Ladies? People of color? Everybody else who exists outside the socially prescribed norms? This article isn’t for you. You can stop reading after the first paragraph and I won’t get upset. This article is really for the straight, middle class, by-the-books, white men in your lives. Go get them and sit them down in front of the computer. Put a beer in their hand, maybe a nice cup of tea if they don’t drink, and leave the room. I’ll wait.
Okay, have they left yet? Good. Here we go.
It’s hard being a straight white guy these days, I know.
Sometimes it feels like you’re being written out of the conversation; that your voice, no matter how reasonable or supportive, isn’t getting heard. You might even feel slighted, as if your own skin color, gender, or economic status is denying you a place at the big kids table.
I get it. The skin on the back of my neck goes all funny when I hear words like privilege or cis thrown around too. It’s hard to be judged by terms that you aren’t even familiar with, especially when they’re ones you didn’t choose. (If you’re not aware, cisgender is when a person’s gender and sex are aligned. Basically, it means you perceive yourself as male and have male genitals. It’s designed to remove the idea that being transgender is aberrant. Same idea with cissexual.)
I understand where you’re coming from when you tell your own stories of being “discriminated against”. I’ve got them too, and they’re probably pretty similar. Wanting to commiserate is natural, it’s a way to empathize with a situation you aren’t entirely familiar with, but can relate to if you squint a little. I mean, you’re a smart guy and you have smart things to say. You aren’t trying to say you understand perse, but what are you going to do, say nothing?
There’s another word for not talking that’s perfect for this situation: listening. And that, gents, is exactly what we need to be doing right now.
I’m not saying you can’t nod your head, offer a shoulder to cry on, or stand behind them and give your support.
No, do those things. Just don’t talk while you’re doing it.
I came to this idea while studying postcolonialism in college. It exposed me to the idea of the subaltern, who are people so far down on the social hierarchy that they literally have no voice in society. They’re the untouchables, the lepers, the disastrously poor and downtrodden.
They’re also the women. The people of color. The people whose sexuality doesn’t mesh with whatever the dominant mode is. Quite literally, the subaltern are people rendered without human agency.
I’m not saying you look at a woman and loudly declare “SHE IS NOT A PERSON, I DO NOT HAVE TO ENGAGE WITH HER” in your head. Hold on. Put that cold beer on the back of your neck for a minute. People have lived entire lifetimes trying to solve this problem, so trust me, you’re not alone in being unsettled and upset by it.
One of those people, a rad postcolonial thinker named Gayatri Spivak, said something particularly apt about it. The problem with the subaltern, she said, was that you can’t just give them a voice. That’s not genuine, all the stories of struggle and culture get lost in translation, forced into the same narrative that’s been crushing them. It’s not their voice, but a hollow echo.
So Spivak and others proposed that the goal isn’t to give the subaltern a voice, but instead to simply provide a place for them to speak. Our job is to just listen to the stories we had been ignoring. (If you’re a postcolonial theorist, yes, I am reducing this quite a bit. You’ve read Spivak though, that shit is im-pen-e-tra-ble.)
It’s not a perfect analogy. The “other” you interact with, for the most part, are not as completely voiceless as many of the subjects of postcolonial theory. The community at large is galvanizing and discovering itself in a wonderful and exciting way, voices sprouting like beautiful daisies in the garden of equitable discourse. It’s awesome and hopeful, but it’s far from done. Good things are happening.
But that doesn’t mean we should share our story about that one time at 7-11 you felt uncomfortable because somebody called you a nasty name, or how you were the only white kid in your AP Stats class in High School. It’s not the time to take to comments threads and talk about how everybody deals with that kind of shit.
We straight white men have been bogarting the mic for the majority of Western civilization. It’s time we stopped talking, walked down off the stage, quietly put our hands on the table, and just fucking listened.
It’ll be hard. You’ll want to talk, even if just to be heard. We’re used to it after all. Nobody has ever really taken away our voice, not in a way that matters. We’re generally not the odd person out in a room. Sometimes we might be the only guy at the party, or the only straight dude in the club, but more often than not we’re among our people wherever we go, be it straight people or white people or just people with the same reproductive system as us. That’s the rough idea behind privilege. It’s not like there’s a financial number you can attach to it, some concrete benefit you’ve gained that people can point at and say “HA REPARATIONS BITCH!”
It’s the privilege of being comfortable. Of being safe. Of being heard. No matter the situation.
Now take every single awkward conversation or time where you had to watch what you said, and expand that into your entire life, then multiply it by 10. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty here, just trying to give you an idea of the way that privilege plays into your life. Giving that privilege up, even if only while you’re reading an article on the Internet, or overhearing a conversation on the bus, will not feel good at first.
But change doesn’t always feel good. Growing pains are called that for a reason. At the end of it though, you’ll be bigger and stronger, better able to interact with the world around you. Slowly you’ll find yourself listening more and more, hearing all the stories that you tuned out or talked over before. You might even learn something.
All because you just listened.