Maybe you do get what it's like

Calendar icon   2024-01-27   Scroll icon  2576
Tag icon  communication , intersectionality , marginalisation , opinion , racism

Whooooo boy, we're really doing this, eh? In this post, I'll be talking a lot about marginalisation. Some marginalisations I will be part of, some not. However, it is actually also the point of this essay to talk about marginalisations that are not your own. I will be speaking of my own experience, and I will most certainly try to not speak for others, or tell you what you should or shouldn't do. This is a subject that is so intimately interwoven with the concept of trauma that there is barely any distinction. Trauma is intimate and personal. I'd never want to tell someone how to handle their trauma or what reactions are or are not appropriate (aside from some edge cases, of course). I will, however, make some, by lack of a better word, make some priestly invitations. By that I mean that this post is an invitation for you to think in a new way. You are not obligated to take any of it to heart, but I hope you do.

This post is also both for, and about people who are willing to talk in good faith. If you're not on board with that for whatever reason, you can stop reading right now. What I am doing here is as much theory crafting as it is opining. I reserve the right to be mistaken and change my mind on the thing in this piece. So I hope you'll give me the benefit of the doubt if I put my foot in my mouth.

Cultural SNAFU

There is a very common sentiment around marginalisation these days. That "you don't know that it's like" if you're not part of the marginalised group you are talking about. For example, as a white person, I will never truly understand what experiencing racism feels like. I'll call this the "sit down and shut up" (SDSU) mentality.

SDSU exists for a reason. Historically, being part of a minority has been taken as an excellent reason to dismiss people or tell them how they should feel. This also shows up around things like colonial occupation and is not exclusive to outgroup folk. Respectability politics is an example of this. People get ignored or their experiences dismissed to fit in with societal norms, even within their own communities.

In his excellent book "The Body Keeps the Score", Bessel van der Kolk says that this is a very common response for traumatised individuals. He writes:

[A group of former Marnies in group therapy] insisted that I had to be part of their newfound unit and gave me a Marine captain's uniform for my birthday. In retrospect, that gesture revealed part of the problem: You were either in or out—you either belonged to the unit or you were nobody. After trauma, the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don't. People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can't understand it. Sadly, this often includes spouses, children, and co-workers.

Later I led another group, this time for veterans of Patton's army […] For Christmas they gave me a 1940s GI-issue wristwatch. As had been the case with my group of Marines, I could not be their doctor unless they made me one of them.

— The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, p 29

Sounds very familiar, doesn't it?

Again, let's be clear here. I'm not about to tell anyone that they can't use the SDSU mentality at any point. Sometimes it is appropriate, sometimes it is your only option. However, I think that with this policy we might have thrown out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. We are missing a genuine opportunity for empathy and learning for those who will engage with it in good faith.

I couldn't find the original source for the quote I'm about to share, so my apologies if I don't get the wording or attribution correct. From what I could find, it might be attributed to Laverne Cox, but I couldn't verify that. Here's the quote:

Maybe not everyone understands what it is like to be trans, but everyone understands what it is to feel excluded, to be made to feel less than, to be in pain, to be misunderstood and to feel like you can not be yourself.

— Laverne Cox (unverified)

Through this blog, I want to make the case that those who haven't faced marginalisation can understand our experiences better than we realise. I hope to inspire them to speak up on our and their behalf. To make this case, I will draw on my experience as both a white progressive and a trans and neurodiverse person. Let me show my thinking with two examples here.

The tale of brave lady Emma

A dear friend, whom I will call Emma in this story (which is not her actual name), and I were sitting in a lovely cafe and having some lunch one day. We were talking, chatting and cackling like usual. We've been friends for well over a decade and she is, without a doubt, one of my favourite humans. At some point, the discussion about being trans arose. Emma, who is cis, repeated a variation of the SDSU mentality: "well I guess I don't know what it's like, but that sounds incredibly heard".

However, in response, I asked her if she remembered feeling insecure about any part of herself as a young girl. If she could remember feeling excluded or alienated. Emma thought about it briefly and said, "damn, I think you're on to something there. I've often been very self conscious about my height, and what that said about my femininity. That does make a lot of sense." This is a concern that many trans women share might I add. That turned out to be an incredible point of connection for us.

As a little girl, she has, of course, experienced the regular troubles of being a girl in a patriarchal society. A post she made on social media during the first #MeeToo wave will probably stay with me forever. She described how men would… ahem, do unmentionable acts in public in front of her as a way of sexual intimidation. So maybe she doesn't know exactly what it means to be trans, but she sure as hell knows that it's like to be intimidated or feel unsafe in public. She could, and has, drawn on her own emotional experience, and used that to fuel her vast empathy for experiences she didn't technically share.

"Is this what it's like?"

I like to think that I've always been an empathic person. However, I must admit that I was not always a beacon of political correctness. During my undergrad I remember making some jokes and comments that I would never utter these days. Let's just say that I still had a lot of growing to do back then.

But I remember early on when I was still grappling with my first wave of trans acceptance. I had to come to terms with just how demonised trans people are and the kinds of trouble I might get into if people find out. I felt constantly observed and scrutinised. The realisation of how many people like me are demonised and dehumanised in any form of media just for being themselves was crushing. During all of that, I do vividly remember at one point thinking "omg, is this what it's like for people of colour?".

