If you’re reading this, you’re probably either really into social justice or in the wrong place. For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume the former.
You can as easily apply what I am about to say to any other group by swapping out white people for straight people and people of color for LGBT* people, or white people for men and poc for women.
This is not difficult, in fact what I want you to do can be broken down to a single word:
Defer to people you have privilege over. Always.
When people of color are talking about their oppression, defer to them without fail. Always assume that they know more than you about their own oppression and experiences. If you say something and get called on it, do not get defensive, do not make excuses and do not argue, this person has just done you a favor, they have taught you something, whether it comes in the form of an explanation, or a simple “shut the fuck up”. While the latter may be jarring, it is still a lesson and you should still be grateful. If you don’t understand what you are being corrected for, google it if possible.
When people you have privilege over correct your assertions about their situation, they are not oppressing you. They are not trying to destroy free speech, remain calm, you are not being threatened. Don’t worry, white people cannot be oppressed for being white, while we can experience the private prejudice of individual people, we are incapable of suffering systemic racism because this whole system is geared in favor of us. As such, it is impossible to be oppressed for being white.
Try as hard as you can not to take it personally, because it is not personal. When you see people generalizing and saying things like “white people fucking don’t ever get anything jesus christ how do you even”, they are not referring specifically to you. The truth is, white people often fucking don’t ever get anything jesus christ how do you even. The people saying this are not crazy. They are not making shit up. They have been repeatedly gaslighted, interrogated, and undermined by white people who took what they are saying too personally.
Read too. Read Bell Hooks for a start, follow sj bloggers of color and read the books of the people they quote. When something seems odd to you, when you don’t understand it, read some more. Follow really radical, blunt people, follow women of color, you will learn the most from them. Read the invisible knapsack, go ahead and google it right now. If you must directly ask someone a question, be respectful- this person has nothing to gain from you because you don’t know anything and giving you their time is a sacrifice. Be sure that you are there to ask a question and learn something, do not ask a question as some kind of excuse to try to inform them of something. There is literally nothing you can tell a person over whom you have privilege that they have not heard hundreds of times before. I guarantee it.
Do not expect people to be thrilled that you are interested in their oppression, they do not owe you anything, you are not some kind of understanding, special snowflake savior. Being interested in social justice and wanting to dismantle an oppressive system is the bare minimum criteria for being a decent human being and expecting praise for it is like expecting praise for blinking.
When someone tells you to check your privilege, do so. If someone is telling you to check your privilege, you can be sure that your level of understanding is inadequate for this particular discussion. Check your privilege can be directly translated to “stop talking, step back, go read.” Understand that intent is worthless. What you mean to say is always less important than how it is interpreted, if someone has misinterpreted you, it is because you have misspoken, apologize.
Expect anger, accept criticism. People over whom you have privilege are going to have anger, they will get angry more quickly about the topic of their oppression than other kinds of people because for them, this is not abstract, this is real life. If somene over whom you have privilege is angry at something you have said, it is not because they are being irrational, it is because you are missing something and whatever you have just said is ignorant and probably bigoted. Anger and rudeness do not make their ideas and experiences invalid, it only indicates that they are closer to the issues at heart than you are and naturally more invested in them. To you, racism is an abstract idea, you have experienced prejudice on an interpersonal level maybe, but you have never experienced systemic racism first hand. The truth is, interpersonal prejudice happens in incidents- systemic racism is a constant torrent of microaggressions, it is the default setting, it is waking up every day and having to remember that you belong to this or that ethnic group and that people are going to treat you a certain way because of it, it is googling the word “beauty” and seeing nothing but white women, it is being erased in popular culture, with only heavily stereotyped representation in media, it is feeling alienated from a very, very young age. You are fortunate enough to understand racism in terms of an abstract idea but to people of color racism is a first hand reality. You will naturally be the target of anger at times, understand that it is completely justified, that you have made an error and apologize.
For white feminists in particular, it is important to remember that ethnicity interacts with sexuality and gender within patriarchy. Do not make generalizations, do not act like all women are oppressed in the same way, because we are not. Women of color experience challenges unique to women of color plus the challenges incurred by being a woman and the challenges of being poc, homosexual women experience challenges unique to homosexual women plus the challenges incurred by being homosexual and the challenges of being a woman, homosexual women of color experience challenges unique to homosexual women of color PLUS the challenges incurred by being any of these things separately. Do not forget this, and do not oversimplify- it can only be interpreted as an attempt to erase and invalidate their experiences.
Do not speak for people over whom you have privilege. Signal boost what they have to say themselves, listen, call out racism, sexism etc when you see your white friends doing it. It is not your place to police the actions of people over whom you have privilege, you don’t get to call out black people for using the n-word, that is not how it works. Seriously just don’t. However, feel free to call out sexism from anyone who isn’t female, racism from white people, homophobic language from anyone who isn’t homosexual etc. Personally, I will call out racism coming from anyone who is not part of the ethnicity being attacked.
Be humble, be ready to be wrong. Accept corrections gracefully. You don’t have to feel guilty for being white, no one thinks you are a bad person JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE WHITE. It might seem like it sometimes, and there are definitely people who will be inclined to mistrust you because you are white but believe me, they have very good reasons- your job can be to not confirm their suspicions that you are an ignorant cancer. You did not create this system, you only benefit from it, it is not your fault. What your privilege is is the luxury of being able to ignore everything I have just written, it is being able to decide that this is too much work and a pain in the ass and you don’t like people being mean to you and saying fuck it and withdrawing from the discussion and acting like it doesn’t exist. You are free to do this, but I do not recommend it. If you keep reading, keep struggling to see clearly, keep checking your privilege, keep talking to the other white people you know, educating them, calling them on it, you help drag us forward in increments. The burden of dismantling oppression, I personally feel, will be left to the people actually being oppressed. No freedom was ever gained by asking nicely and waiting your turn, and being given increased privileges by your oppressor is not true freedom. In this system, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, there is no middle ground, and while this is not directly your fight, you can help simply by not being part of the problem.
Defer. It is the least you can do.