One of the reliable mistakes well meaning people make is to assume that knowledge of one thing means understanding of another: I have endured sexism so I understand racism. I have endured workplace bullying so I understand domestic abuse. I’m a lesbian so I understand the problems of gay men. And so on and so forth. Less well meaning people take it a step further: I have experienced sexual oppression and therefore I cannot be racist. I have been a victim of abuse so I cannot be a bully. It’s easy to see how we get there, and the consequences are unhelpful through to harmful.
One of the things this does is let us not consider where we may be going wrong. A lifetime of dealing with sexual discrimination gives you pretty much no insight into the mechanics of race. If you are a white woman, a lifetime of sexual discrimination does not actually mean you are incapable of racism. The uncomfortable truth is that to be white is to be part of a system that upholds racial discrimination. If you want to change that, you have to find ways to be active about it. Imagining reasons it does not apply to you doesn’t help anyone.
Granted, experiences of oppression can give one group the scope to empathise with the sufferings of another group. That can be a productive base for mutual support. But it can also be a way of erasing the differences in power that exist. It can be a way of minimising your role in the other group’s problems. Sometimes it can leave people feeling entitled to speak for, and speak over those they claim to be helping. Speaking for other people is something to do with caution, because so often it turns out to be speaking over. Believing that you are qualified to speak for someone else is an impulse that needs scrutiny.
Suffering does not make you incapable of being an ass-hat. Experience of discrimination does not make you incapable of discriminating against others. Experiencing challenges does not mean that in some situations you don’t also have privilege. Thinking about this may be uncomfortable. You may feel a knee-jerk defensive reaction that wants to say ‘no, because I…’ and it’s ok to feel that if it’s what you’ve got. Feel it, sit with it, unpick it, understand it. Look at where those protective feelings come from. Do it privately where no one else can see. Own what you find there. It’s not an easy process, but if you do this quietly and alone, everyone benefits.