White knights in the modern day
Ariel Garlow / The Silhouette
Social activists tend to argue that those who can speak best about oppression are those who have experienced it first-hand.
And indeed, it may make more sense to have someone who has been in an abusive relationship, in a low-income household and a racially profiled neighbourhood to explicate the nature of the harm these injustices cause rather than someone who has never known that hardship. Because who knows pain better than the inflicted?
It is one thing to suggest that those who have experienced harm may bring a necessary perspective to the table. But there are obstacles; there are always obstacles.
The first obstacle is admitting – often to strangers – that you have been in such a situation. The second obstacle is when mere experience of pain is valued over fair and equal discussion of all involved.
I will be speaking from personal experience. I often see a friend, acquaintance or fellow classmate (to note: often male, middle-class, white or possessing features praised by white western values of aesthetics) speaking about a social activist topic, attempting to broaden their perspective, becoming an ally for the underprivileged and showing that they are a truly progressive individual.
There are many topics the intersectional friend may pick up on – sexual abuse, classism, racial inequality, gender, body politics.
Now, let’s say they say something about rape or race or women’s rights that I feel myself disagreeing with.
I approach them, ask to talk about the subject, offer my disagreements and gauge their reaction.
Respond, listen and repeat. How I imagine a good discussion to carry out is when all parties are honestly and sincerely listening to the concerns of the other without prejudice.
I’d like to know that when I speak, people will judge my words on, well, my words. Consider whether they hold any truth. Consider whether my ideas are worthwhile; perhaps even change their perspective.
How I imagine a lacking discussion to go? Someone telling me I “can’t possibly know what it’s like” and should “not insert myself into the discussion.” That I “need the experience X to have a valuable opinion.” Social justice activists first speak out for the oppressed and then tell you not to do the same.
In reality, I think we’re both inserting ourselves into a dialogue that may not be our own. Whether you claim to be “an ally” or are arguing a point, there’s a chance you’re arguing on a battle that isn’t yours.
It doesn’t mean you can’t care or you can’t try or the struggle is not worthwhile. It means that you can’t pretend other people don’t have the right to speak “for the oppressed” while you’ve been granted the high position of social justice white knight.
That leads up to my first obstacle: when an “ally” of some form of “justice” throws an accusation in your face that you’ve never experienced something, do you really want to make them feel so awkward and ashamed by admitting that yes, you actually have experienced that?
“You’ll never know what it’s like, you have white privilege!” Oh, do I? Let me call up the Canadian government and ask them to change my last name to “Smith” or “Jones,” because I think they made a mistake giving me a name that was also given to Canadians who were forced to attend residential schools.
“You’ll never know what it’s like, sexual abuse against women is a uniquely horrifying experience!” says the male “ally” to the female rape “victim.” The only thing I’m victim of at the moment is awkwardly backing away from my too-quick-to-judge conversational partner. “None of us will understand the struggle of the lower class” because obviously nobody’s here on scholarship, and it’s not like most Hamilton-born students are, like, poor or anything. How crazy.
Okay, so I can joke about it. But when it comes down to it, do I want to play into their politics, use my experiences as a means to control the conversation and have to admit very personal and even traumatic events just to win a damned argument? No, I bloody well don’t. Which is why it angers me when people claim the only worthwhile voices are those who are strong enough to admit the pain they’ve been through or are visibly underprivileged.
To judge someone’s hardships by first appearance is completely lacking of any empathy or reason. Even if my discussion partner is an able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual white male in expensive clothing, I do not get to assume their entire life narrative thus far.
If I want to earn the social-justice “okay” to speak about injustices, I first have to bare my entire life open to the scrutinizing eyes and hands of people who I already know disagree with me and are politically and socially motivated to want to tear me down.
Do I really want to share personal experiences with someone who thinks I’m a horrible person because I don’t approve of their movement? Should I relive my own pain for the sake of a white knight’s approval? And why do I need to seek their approval in the first place?
It seems that those who claim to be “allies” of my experiences, of the experiences of others, usurp movements of “progressive equality” to empower themselves, particularly in the case of male feminists.
Feminism is by and large seen as the movement that empowers women with a strong voice to be heard. When men claim feminism, they also claim that empowerment. They use line after line of “check your privilege” and other ally-isms to give themselves power over others - a power that their privilege already affords them.
They’ve decided that they get to dominate the discussion, the movement and your oppression because they can speak the language of the social justice ally.
Why would I put myself on the line for some asshole that uses my experiences to further raise himself on a pedestal of immunity?