My sister-in-arms is poor. A minority of minorities. A person of colour. I am not.
She has a powerful voice which others try to suppress at every turn. She lives on the other side of the world, and her life is fucking difficult (that’s a necessary expletive). So is mine, but with problems of a wholly different timber. I don’t have to choose between sleeping rough or eating. I don’t have to protect two children from the dangers of the streets. Whilst I often struggle with anxiety, self-worth and trauma from my past, I have access to therapy and books. I live in a comfortable house, with clothes and food. Yesterday my biggest problems were how to get a second-hand–free–trampoline to our house, build an IKEA bedside table, do all my work, pick up my kids, organise a ton of Christmas stuff and cook dinner before 4pm. My income has been hit hard by Brexit because I invoice in pounds. But all of these are privileged problems.
Are you starting to feel uncomfortable? Bear with me for just a moment.
We speak every week, she and I. Her posts about hardship have often made me grind my teeth, because the difference between our circumstances could not be more diametric. I often struggle to get through her stories and she lives in what I can only describe as nightmarish circumstances. Abuse, discrimination, poverty. So I both employ and actively recommend her services for sensitivity editing. It’s not much, but it’s something. And it’s valuable for us both. I because I get to fill holes in my ignorance, to know better and do better. She, because she literally gets to eat something that week. This dichotomy continues to be uncomfortable. As it should.
If I weren’t so used to being uncomfortable, I might have averted my eyes from her stories. Given anonymously by direct debit to charities which shielded me from contact with hardship like hers. I used to do that. It allowed me to think I was a good person. Until I realised around five years ago, that I was using it to hide from my own ignorance and from my own actions. It was uncomfortable when I realised that I was contributing to minority invisibility. I was contributing to the ‘them-us’ paradigm. Aren’t the saddest words in the world ‘I meant well’?
When I started to find my own prejudice and bias, I comforted myself. It wasn’t wilful, it wasn’t my fault. The acts of my ancestors weren’t my fault. The systemic racism wasn’t my fault. The patriarchy wasn’t my fault. None of it was my fault. But very quickly I realised that even if this were true, I was entirely responsible for my own current ignorance and inevitable actions stemming as a consequence from it. And that whilst every person is unique, ignorance and consequent actions are consistent and repeatable. It was uncomfortable. Imagine that many more are like me. Take my ignorant deeds and multiply them by thousands, hundreds of thousands. Then get an uncomfortable inkling that you, like me, might be a part, albeit it a tiny part, of the problem. Unless you actively work to dismantle it.
What can you do?
Without taking responsibility for our human ignorance, we can’t change anything. Once I understood that I was responsible for my beliefs, opinions, judgements, biases–basically my privileged ‘bubble’, I was scared. I was scared of the unknown. Scared of change. Scared of losing the benefits that my privilege granted me. There was a lot of work to do and I knew it would be painful. Loss of identity is painful. Admitting your own flaws exposes your vulnerability. But once I understood that I was part of the problem, I realised that just by accepting the fact that my ignorance was my problem I was doing something really important. Yes, it was uncomfortable but I learned that being uncomfortable was a good thing. It was the first step and doing it changed me. It changed everything.
I started to read more of her stories, and justify less. I saw her humanity and it touched me. I connected with her, learned more, questioned more. Supported more. Took more responsibility. Empathy for my sister-in-arms has been my saviour and the journey is far from over. But it has also been immensely rewarding and not only for my personal learning, but also for my pocket. Yes, money. Society after all is programmed to listen to my privileged voice. My sister-in-arms edits my writing and makes it better–and more sellable–than it would otherwise be. Maybe that also makes you feel uncomfortable. But whilst money is not my primary intention, it is a fact and yes, I’ll shout it if I have to, to let you see that when working for the greater good, it does not mean working against your own best interests. In fact in my experience it’s precisely the opposite. I use my privilege to support her voice and my own. And doing it this way makes it doubly rewarding for us both.
After the last edit, my sister-in-arms thanked me for employing her and I was shocked. That she would feel the need to thank me when she has borne more than anyone should ever have to. That she would thank me, when what all I have to do is to accept and expose my own ignorance and she has to fight for her and her childrens’ lives. Every. Single. Fucking. Day. That she remains so kind and gracious in the face of my white privilege and my unintentional socialized bias.
Somehow, she said, she feels in my debt. That she’s done nothing for me. Really? I said.
She supports me even when I make hurtful and harmful mistakes. She allows me to make reparations. She sees my struggle to learn when I go wrong and helps me in my transformation. I have an immensely precious alliance and I never forget how grateful I am for it. My gratitude is in direct proportion to how uncomfortable I let myself feel because I know that no matter how painful it is, it’s not even on the same scale as her struggle. She is in no way obliged to hold my hand as I try to check my privilege. And yet her heart is so fucking big, that she does. She is a queen and I am in her debt.
So white folk, we have a task in front of us which might seem huge, but really it isn’t. It is to face our own prejudice when the most obvious and comfortable way to survive is to stay in our bubble. It is to step up and be accountable for our ignorance, even if ignorance is part of our humanity. I will hold your hand as we overcome our fragility and cultivate empathy and battle our minds which tell us that it’s not our problem. When you become responsible for your ignorance you empower others and yourself. Now imagine that everyone did that. And realise how immensely powerful we are together. Your task today is simply to accept that you are ignorant. Live with it every day. Feel it every day. Because it’s only when we feel uncomfortable enough, that we do something about it.
Get your work edited for Minority Sensitivity by my sister-in-arms Michon Neal