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The Serpent's Wisdom - being an ally part 1: listening to anger
Eat of this fruit; your eyes shall be opened, and you will be as Gods.
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being an ally part 1: listening to anger
This is intended for a wider audience (eventually) than just my journal's readership, hence the tone is a bit different from what i usually strike here.

The following will probably come across as preaching, but i offer this not as a high and mighty guru who is spirtually perfected and better than thou. This is a lesson i learned the hard way, by being a jerk from time to time and having to be called on it. It bears my mea culpa; i did these things repeatedly, and only slowly learned what i was doing wrong.

If you are a white person who wants to be a better ally to people of color, please heed my words.
If you are a man who wants to be a better ally to feminists, please heed my words.
If you are a straight person who wants to be a better ally to queer folk, please heed my words.

Sometimes you're going to encounter utterances from a less-privileged friend that make you angry. This could be for a number of reasons. Maybe you are reading about against an injustice done to someone else. Or, you might be angry because the utterance contains an unqualified generalization that unfairly impugns... well... you.

You might be tempted to reply with an insistance that your friend modify their statement by adding "most" or "some" because "we're not all like that." You might reply with a detailed argument about why one of the examples chosen doesn't prove the point they are trying to make. You might demand proof, and then accept nothing less than a peer-reviewed published academic article. You may be tempted to connect your friend's utterance to heavy-handed social strategies that they didn't even bring up; e.g., "Even so, that doesn't mean we should engage in censorship." Or, you may decide that it's helpful to comment on your friend's angry tone, suggesting that a more calm way of expressing oneself may lead to better results.

None of this is helpful.

Anyone who wants, who truly wants, to see the world become a better place has to make a commitment to listen to their friends' anger. And, yeah, it's hard the first time. But it's not nearly so hard the second time.

It should be a point of basic reading and listening comprehension that any generalization has exceptions. This is true even if the generalization does not come with a disclaimer. If you weren't taught this in school, well, i'm teaching you now. If your friend feels safe enough making this utterance in your presence, perhaps it could be that it's not about you, or that they think you're capable of getting it. So insisting on the appendage of a disclaimer is not helpful.

Part of the anger you're feeling is a reflection of the anger your friend is struggling to give voice. Finding your voice after a lifetime of having your concerns shoved aside can be an awkward and difficult process. Someone at this stage of growing awareness and rising consciousness needs encouragement, not defensiveness and cavil. Defensiveness and cavil are what they've received their whole life, and it's why finding their voice now is a struggle.

It's not necessary for every single utterance to be precise, scientifically accurate, academically rigorous, and polite. While one might think that calm, rational, well-articulated utterances are more effective than angry rants, when it comes to challenging privilege, activists can tell you that doesn't actually tend to be the case. That's why activists often use more agitating tactics like strikes and protests and sit-ins -- because sometimes that's what you have to do to get anyone to listen to you.

Now the hardest part of this: sitting with your friend's anger. Instead of reacting to anger with anger, make a commitment to step aside from your response and examine the anger for what it is. A lot of the time when it has happened to me, i find it is an indication of my own unexamined privilege. If someone says to you that they think you are privileged in a way they are not, it's common to get defensive about it. But this statement is not an attack. So don't respond to it as if it were. If you can say "I feel like i'm being attacked here," you're facing a moment of truth.

Some of the most illuminating realizations i've ever had came as a result of doing this.

If you can step aside from the statement that angers you and see it as an expression of your friend's experience more than an objective rhetorical assertion, you can come away with a clearer understanding of what your friend's life is like.

Reflexive defensiveness makes it difficult to have genuine conversations about privilege and social class. And so, as i said above, if you are someone who truly cares about doing your part to help the world become a better place, you have to let these conversations happen. Sometimes it means listening to a statement that makes you angry and resisting the urge to tear it apart with logic. The reward for this is that you will understand better where your friend is coming from, and you will be a better ally.

The first time is the hardest.

Please don't take the above to mean that there's absolutely no way to respond with an objection. It just means you have to be a bit more conscientious about it -- which consideration is a small momentary inconvenience compared to the impositions your friend endures every day. You can manage it.

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Comments
sophy From: sophy Date: May 9th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I find that checking my privileges in a way that compares them against my non-privileges helps. Like, if I feel insulted when someone makes a generalization about white people, I remember that I sometimes find it necessary to make similar kinds of generalizations about men.
It is a tough lesson to learn, still, and I'm definitely still learning myself. And of course there are many many differences between racial and gender discrimination and issues. But having that point of comparison does help me to shed more light on things in the areas in which I am privileged.

