It's Not Hard for Privileged People to Pretend to be Marginalized

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky. 

So, as a privileged person, you decide you want to know more about a given marginalised person, so what do you do? Do you go out and find some resources from people who have lived that marginalisation? Actually speak to POC about racism? Pick up a book by a gay person to check in on homophobia? Google up some trans blogs to learn about transphobia?

Or do you find a nice privileged expert to explain it all? Because some of these folks have made quite a tidy living about of been privileged experts on marginalised groups.

I can’t say I’m overly impressed by the whole idea – why not go to the source? And why give the money (be it from ad clicks or book royalties) to privileged people talking about the marginalised rather than the actual marginalised themselves?

What does a white author have to offer when talking about race that a POC cannot? Why is a straight person someone to talk to when looking at the effects of homophobia and heterosexism? Why do we need to talk to able-bodied people about ableism when there are disabled people out there willing to speak?

Apart from anything else, it’s damaging

In all matters our voices and opinions are considered to be less important, less informed and less valuable than people who have privilege over us. Whether that comes from regarding us as less ignorant or simply because our importance is considered less or just because, societally, there is so much pressure to ignore us is immaterial – the fact remains is we are ignored and our input is not valued.

Which is why I am more than a little dubious of the idea that providing a privileged source on marginalised lives is somehow an asset. After all, it is claimed, privileged people are just more comfortable hearing from privileged sources. White people are more likely to listen to conversations about racism from a white face. Straight people will pay more attention to other straight people! Men will listen to men more than they will women – even when talking about sexism.

Maybe – but that is not something to pander to! After all, of all the subjects out here, these are the ones where we are – or should be – the undisputed experts. Who knows what it is like to be Black better than a Black person? Who understands the issues affecting GBLT people more than GBLT people? Who understands the lives of marginalised people better than the marginalised people themselves? And yet, even in this we turn to privileged experts because, even in social justice movements, we have these elevated privileged spokespeople who presume to speak for us!

This is why gay judges are considered inherently biased, and why it’s still legal in the US to deny gay jurors. This is why marginalised people are considered inherently biased. This is why our stories are routinely ignored or dismissed – why we are accused of lying or exaggerating or fantasising. We are contributing to the idea that for an idea to have merit – even in our own lives – it has to come from a privileged person. Or that our stories, our opinions and our recounting only has merit if it is validated by a privileged person.

And they often get it wrong. As I’ve said before, being privileged means sometimes you can’t understand. Or they make it about themselves, or they believe their own hype, or they presume to talk in community discussions or they presume to speak for us; but often, they just get it wrong.

Does a privileged person have a louder voice? Yes, as I’ve said above, they are listened to more and their opinions are considered more valuable. And yes, privileged allies should most certainly use their enhanced voices for us. But that means using their voices to enhance ours, to increase our volume – don’t speak for us, direct people to us, show people what they are ignoring. Don’t stand on our shoulders, give us a hand up.

This is why I prefer to go to the source and why, as I’ve told people again and again, I really really REALLY don’t want to read books about being GBLT written by straight, cis people. Really. Yes, that means you can stop recommending them to me, please.

I can’t touch this subject without covering a particularly vile outbranch of it. A privileged person will decide, in the name of understanding a marginalisation, to play act as one of us for a designated time. Be it from way back in 1961 when a white man dressed himself up as a black man to discover racism, or the now numerous reports of people deciding to live homeless and now, of course, this extremely clueless straight, cis man who fake came out as gay to his parents and hung around gay bars for a year.

First of all – wow I am AWED at the ability of privileged people to make prejudice all about them. Really, when presented by victimisation and prejudice against a marginalised group, they set out to centre themselves completely – to talk about their (irrelevant) experience and their (irrelevant) feelings and how hard it was for them (irrelevant) and how much they’ve learned (do we care?) and how they’ve grown as a person (still not caring). Could there be a more self-centred way of discussing someone else’s marginalisation?

And faking it doesn’t mean you understand someone’s experience – you can never get the full impact of living as marginalised. You can’t just “come out” to your parents and understand what being gay means, what the closet means – that power of shame and erasure and rejection and being brought up in a heterosexist society that teaches you to hide and hate yourself from the moment your realise what you are. Simply mouthing the words doesn’t mean you understand them. All this mummery can do is give you the FALSE IMPRESSION that you understand.

But mainly – if you want to learn our experiences why don’t you ask us? Or google! Or go to a library! (And don’t tell me you have a lack of resources – if you can spend months, if not years, of your life farcically trying to copy our lives then write books or TV shows about it then you’re capable of  google search) There are actual marginalised people out there who are willing to tell you about their lives and have already written books, blogs, diaries, stories, news articles, podcasts, youtube vids and gods’  alone know what else about our stories.  Choosing to play-act rather than talk to us tells me you don’t really care, you’re extremely self-absorbed, you don’t value our voices or you want to make money out of your book or TV deal.

And yes – play acting is annoying – doing it to try and make money off exploiting discrimination against us? Words can’t describe how messed up that is.

Also, don’t tell me that living it helps you understand and empathise better – because if you can’t understand and empathise when hearing someone recount how discrimination affects them, then you have some major empathy problems. And you can’t live it, anyway –  you can put on a farce but as I’ve said above – you cannot understand our experience through faking it. Doing so just gives you a false sense of smugness.

We are the experts in our own lives. We are the ones who understand our experiences. Why are you talking about us, when you refuse to listen to us?

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