Good morning! Today we’re going to talk about PRIVILEGE. (I know, you’re excited.) To be more specific, we’re going to talk about why you, a person with X privilege, just got your feelings hurt online while trying to have a good-faith conversation with someone who lacks X privilege, and you want to understand why.
(Spoilers: It’s not because people who lack X privilege are “toxic.” It’s because the whole structure of privilege is.)
Online conversations about diversity can be like trying to hold a math class where some of the students are doing advanced calculus and some of the students haven’t mastered the multiplication tables yet. Even if everyone in the room badly wants to learn math (a big if, in this metaphor), a lack of acknowledgement and courtesy for the fact that people are at different learning stages can hamstring the discussion completely. Nobody studying arithmetic wants to say, “Where did you get that 64 number?” and have everyone laugh at them for not knowing that’s what eight times eight equals. Nobody who’s ready to use derivatives to calculate how rapidly the cone-shaped pool will fill up wants to sit there and review their eight-times tables. That doesn’t make either side bad. Different people are just at different stages of their math journeys.
What that analogy seems to suggest is that everyone should be more tolerant and compassionate of each other, from the newest Twitter egg to the, I don’t know, Diversity Pope (there is no Diversity Pope). Right? WRONG, because I cheated on the analogy. Everyone knows there are different levels of math knowledge; but privileged people oftentimes think they are at the same level of knowledge with issues facing marginalized groups as the people in those groups are at. This is where it gets messy.
Diversity conversations actually tend to work more like if the students who didn’t know their times tables kicked down the door to the classroom where the calculus students were doing their ghastly tank filling word problems and yelled “MATH IS NUMBERS! STOP DOING PICTURES AND LETTERS.” And when the calculus students said, “Google calculus and you will find that as you get farther into it, math is also sometimes pictures and letters,” the multiplication students said “We’re math students too! We know what math is and it’s not this!” And when the calculus students said, “Okay, well, we’re going to get on with our calculus class now,” the multiplication students yelled “HOW DARE YOU EXCLUDE US! MATH IS FOR EVERYONE!” and set fire to the overhead projector; and this happened every time the calculus students tried to learn and talk about calculus, whether by themselves in a private classroom or in a public forum.
And also the school administration seems unsure if there’s such a thing as calculus or not.
And also multiplication students run the whole country.
Okay. So how does this analogy apply to you, a privileged person doing their best to learn?
1. Recognize that your privilege tends to put you at a lower knowledge level than people who’ve been living this their whole lives.
If you’ve only ever been asked to learn multiplication, you aren’t evil for not knowing calculus. But it’s important to recognize that calculus learners exist and know more overall about math than you do; and it’s important not to walk into calculus classrooms expecting that you’ll be able to jump right in to the work.
Or let’s put it into real-world (but relatively un-fraught) terms. Let’s say that you, an architect, walk up to me, a publishing person, and start explaining why my organization should be using EBSCO rather than Project Muse as a library ebook aggregator. Let’s say you read some stuff about EBSCO in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week and you think you have a good case to make. Except the thing is, I do publishing full-time. Not only have I already thought about the factors you read about in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve thought about many other factors you didn’t consider, too, considerations that you didn’t even know existed. I had to! It’s my job!
You aren’t stupid for not knowing the reasons an academic publisher might prefer Project Muse to EBSCO, just like you aren’t stupid for not knowing that letters and graphs can be math as well as numbers. People learn different things at different times, and that’s okay! The problem comes when instead of recognizing that there’s a lot you don’t know, you act like the information you happen to possess is the only relevant (or even the only existing) information.
Gay people know more about being gay than straight people, just like people in publishing know more about publishing than architects. Black people know more about being black than white or Asian people, just like architects know more about architecture than chefs or magazine editors. People in a marginalized group have, in general, thought more about issues surrounding that marginalization than people who are privileged in that area — they’ve had to. So not only do they have more experience with the thing, they probably have more education in the thing. You are not the expert. They are the expert.
Here’s a good shortcut you can use when you’re speaking to someone with less privilege than you, to check if you are being a jerk and should stop. Are you arguing for or against the status quo? If it’s for, that’s a good sign to take a step back, listen to what the other person is saying, and do some googling to find out why the status quo isn’t working for people in this marginalized group.
Say I’m talking about how the American legal profession creates significant barriers against people with mental illness, and you say “Yeah but would you want a psycho handling your custody case?” The obvious subtext is “maybe the status quo is good and necessary.” But the thing about privilege is that the status quo serves it. If someone with less privilege is saying that the status quo does not serve them, you can safely assume that yes, they have already considered the possibility that the status quo is good and necessary. Of course they’ve considered it; it’s the Procrustean bed they’ve been trying to climb out of for years and years, and they’ve probably already lost some limbs to it.
Which leads me to my second point: STAKES.
