I was raised in a pretty oppressive environment. Racism was the norm, homophobia was expected, and sexism was just the way things were. My church had a biblical justification for racism. Every romantic couple to whom I was exposed was male-dominated, and not in a fun, consensual way. More like the barefoot-and-pregnant, wimminz belong in the kitchen kind of way. Sex-negative just doesn’t seem to cover the shamefulness of any sexuality related thoughts, discussions, ideas, or actions. Even non-sexual bodily functions were taboo. “Fart” was a bad word on par with any profanity bleeped out by network TV censors.
Some of this stuff stopped making sense to me when I was pretty young. Some of it took a little longer for me to question. Eventually, I got the hell out of that place, and away from the people who raised me in it.
But it wasn’t all that, all the time. There was a great deal of backwoods Appalachian compassion and empathy in my upbringing, especially from my grandmother.
I remember these ham-handed fables she made up, and told us as truth. She’d catch my cousin making fun of the fat girl, and tell a story about her uncle, who did the same thing, bullying and ridiculing a fat girl, then, later in life, became so very fat he couldn’t get up from his chair, and had to deal with all his kids making fun of him, too. Or she’d hear one of us kids talking about somebody with acne, and tell a story about her neighbor, who bullied a little girl with acne, who then got a horrific skin condition that caused him to erupt in boils all over his body, and little kids would run screaming from him on the street.
Morbid, and kind of obvious, I know. But there was always a little lecture tacked on to the end. It varied in the details, but one line was always present.
Don’t judge somebody until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
Now, on the surface, that was a good lesson to teach a bunch of little kids. Well, except for the part where the racism and sexism and homophobia and religious intolerance ran rampant throughout our daily lives, and even in her own speech. And, of course, I made those other connections, as I got older.
The line still applies, though, and to a lot of things that she never would have considered in her clumsy fables.
I don’t have any experience that would lead me to truly understand what it is to be black, or any race other than white. I was born with white ‘shoes,’ and had no choice in that. If I had been given the choice, though, with what little academic kinds of knowledge I do possess, I probably would have chosen them, too. They would have given me better traction.
I was designated female at birth. I have always felt like a girl or woman. I’ve never identified as a boy or a man. So, I don’t have any concrete experience with what it’s like to be trans, or to identify somewhere off the generally socially acceptable gender binary. Again, just going on what little knowledge I’ve managed to glean from reading things, I probably would have chosen to exist solidly on one end of the binary scale, had I been given the choice. Because those shoes are less likely to pinch.
I figured out I was bisexual when I was in my teens. I kind of knew it, before, but didn’t have a label for it, so I just thought I was weird, unnatural, and wrong. My experiences with that have been pretty rough. I’ve been treated in shitty ways, since coming to and identifying with that label, by both the heteronormative society in which I was raised, and by many of the people in the gay communities I first looked to for a sense of acceptance, for belonging. I’ve been told to make up my damned mind, already. I’ve been labelled as something I wasn’t, just because the people around me believed it had to be either-or. Either I was gay, or I was straight… and neither ‘team’ wanted me on theirs, so the straight people called me a dyke, and the gay people called me a confused straight girl.
If I had been given a choice, with the things I now know, I probably would have chosen some straighter shoes. They would undoubtedly have been less likely to trip me, and would have matched up with each other better.
I was born a woman. My gender has been used as a tool to keep me ‘in my place’ my whole life. There are so many pieces and bits and ingredients and backdrops and bad actors involved in that, it would take me about a bajillion hours to write about all of them. Even then, I’d probably miss at least a few, because there’s an awful lot of it that I’ve internalized. Digging all of that shit out takes time, and work, and loads of conflict, both internal and external, and I think it’s probably the work of a lifetime or three.
Knowing what I know now, had I been given the choice, I probably would have chosen man-shoes. Walking in them would have been undeniably easier, and probably safer for my toes. Not to mention the rest of my anatomy, both physical and emotional.
Now, none of this is to say that there aren’t shitty things about being white or existing on the gender binary or being a man or being straight. There are shitty things about each of those things. There’s almost always a mix of pros and cons to anything. Nor have I covered all the possible permutations, here. I’ve talked mostly about tennis shoes and flip-flops, boots and high heels. There are other kinds of shoes out there, and I haven’t worn them all.
But I recognize that. I understand that, no matter how hard I try to empathize, or how similar some bits of my experience are to the experiences of others, I do notknow what it’s like to walk a mile in all the different kinds of shoes. For instance, I’ve never walked a mile in Birkenstocks. So, when somebody who wears Birkenstocks tries to tell me about their experience, I tend to value what they describe, over whatever preconceived notions I have about wearing Birkenstocks. I’ve seen people wear them. I have friends who wear them. I may even be related to someone who wears them. I’ve read about them, and seen pictures and done research, but I. HAVEN’T. WORN. THEM.
Now, this doesn’t mean I’m automatically a bad person, just because I haven’t had to wear a specific pair of shoes. It just means that some of the shoes I’ve been given to wear, in my life, probably come with a lot more in the way of benefits than some shoes, and with a lot more disadvantages than others.