Of course, for someone who happens to live an existence of being privileged in every (or even most) ways and doesn't have that kind of experience to compare to, it must be an even tougher lesson to learn. It's good to find ways to give these people advice on how to learn better.
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, i have similar trouble hearing people of color talk about white privilege and white supremacy. And i have to do the same, i have to compare what they're saying against my own experience as someone who's queer.
perlmonger From: perlmonger Date: May 9th, 2008 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thankyou.

Clearly and beautifully written; where are you going to publish?
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
I dunno. I'll find a venue.
mlfoley From: mlfoley Date: May 9th, 2008 08:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, but not all of us who refuse to listen are like that! Most aren't!
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I lol'd.
alobar From: alobar Date: May 9th, 2008 09:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have no interest in hearing someone rant about how *all* people like me oppress them. I acknowledge that some people have fucked them up, but I just don't see any need for me to subject myself to their racism, sexism, or classism.

I usually respond with asking them if I am part of the oppressor class in your eyes, why are you bothering to talk to me? I am sure not going to feel guilt for what other people have done.
liminalia From: liminalia Date: May 9th, 2008 09:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Because it is essential for the privileged to acknowledge their privilege and start to desire to ameliorate oppression for the oppressed to make much headway at all. Women and blacks would never have gotten the vote if white men hadn't started believing it was wrong. So as much as they would like to not have to, the oppressed have to talk to the privileged about injustices.
theamaranth From: theamaranth Date: May 9th, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
but the thing is, in EVERY change in society, the ones fighting for their legal and moral rights have ALWAYS made exceptions and have praised those of the priviledged who have stood by them in solidarity.

i think it's ridiculous to say it's OK to say "The white man is opressin' me" when not ALL white men are oppressive - only the POWERFUL ones. there are tons of poor, rural, uneducated white men out there who are NOT oppressing anyone.

i feel it is kinda silly to allow generalizations to be made about ANYONE - regardless of the issue being fought.

not all men have oppressed or raped women.

not all white people have oppressed those of color.

not all rich people have oppressed poor people.

so in effect, we should not allow our language to keep out potential allies.
aerieofgrace From: aerieofgrace Date: May 9th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
I disagree whole-heartedly that "not all men have oppressed women. not all white people have oppressed those of color. not all rich people have oppressed poor people." There's no way to escape the systems of oppression and claim that as a white, upper-middle-class straight-seeming bisexual woman, I am not a part of or complicit in oppression of those of color, those who are poor, and those who are queer. plus, the whole deal here is that fighting against generalizations draws energy away from what we should be fighting against: the oppression itself. just don't take generalizations personally.
theamaranth From: theamaranth Date: May 9th, 2008 10:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
EXCUSE ME, i am not oppressing ANYONE. no matter what demographic i have been born in.

just don't take generalizations personally.

then bitches shouldn't take generalizations personally when i call all women whores.

see how that doesn't work?
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 11:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
One does not have to personally beat or kill or rape anyone to draw benefits from privilege.
theamaranth From: theamaranth Date: May 9th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
does this mean they are actively oppressing people while simply living their lives?
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
No. I wouldn't call it oppression, i would just call it privilege.

Let me give you a concrete example of what i mean. Last year sometime, there was a city in India that banned women from getting a night-shift job "for their own protection." Now, it's mostly men who are beating them up or whatever. Sometimes women, but mostly men. But now, even a man who never hit a woman or even made a rude comment to one gains a small bit of privilege, because now he'll have less competition if he applies for a night-shift job. So someone else is doing the dirty work (because behind it all is misogyny and violence) but even someone who doesn't contribute to the dirty work at all can benefit from it.
dyionisiac From: dyionisiac Date: May 10th, 2008 01:20 am (UTC) (Link)
It seems relevant here to distinguish between "privilege", which is passive, a result of birth and oppression, which is active.

A person has no choice about having received some privileges and simply needs to be aware that their experiences have been different because of it and that others may resent it regardless of your ability to control the situation or active work against it.

To be guilty of Oppression it seems to me you must be actively engaged or at least passively accepting of the situation.

