There’s a time to listen to people respectfully, accepting that they are talking about issues with which you are unfamiliar, and there’s also a time to start communicating. Sometimes, it’s hard to determine the difference between the two, especially when you are a person with privilege looking in on a discussion going on amongst people without privilege. Especially when you are new to a concept and you have no idea what half the people are saying, but you are pretty sure that it sounds very interesting, and very much like something you would like to know more about.
One of the interesting things I’ve been noticing at FWD/Forward is that many commenters have spoken about feeling shy, and not knowing when they should enter into a discussion, and when they should sit it out because they’re having trouble following, or not feeling confident. It’s especially sad to hear that from people with disabilities talking about being afraid to claim a disability status, or afraid to try to carve out a place in mainstream feminism, but that’s a story for an entirely different day.
And I’ve definitely been in situations where I have tried to enter a conversation and been rebuffed, either because people think I don’t belong in it because they aren’t checking their own privilege, or because I genuinely don’t belong in it. Once you’ve been rebuffed once, you’re understandably reluctant to try again, and you might feel shy, or you might just feel resentful.
Because there are times when people need to speak for themselves. There are definitely times when people who lack privilege need people with privilege to be quiet and listen. To digest. To think. To absorb. To respect, in other words, voices which have a history of being marginalized. And sometimes people need to have private conversations about privilege issues, and the presence of someone from outside their group can be hindering to a productive discussion.
But there are other times when people actively ask people to stand/roll/etc with them. And at those times? You should rise to the challenge. A lot of people, for example, expressed reluctance about signing my open letter to Feministing because they “didn’t know enough” or “weren’t perfect” or “sometimes use ableist language” or “aren’t really sure when language is ableist or not” or “don’t want to misstep” or “aren’t feminist enough” or “aren’t disabled enough.”
And, here’s the thing which many of these people didn’t seem to realize. We’ve all been there. None of us woke up with perfect knowledge, and we all make mistakes. But when we reach out for solidarity and say “please help us,” lend a helping hand. Whether that’s writing a letter in support of a cause, or cosigning a letter, or whatever. Helping out at your own level of ability, which might be, you know, working with people to start a group blog to highlight the voices of disabled feminists, or leaving a comment on someone’s website saying “I agree.”
What matters is that you are there. You are adding your voice to the chorus. And you are obviously interested in the issue, or you wouldn’t know that people are asking for help and support. Clearly, you are engaged at some level, even if you are a person with privilege and you are not experiencing the same things felt by people engaged in the cause. You are, perhaps, interested in being an ally. In learning more.
And a great way to be an ally is to recognize a call for action and join in. If you have a legitimate reason for not joining in, like you don’t believe in the cause, that’s one thing. But if you’re not joining in because you are afraid of being punished or told to go away, that’s tragic. And so not necessary. Because, believe me, when I issued a call for action, every single person who joined me was important. I didn’t turn anyone away because they didn’t meet my criteria. People to whom I am radically ideologically opposed joined in. And I could set aside my opposition, just as they could, because we were joining together for the sake of a larger cause.
Mass matters. Raising a ruckus matters. A few lone voices accomplish very little, and attract no momentum. A crowd does. That’s just the way it is. And, honestly, a crowd which includes people with privilege can sometimes be more powerful, because those people draw attention to the cause, pull focus in that direction, and potentially create a space in which the voices of people who have been silenced can be heard. It is really unfortunate that this is the way it is, but we should not pretend otherwise.
When you’re issued an open invitation to participate in something, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an open invitation. That means that you’re allowed some leeway. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You’re allowed to ask questions. Because what’s important is that you are there. It’s not important for you to be perfect, for you to suddenly magically understand everything about a very complex issue.
Because people understand that you are trying, and making a good faith effort. Sometimes it may feel like walking on a tightrope, as people gently correct you to educate you, but being corrected is a good sign. It means that people see that you are interested and want to engage, and it means that they want to help you learn so that you can engage more fully. That’s actually a very exciting and good thing; when you join a community and no one says anything constructive to you, it’s a sign that they think you don’t really belong, or don’t really care, or aren’t really invested.
It’s ok to say “I see that you appear to be issuing an open invitation, may I join you?” The worst thing that would happen is for someone to say “no.” And I think we can all deal with being told “no” now and again. The worst thing that you can do is sit on the sidelines wondering if it’s ok to join in and not saying anything.