Reblogged from Boldly Go.
I wanted to talk about the importance of silence in certain situations and how being silent as the member of a privileged group can be incredibly important in some situations. A couple of discussions I’ve had recently have reminded me of this and I wanted to explain why, in some situations, sharing your opinion and personal perspective as a privileged person in the context of a discussion about marginalised people is sometimes derailing and silencing. While not all marginalisations and the experiences of them are the same (and intersections of certain marginalisations can have a huge impact on your experience), I feel like a commonality in term of power relations and how they work can be drawn and I’m going to do my best to explain that here.
[Warning: There’s a .gif below. I will also warn just before it so you can skip it. Please let me know if this is unhelpful.]
One of the problematic aspects of Hermoine’s S.P.E.W. is how she constantly refused to listen to the perspective of house elves on their own freedom. She took Dobby’s story as representative of what all house elves would want and refused to listen to others.
The first thing that we must all realise is that the very nature of privilege in almost every instance is that society “others” marginalised groups. Privilege means common representations in media, positions of power, and an overall focus on certain positions within society and a silencing of others. The aspects that make up the microaggressions of many marginalised groups include feeling silenced, invisible, or that your experiences as a marginalised person are not true, not valid, or not worth consideration. Media representation plays a huge part. Studies have shown that when you are not represented within popular culture and exposed to that popular culture, lower self esteem results. Last but not least, we must realise not only for the purposes of intersectionality that, whenever we’re discussing privilege and marginalisations we are always speaking on general terms. Individual experiences may vary and indeed certain marginalisations may create radically different experiences for people when they intersect. Still, there is an importance in focusing on marginalization and privilege as general sociological concepts for the purposes of understanding power relations.
In knowing this, we have to realise that whenever we approach a dialogue, the scales are not equal. The hugest mistake privileged people make when approaching a discussion wherein they have privilege is that they assume that the stakes are equal, that all parties are capable of sharing their experience or should share their experiences and get “equal” time. What they don’t realise is that the scales are already not equal.
The perspectives and stories of privileged people are exhibited on the lefthand side, with society constantly referring to them. This is the way that the scales exist from the start in interactions.
The purpose of either sharing the voices of marginalised groups or having a group made only of marginalised people is to promote their viewpoint. As marginalised people have experienced their entire life with this tipped scale, they quite often feel lax to share their own experiences. They’ve been surrounded by a culture that has either ignored their experiences or not taken them seriously. They are constantly aware of this imbalance while privileged people are not aware of it. Sometimes just the presence of someone who is privileged, if such a thing is visible, encourages marginalised people to rethink whether they want to share their experiences. Trying to tip the scale to make it equal quite often results in making yourself a target as a marginalised person. And we see time and time again that people in privileged positions of power view an equitable distribution of time or energy as the scales being tipped in the opposite way, as the marginalised person having too much time or more than their fair share of time, which makes sense if you consider that privileged people are approaching the situation with the misunderstanding that there is an equitable distribution of focus or exposure.
That is why silence is incredibly important. Because if you are operating as a privileged person within a particular context, giving the space or promoting the voices of marginalised people and choosing to silence your own voice is sometimes the best thing that you can do. Being aware that your presence can encourage silencing in and of itself (and, if applicable, removing yourself) is sometimes the best thing that you can do. But many people within positions of power, (especially if there are intersectional issues going on), don’t realise the tipped scales. They see the scales as balanced. So when a marginalised person shares their experience of their marginalization, it makes perfect sense, in fact it seems almost empathetic, to try and share your perspective as a privileged person on that marginalisation.
This is the way that privileged people often perceive the scales at the introduction of interactions. You share an experience, I share an experience. But part of being privileged is not realising when the scales are tipped.
While the attempt may be to share a commonality, to empathise, or just to share an experience in what the privileged person perceives as an equal exchange, the exchange is not equal. The privileged person’s perspective has constantly been promoted and encouraged. And not only have privileged perspectives constantly been promoted, but the perspective of marginalised people is often sometimes only seen as valid if a privileged person equally promotes it or backs it. Quite often I find myself operating as a privileged person more or less “white knighting” the opinions of people who are marginalised in order to get other privileged people to take the marginalised person’ perspective seriously. I realise this is a double edged sword and I’m hesitant to do that because I know that having others not listen to your perspective as a marginalised person until someone else signs off on it, even if you are heard in the end, can be frustrating and tiring. So even when I do “white knight”, I still extend my apologies because I overwhelmingly feel like in positions where I am privileged it is still crucial for me to remain silent when discussing experiences of that marginalization.
At times, a marginalised person perspective is only seen as important to the extent to which it can validate the goodness of a privileged person’s perspective. Not only are marginalised people further silenced in sharing their perspectives, because the hurt the feelings of privilege people, but they’re also turned into tokens and objectified by privileged people who use them to re-validate their goodness. Comic from Amptoons.
