The Teaching Role

One of the roles which is often thrust upon people living in marginalised bodies is that of teacher.

There is a common expectation in social justice movements that people experiencing oppression should educate other people about their oppression; that, in fact, one the things they need to do, as activists, is to use themselves and their experiences as teachable moments. This even as people living in marginalised bodies protest that one of the key parts of activism is self education, and that, in fact, people who want to learn things should seek out that information on their own rather than demanding it.

I used to fall into the ‘yes, we have a responsibility to educate people!’ camp, but now I do not. And there are a number of facets to how I feel about this which I would like to explore today.

I will note, to start, that it is usually people in a position of privilege who are demanding that other people serve as teachers. And not just that they be teachers; that they be patient, that they present information in the right tone, that they give people the benefit of the doubt. These thoughts are all functions of privilege and they come from the position of someone who has the ability to ‘learn’ and then shut it down and move on with life.

When you are a person without privilege, it isn’t something you look at academically. It is something which you live every moment of every day, in every interaction with people in any medium. Just being alive is being a ‘teachable moment’ and that’s before you’ve even opened your mouth.

As a white person, I have racial privilege. And I don’t spend all that much time thinking about being white, not when I am in mixed racial groups, not when I am passing a police officer on the street, not when I am fussy at the airport. That’s a function of privilege. My privilege allows me to put my race in a box and take it out when I feel like it.

As a genderqueer person, I do not have gender privilege. And I spend a lot of time thinking about my gender, when I am alone, when I am in groups of people, when I am at the doctor’s, when I am listening to the news. Because my identity is a form of activism; the personal is political. I cannot set my gender aside, I cannot stick it in a box and forget about it, whether or not I am asserting my identity.

I think you get my point. For some people, just leaving the house is activism.

Teachers are very important members of our society. I would argue, in fact, that they are among the most important. And I also would argue that compensating teachers for their work is critically important as a mark of respect both to the individual teacher, and to learning as an abstract concept.

Expecting people in marginalised bodies to be teachers is profoundly offensive on a lot of levels. It devalues both the individual and the profession of teaching, not least because no compensation is offered or provided. Asking someone to teach you and saying that it will help you examine your privilege or learn is not compensation; you should be doing that anyway, whether or not someone is teaching you. Compensation is providing a concrete exchange with someone; it does not have to be money, but it does have to be something of value.

Because otherwise it is not an equitable exchange, and what you are really doing is cementing your privilege and supporting the systems which you claim to be upset about. Asking for free work, because teaching is work, from someone who comes from a class which has traditionally been marginalised and abused by people like you, is deeply offensive. And it tells that person that you are not actually interested in engaging with your own privilege, in learning more, in exploring issues beyond your comfort zone. Because if you were, you’d be doing some research and educating yourself.

It’s not like the resources aren’t out there. Every single question that I get asked about gender identity, about disability, about queerness, is answered in full and in exquisite detail in any number of places which I can find with a quick Google search, just as any question I can think up about race has probably already been answered, if I took the time to figure out how to phrase the question to find an answer. This shows that some people living in marginalised bodies are willing to act as teachers and regularly give this gift to others; you see the difference there between being ordered to teach, and volunteering to teach?

When people demand not only that they be taught but that people do so nicely, it creates another layer of complexity.

You see, you may think you are making a value neutral statement or an inoffensive comment or asking a benign question. But the person at the other end of that has probably dealt with it numerous times before, possibly even from you, and is really, really tired of it. So you can’t really blame people in marginalised bodies for not always having patience, let alone being disinterested in giving the benefit of the doubt; you may believe that you are trustworthy, but they have no way of knowing that.

If someone chooses to give you information, to gift you with teaching, it shows that this person thinks that you have redeeming qualities. That you are worth talking to. That even if you are doing something that person is uncomfortable with or does not like, that person believes that you have the capacity for learning and understanding.

And, the thing is, teaching about issues like this inevitably involves a challenge to privilege. And people do not respond well to privilege challenges, no matter how nicely they are worded. Whether you are sweet as sugar or bitter as a snake and in anger overdrive at the start of an interaction, the result is the same: People will respond defensively, and with resistance. Making a mild-mannered comment couched in very careful terms will result in a tone argument just as screaming at someone does and when it is your own privilege being questioned, everything feels like an attack.

While I personally tend to err more on the side of politeness, whipping out the anger when I need it rather than starting at that point, the fact is that ‘polite’ still feels like an attack when it involves asking someone to consider experiences outside their own frame of reference. So when I hear people say things like ‘everyone should just be nicer’ it makes me boil because even when we are nice, we are told that we are angry, strident, shrill, alienating. People who say this are saying that their feelings are the most important part of the equation, not the feelings of the person being ordered to teach, and since there’s no way to challenge privilege that doesn’t create a defensive response, it’s never going to be possible to teach without making the taught feel uncomfortable.

So, you see, no matter how we teach, we are told that we are doing it wrong by the people who demand our teachings. Which makes us disinclined to teach again, and also explains why people often react so strongly to being asked to teach. The person in the position of privilege is asking for something and offering nothing in return, while the person without privilege is acutely aware that at the close of interaction, the other party may or may not have learned something, seeds may or may not have been planted, and that ou will have to go on engaging with ou own lack of privilege at every minute of every day because of the way society is structured, while the person with privilege does not.

Just being alive does not obligate someone to teach you. If people choose to offer that, accept it with grace. But never demand it.