I posted the other day on facebook and twitter that white privilege and thin privilege are the toughest scrappers in the game– they’ll throw any kind of punch they can think of to preserve their privilege.
I posted that because there have been a handful of responses in the blogospere to my blog post of the other day, The Weapon of Invisibility, that advocate for “taking a step back” and “approaching these issues with nuance” and “allowing for respectful appropriation.” In other words: Go easy on the privileged when we cross boundaries, because sometimes we do so accidentally, or with respect in our hearts. Not one had a word to say about the thin privilege portion– the point wasn’t even WORTH MENTIONING. Ah, the weapon of invisibility. But I digress.
Listen, I get that you’re frustrated and want activists to go easier on people who cross boundaries of cultural appropriation. I see it all the time. You’re terrified of fucking up– or that you have already massively fucked up in something you wrote, staged, or said. Relax– of course you fucked up. So did I. So has everyone. But that doesn’t mean you get to decide what respect looks like for marginalized people. You have to live with the fact that, if you have privilege and you wish to fight for social justice, you do not create the terms of that and must listen carefully to the people who have been marginalized. If the privileged are the gatekeepers, then nothing has changed.
And yes, I completely understand how scary it is. But you cannot sit from your place of privilege and decide which cultural appropriation has crossed the line and which is respectful because, quite frankly, that is not your decision to make. What does that look like? “Dear people of color, sorry you’re all so pissed, but I believe that production was respectful borrowing, so please calm down”? Privilege cannot decide the terms of this if the goal is social justice. All that accomplishes is preserving privilege.
We all have some types of privilege and we all have some areas wherein we lack privilege. In those areas wherein you have privilege your job is to listen and allow those without privilege to set the terms of the discussion– WHAT crosses boundaries and HOW.
In those areas wherein you lack privilege, you get to set the terms of the discussion. You get to decide when boundaries have been crossed. And when, as so often happens, someone with privilege you lack comes along and tells you that you aren’t approaching the issue with “nuance” or that you should give someone the benefit of the doubt because they were appropriating with “respect” (as if intent erased results, but fine), then you have every right to be outraged at the attempt to silence you, at the attempt of privilege to retain its privilege by seizing control of the terms of the discussion and turning it into a debate.
I understand that we’re all scared. I’m scared, too, both for the areas in which I have privilege– How many times will I get it wrong today?– and the areas in which I don’t– How many times will I be told that my outrage is unjustified today? How many times will my feelings of marginalization be met with “You people are too sensitive” or “I didn’t mean it that way, so relax,” or “It’s just a joke/play/school production/Hollywood film/etc”? Because EVERY SINGLE TIME I speak out, someone with privilege I lack is there within moments to say ALL of those things to me.
Just take a deep breath and listen. When people who lack privilege you have are speaking out about that lack of privilege, and how it looks every day, and how their culture is appropriated, LISTEN. BELIEVE THEM. And use your place of privilege to speak out as an ally.
When you lack privilege and want to speak out, know that there are allies who WILL listen to you, support you, and yes, screw it up, but still keep trying. Don’t let the people who tell you that your outrage isn’t justified silence you. I see you. I stand with you. And I know you stand with me, in my fear, in my outrage, in my strength, in my mistakes, in my triumphs. There are millions of us, and for the first time in history, we’re all saying NO.