2. Recognize that the stakes are different for marginalized people.
If you, a multiplication student genuinely trying to work their way up to calculus, walk up to a calculus student, peer at their textbook, and say, “What’s going on here? Math is supposed to be numbers!”, they cannot tell the difference between you, a multiplication student trying to learn, and the zillions of multiplication students who have said that same sentence to that calculus student in the past and immediately followed it up by trying to set fire to their school supplies. So if they are rude to you in response, and your feelings get hurt, it’s important to be aware that this isn’t about you. While you’re trying to do small talk, they’re trying not to get their school supplies set on fire.
Sometimes when I’m out in public by myself, I am very chilly to strange men trying to start conversations with me. A dude might think “ugh this bitch is snooty,” and in some cases, he’d be right: I am sometimes a little rude. But the thing is, lots of strange guys in the past have touched me without my permission or said nasty, threatening things to me. When I’m cold with strangers, I’m not doing it because I get a kick out of hurting people’s feelings in bars. I’m doing it to protect myself from outcomes that started with an encounter identical to this one — casual, friendly conversation — and then turned ugly.
See how the guy and I are, in a way, participating in two completely different interactions? He’s trying not to get rejected socially, and I’m trying not to get assaulted. Of course the interaction is more fraught for me than it is for the guy. Of course I’m at a higher emotional temperature: Not because the guy is inherently more rational and I’m inherently more emotional, but because the interaction has much higher stakes on my side.
“Not everything’s life or death, Jenny!”
Super true. But even when death isn’t on the line, privilege often gives you the gift of lower stakes. For instance, there was a Gizmodo article recently that made fun of pre-peeled, pre-pitted avocados. It’s a genre of article you’ve maybe seen before, where someone writes in a humorous way about a product whose existence they find ridiculous, like those Lady Bic pens. If Lady Bic pens or pre-peeled avocados disappeared from my life, it would make no difference to me at all.
But here’s something I didn’t know (until I read about it on the internet): Many products of the pre-peeled avocado type are developed for the benefit of disabled people, then marketed more broadly so the company doesn’t lose money on them. For me, an able-bodied person, and for the able-bodied author of that Gizmodo article, the stakes of saying “get rid of these ridiculous pre-peeled avocados!” are nil. For a disabled person who can’t peel an avocado on their own, the stakes could be no more avocados ever.
Even within that, there are often secret stakes hiding behind the obvious ones. In this example, no avocados would suck but it wouldn’t be a disaster. Most of the human race throughout most of human history got by just fine without avocados, right? But here’s a thread about rhetoric surrounding accessibility products. Dependence on other people for things like peeling avocados and opening jars enables and exacerbates abuse. Criticizing pre-peeled avocados for their wastefulness plays into a much broader narrative about the costs associated with disability care, which in turn has been used to justify things like forced sterilization of disabled people and gutting programs that disabled people need to survive.
So if I said “ha ha pre-peeled avocados” on Twitter and a disabled person called me an asshole and now my feelings are hurt, the above is crucial context. The interaction that I saw — a stranger called me an asshole for making a harmless joke — actually had a lot more going on within it than I realized.
“But hurt feelings are real!”
Aw, I know. It feels crappy when someone calls you an unkind name. You can talk that out with your friends when you get home this afternoon. But what you have to have to have to keep in mind is that the enemy isn’t the disabled person who snapped at you on Twitter for saying something thoughtlessly hurtful. The enemy of you both is the social system that values the able-bodied people more than disabled people while doing its best to conceal from able-bodied people that any such thing is happening. They’re doing their part to dismantle the system; if you’re not doing yours, don’t get mad at them for being pissed at you for contributing to it.
What to do with this knowledge
Now that you know these things, how should you move forward?
- Don’t respond right away. When someone criticizes me, my instinct is to defend myself hotly without waiting to think about whether the criticism was merited. This is a bad response in the situation we’re discussing (also: in many many many situations), because it means I’m doubling down on something I might later wish I had not doubled down on. Step away from the computer, chat with your friends about what happened, do some googling to check if there’s a context you weren’t aware of. (Often, there is! As we discovered above, there’s a lot that privileged people don’t know we don’t know.)
- Apologize if you decide you were wrong. A good apology goes like this: “I said something hurtful yesterday, which you rightly called me out on, and I’m sorry I said it.” If applicable: “I’m doing more reading and educating myself on these issues so that I can do better in the future.” Recognize that you are owed nothing in response to this apology. If they ignore you, do nothing. If they say “I don’t care what you’re reading, you ableist asshole,” DO NOTHING. Apologies are, again, not about you.
- Don’t respond if you decide you were right, or slightly wrong but mostly right, or you would have been wrong if you’d meant it the way the person took it but you didn’t so you were, actually, right. Sometimes marginalized people — just like sometimes all people — are wrong assholes. If you decide that’s the case, no further action is really required. It’s easy to curate your online life so you don’t have to interact with a person you don’t want to interact with. Unfollow them and move on. Maybe they were indeed a wrong asshole; maybe you’ll realize later they were a right asshole. Either way, you don’t need to let them know about it.
Good? Good. I’m glad we talked. Have a puppy.