Let’s begin with a hypothetical situation. Let’s suppose that I become aware that another group of people do not share the same access to material opportunities, cultural perks, and civil rights that I enjoy. Let’s suppose that this segment of the population is historically and regularly racialized, marginalized, or stigmatized by other social groups. (Such as my social group, for instance.)
As a result of this discovery, I realize that people face systemic disadvantages — disadvantages that are mostly alien to my experience. This realization is not only a theoretical idea, but it is the acute awareness that the oppression of others is inseparable from opportunities that I possess (and leverage) as a member of my social class. Put it this way: the very same cards that have been dealt in my favour are simultaneously stacked against other people. I not only see the inequitable, self-reinforcing power disparity at play: I see myself as a player in the equation.
Now, what should I do?
This post is about articulating a hypothetical response to this scenario.
For the sake of the thought experiment, I imagine my range of potential responses as points along a continuum. (Of course, every continuum is an arbitrary model. And this model is surely as flawed as any other. But given these caveats, I share this completely arbitrary idea because it highlights a ‘problem’ I cannot easily reconcile.)
On one end of the continuum, I stand up and declare that I will advocate for you. I have power and resources at my disposal. I will use all the social levers I can get my hands on to make your life better. But in my campaign for the ‘improvement’ of your life, I will militarize my implicit biases: I will inherently assume that I know what you need and want. (And, as it turns out, I think you just want to live more like me!) I proudly declare myself to be a voice for the voiceless — your saviour and your ally. In this, I inadvertently reinforce and amplify the discrepancy between us. Yes, you need me. As I self-righteously claim to ease the burden of your oppression, I only re-entrench myself as the colonizer — a colonizer who is blind and ignorant of the empire and patriarchy that they so dutifully spread with their philanthropy. (Hey, can I get a tax receipt for this, by the way?)
On the other extreme of the continuum, I humbly announce that I will wholly defer to your knowledge. Therefore, You must advocate for yourself. In my deference, I bestow upon you the responsibility of educating me. I am the researcher, and you are the subject. Just as I refuse to speak on your behalf, I also positively refuse to act unless you direct me to act. As a result, you must take up the not insignificant labour of managing me. In my so-called solidarity and allyship, I am a burden. A piece of well-intentioned deadweight. Yes, I will assure a token voice for the plight of your people is always represented. I will champion the input of those with lived experience at every opportunity. I will write policies for your inclusion. I will host your workshops. But the ‘identity labour’ costs hereby fall entirely to you. And along the way your identity is evermore defined by this new multicultural role I set for you. You bear the burden of my endless consultations. Here, again, the power discrepancy is only magnified. I, the so-called woke colonizer, have a new assignment for you: you must advocate for yourself at every opportunity I provide you. Thus, in decrying the disparity of our relative privilege, I enjoy my new privilege of deferring everything to you and excusing myself of any liability for the outcomes.
The ‘poles’ of this continuum present a real problem. To the extent I act on your behalf, I entrench my position as a patronizing member of bourgeoisie performing the same-old song and dance in the hazardous haze of their ignorance. To the extent that I refuse to act without your explicit direction or insist on your volunteer leadership, I effectively abdicate all personal responsibility (and accountability) for contributing to the cognitive and material tasks of reparation and equity. The balance of these two poles is tedious and fragile. How maliciously and subtly the power imbalance tips the scale in either direction. Perhaps the most important ‘test’ for any given action is the extent to which the activity holds these dynamics in balance.
At either end of this continuum, oppression merely switches the garbs of its outer shell. But both ends of the continuum seem to represent the ‘default’ responses of people like me (that is, folks who fancy themselves as advocates and tweeters for the idea of ‘social justice’ from the position of their economic and class privilege). In trying to determine the ‘middle,’ I confront the heart of the complexity at hand: what does it even mean to ‘decolonize’ one’s social position? And if one cannot ‘decolonize’ oneself, does it not follow that another must always be the colonized?
If this model reflects anything about reality, the way forward seems disturbingly foggy. In my commitment to avoid the poles at the extreme, I step timidly towards the centre of the continuum. But what is the centre?
How do we solve this dilemma without parroting the same old platitudes about the importance of ‘active listening’ and ‘building bridges’? How much time must we usurp at our roundtables, panels, and conferences? How do we find the middle of the continuum without merely describing new, normative roles for the oppressed to play in our newly reordered order of things?
At this point, I have come to the tentative ‘conclusion’ that there is no secret solution for ‘solving’ the problem raised by this continuum. The ‘right’ answer appears to be: continue muddling along with as much grace and trust as we can muster. Or, perhaps, revolution. Chucking the ‘continuum’ out the window might be a good start, too. Thoughts? There could very well be no answer key at the end of the book we are writing here. Admittedly, I’m a bit suspicious of people who think they’ve got all this figured out. But I am reasonably confident that the people who are running ahead blind to this inherent dilemma are teetering recklessly close to the historical status quo.