Those benefits? That’s privilege. The disadvantages? Those are oppression. Most of us have some combination of experiences with both sides, but neither one cancels out the other, nor does it make us more qualified to judge the oppression involved in wearing shoes we weren’t forced to wear.
I’m white. Being white comes with inherent privilege. I’m female. That comes with inherent oppression. But I don’t get to say to a black man, “Hey, that’s not so bad! You may be black, but you’re a dude! Your oppression is nothing compared to mine, as a woman.”
Why not? Because I don’t know that, and that’s fucking douchey. This isn’t the oppression Olympics.
I’ve lived either right at, or well below the poverty line for most of my life, and I’m disabled. I don’t get to tell a transperson that the oppression they experience is something I totally understand, since I’m poor and disabled. They’re different things, complete with a different set of obstacles and concerns.
Why not? Because it’s douchey. Intimate knowledge of some types of oppression doesn’t automatically make me an authority on all types of oppression.
There are many different types of privilege. It’s not inherently douchey to have privilege. What is inherently douchey is to tell someone who doesn’t share that particular type of privilege that their experience doesn’t count, or that it isn’t real, or that they’re being irrational or stupid or attention-whoring or just stirring up drama, just because I don’t have personal experiences that make my worldview gel with theirs. I haven’t walked in those shoes, and I don’t really get to make that determination. What’s douchey is taking the struggles of those who wear different shoes than mine, and claiming them as my own, without ever having been forced to feel what those shoes are like, when walking.
Of course, those aren’t the only bits of douchery that goes on around privilege.
Most people who have been oppressed (protip: that’s the vast majority of us, on one issue or another), get understandably touchy around the subject. Especially when facing off about that subject, with people who haven’t worn those shoes. Even more especially when those with the privilege trot out some worn out old lines that are often used by the privileged to hold onto that privilege, at the expense of the oppressed group.
Those folks wearing the less comfortable shoes will often build up a bit of a hair-trigger response to the clichés. Which is also understandable. Being stuck in shitty shoes is not conducive to never-ending patience with people whose privilege helped to put you in them, or to keep you there. It doesn’t tend to give you any motivation to indulge their ignorance, when they behave as though their lack of experience in that type of oppression somehow negates your own lived experiences of that oppression.
Some people use privilege as an insult. They hurl it at their opponents as if the opponent should apologize for having the privilege, which isn’t really the point. Most of us can no more help having privilege than we can help not having it. Those people, though, really are few and far between. They’re not representative, ever, of an entire oppressed class, or of the people fighting against oppression. They’re the exception, not the rule.
And this kind of brings us full circle, because there are folks who have privilege who believe that anyone trying to point out their privilege, anyone trying to get them to see that they don’t know what it’s like to wear these uncomfortable fucking shoes, are in that last tiny group. The vast majority of the time, they’re not, and it’s really douchey to treat them as if they are.
See, it isn’t about being a bad person, because you happened to get better shoes. It isn’t about hating the people who have better shoes than yours. It isn’t even about wanting to take away those much nicer shoes, or forcing the people wearing the better shoes to wear our uncomfortable fucking shoes, instead.
It’s simply about recognizing that the shoes are different, as are the experiences of the people wearing them. It’s about wanting everybody to have shoes that are as close to equally comfortable as possible. It’s about each of us accepting that the shoes we wear don’t really give us the right to be cruel or dismissive to those whose shoes aren’t as nice as ours, or to pretend that the very different shoes we wear give us a real understanding of what it is to wear someone else’s. It’s about pointing out the blisters our shoes are giving us, and figuring out how to make that stop. It’s not about villainizing the folks who aren’t getting the blisters, but about asking them to see the blisters, and maybe to help us get shoes that don’t do that.
And when your response to that, as a privileged person, is to screech about how you’ve never done a mean thing to anyone, and you didn’t make the shoes, and your feelings are hurt because NONE OF THIS IS MY FAULT STOP MAKING ME EXAMINE MY OWN INSECURITIES, then you really do need to step back and examine why you’re being so defensive about something no one is saying. You need to look to your feet, and look to the feet of the folks with the less comfortable shoes, and really ask yourself, would you be willing to exchange yours for theirs? Would you be willing, for the rest of your life, to be treated the way our culture treats queer people, if you’re straight? Would you be willing to be treated the way our culture treats transgender people, if you’re cisgender? Would you be willing to be treated the way our culture treats POC, if you’re white?
Of course you wouldn’t. You would never willingly give up the shoes you’re wearing to spend the rest of your life in those shoes. Because, whether you want to admit it or not, you know that your shoes are more comfortable, and come with more perks, and that the others are less comfortable, and come with more problems. You know, and you feel guilty about it. Which is not helpful. Guilt is a waste of time and energy and emotion. I doubt any oppressed person gives two shits about the guilt of the privileged. It’s useless.
What we do want is simple recognition that being in these shoes is shitty and unfair. What we do want is for those of you who have an easier time walking, because of the shoes you were lucky enough to be born into, to stand and walk and fight by our side, until we can all have more equitable footwear. Until we can all walk without living in so much pain and struggle.
It’s really just that simple.