Who gets the authority?

Everyone’s a little bit racist. Unfortunately, this includes people who are subject to the effects of racism. Everyone exists in a social context that immerses them in cultural knowledge, which often contains prejudices against others and one’s own group. This isn’t limited to racism either, but applies to all marginalized people.

Yet an important concept in social justice circles is that marginalized people are the best authority on their own experiences. How do we reconcile this with the idea that many marginalized people don’t have access to social justice analysis, and can only speak to their own experience, and that sometimes prejudices become defense mechanisms.

There’s an important distinction to be made here: all marginalized people are the best authority of their experience as an individual. No one can speak for the entire group. What’s more, prejudice often takes the form of holding up a single person as representative of an entire group. That’s what we call stereotyping or homogenizing a group. The reason we keep saying #blacklivesmatter is because Black lives are systematically undervalued by our society. The reason we say listen to individual marginalized people and believe them, is because these are voices that are consistently silenced. As the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, ““Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”

Having access to education, community, and all the associated benefits of understanding the systems in which we operate and how to approach various issues intersectionally is a form of privilege. That is not to say it means one has privilege, but rather the way we get access to these spaces benefits us and not everyone can do that. Some people have other forms of privilege and willingly decide not to engage with these issues, and as a result throw other people, with whom they may otherwise have commonalities, under the bus.

By now, Ben Carson has become a sad example of an incredibly wealthy Black man who has consistently refused to acknowledge either his position of privilege in wealth, or the way Black people are negatively affected by systemic racism. Similarly, female celebrities who refuse to call themselves feminsit despite often facing it in their industries perpetuate anti-feminist ideas. These women also espouse other problematic rhetoric as well. Recently, I’ve been frustrated with several incidents where privileged (usually white, wealthy) women in the trans community have been ableist and attacked and excluded nonbinary individuals.

Identity doesn’t justify behavior. It’s simply a call to acknowledge a voice whose experience is part of a large complex history that is written out of the books. When we self-identity in order to make a statement, it’s to oppose the assumption that the most privileged position is the default.

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