It’s easy to feel powerless when we talk about social justice, change and inequality. These issues are huge. What can you do on your own? You surely can’t change the world alone. So maybe you just try not to think about it too much. Maybe you don’t have time to go to meetings or are not well enough to take part in demos or lobbying activity. Or maybe you have to prioritise dependants, or maybe you have another good reason why you can’t be as active as you would like.
But actually, you can change the world. And it is your job as much as it was Nelson Mandela’s, or the Suffragettes,’ or Stonewall’s. Because you are as much a part of the human race as them. And you don’t even have to change your entire routine and make your whole life revolve around making the world a better place.
I recently wrote to a local organisation I am involved with, pointing out all the ways in which I had noticed we (the organisation) were discriminating against women and minority groups, how addressing these issues could benefit us and how we could work towards tackling them. The response I received was that some of my ideas were great and they would look into them, but others were “more fundamental sociological issues” that we wouldn’t be able to address directly.
The person with whom I was discussing this had perhaps forgotten that we are all part of society, that we all contribute to fundamental sociological issues as well as being affected by them, and that social change often starts with individual people and small groups like our own organisation. Women’s suffrage didn’t suddenly happen because one day thousands of people magically stood up at the same time and made it happen. It happened because people had thoughts and ideas and spread those around, gradually making challenges to the status quo, planting the seeds of change and nurturing the seedlings. It happened because individual people and groups worked hard for many years to convince the world that it needed to change. One voice can feed other voices.
Sadly, because this particular organisation is run by white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-aged, middle class men it can be difficult for them to see their privilege from the inside. The status quo both suits and benefits them. But that doesn’t mean I will stop putting pressure on them to consider and address problems people from other demographic groups are experiencing in accessing the organisation. After all, it’s a sad fact of life that the organisation’s white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-aged, middle class, male members are more likely to listen to messages coming from other white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-aged, middle class men who happen to be in a position they respect within that organisation.
We can change society because we ARE society. If any organisation has a voice that speaks against discrimination, those who respect and belong to that organisation will listen. They may resist at first; they may disagree. But social change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens because respected people are broadcasting a clear message that shows how we can all benefit from the proposed change, and they carry on pushing this message until it starts sinking in and others pick it up and run with it. Sometimes, you need constant dropping to wear away the stone of privilege and bigotry. If you keep on talking sense in a respectful way, even people who profess not to care may still be affected in small ways by your message. Others may think, “hey, that was a really good point” and repeat it to someone else later. The internet is both your friend and your foe here. While it’s great for spreading your message to a wide audience, it’s also home to a lot of people who will try to shut you down or abuse you just because they can and you have no way of knowing who they are.
We can all make changes by speaking up wherever we see discrimination. There are some excellent articles on calling out discriminatory attitudes (this one is a good place to start and leads to additional links). We will always hit barriers: people will argue with you, so it’s best to read up on the issues that concern you and, more importantly, talk to those directly affected by those issues so you have a good knowledge of the case you are making. Although, often enough, the case is simply “don’t be a dick” or “you shouldn’t treat people like that.”
People who behave in a discriminatory way are enabled to do so because they hold a privileged position over those they discriminate against (which is why concepts such as “reverse racism” or “sexism against men” are complete nonsense: although those groups can indeed experience prejudice and even hatred from individuals, they do not experience oppression). For these perpetrators of discrimination, the status quo benefits them by affording them that privilege and so, even if they haven’t ever thought about it in those terms, they will be defensive of it. They will often carry this attitude even for issues that don’t directly affect them (such as straight people objecting to single-sex marriage: more on that in a later entry).
I used to wonder why people put such energy into hurting others in a way that didn’t affect their own lives at all, and then I realised. It’s directly because of their privilege over the group whose autonomy they are protesting. Giving those people equal rights will remove that privilege and perhaps they think any benefits they are entitled to as a result of their membership in the “in-group” will be spread more thinly. Ultimately, for these people it isn’t about what’s morally right or sensible or feasible. It’s about them.
