I have read a lot of “okay, so I’m convinced about the existence of [sexism/racism/classism/ableism/queerphobia/whatever], what do I do now?” articles. Inevitably, they will contain a section about how you need to listen to members of Marginalized Group X. If you want to be less racist, then listen to black people when they tell you you’re being racist!
This seems like good advice, and I think it’s far better than the alternative. Certainly, if you take a random gay person and a random straight person, it will be fairly safe to say that the random gay person is more likely not to have his head up his ass about sexuality than the random straight person. He has had to deal with homophobia in a way that the straight person has not.
On the other hand, what happens when the gay person is John Paulk and the straight person is bell hooks?
The problem with that rule, while it is an excellent rule of thumb, is that marginalized people are people. Sometimes they disagree with each other! Sometimes they’re wrong! Sometimes they’re complete fucking assholes! That is because people disagree with each other, and people can be wrong, and many times people can be complete fucking assholes. Not every marginalized person is free of fuckery. Not every marginalized person is free of fuckery about their own identity. (Raise your hand if you’re a trans person with at least one story about a fucked-up transphobic trans person.)
Let me be clear: this is not a license to go about telling people who have called you out that I said they’re wrong. THIS IS NOT A LICENSE TO GO ABOUT TELLING PEOPLE WHO HAVE CALLED YOU OUT THAT I SAID THEY’RE WRONG. I see any of you bastards saying that, I will hunt you down and make you read psychoanalytic feminists until you promise you will never pull that shit again.
In fact, it means that you need to listen to more people. There are times that I, a trans person, was called out for my cissexism by cis people. And you know what? It turned out they were right and I was wrong. My gender identity is not a magic shield that protects me from the cissexism inherent in society or from ever doing something fucked-up and transphobic. If someone tells you you’re being kyriarchal, you need to take that seriously, regardless of your identity and regardless of the identity of the person calling you out.
Of course, “taking that seriously” doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with the person who called you out. I have considered and rejected the idea that the word “homophobia” is ableist, for instance. But instead of being like “hahahahahaha what a silly thing this person said obviously they’re wrong,” I tried to understand their point and their reasoning and ultimately decided that, while I understood why it made sense, it was fallible.* (Some people may be like “hey, that is how all of intellectually honest argumentation works.” Yeeeep.)
How are you supposed to decide whether something makes sense as a callout? The same way you do for any other argument! You engage politely; you try to understand their position first before arguing with them; you look at and assess their reasoning and their evidence; you ask them to explain things you don’t understand; you look up resources that might explain it to you. “Is Thing X contributing to the continued suffering of Group Y?” is not some super-special kind of argument where we make decisions based on identities instead of on logic.
Finally, there are two things that “listen to the marginalized people” can mean other than that, both of which I consider to be very sensible things that we should definitely do.
1) Take people from a marginalized group as seriously as you take people from a privileged group. This is very important, and if you’re thinking “I’ve always treated everyone the same regardless of their identities!” then this is almost certainly something you need to work on. In general, people will tend to treat the rich, the white, the abled, the cis, as being somehow smarter and more qualified to talk about things, without even noticing it. To correct for this will feel really artificial: you have to make a conscious effort to pay attention to the viewpoints of groups that you don’t normally listen to, and that’s hard.
2) The personal experiences of marginalized people are an important part of social justice. They are important. If all the women in a group are reporting that some men hit on them in ways that make them feel deeply uncomfortable, and all the men think everything’s fine with this situation and that they personally have noticed no uncomfortable hitting-on situations, then the women are probably right and the men are probably wrong. However, I do think it’s important to note that not all experiences of a marginalized person are relevant. For instance, I personally have experienced far more hatred for my polyamory than for my queerness; however, that doesn’t mean that poly people are more oppressed than queer people (yeah no). It means that because of my personal situation– most notably my progressive location and my hanging out in assorted closets– I have been shielded from nearly all the effects of homophobia and transphobia. My experience is not representative. No one’s is.
3) You should consume works made by marginalized groups. Does the demographics of the creators of the works in your collection of music/books/movies/art/whatever roughly match the demographics of real-world people? If not, why not? Many times, members of marginalized groups end up getting shut out of the media and popular culture. This is what is typically referred to as “not having a voice,” and it’s fucking important. Partially because everyone’s experiences should show up in media, and partially because can you imagine all the awesome queer disabled artists of color who don’t get any media attention?
*Before someone is like “but you DELETED MY COMMENT in which I CALLED YOU OUT for SAYING THAT MALE PRIVILEGE EXISTS,” I would like to point out that I have seriously considered the “male privilege doesn’t exist” position and in fact subscribed to it for a time. It’s wrong. Considering an argument once does not mean that you have to consider it every time someone brings it up, especially if they don’t have any new arguments.