Try to remember when approaching a discussion, if you’re in a privileged perspective, that you operate from the standpoint of someone who has a power that you may not even be aware of and that you wield regardless of your intention. Sometimes this won’t always be clear. Sometimes situations can be a little bit difficult. But recognising where you stand in relation to the discussion and making sure the voices of marginalised people get the priority is incredibly important. As a privileged person, this is going to seem unfair, but realise you’ve been drenched in the perspective that the scales are equal. It’s going to seem unfair. In order for others to regain power, you must relinquish some of yours. I don’t see how we can live in a world where marginalised people are able to become less marginalised without privileged people giving up some of their power.
The phenomena of privileged people inserting themselves into discussions and dominating them is well documented with .gif reactions. See “Male Opinions”, “White Opinions” and other .gif representations of derailing.
Now I’ll apply this to a few real life examples (not to equalise these marginalization or compare them) in order to make it clear how this can apply:
- In a discussion about how queer kids often commit suicide because of heterosexist bullying, a straight person decides to discuss how they experienced bullying and felt suicidal because of it. While the straight person’s experience of bullying is real, the discussion is particularly about queer kids and about how being queer particularly impacts suicide. With suicide overwhelmingly impacting queer kids, as genuine as the straight person’s experience with bullying may be, dominating the discussion by focusing it again on straight people, who already get the majority of society’s focus is silencing.
- In a discussion about how rape is an issue that overwhelmingly affects indigenous and native women in the United States and Canada, a white women shares her experiences with sexual assault and reiterates that rape happens to white women too. While the white woman’s experiences with sexual assault are real and valid and while overwhelmingly rape is an issue that is constantly ignored by mainstream media, taking away the focus from how it disproportionately impacts native women is silencing.
- In a discussion about how black people, especially black women, constantly deal with racial implications of their hairstyles that white people do not, a white person decides to discuss the struggles they have had with having curly hair to assert that they too worry about discrimination in employment. While the experiences the white person has with bullying are real, to change the focus of the discussion from the particular issue of black hair politics and how racial hair politics affect black women in areas like employment is silencing.
- In a discussion about how assumptions about disability often directly impact the perceived hireable qualities of disabled people or directly affect the chances of disabled people getting employment, an able bodied individual states that they too have trouble with the way employers perceive them because of their lack of gender conformity and the way they style their hair with dyes or certain cuts. While the experiences that the gender non-conforming person has with regard to their employment discrimination are valid, to take the conversation out of the context of disability when a disabled person is sharing their experiences and re-centre it around other issues is silencing.
Yes, we’ll have many places where these issues intersect. Where being a person of colour has an affect on how your disability is perceived and interacted with, where being a queer person has a direct effect on how others view your poverty, where being trans* has a huge impact on how you experience misogyny. Sometimes things aren’t cut and dry and there may be situations where, for example as non-visibly disabled person, you may wonder if you should share your experiences.
Further documenting an instance where a discussion about an issue is taken over and derailed from it’s original point and where a refocus is seen as “hatred”. Comic from Amptoons.
I believe there are situations where you can share your experiences without retracting from the focus. Where you can say, “I’ve experienced suicidal thoughts as a straight person, but that’s never been because of my sexuality” or “I know what it’s like as a woman to experience sexual assault in this society and I can’t imagine being targeted further due to my race” or “I’ve had to deal with ignorance from people when it comes to my hair, but that’s never been part of my racial identity so I can’t imagine dealing with those contexts”. The importance is to maintain the focus. There are certain situations where things intersect and adding your experience may touch on some intersectional issues people haven’t thought of, but maintaining the focus is what’s important overall. Ask yourself if you’re operating in position of privilege within a certain discussion if contributing your experience will add anything or if you’re looking for validation. While it’s understandable for everyone to want validation for their experiences, understand that in positions where you have privilege, you are often validated with regards to that privilege.
A great depiction of how a person can experience a consistant amount of privilege without understanding how that has impacted them their entire life. Comic from Amptoons.
For me personally, while I may not see many non-binary gender people in the media, I do see a lot of white people. It’s not that seeing white people improves my experience as a non-binary person, but rather that the feeling of not being represented in terms of race is something I’ve never had to grapple with. Privileged people always misunderstand (and I have as well) privilege as, “your life is great” or “you never have any problems” whereas it’s more like “your experience is normative” or “you don’t experience these problems”. It’s not that being privileged means life is handed to you on a golden platter, but rather that you have had a platter this entire time, while other people have had nothing.
I hope I’ve explained this concept well enough and expressed the importance of silence in certain situations. It’s a complicated concept and I certainly don’t think it’s always easy to figure out when to speak and when to be silent, but hopefully this exposes a few things that may have previously been misunderstood or hidden.