Every once in a while, when I am engaging in discussion about identity politics, social privilege, marginalization, anti-essentialism, intersectionality, and so on, I encounter an argument format that I am going to refer to as “People of colour told me so. So shut up, Whitey”. I don’t know how I could better refer to this fallacious line of reasoning because really, that’s exactly what it sounds like and exactly how it is designed to sound like. I also frequently find that this is projected into a conversation about identity politics by someone who is quick to jump onto the white guilt bandwagon (a one-way ticket to Say You Feel Guilty But Change Nothing About Your Behaviour After The Fact), all the while accusing me of failing to understand my own social privilege as a white person.
I can anticipate that for those people who may be reading this, and yet may be unfamiliar with this because they have miraculously avoided this type of encounter with another white person, an example may prove illuminating. So I found myself in the home of people I considered to be my Chosen Family, sitting next to a queer Black gender-variant individual who had recently converted to Judaism (who had my romantic interest at the time), and we were talking to a guy who has the misfortune in this event to be straight, white, male, and completely unconscious of his own privileges. We had all congregated in order to jam like a bunch of people who have never picked up an instrument before, and yet he seemed to think that holding a mandolin meant he should dominate the room with conversation at his whim and fancy. Y’know. Instead of plucking the fucking mandolin in his hands.
Somehow, and I don’t particularly remember how, because I persistently tried to get back to the playing amateur music like we don’t care how it sounds, the topic of burqas came up. As I recall, I had recently been engaged in a white-dominated conversation online in which the prevailing attitude towards burqas was that they are categorically bad and represent religiously fuelled oppression against women. Because Canada was proposing to ban all burqas everywhere across the country at the time (thankfully, this motion did not pass, unlike in France), some of these individuals were even insisting that wearing a burqa makes a Muslim woman unapproachable, so banning it is helping them, because they can make friends easier and successfully escape their abusive husbands. I remarked “Who are they supposed to make friends with? Islamophobic white guys?” Little did I know, I had just stepped into another one of these conversations on a face-to-face basis.
I make a point of stating in all of these conversations that this perspective is constructed on 1) the idea that a woman would never choose to cover her body for her own private reasons, 2) the idea that a woman never has a choice to either cover or uncover her body for her own private reasons if she lives anywhere in the Middle East, and 3) the flaky reasons cited by individual men of Middle Eastern descent, which are so transparently ridiculous that anyone with two working brain cells should be able to stop and think critically about what has just been said — and yet no one ever does because a man said it. I also make a point of stating in all of these conversations that because the choice to wear a burqa or hijab or niqab or none-of-the-aforementioned is made by women and not men (especially because the prevailing attitude towards Muslim women is that they are helpless automatons who are being threatened, beaten, or murdered by their husbands and/or male family members), relying on the reports of men is therefore a failure to engage with one’s own internalized sexism.
I attempted to make many of these points in my face-to-face conversation about the proposed burqa ban in Canada, in my Chosen Family’s home. But Straight White Guy felt personally offended, and began frequently interrupting me to put a stop to it. When I managed to gain his cooperation, and the interruptions finally stopped so we could speak to each other as equals again, he played the “Well An Iranian Guy I Lived With Told Me All About How Women Are Treated In The Middle East” argument. I asked him for how long he had lived with this Iranian Man, and if I recall correctly, his answer was at least a year. OK, granted. But then I asked him how long ago this was. And Straight White Guy answered “Oh probably about 20 years ago, now.” Wait… what?
It doesn’t seem remarkable at all to Straight White Guy that Iran today is hardly even recognizable in comparison to Iran 20 Years Ago. It doesn’t seem remarkable to him that he hasn’t had this conversation with a single other person of the Muslim faith or of Middle Eastern descent in 20 years. It doesn’t seem remarkable to him that the person he was speaking to 20 years ago is a man, and therefore, does not make the choice on his own behalf to wear a burqa or niqab or hijab because these are items of clothing that only women wear. It doesn’t seem remarkable to him that the first conversation about burqas he can think of, is not one with a Muslim woman who shared her personal private reasons for her choice with him (in fact, I would doubt he has ever had such a conversation with a Muslim woman). But all of these things are remarkable to me. And I know they were remarkable to the completely silent Black person in the room with us — their silence spoke volumes to me about how uncomfortable this conversation was becoming.
I believe, again, that I tried to state these observations, and was met with frequent interruptions while I tried to account for why I find these things interesting. When I was finally finished, he attempted to tell me that I’ve failed to acknowledge when Muslim women in Middle Eastern countries are, in fact, threatened or beaten or murdered for the crime of being seen in public without a burqa, or seen in public making eyes at a person of the opposite sex. My answer to this is that they weren’t subjected to this violence because they are Muslim women in a Middle Eastern country who were seen in public not-in-a-burqa or making-eyes-at-someone-of-the-opposite-sex, but simply because they are women. That there is nothing about violence against women who happen to be Muslim and living somewhere in the Middle East, that distinguishes itself from violence against any other women anywhere else in the world. To pretend otherwise is to play a dangerous game that looks so much like racism, sexism, and Islamophobia all wrapped up into a disgusting package, that it’s impossible to distinguish between that and the real stuff — maybe that’s remarkable, too. To say that violence against women anywhere is the same as violence against women everywhere, is to acknowledge that it happens, that it’s a problem, and that it needs to stop. But I don’t personally buy into the idea that every single Muslim woman across the Middle East is battered, because that’s a harmful stereotype.
