When I have read and written about negative aspects of the Black experience in America, I have come across commentary that attempts to nullify this experience, many times from people who do not share this identity. When I have read and written about the experience of being a woman, the same has been true – men (as well as some women) have voiced opinions attempting to annul this experience as imaginary. It sometimes fills me with great surprise at the intimate responses I encounter about experiences that people cannot claim to embody.
I believe that everyone has the right to have an opinion about anything. But I also believe that opinions are not equal; one’s knowledge and one’s experiences matter. And many times, attempts to invalidate experiences of previously and presently marginalized people is a hallmark of the condescension of historically powerful and privileged groups. And it is necessary to insist that experiences are individual but they are also collective. Within certain populations in a collective group of people, there are shared experiences even when there are exceptions. But to invalidate collective experiences and to discount the importance of intersectionality – the different demographic parts of an identity – that contribute to one’s opinion, can become a matter of immorality.
The truth is I am a privileged person in many ways and while I don’t shove it in people’s faces, I also don’t pretend to be unaware of it. Being a Black African heterosexual female, I am easily but unusually probably more privileged than many heterosexual, white, males. While the color of my skin can lead to superficial disadvantages, and my status as a foreigner in this country does not allow me the same privileges as a citizen, still intellectually, socially, and in most other areas, I would bet on myself to be as capable, if not more capable of obtaining advantage than many in America’s most privileged demographic. But to tell other Black people and people of color; or other women, or especially other Black women that they don’t have a right to their negative experiences because of my exceptional one, would be to vandalize history and to live in a false reality.
When I write about matters of social importance like racism, like privilege, like sexism, I write from a limited personal narrative. I write largely from observation, from education, and from the experiences of the collective at large. And I do so because it would be a mistake to use my personal life as the standard for the collective of the demographic of those who share my identity. To be unaware of one’s privileges in discussion is to set one’s self up for failure. Furthermore, not any one single person in any part of their identity can claim to speak for all people who share that identity. Nonetheless, patterns in society; patterns that can be historically explained, that reasonable deduction can analyze, that can be observed, cannot negate experiences of the collective simply because of the exceptions. And definitely not by individuals who cannot claim an experience they do not embody.
This is a system and this is a world that was, and continues to be structured to favor certain groups over others. To suggest otherwise is a bastardization of the real consequences that especially historically marginalized groups have faced. The last hundred years have been somewhat progressive for a lot of groups, but to suggest that most groups are in a place of equality after one hundred years and to discount the centuries of societal construction that led to vast inequalities in the first place, is to live in a fantastical world.
Individuals as a whole are far too comfortable with seeing the world through their own eyes. And when one’s eyes happen to be privileged eyes, it is far too easy to invalidate the perspectives of others. So before one is so quick to invalidate experiences of others, especially of marginalized identities, of experiences they do not embody, it would do us all good to first analyze our own privileges and disadvantages in our identities. And then to ask, “Can I authentically refute an experience that I have not experienced?” If you can, then by all means let reasonable discussion prevail. But if you can’t, perhaps you should just listen; you might learn something.