Again, indeed I cannot know because of my whiteness, but from what I have understood, it is at least somewhat close. Since then I've taken a much more active interest in anti-racism, and taking more effort to learn about it. Realising my own trans identity is the thing I still consider that has brought me closest to truly understanding racism.

Brave new world (of empathy)

The point I'm trying to make here is that one hole in the SDSU mentality is that we deny people empathy. Of course, others don't truly know what it is to have our marginalisation. So often it's death by a thousand paper cuts, so even understanding one aspect of it is not enough to understand it as a whole. However, and this is a more practical point, we need allies. We all do. I believe real emancipation simply requires allies from outside the oppressed group. And I think that by othering ourselves by insisting others could not possibly ever understand what it's like to be us, we're not gaining more allies. In fact, we alienate ourselves from them and from ourselves. I think Van der Kolk puts it incredibly well:

Focusing on a shared history of trauma and victimization alleviates their searing sense of isolation, but usually at the price of having to deny their individual differences: Members can belong only if they conform to the common code.

Isolating oneself into a narrowly defined victim group promotes a view of others as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst, which eventually only leads to further alienation.

— The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, p. 94

I think we should encourage other people to feel our feelings. I want them to put themselves in our shoes by imagining the parts of their experience they have had that are close to us. Otherwise we deny them empathy and we deny ourselves a support network. I think it is time for white people to talk about racism; it is time for cis people to talk about transphobia and other experiences they might have with gender. It is time for the heteros to acknowledge homophobia.

But there is more to it than that even. I think it is important for white people to discuss our experience of racism, both the positive and negative. Here, I don't mean positive as in that we like it, but more that it might be situations in which we were the benefactor. It fucking sucks to be told that you're at the top of the pile and have things twice as easy as most and are still struggling like hell. I truly believe racism diminishes white folk as well.

I want hetero people to discuss their experience with homophobia. Homophobia has come so far that men are scared to touch each other. If that phrase made you snicker, that's exactly what I mean. Some experts believe this is contributing to the exploding numbers of male suicide we have been seeing over the years (WHO 2019; Player et. al. 2015; River & Flood 2021). Homophobia is literally killing men. Don't you think that's worth talking about?

I want men to discuss their experience of misogyny. Of how they're scared to give someone a genuine compliment for a look that they are just rocking, even if it's totally benign. Or talk about their emotions and how sometimes women make that difficult for them. I think this passage from Brené Brown's book "Rising Strong" illustrates this point best:

Last night, [Brené's husband] had a dream that I had all five of the kids on the raft, and we were halfway across the cove when a speedboat came hauling towards us. I waved my hands in the air and they didn't even slow down. I finally grabbed all five of the kids and went as deep as I could go. […] I held them down there and waited for the boat to pass over us. I knew if we surfaced, we'd be killed. But then I looked over at Charlie and saw he was out of breath. I knew he would drown if we stayed down there for one more minute. […]

"I'm so glad you told me, Steve."

He rolled his eyes. "Bullshit," […] "Look, don't quote your research to me. Please. Don't tell me what you think you're supposed to say. I know what you want. You want the tough guy. You want the guy who can rescue the kids in the path of a speeding boat by throwing them to shore and swim so fast that he's there to catch them before they land. The guy who then looks over at you across the cove and shouts, 'Don't worry, babe! I got this!'"

— Brené Brown, Rising strong. p. 21-22

Don't you think men should be allowed to talk about something as scary as losing their children and not feeling they can do anything about it? I know plenty of men who are scared to just admit that they love their children and would be devastated if they lost them.

I want cisgender people to talk about how transphobia affects them. How their choices and behaviours need to be controlled to avoid negative perceptions. If you're wondering what I mean, just have a look at this Reddit thread or this one. Men often feel restricted from doing simple things like sitting down to pee or taking care of their skin, and even from treating others with respect without being seen as weak.

Holding mirrors

If we want people to talk about these things (and I do), that means we have to make it safe or at least possible for them to do so. This is going to require grace both from the people messing up and from the people doing the correcting. People who don't know better are going to mess up. Guaranteed. By definition even. And when they do, it is on us to invite them back into the fold and on them to listen and try to leave their ego at the door. This is how people learn.

If we want to do this, we cannot start a crusade against anyone slipping up. We cannot teach people by simply repeatedly telling them they should already know something. This is HARD work, absolutely, and you're not always going to be able or willing to do it. That's okay. But I hope you will when you feel able to. Some absolutely amazing resources on how to do this is are:

If you belong to a marginalised group, you might feel frustrated about having to educate others in addition to dealing with everyday challenges. And you're right, it is totally unfair. I hate it as much as anyone. But the truth of the matter is that this is not a question of fairness, but of tactics. If we want our movements to keep growing and achieving things, we need to pull people in, not push them out. And sometimes that means accepting unfairness.

I'm not saying that it's your responsibility as someone who is marginalised to listen to this. You are not obligated to do this work. Your priority should be to keep your own head above water. However, I hope that if you have that energy, you'll allow people to come closer, or try to get closer to others. Marginalisation has a breath-taking depth and complexity to it, and we can learn from that whether we have that experience or not. Sometimes, all we have to do to benefit from it is allow it in, in whatever way we can.