How to interact with a marginalized person you think is over-reacting

… on some issue of privilege.

So this post is inspired by an ongoing internet shitstorm that I won’t address because many others have done it better than me. I’m going to just talk in generalities here, instead, because I think it’s one of those things that everyone who’s privileged on 1+ axes of privilege should think about.

Everyone has had that time where someone is pissed off, explodes, and you don’t get why, right? Now, imagine that the person is pissed off about some axis of oppression on which you’re privileged – say, if you’re mentally well, someone explodes about mental illness ableism, or if you’re white, someone explodes about racism, or if you’re a man, someone explodes about sexism, or etc. You don’t get why they’re so pissed. You know they are pissed, because they’re yelling and cursing and generally exploding all over the place. You don’t know why, because what set them off seems – to your privileged eyes – to be rather minor. It seems like they’re over-reacting, or being unreasonable, or being too harsh on the offending person.

What should you do? In general:

  1. Bear in mind that you have no idea what the fuck is going on there. You are just seeing stimulus and explosion. You don’t know context, and you don’t know history.
  2. Assume the other person is, in general, a reasonable person who would not explode for no good reason. Yes, I get that unreasonable people who explode for no good reason exist, but they’re in the vast minority, and you’ll do far less harm assuming an unreasonable person is actually reasonable than in assuming a reasonable person is unreasonable. It is far more likely that the person is a reasonable person who’s reached a point of can’t-take-it-anymore than someone who’s exploding just for the sake of exploding.
  3. Try to relate to the person doing the exploding. This is easier if you are oppressed on at least one axis of oppression: If you are, draw an analogy to your own oppression. In my case, I draw analogies to sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. “So, basically, what that person did is the equivalent of asking me why women don’t just work harder because if they worked harder there wouldn’t be a wage gap?” That sort of thing. If you aren’t, draw an analogy to a time when you’ve had people pick at the same sore spot over and over and over and over until you just can’t take it anymore and finally it all just erupts over a relatively minor nudge. The point here is to realize the person doing the exploding isn’t reacting just to the stimulus you saw, they’re reacting to the cumulative effects of their oppression.
  4. Listen to what the exploding person is saying and look for clues to what your group might be doing wrong in it. For example, if the person is talking about how they’re here and you’ll just have to get used to it, that means the group is making them feel unwelcome and unwanted.
  5. Try to figure out why the stimulus was oppressive, if you can’t see it already. People who are oppressed can hear oppressive dogwhistles without trying, because hearing those dogwhistles is a matter of survival for them. If you’re gay, you need to figure out who will be all, “That’s cool,” if you come out, and who will try to put you in the hospital before you come out to them. If you’re a person with a chronic illness, you need to figure out who will accommodate and who will call you lazy, and you need to figure it out before you disclose your illness. Similar analogies hold true across other axes of oppression.
  6. In the future, call out people who behave in a similar way to the person who provided the stimulus for explosion. It’s not macroaggressive oppression that grinds away at most marginalized people, it’s the cumulative effects of microaggressions. By calling it out when you see it, you lessen the drain of each microaggression. A simple, “That’s a bit ~ist, don’t you think?” or “Not cool,” is sufficient, you don’t have to lecture.

And, likewise, there’s some things you definitely shouldn’t do:

