“You seem really crabby all of the time. Why are you so mad? Why do you get so frustrated? You know people are doing their best, right? They are really trying and when you are crabby with them it makes them not want to try anymore.”
Someone says something that is hurtful. They are not the only ones to have said it, in fact it’s something I hear over and over and over again. So I take the time and the energy to write a piece about why this thing that I am hearing over and over again is hurtful to me and my community. I talk about how I understand why they are trying to say but that it sounds completely different when it hits my ears. I talk about way they might be able to do something differently. I invest my emotional energy in educating and informing people in the hope that they will listen and the harm will stop.
Here’s what happens instead: People read my post and then come back and ask for all sorts of clarifications. Or they offer all sorts of justifications about why what they said wasn’t really hurtful and even if it was they have a right to feel the way they feel and they have a right to talk about how they feel.
And then, when I finally lose patience with the fact that the emotional labor I have already invested is being taxed even further and people still don’t seem willing to listen, so I tell them to stop or to take it somewhere else or I refuse to comfort them, then I am considered angry and mean and unwilling to educate and help my supposed “allies”.
Do this at least once a week for years and then see if you don’t feel a little bit crabby, too.
Here’s the deal: When someone from a marginalized community tells you that something that happens to them affects them negatively (whether that is a situation, a law that exists, a phrase that is used, a barrier they face; whatever it is), believe them. Why? Because they know their own life better than you. They know what they face better than you. They get up every day and move through the world and they know what hurts them, what keeps them from succeeding, what inhibits their progress. They know it intimately.
When you tell them that what they are experiencing isn’t real; that is doesn’t actually hurt them, that it’s not a real barrier, that if they just did this thing different they could succeed it not only compounds and amplifies the hurt it also tells them that you think you know their situation better than they do. That their voice cannot be trusted. That their experience of the world isn’t true.
It doesn’t matter if the thing they are mentioning is something you feel entitled to do, or if you didn’t mean it in a harmful way. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you are actually really attached to.
(For instance: There are several organizations led by cis straight people that like to go around and apologize to LGBTQ people on behalf of the church. They raise lots and lots of money to do this, to print shirts, to travel to Pride events. And when I and others have said to them “hey, this isn’t helpful and why don’t you give that money to a homeless youth shelter instead” we’ve gotten told to shut up, to back off, to sit down and be quiet because the allies know better what we need. We’ve gotten harassing messages and blocked on social media. Why? Because these “Allies” like going to Pride events to apologize. They like the hugs they get. They like having their pictures in the paper and being spread around on social media. They like feeling like one of the “good guys”. They like having their guilt assuaged. But what they don’t want to do is listen to actual queer people. They don’t want to give away their power and privilege. They don’t want to be anonymous. They don’t want to give up the money they are making. They don’t want to amplify the voices of queer/trans people because that means that their voice wouldn’t be heard. Why? Because it’s not really about LGBTQ people. It’s about them. It’s about them getting their needs met. It’s about them getting attention and adoration and cash. It’s about them. If the reason you’re being an advocate is selfish? Work that out in therapy, don’t project it on to people who are already marginalized and dealing with a lot of crap.)
When marginalized people tell you the truth about their lives, believe them. Even if it doesn’t match up with your own experience. Even if what they are saying means that you might have to change something about yourself. When a marginalized person says something is hurtful or exhausting or whatever else, you don’t get to argue. (And if you do, you don’t get to be upset when they walk away from you or shut you down.)
Can you continue to do the things you want to do? Of course. You always have that choice. You can always choose to disregard it when someone tells you that something you are doing is harmful. You can always get defensive and say that you should be able to do whatever you want. And you might even get away with it because, after all, you have the power and the privilege in this situation. But you will also show your true colors. Don’t be surprised if marginalized people start to stay away from you. Or are cautious around you. They might even be nice to your face because they don’t want to set you off. But know that they don’t really trust you, that they don’t consider you an ally, that they might even be afraid of you.
If you discount or disregard the lived experiences of marginalized people you are not working in solidarity with them. Even if your partner/mother/child/best friend is insert identity here. In order to work in solidarity with people the absolute, bare minimum, first step is to listen to them. And then, when they tell you something hurts them, stop doing that thing. That’s like the lowest possible bar to to being in solidarity. And if you can’t or won’t even do that?
I really don’t know what else to say to you.