Then Straight White Guy declared that I’m just not hearing what he’s saying, that I’m not giving thought into the possibility that what he has to say is valid, and that I’m just arguing everything he says as if for the exclusive intent of being antagonistic. But Straight White Guy, you are doing the very thing you are accusing me of, by pretending that to have a conversation of this nature, one cannot challenge what the first person to speak (by no coincidence, the most socially privileged person in this case) has argued. And that’s not a conversation. It’s a lecture. So we reach a particularly uncomfortable impasse, where I have learned about all sorts of racist and sexist ideas he harbours about Muslim women (especially if they are from or in Middle Eastern countries — a vast and diverse area of the world he has pigeon-holed on the basis of a single person’s report, which itself was full of problems), and he has come up with any defence he can to prevent himself from seeing the same qualities in his ideas. Thus, I find it increasingly more difficult to separate the Man from his Ideas.
Contrary to Straight White Guy’s beliefs, I am of the firm opinion that it is entirely possible to have a conversation in which ideas that come up are challenged. I don’t believe that this means that change has to happen right then and there or the entire purpose of the conversation has failed. But I do believe that when two people have such divergent opinions about a topic so politically charged, the way each person handles their half of the conversation is the determining factor for whether or not they can still respect each other after the fact. When I have a conversation with a Straight White Guy who says “I simply don’t feel the way that you do about this issue,” I don’t feel silenced, even if I do still feel that Straight White Guy’s ideas are misguided.
But when I have a conversation with a Straight White Guy who says “But people of colour told me so, I’m right and you’re wrong,” I do feel silenced. And I feel that Straight White Guy has failed, in this case, to consider that a person of colour might say what they think Straight White Guy is expecting to hear, just so that they don’t make an enemy out of him. Or maybe they are saying what they think he’s expecting to hear because they have internalized the very same racism. Or because, if they said something that wasn’t what he expected, they would learn just how deeply rooted his racism is, and that would make Straight White Guy an enemy. Certainly if one is living in close quarters with someone who is dramatically more privileged and just doesn’t seem to be aware of this at all, I can see why all of these reasons would play into the dynamic between roommates, as defence mechanisms, for the entire duration of the arrangement.
And it is for these reasons (among notable others) that I am tired of hearing “But people of colour told me so. So shut up, Whitey.” The colour of a person’s skin, or their ethnic make-up, is simply not the reason why their argument is more or less correct. The thing about racism is that people of all ethnicities can and do internalize it. Many people before me have asserted that if you look hard enough, you can find someone from any marginalized group you are talking about, who believes what you’re saying, whether you’re on the right track or wildly misguided. Having found such a person to agree with you doesn’t back up your argument. So just cut that shit out… Like… Nao.
But what should be more obvious to anyone facing a “But people of colour told me so. So shut up, Whitey.” argument, is that not all people of colour subscribe to the same political beliefs, nor should they be expected to. It’s just like how not all white people subscribe to the same political beliefs, and shouldn’t be expected to. That would be called stereotyping. I have, in fact, had many direct personal experiences with people of innumerable ethnicities that demonstrated to me that my heart is in the right place and I’m doing a good thing every time I speak up for social justice. I have even been told at times that I frequently speak up for social justice when the people who are most closely hit by a given display of prejudice simply feel that they can’t speak up, and that therefore this is something that is appreciated and even admirable. I felt simultaneously humbled and overwhelmed with anxiety about whether or not I’m doing it right (or if I can do it better). But what I was told wasn’t followed up with criticism. When I have confessed that this sort of affirmation makes me nervous because I’m just not used to hearing these things or being treated this way, I have been further affirmed as a good ally. And that’s where I finally accept that I am doing the right thing, and stop debating it before I begin to either paralyse myself with white guilt or take away from the meaningful contributions I have already made.
But you don’t see me tooting my own horn or raising an anonymous army of People Of Colour Who Allegedly Said The Exact Same Thing to my defence every time my ideas about social justice are challenged. And my ideas are challenged a lot, because I don’t think or express myself like the vast majority of people I’ve ever met in my life, and never really have. I don’t raise this anonymous army of people of colour because I don’t have to do so, in order to demonstrate that my heart is in the right place and my ideas are in favour of social justice and equity. I don’t need to bully people into accepting my ideas, and can live with it if I find I’m the only person in the conversation who feels the way I do. I’ve done the work to get that far in my own head. My ideas stand on their own merit. Maybe that’s something to think about for those who insist on resorting to “But people of colour told me so. So shut up, Whitey.” Because the only thing that argument accomplishes is either alienating or making an enemy out of someone who could have been your ally.
It doesn’t establish their permanent silence, either, which is what is clearly intended by making the argument in the first place. In my case, it makes me angry, and I use that anger to empower my voice as a writer who is working towards raising consciousness in the only way I feel I can. One of the ways I am working towards raising consciousness is by speaking about issues that reflect sexism, racism, and other forms of essentialism, even if they don’t directly impact me. You could say I am putting my white privilege down on a regular basis, and prioritizing the concerns of marginalized people instead of giving into my privileges (being born white being among my social privileges) and acting from them as often as possible.
Or you could just continue arguing that a person of colour told you so, so I should shut up and start looking at my white privilege. In that case, you’re just giving a sermon.