On Centering Voices

One of the things which the white progressive blogosphere likes to do a lot is to have Serious Discussions about things which affect marginalized communities. Sometimes there are even blogging events, where everyone picks a day to write about the same thing, and there is much patting on the back and discussion about how empowering it is and what a learning experience it is and how great it is to try and think outside your own life.

What’s curiously missing in a lot of these discussions are the voices of the people being talked about. In a conversation about race, for example, there will be no people of colour (and the discussion is often limited to Black and white, as though there are no other races). In a conversation about disability, people with disabilities are nowhere to be seen. Conversations about, say, trans issues will include lots of voices of cis folk, but not a single trans person. And so forth.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon which was making the rounds a while ago, showing a group of white men seated around a table, getting ready to discuss why there are no women involved in their organization. It’s funny because, well, it’s true.

When people in marginalized communities are talked about, sometimes it seems like people go out of their way to make sure that the voices of people in these communities are not heard. In fact, sometimes white progressives actively use their words in the discussion, but don’t credit the source, or acknowledge it when someone says “hey, this looks awfully familiar.” People who do attempt to engage are informed that the white progressives are talking, so go away now.

I find this horrifically patronizing. How can you have a discussion about people in a marginalized community without involving them? How can you say that you know how to fix or address problems when you don’t actually ask for the input of the people involved? How can you say that you know all about the issues faced by members of marginalized communities, and then turn around and silence those people when they say “actually, no, you don’t.”

Each individual can only speak for ouself, of course, and everyone should know this, but it bears reminding that speaking for someone else without being asked to do so is not acceptable. Trying to speak on behalf of a community to which you do not belong is especially questionable. I, for example, write about racial issues, which I struggle with discussing as a white person, because, you know, sometimes I think that the white people should sit down, shut up, and listen, which is why I do a lot more reading than writing on this subject. And when I do write, I try to be careful to avoid acting like I know anything about the experience of people of colour, because, well, I don’t.

When people do grudgingly decide to admit the voices of the people they are talking about, it’s often in a highly tokenizing way. They select someone safe who won’t rock the boat, and they ask this person to speak briefly, in a confined and limited sort of way. Yet, people are patted on the block for doing this. “Oh, you got a Black person to guest post about racial issues, how progressive of you!” “Oh, you’re covering disability issues now, because you had a guest post from one person with disabilities!” “Oh, you really care about integrating the ‘T’ into LGBQT, because you have a poem by a trans person on your website!” etc.

I don’t know what’s worse; being told to stay quiet in the back of the bus, or being invited to the front of the bus while being escorted by police who make sure that you don’t act up. In either case, the voices of your community are not really being heard. When the people in the back of the bus do start clamoring and asking to have their voices centered, they’re silenced with the tone argument. “Why can’t you just be nice?” “Why can’t you be patient?” “Can’t you see that we’re addressing your issues?” “Can’t we have a calm, civil, rational discussion about this without people being over sensitive?” “We have parents of disabled children on the board, what do you mean we aren’t speaking for people with disabilities?”

I have all sorts of inklings about why white progressives have such a hard time actually centering the voices of the people they are talking about. For one thing, I strongly suspect that it’s related to the fact that people like to hear themselves talk, and thus don’t see a benefit in being quiet while other people talk.

For another thing, people like to feel good about themselves. White progressives want cookies oh so very much, and they want to feel like they are helping and contributing to something which will make things better. There’s a hint of colonialism here; the idea that it’s all for everyone’s own good, and that these folks just need someone to tell them what to do, and things will get better.

This means that the voices of people saying “actually, you are doing this wrong, you are not helping,” or “you do not speak for us,” or “you have a poor grasp of the issues,” are not welcome, because these voices contradict the idea that something empowering and special and beneficial is going on. The voices of people who say that they would prefer to speak for themselves deprive people of the opportunity to talk. And make people feel bad because who wants to hear that they are not actually being helpful?

There’s something to be said for having conversations about complex issues. I’m not saying that white progressives just shouldn’t talk at all about what’s going on with and around marginalized communities. But I sure wish that we would talk a lot less, and make much more of an effort to let people speak for themselves. To let people tell us if they want/need help.

In bloglandia, to link richly to resources which center marginalized voices; rather than linking to white people talking about racial issues, I’d rather link to people of colour talking about racial issues. Rather than linking to a primarily white feminist site, I’d rather link to a site run by womanists, or feminists of colour. Rather than linking to able people hand wringing about disability, I’d rather link to people with disabilities talking about their own experiences.

I’d rather do my part to make sure that marginalized voices get heard than go ’round silencing and telling them they don’t matter and their opinions aren’t wanted. I’d rather let people articulate their needs and find out how I can help than telling people that I know better than them. Than telling people that I am not interested in their experience, because I have the magic solution and the solution doesn’t require any sort of actual knowledge.

I hate it when people speak for me. It makes me feel cut down to size, tiny, inferior. Even when my “friends” do it, it hurts me. Because I can speak for myself. And if I want someone to help me, to speak for or with me, I will say so. I try to be conscious of that in myself, and to respect the fact that many other people feel the same way. I think we could all benefit by doing the same.

Sometimes, the best way to help is to be quiet and give someone else a chance to speak.

2 Replies to “On Centering Voices”

  1. Although I agree with you, I must admit that I sometimes do blog about issues more relevant to minority groups I don’t belong to myself. For example, I have blogged some about GLBT issues even though I am a cis woman and have a boyfriend (I don’t identify as straight for various reasons). Now I never claimed oh-wow’ish progressiveness anyway (I’m cnservative on some issues in fact).
    As a side note, I have never come across these “progressive” blogigng events. The only blog event I know is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and most people writing for that are disabled.

  2. Oh yes, I don’t think that people shouldn’t talk about minority groups they don’t belong to! (I, for example, write about racial issues which pertain to people who are not white and I’m white.) I just think that we should be careful to make sure that the center of discussion is on the actual people we talk about, and to make sure to honor them when they say “this is not helpful” or when they provide information about how to help.

    And you are so fortunate that you haven’t come across white liberal handwringing days!

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