[Note: As with everything else written today, I still haven’t caught up on the book stuff. That said, this post is really not so much about the book thing as about one specific argument that came up.]
How do you balance “talking among yourselves” and transparency/ease of use for newcomers?
In the recent book threads, an interesting critique came up. In a thread at Feministe, Zuzu said:
Let me define what I find alienating about theory-heavy discussions: when people who are thoroughly familiar with theory throw out an author’s name to explain a concept and everyone who has read that author’s works understands exactly what that person means, and I sit there scratching my head thinking, “Who’s that?” and dropping out of the conversation. I realize that it’s hard and annoying to have to summarize every time, but name-dropping really isn’t a substitute for setting out what you’re getting at. It’s a bit like being a freshman and walking into a graduate seminar at times. Yet when someone takes the time to explain what the author said rather than just name-check the author, it makes sense.
At around the same time, we have this thread at Donna’s. While Mnemosyne’s first comment appears to have poofed, it read in part: “…what I got [from reading BA’s posts] was, “Oh, boy, here we go again,” without me understand what “here we go” actually means.” This was an extension of earlier comments in another thread, where she had asked for more specificity, because the material was strange.
This argument actually pops up pretty frequently, when privileged people show up in unfamiliar contexts. The less-well-intentioned ones will flounce away, or commence spewing bile all over whatever they can find without bothering trying to understand. The lazy will walk away. And the well-intentioned but insufferably privileged will sit down and demand to be taught.
This is conservatives wandering into liberal space. Men wandering into feminist space. White people wandering into POC space. Rich people and poor. Able and disabled. Straight and queer.
And in this case, the problem is white feminists coming into POC spaces (that may or may not identify as feminist) and demanding that POC serve up their upset on a platter, in easily digested non-confrontational little pieces.
This dynamic, of course, pulls from a lot of different sources.
Part of it is discomfort with terminology and perception … most people genuinely don’t want to say the wrong thing, and privileged people often react to that by blaming “unwritten speech rules” for making it difficult for them to express themselves without giving offense.
Part of it is unfamiliarity with the space and its inhabitants. You wouldn’t (well, shouldn’t) go to IBTP with a Feminism 101 question; why would you show up at Blackamazon’s or Brownfemipower’s spaces with a race-relations 101 question?
(And to cut arguments off at the pass – while there isn’t, as far as I know, a POC-blogosphere equivalent to the excellent Finally, a Feminism 101 blog, there are certainly a lot of bloggers who do a good job of breaking down the basics if you look. Just because it isn’t all collected doesn’t mean the information doesn’t exist. And if you’re not willing to put in a few minutes with google or the archives of whatever blog you’re reading, you might want to reconsider any classification of yourself as “wanting to learn.” If you’ve really looked, and you can’t figure it out, that’s one thing… but that’s what asking polite questions is for. Try it… we don’t bite! Mostly.)
A lot of it, however, is ordinary privilege and entitlement. Having other people teach you about their experiences is just given. And if their words don’t do it for you, that’s on them for not explaining it right, not on you for not getting it. And if they’re bitter about it, or angry… well, you’re a nice person; can’t they see that? Geez.
This isn’t helpful.
Worse, it’s layered over some genuine issues. I get how confusing it is to start out in a community that’s got all these words and names and whatnot. I just started this blog in December, and I’d only been reading for a couple months before that. When people started saying Nubian had talked about the cover before, that was news to me… Nubian was this sort of hazy figure people talked about from the Days of Wayback. I had to go look to see what they were talking about, and even then, I had to do a lot of exploration to see who the principles were, and what else was going on. It’s not always easy, and it can be pretty time consuming.
I get that.
So what do we do about it? Disengaging certainly isn’t the answer. Likewise, barging in confrontationally. How does one bridge the line?
The answer is pretty deceptively simple, I think. (Like Othello: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master”)
For the person wading into the conversation:
• Check your privilege.
• Ask politely, especially when you don’t understand something. (This should be obvious.)
• When in doubt, treat it like a Safe Space.
For the person(s) having the conversation:
• Offer as much of the benefit of the doubt to newcomers as you can. If that means getting out the pointy stick, so be it… but if there’s something a little less painful, try starting there.
• Explain (to the nice ones), or direct them somewhere else. You don’t have to serve them all the links on a platter, but a simple “this isn’t a 101 kind of blog, sorry. Try asking Mag” would probably work.*
Basically, not being a jerk and taking a step back is a good thing, no matter who you are. The nuance works itself out according to the participants and the context.
* Eeek. That sounds a lot like volunteering myself for 101 status. I don’t know if I’m up to that… but it’s a good line, no?