It is predictable. A woman or a gay person or a person of color tries to describe their own experience, and along comes a straight, white male to explain why their experience is all wrong and how the world really works. This egregious “mansplaining,” as it has come to be known is decried, and the perpetrator is publicly pilloried. Or something like that.
In one sense, I’m all for public shaming of people who are shameless. I like for people who are smug and self-satisfied to be provoked and put under the lens of public scrutiny. I agree that “mansplainers” need to learn to listen for change instead of lecturing constantly. However, I think a little caution is needed. No, I think we should all just stop and try to have respectful conversations. I think this for one simple reason: It is impossible to tell what a person’s experiences are without engaging them in conversation. Yes, being male gives a person some privileges. Yes, being white gives a person certain privileges. Yes, being heterosexual gives a person some privileges. The problem is that it is impossible to look at someone and even tell whether they are white, male, or heterosexual or whatever.
Yes, I suppose it is a privilege to be able to “pass” as someone with privilege, but many people find their own privilege limited or restricted by factors that may be invisible to you. Such as:
Race: You may also think of race as a biological fact, though there is no biological determinant for race, it is not always possible to tell someone’s race by looking as evidenced by an exchange between Jay Smooth and Nancy Giles of CBS Sunday Morning. Giles accused Jay Smooth of “talking black” to attract a black audience. Smooth let her know that he is “actually” black.
Atypical gender: You may have the idea that gender is a biological fact, and you may think you know what transgender men and women look like, but there is really no way to tell what someone’s biology is, much less what someone’s identity is. The person you are seeing may be a transgender man, a transgender woman, or a person who simply does not fit gender binaries. Some people say that people who grew us “as boys” were socialized to accept male privilege. If you believe that transgender girls, forced to live as boys, accept and benefit from male privilege, you should read accounts of what life is like for these children.
Sexual minorities: You may think your “gaydar” is excellent, but it isn’t really possible to identify sexual minorities by looking at them. Many victims of anti-gay attacks and bullying are not gay, and many people you assume to be straight may not be. Some married people are bisexual, and some people consider their sexuality to be fluid.
Religious minorities: We know that many Americans hate and fear anyone they suspect may be Muslim, regardless of what religion the person may actually practice, but all religious minorities are subject to scorn and harassment. More Americans say they would vote for a gay candidate than an atheist, and 40 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics say they have experienced some from of prejudice or discrimination. As a result, many members of religious minorities live with secrets and not as their authentic selves. This doesn’t rob them of the privileges they have, but it does give them an understanding of oppression.
Sexual assault survivors: I once had a conversation with a therapist who said that women needed to speak up about their experiences of sexual abuse because we need to hear from the actual victims, not men. I was astonished that she actually believed that almost no sexual abuse victims are men. This was a few years ago, and I think there is more awareness of male survivors now (thanks to articles like this, but the prejudice against them remains. While talking to a man, it is not safe to assume he is not a survivor of sexual abuse or assault. It is further not safe to assume that his abuser, if he had one, was male. When you blithely declare that men have the privilege of not worrying about being raped, you may be speaking to a rape victim, and you should keep that in mind.
Victims of domestic abuse and violence: Male victims of domestic abuse and violence are put in an almost impossible position. If they speak up, people will say they are big enough to defend themselves against a woman (despite the fact that not all men are stronger or bigger than their partners). If they do defend themselves, they are perceived as the attacker, and when violence occurs, it is usually men who are arrested. They may seek allies among female victims, but they are rarely welcomed or offered services that are available to women. Further, much domestic abuse is in the form of economic abuse, emotional abuse, and verbal abuse. Given that such abuse of men is comedic fodder in television and movies, it is next to impossible for men to gain support. One of the most difficult challenges for male victims is the denial of victimhood that results from perceived privilege that is not there.
Disease/Disability: To become ill or disabled is to lose a degree of autonomy. Loss of autonomy makes anyone susceptible to oppression. Disease and disability may be visible but may also be invisible. It is impossible to tell by looking who is suffering from either, and it is equally impossible to tell who is being oppressed as a result. When we are injured or ill, we are at greater risk for manipulation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and assault.
Poverty: Poverty is the great equalizer. I understand that poor men may have a different experience from poor women and that certain races experience poverty somewhat differently from other races, but poverty is oppression, and those who have experienced oppression have a shared vernacular and an expanded empathy.
I realize that certain kinds of privilege carry over into all aspects of life. For example, a white male victim of domestic abuse may have advantages over a non-white victim. I do not want to deny privilege in any setting or argue that it doesn’t exist. What I know, however, is that those who experience oppression have a common experience that can lead to better understanding. Rather than shutting someone down when he speaks, it may pay to assume that many men have experienced oppression and do, indeed, know something of its harmful effects. It also pays to remember that people you assume to be men may not be men (either by biology or identity) and that people you assume to be white may not consider themselves white.
One final note: Sometimes people say that people with hidden identities should disclose them upfront. People have a right to decide for themselves when, where, and how often they want to disclose personal information. You have no right to make assumptions about them or to demand disclosure. No one is required to speak as “a person with cancer” or “a transgender woman” or “victim of domestic abuse.” These facts about a person need not be that persons complete identity or defining feature. We are part of the same human community. Can we just acknowledge that?