Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Spark of Wisdom: Responding to missteps of privilege, language, ignorance and carelessness


This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

(Forgive me again for the possible atrocious typing and excess linking in this post. Typing one handed is vexing me a great deal).

Sometimes things come in waves - the same issue arises in several locations and gets me to thinking. Recently, in 3 separate forums, I have seen the same (or similar) debate raised - how marginalised people react to a privileged/offensive/prejudiced comment and whether they are right to do so. 

In particular, people have complained about marginalised people responding to missteps of privilege, language, ignorance and carelessness that often leads to so much offense, pain and triggering - those times we feel like we have our eyes sporked because someone has dropped some painful, often prejudiced ignorance.

In particular, people have complained about marginalised people responding to missteps of privilege, language, ignorance and carelessness that often leads to so much offense, pain and triggering - those times we feel like we have our eyes sporked because someone has dropped some painful, often prejudiced ignorance.
They complained because so often the marginalised people responded curtly. The marginalised would sharply respond to the offense, to the hurt - and the most common demand was that the offender "check their privilege." They complained that the marginalised person wouldn't explain why it was offensive, how these curt responses were silencing and destroying conversations and even dogpiling the offender - and more, that the marginalised refused to educate and explain. Surely, they complained, the marginalised person should explain for the good of all? And if they weren't willing to do so, they shouldn't silence the discussion so. Maybe they should let others willing to educate speak instead - and they should just hold their silence. 

Which, to my mind, basically leaves the marginalised person with 2 choices when someone sporks them in the eye with the extra-sharp spork of privileged, prejudiced ignorance.
  1. Explain in detail why said spork hurts, why they would rather their eyes not be sporked and likely engage in a long and spork filled conversation about their marginalisation which, let's be honest, is usually going to be a waste of breath/key strokes/mental strength. And we can't always have these productive conversations
  2. Suck it up and deal. Ignore it, pretend it doesn't affect them, let it pass unchallenged. Accept the sporking and bite the tongue. And, in doing so, perhaps give tolerance and acceptance of such remarks through their silence. We cannot ask them NOT to be hurt by that comment - because not being emotionally affected by marginalisation is a privilege. If someone has sporked me, I DO want to respond. I am angry, I am hurt I want to make it clear that it's not ok. Now, I'm generally more restrained than most when I do so (and I'm a big fan of getting up from the keyboard, taking a walk then coming back)- but nor do I accept the idea I should grit my teeth and bite my tongue and let it go - again.  
And, y'know, that strikes me as a pretty limited choice for the marginalised person. It seems a lot like the marginalised person just gets a whole lot of sporking and has to deal with it for the sake of the privileged offender's comfort.

I don't think this is justified or fair. If a response seems curt or abrupt or angry - there is usually a damn good reason. And since these complaints are commonly voiced on the internet - the idea that the offender doesn't have the resources to educate themselves is highly questionable to me. And even if such knowledge were really not so readily available, even if educating themselves would be difficult and awkward - is the difficulties faced by the privileged really sufficient justification to demand the marginalised "suck it up and deal"? Does the marginalised then have a duty to be the teacher, to endure further sporking - or the opposite choice - the marginalised must be silent and just endure quietly, lest they disrupt the (sporking) conversation?

No, it doesn't seem very fair to me at all

Now I have to add at the end here a caveat. There's a huge distinction between a sporking from a stranger/acquaintance/random person and an accidental sporking from a friend/person I consider to be a an ally. But that's from shared history and experience that gives me a reason to tolerate a little sporking and trust that the conversation WILL be productive. That doesn't mean anyone else owes them an explanation, by any means - or not to slap them back when they poke with the sporks - but it means I will because they have earned that from me.