You’re sitting across the room from me in a lecture room crowded with a few hundred of your acquaintances, when the teacher asks a question. After a few minutes of awkward silence and the noise of papers being shuffled around, you decide to try to answer, even though you’re not sure if you’re right. You mix up a term though, and the teacher gets in your face and yells “YOU’RE WRONG! WHAT YOU SAID IS INVALID AND YOU’RE IRRELEVANT AND WRONG AND NOW YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL THE CLASS! I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW WRONG YOU ARE! HAVE YOU EVEN BEEN LISTENING IN MY CLASS?!”
– wtf, right? Chances are, you’d be really confused if the above situation ever happened to you. Teachers are there to teach you and help you to learn, because they supposedly want you to succeed and become more informed about their subject of interest.
Let me get something straight: I’m not one for censoring reactions to oppression. People who have been systematically and repeatedly oppressed, mistreated, and silenced have every right to address their perceived oppressors in any way they feel just. Some people are incredibly rude and disrespectful and spew their hate speech to whomever will listen to them, and they totally deserve to be called out on it.
But here’s the thing…
What I’m frustrated by is the fact that A LOT of people who claim to want social reform through education and understanding refuse to educate…
And that just doesn’t make sense.
[From here on out, I’m just going to be talking about people who may say/do something offensive without realizing it; people who genuinely don’t get it. Bear that in mind.]
When somebody tells you you’re wrong and refuses to explain it any further – or explains it in condescending, hostile/aggressive language – what are the chances that you’ll actually take something positive from it? Next to nothing, I’d bet. You’d either retaliate and become equally heated, become defensive and avoidant, or become really upset and think the other person is just mean or a bully. The same thing happens when trying to address oppressive language or actions from someone who may not understand the issues or terminology at hand: you won’t get very far if you try to “correct” them by attacking them.
I genuinely don’t understand people’s logic when it comes to things of this manner. I understand that “we don’t need to tiptoe around oppressors feelings” and that “oppressors shouldn’t feel like their oppressive opinions are valid because that’s harmful”, I really do. But, like it or not, they’re still people with thoughts and feelings and experiences that are likely very different from the people that they (maybe inadvertently) are offending. And yeah, you’re right; they don’t have the same experience as you. They don’t get it and, in an ideal world, these clueless people would take the time to peruse the internet for hours and attend meetings and events to in an attempt educate themselves… but, clearly, this is not an ideal world, and the people who actually do actively learn about these issues tend to only be those who are already involved and enlightened – I want more people than that to join positive social movements.
So what? Should the oppressed be forced into being patient and painstakingly explain to these people why what they’re saying/doing is wrong?
Of course not. If you’re a member of a group that has been wronged, I don’t think that should be forced to cater to anyone, but I really don’t see what you’re hoping to accomplish otherwise. For example, when a male doesn’t understand the concept of “male privilege” and gets defensive about the concept, you probably won’t gain an ally by calling him a misogynistic, sexist women-hater who wants all women to suffer horribly. But, if you take a few minutes to explain that the concept of male privilege does not refer to every single male individually, but to males as a gender due to the systematic historical oppression of and violence against women, you might get him to understand. You might even get him to care, agree with you, and support you. Personally, I think that’s a much better alternative.
As a final thought, continue to react to perceived oppression in whatever way you please. That’s on you. But before you do, think about your goals and values. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, because I think you can accomplish so much. Will you fight ignorance by forcefully standing up for yourself, even if it means missing out on an ally? Or will you be willing to have the possibility of failing after you have the patience to truly and compassionately teach someone who doesn’t understand the struggle? The choice is yours.