  1. Refrain from automatically siding with the person being exploded at. It’s easy, as a privileged person, to relate to someone who’s privileged in the same way as you and to err on the side of assuming they didn’t mean it that way or that they’re just naive or ignorant. Here’s the thing, though: Whether they’re a card-carrying oppressive asshole, or just Friend Down The Street who’s heart’s in the right place doesn’t really matter in the current context. What matters is that whatever they did hurt somebody. If I hit someone with a car, does the person I hit get any less hurt if I hit them because I was distracted instead of hitting them because I thought it would be fun to hit someone? No. They were hit by a car. Why they were hit by a car doesn’t really matter to them right now, because, hello, they were hit by a fucking car. Right now, they’re far more worried about the fact that they were hit by a car than why they were hit by the car. Same in situations of oppression. As far as the hurt person is concerned, they don’t care whether someone meant to be an oppressive asshole or if they’ve just internalized oppressive cultural memes. The person still did something oppressive.
  2. Don’t minimize the oppressive thing to yourself. Because  you’re privileged in the same way the offender is, it’s easy to relate to them because you can imagine yourself making the same mistake. You might be tempted to justify the mistake – it wasn’t offensive, it was naive. It wasn’t hurtful, it was just ignorant. It wasn’t malicious, it was clumsy.  Don’t do that. I’m prone to this one. Instead of letting myself justify the oppressive action, I try to acknowledge to myself that people sometimes do bad things, either by mistake or on purpose and that just because I could see myself making that mistake doesn’t mean the mistake is excusable.
  3. Extension of #2, don’t gaslight the person exploding. Don’t justify the mistake to them, and don’t minimize it to them. I guarantee, Exploding Person doesn’t want a paternalistic privileged ass explaining to them about how the oppressive person didn’t mean it that way. If you’re oppressed, think of it this way: Would you like some privileged ass explaining to you about how someone who said some bigoted thing isn’t really a bigot? If you’re not oppressed, would you like your boss explaining to you how the coworker-from-hell you have is really a nice person once you get to know hir?  Instead, remember that if you’re privileged, you have social power over the oppressed person and thus must act very carefully in order to avoid furthering the oppression. Secondly, acknowledge to the Exploding Person that the thing that was done to them was in fact oppressive and not okay.
  4. Don’t tone police, don’t chide them for their reaction, and definitely don’t take the exploding person aside for a talking-to. It is not your job to do that, so don’t do it. You are not the person’s boss, you are not their parent, you are not their coach or their teacher. It is not your place to take a stranger or an acquaintance aside and chide them like a naughty child when you know less about the situation than they do. Don’t do that, it’s oppressive as fuck.
  5. Don’t demand the oppressed person educate you on why that thing is oppressive. Oppressed and marginalized people do not exist to be your personal tutors. Google exists. Use it.
  6. Related to #4: remember that demands for “civility” are a common silencing tactic and that the oppressed person did not start incivility. It is uncivil to do something oppressive. It is even more uncivil to demand that someone respond to an insult to their humanity with Straw Vulcan-esque emotional detachment. Emotion is an acceptable and human response to insult and oppression. So, don’t demand that they be more civil.
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4 thoughts on “How to interact with a marginalized person you think is over-reacting

  1. autisticook says:

    Shared on facebook. Fucking brilliant. I know I’m guilty of probably most of these.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Thanks.

      I’m probably guilty of most of them, too. That you’re oppressed in X ways does not mean you’ll handle the oppression of others along axes you’re privileged perfectly.This stuff would be a hell of a lot easier if it did, eh?

  2. notesoncrazy says:

    This is so well written. Thanks for posting.

    I think a corollary to some if this is remembering that people who do not seem oppressed, people who are clearly very privileged in many or most ways, and people who are oppressive toward others are still capable of being and feeling oppressed.

    For me that means things like (this is just one of many examples) remembering some black friends I have may still feel the oppressions of racism despite coming from a high SES home or having attended an Ivy League school or otherwise having the privileges of wealth and education. Race and class are very much NOT equivalent, so I need to be compassionate that oppression and prejudice may exist in their lives in ways I do not anticipate.

    It also means that even though I am a well-educated white girl from an upper-middle class home…there are things that can make me feel marginalized too. It is incredibly shaming to be asked to justify or defend unchangeable aspects of my life (like a mood disorder or developmental disability) because I seem to “have everything going for me.”

    • ischemgeek says:

      Yes, of course. Intersectionality is a thing. I’m privileged in many ways (white, middle class, educated, cisgendered, currently able-bodied, etc), yet that doesn’t mean that the ways in which I’m marginalized (gender, learning disability, asthma) don’t matter.

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