Why do liberals think they know what it’s like to be black?

… or what it’s like to be gay, or a woman, or poor, or an immigrant or anything that they are not? Really, why does anyone think that they know what it’s like to be anyone else. I don’t mean to pick on people who consider themselves liberals but that is the culture I grew up in and that’s what I know. I’m routinely amazed at the level of hubris exhibited by white liberals in speaking for members of other cultures. I would never try to speak on behalf of someone else; or so I would like to think. I’ve probably done it myself. We all have blind spots.

I’ve spent the last twenty years or so being pretty active in the gay rights movement. When I first started I took on a position of leadership but I haven’t since. I never felt like I had the right to speak for a whole community. I know what it is like to be me. I know what my experiences with homophobia are, but to be honest, they are pretty limited. I grew up in a liberal city as a musician and a geeky artsy type. I never felt that expectation to “fit in”. I don’t know what it’s like to be the gay quarterback of the state champion high-school football team. I don’t know what it’s like to be the lesbian prom queen from a small town. I don’t even know what it’s like to be a transgender art nerd from Duluth, MN and I play in a band with one. Being part of a community, being part of a movement, being part of a band you hear a lot of stories. You get a sense of what it is like for someone else but you can’t really know what it is like.

In a way I get it. It’s part of the liberal ethos to try and put yourself in another person’s shoes. To see the world from their perspective. We try to immerse ourselves in another culture. It can become all consuming and at a certain point you start to feel like you really understand what it is like to be black, or Hispanic, or deaf or a single-mother on welfare. But can you really? I applaud the attempt. I know that people’s hearts are in the right place but let’s not kid ourselves. We can use this experience to build bridges but we can’t rebuild the building that have crumbled under oppression. We can use what we have learned from these experiences to build better connections, ‘to understand and heal ourselves, but we can’t fix anyone else. I understand the desire to raise our voices to compensate for the those that have been silenced but we need to remember that they are our voices. We can’t speak for anyone else.

And even more than that, we can’t tell someone else what it is like to be them!

The other day I heard a white woman tell a black child that the world was unfair and that he would be judged more harshly because of the color of his skin. This child was in trouble and the woman was worried that if he didn’t change his ways that he would become another black male statistic. The boy is adopted and his white mother was there as well. I could tell that she had the same concern. I’m not saying that the concern isn’t warranted, I’m just saying that this woman had no authority to speak about it. This kid needs to know what it is like to be a black man in America but he needs to hear about it from someone who has been there. Even then, his experience is going to be uniquely his own. Times are changing and so is this child. No one can claim to know what his future will be like.

I understand the desire of white people to use their “white-privilege” to help those less fortunate but white people are not privileged. White people are not better. Racism and oppression are fucked up. They are corruption. We can’t use corrupt power to fight the power of corruption. All we have is love. All we can do is stand side-by-side in solidarity as one people. I understand the feeling of guilt about the injustices of the world but there is nothing to feel guilty about. There is no way to atone. All we can do is accept that we are who we are and that we are no better (or worse) than anyone else.

Okay people, use your voice. I’m sure I pissed someone off with this post. Don’t hold back, I can handle it.

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About lefreakshow
A walking contradiction attempting to make sense of this crazy world though the power of creation, exploration and communication.

3 Responses to Why do liberals think they know what it’s like to be black?

  1. You have a valid point. Many people want to relate and help, and as you said their heart is in the right place, but sometimes their well meaning attempts can come off as a bit irritating. Humans have a history of selecting one voice to speak for the many with the general understanding that the message they are spouting will more or less represent what the applicable masses want conveyed. The problem is that the practice of one speaking for many is a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand there isn’t the time or audience to hear everyone’s individual story which necessitates the need for a figure head emissary, but by that same notion no one person can accurately describe the struggles of others because everyone has a (slightly) different story and reacts to the events differently. It’s another broken system and people just try to make do with what they have. If we could only change that mindset, maybe we’d have a chance at actually changing things, but as long as people will “make do” the effort needed to improve things will never be exerted.

    • lefreakshow says:

      It’s another broken system and people just try to make do with what they have.

      So true. I’m a follower of the adage that we have to work with what we’ve got but I also have a hard time working with broken systems. That’s probably why I’ve resorted to working on myself. I recognize that this as a luxury and one that I can’t always afford. Sometimes I need to use the system. I’m doing it right now by using language and it’s monetary based system of valuation [luxury, afford]. In my head I see all people as equal, in the most general sense. In the world outside my head people are not equal. That creates a conflict for me. Things are not the way I want them to be. But I can also look at it another way. I can see how things are compared to how the used to be and all of a sudden the same situation looks much better. Either way we can always do better. Thanks so much for you comment.

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