I was a young teenager when I saw an episode of Touched by an Angel that addressed race. I remember the black male character saying, “You don’t know what it feels like to walk on a bus and see the women all hold their purses a little tighter.” And I remember thinking, Oh please. Racism is not a real problem anymore. Slavery had been long abolished, black people could vote and they even starred in TV shows like Family Matters which we watched every week. Obviously, racial equality had been achieved. The guy was just being sensitive.
That’s my first memory of my white privilege talking.
Years later I went to university to study literature. Let me tell you, in the humanities/art/social sciences, folks are kind of obsessed with talking about gender and race. It’s almost all they talk about anymore, and I got sick to death of it. It felt absurd, sitting around as a diverse student body and a diverse staff (in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation) to talk about discrimination and inequality. Does nobody notice how many women and people of colour there are here? I constantly thought. The head of the department is a woman! Obviously equality has been achieved here. We are so past this; can we talk about something else now? Like whether this book is actually any good?
I thought anyone in the university who still thought racism and sexism were still problems was being ridiculously oversensitive. (And what about this institution’s prejudice against Christianity? I wondered.)
A lot of the things Matt Walsh writes about these days remind me of the ways I used to think and feel.
* * *
I’m not sure when things started to change – when I started to become aware of the realities of race, gender, class, and sexual inequality.
It was definitely after I left the academy — having that stuff shoved down my throat every day by upper-middle-class elites hadn’t been very helpful.
I think it started when I began actually listening to the voices of people from marginalized groups. I started to listen to the stories of gay and black folks, of immigrants and people with disabilities. This was all still through the easy, sanitary media of books, blogs and magazines, but still: I heard stories I had never encountered before. About exclusion and violence and systematic oppression. People really did seem to be suffering from injustice due to their sex, skin colour, or physical appearance. In Canada and the U.S.! They weren’t just making it up. People of privilege really do systematically ignore, silence, insult, and marginalize minority groups, often without realizing it. And I realized that I’m one of those privileged people, who never has to worry about my race or sexuality working against me.
I also started thinking differently when I learned that the Church is still the most racially segregated institution in North America. So just because my all-white church can hold hands and sing kumbaya, it doesn’t mean we’ve achieved reconciliation with the rest the world.
Yes, we have made a lot of progress towards equality since government-sanctioned slavery was abolished and women got the right to vote. But just because we’re not allowed to own people doesn’t mean everything’s okay.
How do I know? Because members of marginalized groups are still saying they’re being discriminated against. And I’m going to go ahead and believe them.
* * *
Earlier this week, Matt Walsh published a post entitled, “Sorry, but it’s your fault if you’re offended all the time.” He begins, “I truly believe that we are the most whiney, sensitive, thin-skinned, easily offended society in the history of the world.” He makes fun of the concept of “microaggressions,” and makes a number of declarations like, “If it wasn’t intended to offend you, then you shouldn’t be offended,” and “Being offended is a choice you make. Nobody is responsible for that choice but you.”
Then Walsh lampoons ethnic minorities and transgender people who share experiences of microaggression on the internet.
As a straight white person like Walsh, I will never know or completely understand the experiences of the people he’s mocking. But instead of calling them names (overly-sensitive, thin-skinned, etc) I think it might be more helpful to actually listen to what they’re saying.
And here’s where I especially disagree with him: the speaker’s intent is NOT the only thing that matters. You are still responsible for hurting someone if you speak out of ignorance.
Because here’s the thing. I also know what it’s like to be alienated and insulted without the speaker’s intent. You probably do, too.
When we were having a hard time getting pregnant, people said a lot of things that hurt me. They didn’t mean to. They just didn’t know.
Once, in a group setting, a friend shared about another couple that was spending a lot of money on repeated fertility treatment. Another friend spoke up, remarking, “I don’t know why they don’t just adopt. It’s selfish to keep spending money on fertility treatments when there are so many babies that need families.”
That wasn’t meant to hurt me – we weren’t even talking about me, and I wasn’t even undergoing treatment – but I wept the entire way home that afternoon. It wounded me so deeply not only that she didn’t understand, but that she didn’t care to understand the unique pain that comes from infertility.
It would have been nice if she could have tried to hear their experience from their perspective.
* * *
I agree and understand that it is difficult to say anything without offending anyone. It can get really tiring, always rethinking what you’re going to say so as not to hurt anyone. Especially those of us in positions of privilege, who have never had to think about race and sexuality being a disadvantage to anyone. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be polite and sensitive at all times. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to apologize when we’ve unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings and try to learn from the experience.
I know I have and will continue to hurt people with my words, in part because my experience is incredibly limited. But instead of ridiculing and belittling people when they point it out, I want to actually hear their perspective, apologize, and try to be more sensitive next time.
And yes, part of maturing involves getting a tougher skin at times and not letting people’s words get to you. We don’t need to throw a tantrum every time someone says something that hurts our feelings. I agree with Walsh here, and am always trying to grow in that respect.
But at our core, we’re all dreadfully tender. We all ache to be loved and accepted. We all bleed at the slightest scratch if it hits the right spot. We just all have different tender spots. Haven’t we all been brought to our knees in agony by a glance, a word, a sneer, a phone call that never came? But instead of mocking people for their tenderness, we ought to try to be more gentle. Because we’ve all been there, haven’t we?
It’s easy and fun to make fun of people for being “sensitive” about things we’ve never had to deal with. Mockery shuts down the conversation quickly, so we never have to take responsibility for our ignorance.
But I’d rather go out of my way not to hurt my fellow bleeders. I owe it to them. And the best way to learn how to do this, I believe, is to listen. I’m going to try to keep my ears open and my judgey mouth shut as much as possible.
And definitely not tell them how they ought to feel.