Sometimes, being supportive of those that are oppressed just means making sure their voices are heard. Stephanie Farnsworth discusses privilege and oppression.
Every single equality movement ever has had the same issue: they’re unequal. Take a look at any group and you’ll see the same mirror of patriarchy but just one thing will be different. With feminist groups it’ll be cis women leading the way instead of cis men but they will all still be cis, white, middle class, straight or gay, able-bodied and neurotypical. Now look at the LGBTQ+ community. It’s still dominated by cis, white, middle class, gay, able-bodied and neurotypical men and women. If an equality group shuts out those who are most vulnerable in society then it has immediately failed on its own terms.
The problems, I feel, are about human ego and gate keeping. Take the biggest gay groups in the country for instance: they have come so far that they probably feel that focussing on trans and bisexual issues will spoil their political power play now they have a strong foothold in politics and the media. This is completely wrong and shows that what they stand for isn’t really worth anything. The other issue of ego is a much more prominent problem because suddenly even organisations which claim to be left-wing and inclusive will start complaining of suffering reverse racism if a person of colour calls out their practices.
If an equality group shuts out those who are most vulnerable in society then it has immediately failed on its own terms.
‘Call out culture’, as it has been dubbed, is a wonderful thing. It means that people who didn’t have a voice before the boom of social media can now challenge problematic statements and practices. This can only be a positive. People always make mistakes. We’ve spent years being told certain lies by society and so it takes years to break them down and confront our ingrained ideas. I’ve said many cissexist things in the past of which I am now ashamed but which I have learnt from. These can be made into opportunities to accept how we contribute to oppressions and our narrow toxic binary culture, and be used to help stop these mistakes from happening repeatedly. Yet, all too often it descends into a battle of a journalist or a prominent tweeter trying to save their ego. Being called out isn’t the problem – how you react to it is what matters.
Most of us do have some form of privilege but that doesn’t change our humanity. It’s an examination and reflection on the structures of powers. I don’t want to say I stand with people of colour because if I start talking at the same event as them then my voice will be listened to by default because I am white. My privilege means that I will always run the risk of talking over a person of colour and their experiences. I’ll always confront racism but it’s important for white people to focus on uplifting black voices rather than stepping in and dominating the discourse – which would of course be racist and disempowering to people of colour. Trans activism should be led by trans people, disabled people should be listened to first and foremost when it comes to challenging disablism and so forth. People shouldn’t expect a pat on the back just for supporting those who face multiple oppressions. It’s why I’ve come to loathe the term ‘ally’.
Most of us do have some form of privilege but that doesn’t change our humanity. It’s an examination and reflection on the structures of powers.
I have to admit that whenever anybody cis, straight and white describes themselves as an ‘ally’ I wonder if they’re just doing it for attention. This is probably harsh but I don’t think anybody should make a song and dance about supporting people who are oppressed in a specific way that doesn’t really impact upon you. That’s just known as not being a tosspot and is the very least we should ever expect from people. I’ve questioned my presence in certain spaces for various reasons. I’m bisexual and sometimes I feel shut out of LGBTQ+ spaces. A big part of it is the myth that bisexual people are traitors who have half of the oppression which I have internalised, but another part is that bisexual voices are silenced. Within these contexts I feel both on the inside and outside as though I am intruding.
My gender is something I have wondered about. I can’t say I’ve struggled with it because I never experienced any significant body dysphoria and my major battles have been with my sexuality and my physical health. Through years of trying to break down ideas I had about myself I began to realise that actually it’s a slightly more fluid world for me. I’ll always identify as a cis woman and I will always have the unmistakable privilege of a cis woman but there are days when I definitely feel agender. The non binary category feels more natural to me but using certain terms as my own would feel like appropriation. Nobody is ever going to abuse me for this, nobody will ever question me about this and I will never experience discrimination for this. It’s also not something that I really ever consider most days; I either embrace my identity as a women or some days gender feels like an inapplicable concept to me. Whatever the day, it isn’t really an issue for me and I recognise that it is much easier for white, slim people to be able to ID as agender in this society. I centre my volunteering and activism around those who are the most oppressed and fighting for better trans rights is at the heart of that. I am not, however, fighting for my own rights. There are as many different genders as there are sexualities and I acknowledge all of the many, many ways in which I am privileged. One can have a nuanced identity while accepting not only their privilege, but often complicity in cissexist, white supremacist, heteronormative and disablist systems.
This is probably harsh but I don’t think anybody should make a song and dance about supporting people who are oppressed in a specific way that doesn’t really impact upon you.
If you’re involved in activism for a pat on the back or to develop a media presence from a flashy feminist campaign then you’re involved for the wrong reason. Lives are literally at stake, particularly in an era of austerity and so if we go to any community or activist space we must leave our egos at the door and be ready to listen and support those who are the most affected and are therefore speaking from experience. It’s not about our need to speak but the need for everybody to have a voice.
Follow Stephanie on Twitter (@StephFarnsworth)