Getting Your 101 On

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: no one is born with a magical compendium of knowledge about anything. We all come into the world naked, and we spend the rest of our lives flailing around in a search for understanding. I wrote about this recently in my post “101,” but I think it bears further discussion.

So, recently, I made a stupid comment on the Internet. I know, shocking. And someone else responded to the post I commented on, and pointed out that my comment was stupid without explicitly calling me out on it, simply by talking about the issues in the post. It was actually pretty sly, because I read that comment and was like “right on,” and then realized “oh, wait, this person is kind of talking about the fact that I AM AN ASS.” I thought it was a great correction*, because it allowed me to respond honestly and without defensiveness: I said “hey, I’m an ass, I’m sorry, and thank you for pointing that out” and we all moved on.

And then, I got my 101 on. Because I realized that I didn’t know as much about an issue as I thought I did, and that my ignorance was an example of my own privilege, and it was time to change that. So I actually spent several hours doing research and reading lots of perspectives and I came out with all kinds of knowledge and a few new subscriptions to my RSS feed.

Not enough knowledge to really know what I’m talking about, but enough knowledge to understand why my comment was inappropriate, and how my comment illustrated (unwittingly) some of the very issues being talked about in the post. If I started from a knowledge rating of, say, 3 on a 1-10 scale, understanding the basics and having some ideas, I moved my knowledge up to maybe a 4.5; I started to explore an issue more deeply, and to think about how my own privilege factors into my perception of that issue. And, more importantly, I adjusted my opinion of my own knowledge from a 7 to a more realistic estimation.

That doesn’t magically mean that I am going to stop making stupid comments about that issue. But it does mean that I have a better understanding of how to avoid making stupid comments in the future, and it was a tremendously beneficial experience for me.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people who leave stupid comments on the Internet often have problems with this process; the having the comment called out, responding with an apology** and a thank you, and then doing some reading on their own to learn more about why the comment was called out. I’m guilty of that myself sometimes; I skip right into defensive semantic zone instead of actually considering the fact that my privilege just oozed out in a really ugly way. And by justifying my actions, I can turn the burden of responsibility onto someone else, which means that I don’t need to do my research. At least I’ve moved beyond the classic trick of being defensive and then asking other people to do my research for me, but I’m still not all the way there in terms of actually engaging with dissent from people pointing out my privilege.

And this brings me to the crux of this post, which is about how to do the last part of the process, the research part. The engaging honestly, apologizing, and recognizing is up to you and I’m certainly no role model.

So, someone just called you out on the Internet. You’ve read/listened to what that person had to say and thought about it. You’re said “you’re right, I was an ass, and I apologize for it, and I appreciate that you asked me to check my privilege.” So…how do you get your 101 on?

It’s pretty easy, thankfully.

Open your browser. Navigate to your search engine of choice. And start typing terms. Maybe some terms you didn’t understand were used in the discussion and those tripped you up. Try searching for those. Read about them. Read a lot about them. Go beyond the first page of search results. Start exploring related terms. You can even try searching for things like “how to be an anti-racist ally” or “trans 101,” to learn more about the basics. Sometimes you think you know more than you do, and reading about the basics is actually tremendously helpful.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a privileged person make an ignorant comment or ask a foolish question which could have been better dealt with by a quick Googling. Really. It pays to Google. Google’s indexing for certain terms is not always ideal, but actually searching yourself for the information you need is way better than demanding that someone else spoonfeed that information to you. You’re going to learn more, and you’re going to avoid pissing the people you claim to want to understand off. Consider generating a list of responses, thoughts, and questions as you search and read, and use these as a starting place to look for even more information. Take notes. Write some things down for yourself. Actually process the information, don’t just read it and nod at the screen.

Internalize the information you find on your search. Think about it. Analyze what you said. Add a few things to your RSS feed so that you can read more about this issue in the future when people write about it. You have by no means educated yourself to expert level at this point, but you’ve started to get your 101 on. You will start to notice things you didn’t see before. You will start to have a deeper understanding of something you might not have thought about before because of your privilege. You will start to avoid making basic mistakes, and that is going to allow you to engage with the community you are interested in more effectively.

This bears repeating: everyone understands that your privilege is not your fault. But everyone also understands that you can do something about it. Educating yourself and remaining respectful in non-privileged communities is a really good way to start. Responding positively to criticism, instead of being defensive (something I am still working on) is another good way to start. You will never overcome your privilege, because it’s a part of you that’s never going away, but you can learn to be aware of it.

*This is not to say that privilege checks and corrections always need to be issued with care to avoid hurting the delicate feelings of the privileged person, or that there is any particular way in which such corrections should be issued. I’m talking about the instances of a particular case. It bears repeating that when privileged people are reminded of their privilege, while doing so gently is often more productive because it deprives them of the chance to be defensive and self righteous, it is not obligatory. And recognizing your privilege in return does not entitle you to any special prizes.

**A real apology, not a fauxpology like “well I’m sorry I made you feel that way” or “I’m sorry my intentions were misread.” An actual apology, like “I’m sorry I was an ass.”