You’re ignorant. I know, it hurts to hear. I’m ignorant too. I’m not talking about not knowing when to use their or there, though. I’m talking about intersections of power and privilege. Our ignorance of lives other than our own. Our soul-deep, fundamental self-absorption, the kind every human–yes, even my hero, Captain America–is infected with from birth.
I know whereof I speak: I live below the poverty line as an out-and-proud bisexual trans* man with mental health issues, a physical disability, and no college education…and until six years ago, I hesitated to admit to any of it. My ignorance ruled my life.
Even now, after reading countless articles and blog posts, listening to podcasts, watching videos, I’m still ignorant, and I always will be. What’s changed is that now I openly admit it, and that’s the key to unlocking a whole new world of enlightenment and letting go of the guilt and shame associated with privilege and the lack thereof.
So you’re ignorant. Now what?
- Acknowledge your privilege. Almost everyone experiences some degree of privilege. If you’re reading this from a first-world country, you have privilege. If you’re able-bodied, you have privilege. Male? Privilege. Cisgender? Privilege. Did your parents attend college? Did you? Can you read? (Ooo, did I get you there?) Are you sighted? Are you able to hear? Stop for a moment and imagine how many people move through this world without the privileges you enjoy without thinking about them. Imagine how insensitive you might be to those people without ever stopping to realize or give a second thought to the validity of their experiences. They are just as real as we are, and they are experiencing injustice right now, with every beat of our hearts. This is a good moment to acknowledge you’ve been lucky in some ways, even if the world has shit on you in others.
- Stop making excuses for your ignorance. You don’t need them. They’re surprisingly self-evident. Any black person can look at a white person and know why they’re ignorant of the black experience. No excuses needed. Any trans* person can look at a cis person and intuit why that cis person didn’t instantly grok their struggles. A gay person can meet a straight person and, without the straight person explaining or apologizing, understand there will be some significant differences in outlook. So stop making excuses and trying to explain; it’s not making it better. What does make it better is accepting what you don’t know and striving to change that.
- Start identifying your areas of knowledge vs ignorance. What are your intersections of privilege? In which ways are you blessed and in which ways, if any, are you discriminated against? As a woman, do you experience institutional sexism that suggests you should be paid less than a man for the same work? Do people judge you for being sexually liberated, for not shaving your legs, for making choices they don’t think are ‘appropriate’ as if you’re not a grown-ass human being? Then you have some knowledge of oppression and can extrapolate what it is to be discriminated against. Are you bisexual? Do you feel invisible? Do people suggest you’re not finished coming out yet or are going through a phase? Then you understand what it is to have your identity questioned and second-guessed and are well on your way to grasping the trans* struggle with a little perspective-extension.
- Parlay what you do know to open your mind to other people’s lived experiences. Just because you’re out of touch doesn’t mean you have to stay that way, but it’s going to take some real effort on your part. You can’t half-ass it when it comes time to open your mind. Half-closed is not open. Accept the challenge and choose to own your own weaknesses and areas of discomfort and confusion. No one has an all-encompassing grasp on the human condition, but we should all aspire to acquire a better one. (This is especially true for my author friends!) Think about the most painful, unfair moments of your life and the factors that stole your power and agency from you and left you unable to fight back or change the outcome. Now imagine what it’s like to have even less power than you did in that moment. Imagine what it would be to go through life in a world that constantly robs you of your voice, your freedom, your right to choose, your self-determination.
- Put yourself in the shoes of those whose struggles are even more intense than your own. This doesn’t mean you don’t have horrible struggles. This doesn’t mean you aren’t constantly battling to keep your head above water, hold onto your sanity, and make it through another day. Picture two shipwrecked souls treading water and waiting for rescue. Both are in dire need of help; both are on the verge of imminent death. Now imagine one has concrete blocks tied to their feet. Both are in a desperate situation, but it’s even more difficult for the one who’s weighed down. If the one without weights on survives, no one can say it’s through anything but their own determination and hard work, but it was all but impossible for the other no matter how hard they worked or how determined they were. That’s what privilege is, and we must accept that fact.
- Change your outlook. No, we didn’t personally ask the fates to doom someone else so we could succeed! Of course not. But it doesn’t change the fact some people are disadvantaged and unable to enjoy certain things we take for granted simply by merit of society’s prejudices and the internalized biases of millions of good people who think they’re making enlightened choices while perpetuating the same old ignorance they learned as children. Extend your new understanding to everyone around you. Look for ways to free them of the concrete blocks society has tethered to their feet. Survivor’s guilt sucks. Avoid it by helping ensure the survival of everyone around you. It might involve a little risk to you, but imagine the rewards.
I’ve accepted my ignorance. What’s next?
- Now your mind is open, open your ears too. Instead of explaining to your minority friends how you’ve grown as a person, become a staunch ally to them by listening when they share their struggles.
- Accept that what you’re hearing is true. Validate their input. Acknowledge its veracity and relevance. Under no circumstances should you question their lived experience. How would you feel if someone questioned you about the most unfair experiences of your life?
- Ask what you can do, if anything. Sometimes just hearing, “That’s fucked up. I’m sorry you went through that,” is all someone needs, but isn’t it comforting when someone sincerely offers help above and beyond?
- Donate. Vote. Collaborate. Contribute. Help them survive in a culture that stacks the deck against them. If you’re too poor to donate to charity or political lobbies, share links on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or LinkedIn. If you’re able to vote, do so without fail. Educate yourself on matters local, national, and global and join your voice to theirs. Weigh priorities, and give priority to equality and justice above all else.
It’s not easy, but it is simple. Check your privilege. Extend compassion. Expand your perspective. Do what’s right.
However it feels in the moment when you’re called out or caught flat-footed in your ignorance, it’s not personal. This isn’t about you, ever. It’s not about me. It’s about the world we inhabit side-by-side. We all want a better world, and we all dream of a future that’s just, fair, bright, and beautiful.
Accept your ignorance. Google is your friend. Learn. Grow. Feel the burn and ache of your soul building muscles you never knew a soul could have. And know that you’re becoming the person you–and the world–deserve you to be.
Start now. Share this post on social media, and share your own insights and opinions in the comments.