Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Privilege and Low Expectations

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.   

One of the many many many not-very-coded speeches privileged people like to give is the one on “low expectations”.

You know the one – the one that says that welfare, affirmative action, any kind of accommodation, anti-discrimination rules or anything else to try and help marginalised people is somehow patronising and demeaning because it “expects too little” of marginalised people. Because it expects marginalised people to need help (completely missing the many ways marginalised people are hindered and the fact that society is already geared to help the privileged). Like many of the arguments of the oppressor, I’ve been dismissing it.

But I think I was wrong. I think that, yes, there are people out there who are labouring under the soft tyranny of low expectations. There are people who achieve so little because so little is expected for them.

I’m talking, of course, about people who are clinging to their comfortable blanket of privilege, those folks who have taught us time and again to expect the least from them. And the least is what we get.

Here are some expectations I wish we could have of people the expectations I wish we could have, the expectations I wish we could expect everyone to meet – as a bare minimum.

We will expect you to keep a civil tongue in your mouth. You’ll find it helps to keep a civil brain in your head – then you won’t say offensive shit “accidentally”. When I was a child, my parents would have sharp words if I “accidentally”  swore – we expect you to meet the same standards I managed as a small child. I have every confidence you will achieve this. Eventually. With practice.

We will expect you to recognise the limitations of the word “sorry” and how it does not justify or excuse your prejudiced or bigoted behaviour or language. Show some of the responsibility you always prattle on about. Certainly not if you’re only “sorry”  that you’re caught

We will expect you to learn from your mistakes. Children can learn not to repeat bad behaviour when corrected, we now expect the same of you.

We will expect you to be responsible for your own ignorance. We’re not your teachers or your parents. You are expected to know what you have the means to learn without us spoon feeding you. Especially if it can be learned with a little common sense and basic empathy.

We will expect you to stop making excuses and we will stop making excuses for you, whatever they are.

We will expect you to listen to us.


We will expect you to recognise when we are talking about something that doesn’t involve you. We will expect you not to change the subject into something that puts you centre stage. We will expect you not to talk over us. Again, small children learn this, it’s basic good manners.

We will expect you to be honest and not to lie about us to try and meet your ends or demonise us. This is the malicious act of a naughty child who can’t make a reasoned argument. We will expect you not to throw tantrums because not everything goes your way. We will expect you not to see people not coddling you as “being mean”  or “persecuting you”

We will expect you to speak and act when you see or hear bigotry. Or if you don’t speak, at least not patronise us with pathetic, absolution-seeking please about why you didn’t or why you couldn’t. We do not care, it isn’t helpful and we’re not here to pat your hand and say “there there” when you have failed us.

We will expect you not to tell us about your guilt, but actually act on it. Your guilt is useless to us. We have enough emotional burdens of our own without playing agony aunt to yours

We will expect you to work against bigotry or, at very least, stop perpetuating bigotry rather than publicly grieving when you see its results.

We will expect you to be a decent human being. This is the minimal expectation and we will not praise you for it. We will expect you not to be a bigot, we will not praise or reward you for it any more than you’d reward a 12 year old for going a day without attacking their siblings or swearing at grandma. This is expected behaviour, you don’t get sweeties for it.

We will expect you to treat us as full human beings in all respects, no ifs, buts or maybes, no exceptions, no provisos.

We will expect you not to protect bigots, not to support bigots and not to look away from bigotry. We will expect you not to deny bigotry happens, deny a force is bigoted or defend bigotry.

We will expect you to accept that not everything has to be about you. We will expect you not to whine when we have more than a token presence, we will expect you not to complain when you aren’t the overwhelming majority, we will expect you not to expect you and yours to always come first.

We will expect you to be able to identify with, root for and otherwise enjoy media that has protagonists that are not entirely like you. We manage every day in a thousand ways; if we can, you can.

We will expect you to look at your world and see the privilege and recognise that is it injustice that made things this way – not chance, not the natural order, not deity.

These are still low expectations –  though much higher than we often have. But so many of these are so basic -  these are the same expectations parents have of small children. It speaks volumes of how little we expect of people that so many can act like spoiled children and it have become normalised. It’s time to grow up folks - we expect better.