Queer and trans* topics rarely come up in my class discussions (which is an issue for another day), but often when they do, I find that I voluntarily take on the role of makeshift educator.
Just recently in one of my tutorials, someone brought up the Belgian man who was granted permission for euthanasia after an unsatisfactory sex change surgery. What followed could be described as a very awkward, uncomfortable silence and a few unpleasant reactions.
A lot of people aren’t necessarily as exposed to discussions surrounding topics of gender and sexual diversity as I am, which is why I will often reluctantly excuse and overlook these signs of prejudice and ignorance.
While rude and offensive, these moments serve as reminders that there’s still work to do, awareness to raise and people to educate.
I know that a lot of people in the Queer community and other marginalized groups don’t hold the same view about the process of educating privileged folks. I completely understand this perspective; having to constantly repeat your story, the same information; the same facts that are easily accessible online can become frustrating. Sometimes you wish people would take the time to learn about issues that don’t directly affect them.
Unfortunately, as we all probably know, this isn’t the case for most individuals who are privileged in one way or another (myself included with respect to certain privileges I hold).
Becoming an ally to a group is an extensive process – one that never really ends. As someone who isn’t experiencing what the people you’re supporting are experiencing, your activism looks different from theirs.
The process will definitely consist of a lot of mistakes, especially at the start. However, everyone has to start somewhere, and for some people it may be that time they spent five seconds listening to the uncomfortable silence of their tutorial room.
I like to give people the benefit of the doubt during the first few moments of this “process.” Even if I was offended by the reactions, the eye-rolls and the sounds of confusion, I don’t like to point fingers or start yelling (at least not right away).
Privileged people have spent their whole life in a society that has taught them that things are a certain way, and I think expecting a two-second paradigm shift to take place isn’t realistic.
That’s why I like to begin the process by educating. Some people are very receptive, and others not so much.
And I think it’s at this point, after I’ve attempted to educate someone on issues they aren’t familiar with, that I can begin to make the distinction between those who have good intentions and are trying to be allies, and those who don’t. The latter, of course, can be incredibly unnerving, and it can be another reason why members of marginalized communities don’t like having the burden of educating privileged people placed on them.
However, I think it’s important to recognize the difference between well-intentioned folks who might be asking ignorant questions in the process of learning, and those are intentionally offending and refusing to learn/unlearn.
That’s not to say that members of marginalized groups owe anyone any sort of education. In the end, it’s up to the person and not the entire community. Everyone has different experiences with oppression, activism and advocacy, and educating should never be an individual responsibility.
So when someone is talking about a group of people you’re not very familiar with, listen. When you hear terms you’ve never heard before, try to remember them. If someone is getting up the courage to educate a room full of strangers on a topic they’re intimately familiar with, respect them.
These aren’t hard rules to follow, and can make the discussion have a positive tone, while also making the burden of the educating that a lot of marginalized people feel obligated to provide much more bearable.