWCMs who chime in at length about how they get it too.
- Maintaining control. In the comments, his degree of “getting it” gives him a higher ground from which to wield his mighty discussion-ending hammer, like when someone has the nerve to point out that ‘the people yelling the loudest to “shut up and listen” are some of the most in need to practice it.’
Now, just because John Scalzi is a privileged SWCM like me, that doesn’t make him a bad person. But as friends of mine know, one of my mantras is that “everyone wants to be the hero in their own story.”
When we SWCMs are forced to confront our own privilege, one story we tell ourselves is that by educating other similarly privileged people we are fighting oppression. When in reality we have done nothing to save the life of a trans woman, or find a job for a person of color, or get an equal wage for a woman, or enact marriage equality for a gay couple, or keep an immigrant family together, or provide affordable health care to anyone, or give even a token of attention to any person who might actually have lived the experience of oppression we so eloquently and grandly denounce.
Oh, I know it’s supposed to be a good thing for us SWCMs to “get it” and to have a privileged space in which to talk with other privileged people about our Privileged People’s Problems. And yet every time I read one of these self-congratulatory “I get it” pieces (which I confess I’ve written as well) I want to gouge my eyes out with an icepick.
Updated: It’s one thing to say “my sandbox, my rules” but if you’re trying to position yourself as an ally who listens to marginalized people, then deleting the comment of someone with an icon that sure looks like a woman of color and identifies as a “Black, Jewish, Queer, Fat, Disabled Chick” is doing it wrong. At the very least it deserves a click on the gravatar. Also, I suggest perusing Derailing for Dummies. The section You’ve Lost Your Temper So I Don’t Have To Listen To You Anymore seems particularly appropriate.
It’s been about ten years since my awareness of my privilege has been safely hidden behind a curtain of “I don’t see races, I just see people.” I had never heard the term white translator, unpacking was something you did on a camping trip, and allies were those other countries that helped the U.S. win World War II.
Then, as part of my ongoing training as a Unitarian Universalist youth advisor, I learned the definition of “privilege” during an anti-oppression workshop.
One of the exercises was to take seven different index cards, and write down on each card how I identified according to seven different axes: Race or Ethnicity, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Age, Ability or Disability, Class, and Religion.
Once that was done, I was to separate the cards into three piles. Into the first pile went the identities that made me feel privileged or advantaged in society. The second pile was for my unprivileged or oppressed identities. And the third pile was for cases where I was unsure or where it depended on the situation.
My stacks ended up looking like this:
|Ability or Disability||Currently Able|
|Class||Educated Middle Class|
My first reaction was shock. Not wanting to feel so alone (marginalized!) I looked around a room of about fifty people, but could see maybe two who I thought might have arranged the cards the way I did.
Faced with the dissonance between the person I thought I was — liberal, egalitarian, kind — and my position as a member of the most privileged of the privileged, I think my second reaction was predictable. Full denial. Don’t I have some kind of disability? I mean, doesn’t my height make it hard to fit into an airline seat comfortably? I’m pretty darned nearsighted. My Asperger’s has mainly been an advantage only in terms of school and work. My religion has made it uncomfortable when I’ve had to work among right-wing Christians.
I didn’t succeed in fooling myself for long. Being able to ride airplanes, having had access to health care, an education and a job — no matter how I tried to spin it, these identities meant I’d had advantages pretty much across the board.
So now what? I did finally realize that sitting around feeling bad about all my privilege wasn’t going to help anyone. What I needed to do was use that privilege against the very system that institutionalized the oppression that gave it to me in the first place. In other words, be an ally. The problem is, you can’t really proclaim yourself an ally. And there’s probably nothing so annoying than the cookie-seeking behavior of a privileged person looking for an oppressed person to be an ally to.
But probably the biggest problem with being an ally is that (surprise) it isn’t easy to break habits formed by a lifetime of privileged behavior. Like when hearing that a white friend had behaved in a dismissive sexist and racist manner, I started trying to explain that he’s an equal-opportunity asshole, but really a nice guy deep down. For all I’d learned, it still hadn’t sunk in that
- I had to stop trying to explain away the lived experiences of oppressed people.
- I couldn’t count among my friends people who refused to acknowledge or address their own isms.
- I wasn’t going to get any pats on the head for doing the right thing.
I think this last one is the toughest for me. After all, if I’m giving something up, shouldn’t I be getting something in return? The answer, of course is: NO, STUPID. Because what I’m giving up is something I never earned.
So, how to stay motivated? For a while, it seemed to make sense to find other white people doing similar work and share my experiences with them: white caucusing. But this really doesn’t work for me. For one thing, I’m rather misanthropic as it is, and don’t need more reasons to spend time with people. And it takes a lot of energy to keep such meetings from turning into the ally olympic competition.
Of course, there are some rewards. There are the relationships that wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t started down this route. And I don’t have the discomfort I used to feel when I find myself in situations surrounded by people of color.
But nobody owes me anything for this. It’s the right thing for me to do. Like eating oatmeal. And if I need motivation to continue, well… I’ll just have to learn to pat my own damn head.