For those who only read the first sentences of articles, we’re just gonna lay it out: at the end of the day, we don’t understand one another, and any insights we may have are just gravy.
For people facing power structures like the patriarchy, racism, ableism, homophobia, classism, among other “ism”s, words like “I know what you’re going through” and “I understand how you feel” can be more inflammatory than comforting. Unless the speaker faces the same “’ism”s, what is meant as compassion instead trivializes the experiences surrounding these issues. For example, a day of exhaustion from working late on a paper is not the same as living with a chronically exhausting disease, and not being able to afford a luxury trip is not the same as growing up in the working class. There may be enough similarities among our experiences to provoke empathy, but part of truly understanding is recognizing that power structures make these experiences inherently different. Every experience is legitimate, but that does not make them equivalent. To treat them as the same essentially denies the existence of the “ism”s that are very real sources of anger and hurt. For minority people, these power structures are not ideologies to be discussed, debated, and then put aside at leisure. Rather, these are issues with many intricacies and nuances that form daily battles that we do not have the privilege to ignore. Similarly, the movements against these power structures are more than ideals or schools of thought; they can mean protection, legitimization, and otherwise impossible rights.
Because these struggles are daily personal experiences, not just classroom discourses, some level of privacy in sharing them should be expected. In this way, educating others regarding our experiences is not a given right. Our experiences are just that: experiences. Some conversations are better kept between friends where there is enough trust to be vulnerable; there are times when we simply cannot deal with an audience in the process of healing from the hurt of our struggles. Our purpose is not to be academic sources, microcosms to study power structures, or inspiration; rather, our stories are simply personal, unique, raw experiences that no one can be entitled to hear.
One of the layers that oppressed minority groups face is the necessity to conform to the expectations of the majority, be that the ability to take the stairs when no ramp is available or choosing a live-in partnership instead of marriage because of geography. Using our experiences to educate others becomes yet another layer of oppression. Sharing our stories to promote awareness and understanding is very important, but the attitude of being entitled to our perspectives perpetuates the very cycles we are trying to break by sharing them. It is a privilege to hear personal experiences, not a right. Oppressed groups must be given the right to privacy and the power to choose if, what, how, when, and where to talk about our experiences. Go ahead and ask! Just treat it like consent: you’re not entitled to it, permission is continual not one-time, and it might be awkward, but that’s ok. Minorities, this does not mean we’re off the hook and never have to leave our comfort zone of what to share. However, they will continue to suck if we’re never willing to move past the hardships and emotional responses, and towards productive action. We are by no means suggesting pushing beyond what feels safe or meeting expectations for the sake of meeting expectations. However, sometimes discomfort can be worth it as long as we have control over when to engage in an uncomfortable conversation. For example, we are not responsible for engaging in every discussion that could concern us or calling out every sexist status on Facebook. What we are responsible is putting forth effort, however small it may look like. Some days this might be confronting all the “ism”s with every form of activism imaginable, and other days this might be making the response “I don’t want to talk about it right now” polite instead of brusque. Both of these are awesome! How much we do is far less important than the fact that we are doing something.
As we’re moving forward, we need to remember that being oppressed does not come with an automatic understanding of oppression. Being in the same “group” is not the same as having the same experiences. Being disabled does not come with magical insight into racism any more than experiencing gender discrimination yields an enlightened perspective on sexuality discrimination. We need to be careful to not set an example of overgeneralizing ourselves amidst the frustrations we seek to address. We are just as responsible as the majority to approach these topics with tact and humility and make room for others to express their voices and experiences.
Just in case, like us, you tend to read the first and last paragraphs and fudge the middle: we all have privileges, which are better recognized than demanded.