One of my least favourite terms ever, which you are likely to come across if you speak up against discrimination, is “politically correct.” This is a term used by privileged people to ridicule and belittle ideas that expose their privilege and seek to close the divide between the privileged and the oppressed. It is therefore used to derail any train of thought that might lead to the status quo being threatened. One person who used it to object to some of my ideas said that the trouble with “political correctness” was that “it means well but just ends up tying everyone up in knots.” What he meant was that although it was nice of me to consider that minority groups should be treated with the same level of respect as everyone else, it was too much trouble to actually do so. He may as well have said, “As a man, I don’t understand what it’s like to experience sexism, therefore it doesn’t exist” or “As LGBT+ people, you are in the minority here, therefore you are not important enough to think about and accommodate.” Sometimes we forget that everyone is just as human as we are, and those messages betray a deep-rooted attitude that helps to dehumanise people in oppressed groups.
This particular conversation was about how to encourage a more diverse group of people to attend events, and the man in question really believed that campaigns focused on just physically getting those people through the doors – while not bothering to address the inherently sexist, racist and homophobic culture they would discover once they were in – would be enough to change this and somehow get them to come back next time. He didn’t think he needed to listen to people from one of the minority groups who were trying to explain what the problem was and instead tried to shut them down with “being politically correct is too hard” arguments. He wasn’t alone.
One problem in this sort of situation is that when we are part of a privileged group (and you are part of at least two, by virtue of the fact that you have internet access and are literate and can speak English) we tend not to notice our privilege. The phrase “count your blessings” wasn’t intended for this sort of privilege-checking, but it applies. There’s a website called Check My Privilege that is designed to draw your attention to the ways in which you personally may experience privilege, and I’d recommend having a look. Because social hierarchies are so deeply ingrained in our society, we tend not to notice that they exist. If you don’t experience discrimination, why would you notice it exists and why would you care? It doesn’t apply to you.
If you call someone a “mong” or a “retard” then you are able to do that because you are in the privileged position of not having a severe learning disability and being able to verbally express your views. You are using it as a slight (jokingly or otherwise), implying that having a severe learning disability or Down’s syndrome makes someone “less than” and therefore it is an insult to compare someone to people in this group. In other words, you are dehumanising disabled people by using them to lower the perceived status of able-bodied people.
This is why arguments like “I’m not racist! I have black friends!” won’t wash. Friends don’t tend to imply that their friends are less human or don’t deserve privileges because they belong to a particular group. If you look down on all Black people except for your friend, then you are not their friend because you are contributing to their oppression and denying them their identity as part of that group.
Another barrier we often come across while trying to fight for social justice is people who scoff at and dismiss our ideas and visions as “naïve” or “idealistic.” Just like the old “politically correct” chestnut, this is another tactic to derail anything that might threaten the status quo. If you think about it logically, it isn’t actually naïve to suggest that everyone has a right not to be treated as sub-human just because of the colour of their skin or the people they happen to be attracted to or the type of genitals they have or the size of their body or the amount of money they earn. It isn’t naïve to say that if I gently draw people’s attention to something racist they said, they might start noticing that they are abusing their privilege. An attitude adjustment costs nothing.
It can be very uncomfortable to be challenged when you betray discriminatory attitudes or ideas because this confronts you head on with your own privilege. The key to addressing that discomfort and defensive feelings is to remember that this isn’t about you. It’s about the people who have been suffering for centuries or longer as a result of ingrained prejudice and oppression. You are likely privileged in some areas but not in others, so almost nobody is universally privileged or oppressed.
If you feel that you have to go to huge amounts of trouble to avoid saying prejudiced things, then you might want to consider addressing your prejudices as this implies they are pretty deeply ingrained. We who are able to read this blog post have all said (and done) prejudiced things, and I most certainly include myself in this, but we are all capable of thinking about the impact those things have. And we are all capable of changing our behaviour, no matter how daunting the prospect might feel. Our behaviour is our own responsibility, not for someone else to change for us. If you are in a privileged position, then it’s you who holds the power of change.