Jamie Utt reflects on listening, privilege, and Twitter conversations
Talking about identity, power, privilege, and oppression are hard enough when we have unlimited characters in which to conduct the discussion. In turn, why so many (including myself) decide to have these tough conversations over Twitter is beyond me, but it happens. Recently a highly-publicized conversation took place on Twitter between The Good Men Project founder Tom Matlack and some feminist and anti-racist women and men concerning the language and perspectives Tom had taken in some pieces here on GMP.
The majority of the conversation related to feminism, male privilege, and the concept of being a male ally, and the conversation inspired such controversy, that much publishing has been done in its wake (see here, here, here, and here as a place to start). However, a small strain of the conversation related to a comparison Tom made between black men being overrepresented in prisons and a piece Hugo Schwyzer published explaining why it’s understandable for men to be “guilty until proven innocent” when it comes to rape.
Race scholar Sarah Jackson took issue with his comparison and tried to engage in a discussion with him about why the analogy is problematic.
If there’s anything we White folks are good at, it’s getting defensive when we think we’re being called racist, and we’re especially good at getting defensive when we’re told that we may, in fact, be benefitting from White Privilege.
In reading through the Twitter conversation, I had to stop here for a minute because this hit a little too close to home. In my attempts to become an ally to Women, People of Color, LGBTQ folks, and other traditionally-marginalized identities, I’ve definitely messed up – A Lot. One of the hardest things for me in attempting to build ally relationships, then, has been to hear that I’ve messed up and not simply get defensive and retreat into my privilege.
A professor of Color in college once told me, “The best thing you can learn to do if you want to be an ally is realize that you’re going to fuck up, and you’re going to do it a lot, so you will need to learn to apologize with honesty and a true desire to change. Then don’t get hung up . . . move forward and do better.”
At this point in the Twitter conversation, that’s what I was hoping to hear from a man I greatly respect, but instead, Tom dug in:
From there, the conversation about race in the Twitter feed mostly stops, but the conversation about feminism and male allies has continued for quite some time in many mediums and contexts.
What I haven’t seen addressed widely, though, is the ways that Whiteness and privilege clouded what should have been an otherwise cut and dry issue. It could have ended like this:
Sarah: “That language is hurtful and spurious.”
Tom: “Wow . . . I can see where you’re coming from, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make such a problematic comparison. Consider it recanted.”
Now, let me be clear. I am not writing this piece to further attack Tom Matlack. Instead, I see this conversation as an incredible growth point for talking about listening and privilege.
In A Language Older Than Words, Derrick Jensen discusses the dominant culture of destruction that allows genocide, starvation, rape, and so many more atrocities by saying, “Silencing is central to the workings of our culture. The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to our domination of them.”
I was raised into a culture where I benefit from a great many privileges. I am Cis-Male, White, Straight, and Able-Bodied, and I come from a family of wealth privilege. In the words of Louis CK, “How many advantages can one person have!?” With those advantages comes a little voice that tells me that I am always right, that I am above reproach, that I have power and deserve power.
As such, I’ve done a lot of silencing in my life, but most of it wasn’t active. I haven’t necessarily talked over someone or shouted someone down. Instead, I’ve resorted to one of my most powerful weapons as a person of privilege: my refusal to listen.
As White folks, we’re taught that we shouldn’t listen to voices of Color. After all, if we did, we wouldn’t need study after study to prove that racism is real and that we don’t live in a “post-racial” society. We would simply be able to hear it in the stories and voices of those of Color that must live in our very-racialized society every single day.
In his piece resigning from The Good Men Project, Hugo Schwyzer put it this way, “Power conceals itself from those who possess it. And the corollary is that privilege is revealed more clearly to those who don’t have it.” As a person of privilege, I know that I cannot see all of the ways that my identity silences other voices, and I cannot see the ways that my privilege works to empower me while disempowering others.
Thus, when criticized for my language, the space I am taking up, or for the ways in which my actions reveal my privilege, my first response needs to be to listen. No matter how defensive that statement makes me, I need to listen. No matter how much I would like to retort with a story about how I’m not as privileged as the other is assuming, I need to listen.
Listening is the root of justice.
It is notable in his conversation with Sarah that Tom was never called a racist. Sarah points out something very important (excuse my translation from character-saving-speak): “It is possible for people not to be racist and still be capable of saying less-than-accurate/sensitive things regarding race.”
I don’t know Tom’s character, so I can’t say whether or not he, in the core of his being, is a racist, but I don’t think that matters in the conversation. To pull the “BUT I’M NOT A RACIST!!!!!” defense (as we White folks so often do) effectively diverts the conversation from the problematic nature of what was said to a conversation about whether the person who said it believes they are racist, a perhaps interesting but otherwise relatively pointless conversation that the White person should really just be having with themselves.
I love the way that Jay Smooth from Ill Doctrine puts it when he says we need to avoid the “what they are” conversation and, instead, focus on the “what they did” conversation. If what I said was hurtful and spurious (and I agree with Sarah that what Tom said was pretty darn spurious and problematic), “we don’t need to see inside [my] soul to know that [I] should not have said all that.”
Rather than finding it “demeaning” when folks of Color (or other White folks) try to tell me how my comments or actions made them feel or may have been problematic, I need to realize that this is an incredible opportunity to listen and self reflect.
In the end, though, we have to realize that listening is only the beginning. It is the beginning of a life-long process of critical self-reflection, reflection regarding our thoughts, actions, and words. We must be willing to hold ourselves to the highest standards and ask ourselves, “Do my actions align with my anti-racist values?” If not, we need to work to change. Perhaps my greatest privilege as a White person is my ability to walk through this life and never self reflect and never listen. But I must choose to listen and to follow those truths to their ends, even if those ends mean I must change the way I live.
After all, the worst thing that can happen is that I can learn that there is work to be done and, in the words of my professor, “apologize with honesty and a true desire to change, move forward, and do better.”
Maybe one place I can start is to read up on the two pieces Sarah linked Tom to in their conversation:
Read Tom Matlack’s point of view around these same events here:
photo by cameronperkins / flickr