An illustrative example would be the example would be that the man who wrote and submitted the bill that allowed women to vote was using his privilege as a man to work against oppression of women. And I'm sure he heard ALOT about male oppression while working with women.
theamaranth From: theamaranth Date: May 9th, 2008 11:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
and pardon, i am white. i would hope you wouldn't accuse me of oppressing someone of a minority simply for a cashier job i've held while in highschool.
aerieofgrace From: aerieofgrace Date: May 9th, 2008 11:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I wouldn't take that statement personally because it's obviously a ridiculous statement. I still disagree with you.
sammhain From: sammhain Date: May 10th, 2008 04:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Here is a better way to filter it...

When someone says "white people do x", realize they mean the existance of a white social caste or a race based social heirarchy. they do not mean you or your friend personally.

also realize that class analysis is not taught in public education so that it is feasible that though their ideas might better be expressed through a framework of classism, if they lack that language they may frame it in language that is more familiar to them.

So when white business owners or white cops fuck them over they might say oh hey these guys are all white instead of hey these guys are all enforcers for or are part of the bougousie.

When someone says all men do x, assume they mean opressive forms of patriarchy and/or the existance of a gender based social heirachy.

I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.

The idea of privilege insn't that I as a white man am out raping women or lynching people of color, it's that in many subtle and not so subtle ways there are benefits to my being white and male. This an observation that holds true in general. So while it's true that a poor white person (like me) does not have the same power to opresss that members of a higher up economic class do, it is also true that in many cases I will still be treated better than an equally poor (and likely a better off economically and educationally) person of color in many situations where skin color is more evident than education level or economic status.

No that isn't my fault, I am not the architect of society, but because I am here now I can decide to embrace the system or fight against it.

Trust me, I get the initial reaction of "fuck you!", it is hard to be poor and white and hear unqualified statements about privilege. We don't learn about race based or gender based segregations or other issues of privilege for the same reasons they don't teach classism in public schools. (or in rare cases as anything other than a relic of marxist theory)

Our society is essentially controlled by a very small, very rich, mostly white, mostly male population.

One of my favorite slogans is "The rich only sleep at night because we let them."

(keep in mind I don't mean your rich friend who is probably a nice person, but an economic caste system which depends on exploitation of the majority by a minority of people we'll call "capitalists" in order to exist)

Any way it's true..there are more of us than them but it's also because they keep us segregated, and suspicious of each other, because they convince us we need them when it's the other way around.

They keep too many of my fellow white and working class people watching the mexican border when we should be watching the corporate boardrooms and government offices.

They keep our understanding of other cultures and lifestyles to very specific media blitzes full of spectacle, because they know...

The day we all get together and decide together that everyone gets justice or they don't get any peace, that will be the day they stop sleeping so well at night.

So if what it takes to make that happen is hear some one make generalizations about men, or about whites, or about heterosexuals, if that is what it takes to prove to those people that I want to be their ally, then you better believe I'm going to do that, because that is a pretty small price to pay for what stands to be gained.

sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can add a clarification, because it may be necessary. (This is one of the reasons i only posted this here, instead of in a community or something - because i rely on honest feedback.)

I'm not saying it's okay for some people to say hateful stuff and get away with it, but not others. I'm saying that sometimes people are not always at their most articulate when they're expressing their anger. Especially if it's something they've never really felt allowed to say before.

I'm also saying that not everything is or has to be a debate. Sometimes people are just venting and they should be able to do that sometimes. When people vent you can sometimes get a more honest view of what it is like to be that person, if you deeply listen to the fullness of what it is that they're saying.
theamaranth From: theamaranth Date: May 9th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not saying it's okay for some people to say hateful stuff and get away with it, but not others. I'm saying that sometimes people are not always at their most articulate when they're expressing their anger.

agreed. i called a woman a slut who gave birth to her adulterers' child and lied about it to her husband. i was then called a woman hater, when i am NOT a woman hater, i just feel she was immoral in lying to her husband about the child she birthed. i agree with you there. ;) i can usually differentiate between those who say "The white man is opressing me" and those who say "Every single person who is born white is contributing actively to the oppression of minorities".

When people vent you can sometimes get a more honest view of what it is like to be that person, if you deeply listen to the fullness of what it is that they're saying.

completely agreed. you just have to be careful when people say these kinds of things - in many circles, MEN are the enemy, or WHITEY is the enemy, or WOMEN are the enemy - and so forth.
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 11:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
One thing i've seen is that sometimes people who are new to feminism or other critical ways of looking at the world, that they kinda go overboard and say outrageous things. If it's awful enough other feminists or whatever will correct them, sometimes sternly. But it's just part of learning how to look at the world in a new way, sometimes it goes to one's head.
sammhain From: sammhain Date: May 10th, 2008 04:37 am (UTC) (Link)
This is why I try to ask questions instead of make statements..

and then only after the venting process.
geek_dragon From: geek_dragon Date: May 12th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
"I'm saying that sometimes people are not always at their most articulate when they're expressing their anger. Especially if it's something they've never really felt allowed to say before."

