Wow, this blog title certainly became a self-fulfilling prophecy, huh? I'm trying to write more frequently. I'm overcoming a crippling case of perfectionism, which is...something I want to talk more about later. But something's come up and I'm just going to lay it out here without worrying about getting it perfect; staying silent until you have things JUST RIGHT is utterly ineffective, so I'm trying to knock it off. Anyway!
I recently gave a speech to persuade for a communications class I'm taking. I chose to argue against the conflation of thinness and fitness and debunk some myths about the "obesity crisis." I was really nervous, especially because nearly all of the students who spoke before me included some fairly intense yet utterly casual fat hatred. In the end, though, my speech was very well-received. This is in part because I am a practiced and effective public speaker; but it is also due in no small amount to the privilege I have as a thin person. And I want to talk about that.
Think of it this way: when you're privileged, you're granted a certain amount of authority and credibility that you haven't had to earn. You also have the benefit of emotional distance from a particular social stigma. Why NOT use those advantages to advance social justice? As a thin person, I have an advantage when talking to other thin people, or to people who are bigoted against fat people, because it appears I have no ulterior motives; no one is going to try to shut down my arguments or stop listening to me because they sense that I'm coming from a place of self-serving bias. Since I'm thin, they infer I have nothing to gain from speaking out against fat hatred.
It's important to note that I am emphatically NOT saying that what I have to say about how fat people are treated in this country is more valuable or insightful or meaningful or important than what an actual fat person has to say. In fact, of course, it's quite the opposite; I will likely never have first-hand information about what it's like to be fat. I certainly don't have that information now. I'm coming from a less-informed position than any fat person is and what I have to say reflects the gaps in my knowledge and experience. I think this is the part of social stigma that is most difficult for me to stomach sometimes; people who are oppressed and marginalized have very fucking important and valuable information about the experience of oppression and marginalization, but by virtue of being members of an oppressed class, their voices are considered less valuable, less informed, and less capable by those who could most benefit from actually listening to what they have to say.
In short: bigots are most effectively addressed by members of their in-groups. So if you are in the advantageous position of being part of that in-group, and care about social justice, I think it is your responsibility to do three things.
1) LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE WHOSE EXPERIENCES MAKE THEM AN AUTHORITY.
Seriously, please, shut up and listen. Don't be so eager to be an ally that you forget to actually be an ally. This isn't about you, so don't try to make it about you. Men- if you care about women and want to be a feminist ally, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen to women. White people- if you care about people of color and want to be an antiracist ally, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen to POC. Thin people, wealthy people, able-bodied people, straight people, cisgender people, etc: don't use activism as a convenient way for YOU to get up and be the center of attention and decide how these conversations should proceed, what constitutes progress, etc. That is taking advantage of your privilege in a way that harms the people you aim to work with. Don't speak FOR people; relay information on behalf of other people. There's a difference.
2) VALUE EMPIRICAL KNOWLEDGE AS MUCH AS, IF NOT MORE THAN, ACADEMIC KNOWLEDGE
If you don't think knowledge gained from lived experience is as valuable as knowledge that comes from a book, a lecture, a class, or a person with a degree, then you need to check yourself. Period. There are many barriers to acquiring an academic understanding of social issues, especially for members of oppressed classes. Someone who hasn't been able to purchase a place at a university can tell you a hell of a lot of things about the impact of oppression on the lives of the oppressed, and that's information that you CAN'T buy your way into. So please don't presume that a person who lacks formal education has nothing insightful to say, or that such a person needs you to launch into a paternalistic explanation of how to articulate anything about their life. Please, stop it. It is so elitist and frankly embarrassing.
3) AFTER DOING 1 AND 2, MAKE A COMMITMENT TO UTILIZING THE UNEARNED ADVANTAGE OF YOUR PRIVILEGE BY SPEAKING OUT AGAINST OPPRESSION OR MAKING ROOM AT THE TABLE FOR SOMEONE WITH EXPERIENCE TO DO SO WHEN THAT IS AN OPTION
It's SO hard to do. It really is. It fucking sucks to feel like you have to risk alienating the well-intentioned, or even the not-so-well-intentioned, who say or do fucked up things. Confrontation is very uncomfortable. Etc. But the thing is, if someone says or does something hateful or ignorant in your presence, things are already pretty fucking uncomfortable. Right?
I'm the first to admit I'm not the best about this. There are plenty of times when I don't speak up. I ALWAYS regret it. Always. Especially so because I KNOW how frustrating it is when people who want to be my ally do so only behind closed doors. Frankly, I don't need any secret allies, and neither does anyone else.