I’m writing this on the heels of the latest internet debacle involving women and allies vs clueless and insensitive men. I’m not going to spend any time on that. Instead it resurfaced a lot of my ideas about how this cycle continues to play out. I’m not going to do this topic justice here, and I’m not sure I really have a thrust for this post. But I need to get some thoughts out.
There are many topics we could drill down to. The first question I have in my head is how do you get good at making people aware of their privilege? Privileged groups are many and varied. But when it comes to big, societal problems such as sexism or racism, owning up to that privilege is an incredibly hard thing for a person to unpack. Understanding privilege, and then understanding the harm it can do, and then learning to recognize it is something that takes a long time and is very difficult for even those of us on the receiving end. For a person to then be expected to come to grips with their own part in the system is a tall order. But that is what is expected. Just because we admit that a thing is hard, doesn’t excuse people of privilege from our responsibility to grapple with it.
But when women or minorities recognize privileged behavior, what exactly should our focus be? When you awaken to the ways in which discrimination and prejudice constantly affects you and those around you, you can’t help but be hurt, frustrated, and angry. It’s easy to lash out at individuals or generalized groups. It’s easy to convince yourself that they “should know better”. We often use incredulous statements like “this still happens in 2013?!”, as though we expect to reach a point where people will stop being affected by bias and social conditioning. I fall into this trap sometimes, but I’m trying to get out of it.
Our responsibility is to educate, and to agitate for justice. As many times as it takes and for as long as we can stomach it. We will fail, we will get discouraged, we will sometimes give up. We are human, and none of us can bear up under the weight of oppression indefinitely. But the need for that work is unlikely to end soon. That’s why we need more allies. The more numbers we gain, the easier it is for us to keep up the pressure.
What are the tactics of turning people into allies? This is one of the sticker issues. The response to discrimination and prejudice often come with judgment, shaming, and even personal attacks and harassment. Are these okay? Even some people who would like to call themselves allies are made really uncomfortable by seeing a bunch of angry people “gang up” on one individual. It goes against our sense of fairness. It sparks people’s empathy for that person ( I could probably do a whole post about empathy). That’s why those who are blatantly in the wrong always end up with at least a few apologists on their side.
I don’t have all the answers there. I know my personal feelings about how far I think it’s appropriate to go. I think judgment is a natural response. It’s a manifestation of the very values we are trying to promote. Judgment is how humans tell other humans that they do not approve and expect better. Nobody wants to feel like a bad person. But even without being labeled, if you are doing harm or spreading bigotry, you deserve to be called out. Sometimes people won’t be too constructive about it, and perhaps you’d like to rail against that. But the judgment is warranted.
Public shaming is harder to contend with. I see shaming as a tactic to encourage people to accept judgment. Shaming isn’t the same as condemning someone. It’s about actively creating an atmosphere where they can see that their behavior is not tolerated by those around them. I think it can be a really useful tactic if the person under scrutiny actually cares about the opinions of those around them. But unfortunately, shaming is often harmful and has the opposite effects from what was intended. Often with modern internet shaming, we are expecting a person to respond to the judgment of a bunch of strangers. Regardless of whether the person may deserve it, I don’t think this tactic has a high chance of working. We respond to people we relate to or people we respect. We want to keep their good will, so we make ourselves open to what they have to say. But when we have no existing reason to listen to someone’s accusations, then our instinct when attacked is to shut down, to defend our sense of self-worth. Especially if we haven’t first done the work of allowing honest self-reflection.
Some people might feel as though public shaming isn’t about being super effective at converting individuals. That calling out bigotry is our responsibility, whether the target responds or not. I believe this too, but there’s nuance here as well. As I said, the goal is to educate. Not just the source of the prejudice, but anyone who may be listening. There are always way more silent lurkers than there are those who participate. I’m of the opinion that those silent lurkers are usually more open. They are often silent because they are uncertain about where they stand. That uncertainty is the space where education can bloom into understanding. That is where allies are born.
Finally, there is a distinction in my mind between public shaming against discrimination or prejudice, and sharing public sympathy. The internet has done wonders for bringing like-minded people together. Sharing our interests, concerns, and troubles with others who understand and sympathize has always been therapy for humans. But this kind of community can also raises the hackles of people of privilege. For them it becomes about exclusion, reverse discrimination and a perceived hypocrisy. And they don’t respond well when told that it’s not about them at all. This is an non-constructive and unwarranted response. But it’s one we have to deal with.
It’s not easy to parse apart the benign from the antagonistic. And that’s to be expected, because we are not all the same. The people effected by discrimination and prejudice are multi-faceted. Some of us are smart and angry. Some of us are uninformed but persistent. Some of us are patient and forgiving. Some of us are also silent. We all need to find our own ways that we want to influence change. We don’t have to all agree on what those are. In fact it is impossible. And people of privilege will knowingly or unknowingly pit us against each other by treating us as homogenous. It’s important to note that we do the same to them. That’s another thing humans often can’t help doing.
This is enough of a brain dump for the day. I’ve mostly been speaking through my viewpoint as a minority and an ally of women. Next time, I’ll try hard to speak through my position as a person of privilege. I suspect it’ll be more difficult to be even-handed. But practice makes perfect.