I get dumped on for that. I'm not super articulate or manipulative, so people think that my emotions and opinions don't count.
sammhain From: sammhain Date: May 10th, 2008 03:44 am (UTC) (Link)
All white men do however bennefit from a racist system whether they would like to or not, and acknowledging that and finding ways to counter or reject is your duty as a privileged person if you're in any way interested in a system or a society that is socially just for everyone.

If it's more important for me as a white hetro male to assert how i'm not "like that" than it is for me to shut the fuck up and consider the perspective of someone other than me, then functionally I'd rather have my privilege than work for a more fair society.

I think it's also worth considering how language and education affect the statements people make. For example I draw a line between bigotry and racism, so often times people will be confused if I say a person of color in this country can't be racist. When I explain to them the difference between personal predjudice and sytematic discrimination they usually on board with the point.

I've also had female friends say to me, after a bad break up, "I hate men"...now do I get offended an assert that I am not like that, or do I choose to be compassionate and appreciate this expression of pain and anger for what it is? The same principle carries over to more abstract or numbers of people.

This doesn't mean you don't get an opinion if you're part of an opressive social caste, it just means that you have to take things into consideration that ae bigger and more important than your personal comfort when you address the. Asking questions instead of making statements goes a long way too imo.


This I feel merits special attenton though:

"not all rich people have oppressed poor people."

How do you suppose massive amounts of capital are amassed without the opression of the working class?

Being a man, or white, or hetero are largely not about choice, are not about personal actions you that turn you into a white person, a male person, or a hetero person. The accumulation of wealth is not in the same category.


sammhain From: sammhain Date: May 10th, 2008 04:59 am (UTC) (Link)
"in EVERY change in society, the ones fighting for their legal and moral rights have ALWAYS made exceptions and have praised those of the priviledged who have stood by them in solidarity.
"


Wait what....

Sorry some social changes happens without the aid of vanguardists.
alobar From: alobar Date: May 9th, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I do what I can to end oppression, but when someone ties to guilt trip me, I walk away.

When I moved down South I met some black people who wanted to blame me because my ancestors owned slaves. They wanted me to feel guilty, and give them money so they could get drink or buy crack. I just laughed at them. I told them that my earliest ancestor to arrive in the US came here during the Civil war, and was drafted into the Union army.

Being guilt-tripped by people makes me hostile towards their very real oppression. So best I just walk away.
theamaranth From: theamaranth Date: May 9th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
I do what I can to end oppression, but when someone ties to guilt trip me, I walk away.

which is exactly what you should do. i am not going to take responsibility for the actions of other people, no matter if i share their skin color, genitals or class.
sammhain From: sammhain Date: May 10th, 2008 04:38 am (UTC) (Link)
If you walk away everytime you're confronted with your privilege then you don't one of the most important things you can do to end systematic opression.
chickenfried_jo From: chickenfried_jo Date: May 9th, 2008 11:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
it's interesting that you assume that a general expression of anger is about you and that you should take it personally and remove yourself from unjust accusations. That right there is exactly what is being talked about. sometimes, when people are angry around you, they're just angry, but not at you.
Knowing this and listening intently, being able to hear them, is a powerful skill. Walking away just shows them they still aren't being heard.
aerieofgrace From: aerieofgrace Date: May 9th, 2008 11:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Amen.
sammhain From: sammhain Date: May 10th, 2008 04:55 am (UTC) (Link)
"I do what I can to end oppression, but when someone ties to guilt trip me, I walk away."

If you walk away everytime you're asked to confront your privilege you're taking a step backward for every other step you're putting forward.

"When I moved down South I met some black people who wanted to blame me because my ancestors owned slaves. They wanted me to feel guilty, and give them money so they could get drink or buy crack."

Wait...what...

Some one seriously told you that you personally, you alobar or someone in your genetic tree invented slavery and then actually like bulit plantations and shit and so because of that, the very least you could do was buy them crack or some hennesy?

1. I think we both know that never happened

2. Your rationalization for ignoring privilege is that a junkie will say anything to get their next fix?

Seriously, that's what your position is?

"I told them that my earliest ancestor to arrive in the US came here during the Civil war"

Phew..so they were only here for shit like Jim Crow and the Tuskegee experiment. I'm sure they were relieved.

