This is part one of a multi-part series on privilege, dehumanization, and hierarchy in organizing, activist, and ministry circles.
Early in my training at my current job, my boss explained our agency’s position on social justice and intersectionality to me: “When we center the margins in our work, everybody gets served.” Framed differently: When we expand the circle of who can access service, be treated with dignity, and have their humanity affirmed by others, those already within the circle get served, respected, and affirmed as well. Nobody gets excluded. Everyone gets support. In our work, we recognize that all oppressions are interlinked, and that you cannot effectively advocate for the abolition of one form of oppression without working to end them all.
I think there is a fear within circles of people who experience one or more forms of oppression that in order to allow care for those who are more marginalized, or marginalized in different ways, we must turn our focus outward to the margins, away from the center. And sometimes we do. Sometimes we need to stop talking about the needs of cis men long enough to really focus on harm experienced by women and femmes. Sometimes we need to stop talking about the experiences of white women long enough to recognize the unique oppressions experienced by Black, Latinx, and Native women. Sometimes we need to stop talking about the experiences of straight cis people to recognize the daily microaggressions, direct aggression, and harm experienced by trans and nonbinary people.
In general, though, in bringing focus to the margins, we increase safety and options for those scattered throughout the center as well. As we expand the circle of who is able to access safe, inclusive, culturally-sensitive and equitable services, everyone gets served. It benefits all of us to advocate for the deeply-honored humanity, rights, and safety of all people who experience marginalization and discrimination — even those marginalizations we do not ourselves experience, even those we may not fully understand. Liberation for each of us is tied up in the collective liberation of all who suffer under patriarchal, white supremacist control that reduces us to our utility as bodies or conformity to Western norms of appearance or behavior.
And those of us with more privileged identities? It’s on us to educate ourselves about the experiences of marginalized identities we do not hold as our own. It’s on white people to learn about the experiences of BIPoC with racism and microagressions. It’s on men to educate themselves about the gendered experiences of women. It’s on cis people to seek out better understanding of the experiences of trans and gender-nonconforming folks, on the wealthy to learn about the needs of the poor, and on those within dominant religions to prioritize learning about not just the beliefs but also the experiences of discrimination of those who follow minority religious paths.
It’s on the privileged to learn about those who struggle for equitable treatment because we are the ignorant ones.*
“Ashis Nandy says, one must choose the slave’s standpoint not only because the slave is oppressed but also because he represents a higher order cognition which perforce includes the master as a human, whereas the master’s cognition has to exclude the slave except as a ‘thing.’ Liberation must therefore begin from the colonised and end with the coloniser.” – Vandana Shiva in Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development
Women don’t struggle to understand men’s perspectives, because we hear them amplified in the media all the time. Queer people don’t lack understanding about heterosexual behaviors and experiences, because we’ve been told our entire lives all the ways in which we fail to live up to cultural norms and expectations. Black people don’t lack awareness or understanding of how white people navigate the world, because they’ve been navigating (and teaching their children to navigate) spaces that were designed for white safety and comfort for centuries.
The oppressed don’t struggle to see the humanity of their oppressors even as anyone’s humanity, viewed through the lens of violence and fear, can be frightening. It is always on the powerful to learn, and not through a boundless expectation of emotional labor on the part of those who’ve been oppressed. Seek out sources. Read blogs. Read books. Read journal articles. Ask for recommendations. Educate yourself first, and when you turn to those who have lived experiences of marginalization for clarification and education, ask first if they have the capacity, time, and interest, and be prepared to compensate professionals for whom emotional labor is the product for their time.
*A dynamic I see happen often is for the privileged group of people to claim to be oppressed by the marginalized group as the movement for equal rights gains action. Cis men feel threatened by women and femmes who no longer remain silent, accept inappropriately sexual interactions, and expect full equality in the workplace and community. White people feel threatened when BIPoC lay bare the ways in which this country’s history of genocide and racism still play out in the public discourse, prison industrial complex, and biased policing. As someone who works full time in the movement to prevent and respond to intimate partner violence (IPV), this dynamic is familiar: Partners who abuse frequently retaliate as their power is threatened by accusing their own partners of being manipulative, harmful, or abusive. This is a classic pattern on the level of the individual abusive relationship dynamic that plays out on the social level as well.
Whenever this happens, those of us in the field have tools and instruments to help us determine which party is enacting abuse and which is being abused. I humbly suggest that if you, like me, are hearing claims from different parties, you might consider the following questions, frequently used in IPV agencies, to help you clarify: Whose voice is being silenced, and whose physical and emotional safety (not just comfort) depend on that silence? Which one seems able to understand the other’s perspective? Who has more social, political, and cultural power? Who has more voice in making the decisions? Who experiences increased rates of criminalization and incarceration? Who experiences poorer outcomes (career, income, housing, health) related to discrimination in access?
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, storyteller, healer, and consent and sexuality educator whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion, gender, and social justice. They have facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty-five years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy. You can find more of their writing at www.christycroft.com.