We’ve all been in that situation, either online or in person, when someone wants to play devil’s advocate about race because “their opinion matters”. But does it?
I’d like to start with a thought experiment. With no background in construction, save a few DIY projects, I walk into a construction zone, find the project manager, and then tell them at great length the ways in which I think they are building it wrong. Every time the manager tries to explain the engineering and architectural expertise behind the design, I keep insisting “well that is just your opinion and I am entitled to mine”. By hour 3, the project manager is getting really angry because I am wasting an enormous amount of their time and patronizing their years of experience, learning about construction, all to which I reply that they are “being too sensitive”. Of course, that would be pretty ridiculous. So why is it ok with race?
Race is so infrequently spoken about in polite Canadian culture, that it is both taboo and public domain. Even though Critical Race Theory is an established school of thought in tertiary education around the world, it is a field that very few choose to study, and thus remains relatively niche information. Of course, you certainly don’t have to go to university to have expertise in critical race theory – to the contrary – most of my critical race theory s/heroes never finished their degrees. Getting a degree or two is awesome, but universities are called Ivory Towers for a reason.
To help sort out some of the noise on race talk, I put together the diagram below:
The general public, which is incredibly vast, takes up the bottom of the chart. These are the Internet trolls, the hipsters, the drunk uncles; everyone who has zero lived experience with racialization, but feels totally entitled to their opinion. White privilege has many facets, including dominating conversations about race and centering whiteness. It is especially problematic when “white tears” show up, as white hurt feelings are often prioritized over issues as serious as Black and Indigenous people’s lives being lost every day. #AllLivesMatter anyone?
Next we have people who have experienced marginalization in one form, and have surmised that all marginalization is actually the same. The thing is, marginalization doesn’t have to be the same to matter. Even those from the “same” marginalized group experience oppression differently. If anything, faulty comparisons actually erase the experiences of the people that they are trying to connect with. Nothing is like the trans-atlantic slave trade. Nothing is like the genocide of Indigenous people. Being cash poor and white doesn’t make you an authority on being cash poor and Asian. Yes, we are all humans, but no, we are not all the same, and that is ok.
Next up: not all skin folk are kin folk. Unfortunately, internalized racism is real, and people of colour can (and do) uphold white supremacy to great lengths, often without knowing it. This of course is where things start to get really foggy. On the one hand, not everyone from group X does (or should) agree on everything. While white supremacy works to flatten racialized peoples into monoliths, we are all entitled to be complicated, dynamic, unique, flawed, and brilliant. On the other hand, there are racialized people who do real harm when they use their lived but uncritical experience to support systemic violence. Lived experience is crucial – but it is not everything.
Finally, critical thinking takes practice to develop, combined with years of lived experience, and often several intersecting identities to round it out. This is the venn diagram of which many of the best cultural critics emerge. The truth is, not everyone is going to be a famous social justice warrior, and that’s a good thing. Our society puts way too much emphasis on being leaders and very little on being good followers, which is exactly the opposite to how being a good ally works (acknowledging that allyship in itself can be very problematic). I definitely make mistakes, even our favourites do, but I always do my best to stay in my lane, while supporting others whose oppression I have not experienced. This means that I make a concerted effort to use my unearned social privileges to support other causes, as opposed to being the expert on them, as I can only be an expert on my own lived experience. In order to be good allies, we all should sharpen our critical thinking skills, tell our own stories, and support each other’s liberation.
So to that high school acquaintance who is whitesplaining and derailing your entire Facebook thread, no, their opinion doesn’t matter. Or to the person of colour who continuously argues that respectability politics will save Black people from police brutality, an “unfriend” might be coming their way. There are many methods in which we can educate others that feel right for us, but it is also definitely not our duty to educate everyone about our humanity. Quite frankly, there are people who will refuse to listen, and they are simply not our responsibility.