I. My rights, not your rights
It is strange to me how holy the Constitution seems to many of my fellow Americans. A month or two ago, my mother said she considers it second only to the Bible. Second in what, I’m not sure, but I think she must’ve meant second in authority over her life. Oh, but what kind of authority: moral or legal? Another type? Multiple types?
To me the Constitution is a legal document. It is the paper basis for our legal system here in the States. I find much of it to be beautifully written, and who could argue that the framers had a great idea? But the Constitution is not flawless, and it is not a religious scripture.
Yet I know a lot of people, and encounter many more via news and social media, who treat it as such. Funny enough, too, they act like many Christians do when it comes to the Bible: they talk about how important it is to them, but then they generously dispense with the double standards, ignoring many explicit tenets of ‘the faith’, while expecting non-believers to adhere to even the most obscure and debatable laws. For example, many Christians have been divorced multiple times, yet still believe that marriage equality will ruin family values, while the former is described as a sin in the Bible and the latter wasn’t even an idea in the times of Christ.
Yes, people do this with the Constitution as well. They do it when they complain (often erroneously) that their nth amendment rights are being violated, and next day donate money to some group lobbying to limit another group’s rights. I don’t wish to be perceived as ragging on my Christian brothers and sisters, but I can think of no better example than this:
The friends and relatives I have who think their freedom of speech has been taken away simply because someone finds their words offensive. First of all, the first amendment guarantees free speech; it does not guarantee that no one will think you’re a bigot, idiot, or asshole after you exercise free speech. Secondly, supposing these people were correct in thinking their rights had been violated, what do they do? They go and donate money to organizations that actually really do seek to restrict the rights of other people, usually people with different religious beliefs than them. They don’t think their children ought to be taught about sex or evolution in school, but they don’t think it matters that other parents don’t want their children parroting the Pledge of Allegiance or… heck, not getting educated about sex and evolution.
One really ought to question how much freedom means to her if she is not willing to give it in equal measure to someone else.
I have been thinking of this more for a couple of days. Thursday I spent some time with an old shipmate and friend, saying all sorts of thoughtful and controversial things right out in public. I am a white woman and my friend is a black man (let’s call him Aaron), and we did indeed get to talking about both racism and sexism. Well, Aaron explained that studying history has led him to believe that W.A.S.P.’s or their ancestors have pretty much always been culturally dominant, and remain so today. I think I was expected to be offended by this hypothesis, but I wasn’t.
II. Whose speech matters
After a while, Aaron confessed: “I do not think white people are qualified to talk about race.”
Well, did you just dismiss everything I just said during this conversation then? I thought.
We continued to chat for a while, and I complimented my friend’s consistency at least, when he said he also considered men unqualified to talk about sexism. Still, I was disappointed that he found anyone automatically disqualified to talk about anything. I understand his opinion, but I do not agree with it. If someone is demonstrably prejudiced, then disqualify him from a debate–but do not disqualify him because you don’t believe he could have ever experienced discrimination like you have.
I partly find this disqualifying attitude troubling because I know that I do not look like I have faced much discrimination in my life. I have faced some though, even recently. I don’t like to talk about it. Do I have to talk about it to prove my opinion is worth something? To some people, of course. To some, it will never be worth anything.
I questioned myself though. Do I think that men have a place talking about gender? Actually, the rational part of me does think so. Not every man can talk intelligently about it, but neither can every woman. Sometimes I do not want to listen to what a man has to say. Sometimes I think, “Of course you think that!” but it is not right to dismiss someone’s opinion this way. People in positions of power (the male, the white, or the wealthy) are not all incapable of rational thought, open investigation, and sympathy for those whom they often totally unwittingly offend or oppress.
This is why white people get uncomfortable about race conversations–they–we–are really not trying to be racist, and it’s hard to accept that you can perpetuate racism without meaning to.
But white people can accept that. Some do. I do. I get it. So why can’t I talk about it? Why is it bad for white people to try to speak in support of racial equality? Why are we diagnosed with “the white savior complex,” when one of the symptoms of racism in our society is that white voices are heard more than black ones? Will the day spontaneously come when black people are heard out just like white people?
My feeling is that no, that day will not spontaneously come. Will the day spontaneously come when women are heard out just like men? No, I doubt that too, which is one reason I appreciate it when men speak up about equality with women. Should anybody need a white male to speak for them? No. But do we? I don’t know, but it seems that way.
Wait, this is so serious… Watch a video, and maybe laugh at the messed up truth: The Daily Show – Helper Whitey
Next time I talk to Aaron, I’ll have to ask him some questions, beginning with, “Are you still comfortable even talking about race with me?” because I realize that I am not comfortable talking about it with all of my friends, and I shouldn’t assume all of my friends are comfortable talking about it with me. I’ll also ask:
- What can/should white people do to understand privilege and racism in their own lives?
- With whom can they discuss and work out concepts they find difficult, if they are disqualified from conversing on the topic?
- How can/should white people address systemic/cultural racism?
- When we observe a black person being talked over, for example, should we be “Helper Whitey,” as in the video? Or is it better not to? Why do you think so?
- Is this an us v. them battle? Can/should white people try to help black people?
- Is the term “white savior” necessary? Is it possible for white people to fight altruistically for racial equality?
III. I don’t mean to minimize sexism, but I’m minimizing sexism
When someone says they don’t mean to minimize something, they probably already think rather little of it in their heads. When someone says they don’t mean to be offensive, they probably just don’t care that they’re about to offend somebody. It’s the same when my mother says, “Not to be judgmental, but…” or when I say, “Not to be a bitch, but…”
So this was actually something my friend Aaron also said, that he didn’t mean to minimize sexism. We were speaking in relation to race still, so I understood, and admitted myself that I think black people suffer more discrimination in this country than women do, and that black women suffer the worst.
But still, not meaning to minimize something is not the same thing is not minimizing it.
Shortly after this, my friend said something like, “I mean, if you lived in New York or something…” indicating to me that he probably doesn’t understand that sexism is more than disgusting cat calls, and that women e v e r y w h e r e deal with it. I wonder how he’d have felt if when we were talking about racism I had said, “Oh, I can understand it’d be bad if you lived in Mississippi or something…” as though black men in his city didn’t deal with racism.
Did he mean to minimize my experience of sexism? No. Did he minimize my experience of sexism? Yes.
There’s no need to launch into “(n-1) reasons I’m a feminist” here. The observation I want to make is that even members of less powerful groups often have the attitude I tried to describe at the beginning of this post. There are no universal rights or freedoms in anybody’s mind. There are my group’s rights, and your group’s rights–and guess whose are my number one priority! And so feminists, LGBT activists, NAACP leaders, green freaks, religious zealots, anti-religious zealots, gun zealots, and everybody else just shouts. Too often we believe the interests of others are at odds with our own. Too often we are willing to sacrifice truth and justice if it gets our group ahead.
Nobody asked me, but I know what black people need. I know what women need. I know what men need. I even know what unborn children need. All of us need each other. Each needs to fight for the others’ rights and freedom and happiness; for each needs the others to fight for him or her.
And sometimes when we perceive the other as an enemy? Perhaps if the perception is true? Then, if we believe in either the Bible or the Constitution or both, we must defend the enemy’s rights just the same as our own. There are no rights unless everyone has them; there is no justice unless there is justice for all; and there can be no ‘first among equals.’