At the end of the day othering happens in many invisible ways. And its performance doesn’t necessarily translate to intent. Which is why the intended ‘clarification’ “I wasn’t being racist, I was just trying to say…”becomes a violence. It does not only deny that the act could be racist but leaves no room to see the way in which it could have been interpreted as racist or not. Basically, people only have our words and actions to create their perceptions. And our words and actions are often filtered through their ways of seeing.
And that their ways of seeing are also a product of histories designed to keep them alive.
“What if I’m wrong? A self guided practice of empathy”
“We are also a political class with a unifying ideology”
And we all know this. How many times have we suffered at the hands of the very people who claim to be creating a form of safety. We have all hurt the people we claim to protect. But how do we participate in keeping the histories alive that were designed to exclude us? And how do we stay alive without using the stories that we hold to destroy? Especially when we consider what it means to demand vulnerability.
One way has been to ask, understand from other people. Learn the way your actions impact other people. The problem here though, is that in many ways you begin to resemble a caricature of all the ways you are seen, all the things you wouldn’t want to be seen as (the ways you avoid being seen) and the things that you lean on.
These things are not only things outside one’s power, but also things that are subject to change depending on how the world is doing. To define oneself as a black man, for example, is to be linked with violent histories and forms of erasure. To hold these histories to create the perfect victim is also to be blinded (maybe not deliberately, but definitely necessarily) to the ways in which you have been the perpetrator of violence, or even further to justify violence as necessary (think of a “woman that I had to discipline”). To see one’s hand as being forced.
To cede power to another.
Even further if you had “no option but to fight” and the other had “no option but to defend themselves” then you have a war that neither side had an option but to participate in.
“These are not equal sides, occupier and occupied”
- Rafeef Ziadah, We Teach Life.
If power here is over one’s own actions and words, then perhaps privilege becomes the ability to withdraw and remain relatively intact. The ability to survive without addressing the issue in question. Or the ability to dictate the ways in which another would survive – “I don’t hate gay people but they should not be gay near me” for example, calls into question gayness and what it looks like and calls on people not only to not be who they are but to constantly police themselves so that they are not seen for who they are. In this way causing them to question their power repeatedly “Can I do this? Can I say this?” Easily becomes “would X be uncomfortable if I did this?” And as you become the giver of permission – you become the source of power.
But because no one is a mind reader, then power becomes insidious.
The work of the othered becomes the work of interpretation “Is this a thing that this person would like?” Which, in many ways, becomes the work of forced empathy. Because to think about whether or not someone else would like something is to put yourself in their shoes – to create reason (often outside malice) for actions (which are often malicious in ways the oppressor is blind to). It is to wonder whether holding your lover’s hands will offend your host, or be read as being too gay for the space. In this way spaces themselves become oppressive. Ideology hangs in the air creating centers and margins.
“You don’t need to be a voice for the voiceless. Just pass the mic.”
In many ways then, it is impossible to create spaces for marginalized people without their involvement. To have four men on national tv talking about women in politics, does nothing for creating a politic that will further include women. Or to appoint a white committee to address diversity in your organization will probably not make room for people of colour in any ways that matter. In fact, such things are even more damaging, because they often come from a place of good (arguably) intentions and so then they cannot be faulted. Then the people oppressed, sidelined by this process are meant to be silent because it could be (and it probably is, somewhere) worse. This knowledge of “not as bad as” leads to further exclusion from the space, because now not only is the oppressed person more oppressed, they are also burdened to perform happiness, or at least a form of satisfaction.
Perhaps then, the work of privilege is understanding how the world has created, by default, room for you. And further, thinking about the worlds created by things that are within your power (words and actions). Are these spaces inclusive? Do they allow for the other to exist? Or do they place you (and your privileged self) at the centre, to be held up in the many invisible ways that marginalized people have held people like you up for generations?