Did any of yor ancestors star in Birth Of A Nation, just curious man?

"and was drafted into the Union army"

Right because no Union states owned slaves or had racist laws on the books..oh wait

Also I'd be more impressed if your ancestors were imprisoned for resisting that draft.

"Being guilt-tripped by people makes me hostile towards their very real oppression"

Totally! because your egocentric discomfort is way more important than "their very real opression".

Seriously what's wrong with these opressed people, they'll never get anywhere unless they start realizing they're talking to a white man, and act and speak accordingly, amirite?

Holy shit dude every time you post about an issue like this my eyeballs start bleeding. You're the guy who says "but I have a black friend!" you realize that right?
fallen_x_ashes From: fallen_x_ashes Date: May 9th, 2008 09:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's really nice. Is it okay if I link to that in my blog an profile?
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 10th, 2008 03:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes... any public post i make is okay to link. Thanks!
sammhain From: sammhain Date: May 10th, 2008 04:56 am (UTC) (Link)
cool i'm linking the shit out of this.
lyght From: lyght Date: May 9th, 2008 09:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would like to link as well, please!
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 10th, 2008 03:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! Any public post i make is okay to link.
zensandy From: zensandy Date: May 9th, 2008 10:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Your general points apply to any conversation where we disagree with the speaker, not just on matters of privilege. I hope you will find a wider audience for this; it's a very important lesson.
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 9th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmm, good point. True, that.
sol_et_luna From: sol_et_luna Date: May 10th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC) (Link)
Hear, hear!

I have male friends to me who rant to me about women.
I have financially disadvantaged folk who rant to me about the attitudes of the rich.
I have friends from the South who rant to me about Northerners.
I have introverted friends who rant to me about extroverts.

I never take it personally. I know that if they had a problem with me or something I said, they'll come to me. Otherwise, I take it as a COMPLIMENT that they feel free enough to rant to me about such things knowing that I am already one of the exceptions to the rule.

Being able to listen to such things is a GOOD thing. It's nice sometimes to be able to take a look in the mirror and wonder where I can do things better. In fact listening to men and having dated women has made me a better communicator in regards to dating, relationships, and sex because I have resolved to not be "one of those types of women."

But all of that requires being able to put the ego aside and accept the fact that perhaps we're not all that perfect.
idunn From: idunn Date: May 10th, 2008 03:24 am (UTC) (Link)
I was going to say this, but you beat me to it :) I think some people can confuse the ranting from groups who feel unheard because Group X "just ain't listening dammit" with a rant about how Group X sucks and needs to DIAF - cuz then it's xenophobia, which blows no matter how you cut it, but I very rarely hear the latter (usually just on the internet, where some folks feel anonymity affords them the right to projectile vomit their crap). What I usually hear is frustration from groups, usually underprivileged but sometimes not, feeling like something just ain't right, and talking about it.

Which is better than shutting up as so many underprivileged peoples have unfortunately had to do for a long time anyway.
dorisp From: dorisp Date: May 10th, 2008 01:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Hmm, this makes me thoughtful. I will have to ponder this - thanks for writing this! :)
blindwebster From: blindwebster Date: May 11th, 2008 12:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Hi, I followed a link here from sammhain's lj. I just wanted to say, as a woman of color, Thank you for writing this. Really, thank you. *solidarity hugs*
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 12th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
*hugs* Thank you for your kind words. :)

Digging your icon.
From: eleccta758 Date: May 12th, 2008 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Your journal is beautiful!
geek_dragon From: geek_dragon Date: May 12th, 2008 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
it's the stepping aside from the emotion that can be the hardest stumbling block, even for those who "know better".
el_christador From: el_christador Date: May 13th, 2008 12:21 am (UTC) (Link)

completely unrelated

This is completely unrelated.

Since it may be of interest to you and it is possible it has not yet come to your attention, I draw your attention to this NPR program Two Families Grapple with Sons' Gender Preferences about childhood gender identity issues.
el_christador From: el_christador Date: May 13th, 2008 12:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, right, there's also this comment which might be interesting.
sophiaserpentia From: sophiaserpentia Date: May 13th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: completely unrelated

Thank you. There's been quite a lot of talk in the trans community about the NPR program, and the fact that Dr. Zucker has been chosen to be the head of the team revising the Gender Identity Disorders section of the DSM for the fifth edition. I just haven't written about it... some things i'm just not sure what to say about.
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