What’s So Wrong with “Help Me Understand?”: Why Marginalized People Don’t Want Our Questions About How We Can Do Better

This is a post for the (typically straight white, gender-conforming male) “well meaning liberals” like me. I’ve been on this journey for a few years now, trying to come to terms with the many privileges afforded to me due to my cultural identity. I’ve been making an active effort to listen to and learn from the voices that have been largely ignored by the dominant demographics to which I belong. However noble my intentions, though, I’ve often made some blunders in trying to broaden my worldview. I want to discuss one of those here, because I feel like it’s a common occurrence among people who are trying to do what I’m doing…

I recently noticed an interchange on Twitter that prompted me to write about this topic. A progressive Christian pastor made a comment about the subject of  “intersectionality” being “new” and untested, which prompted a response from someone suggesting that the term is actually a few decades old and that he might not have taken it seriously simply because it was propagated by a woman of color. This pastor then proceeded to answer the claim with the following:

Mo, I’d love to learn from you. Please DM me any resources you have. I’m drawing on what sociologists have said. Please forgive my ignorance

When I read his response, I thought to myself, “Wow, what grace and humility!” Indeed, I’ve approached people in a similar fashion–thinking that putting myself in the position of a helpless student would aid me in generating dialogue and deepening my understanding. Sometimes, it has worked. Other times, I’ve simply been ignored. And this has often puzzled me. After all, I’m humbly reaching out and debasing myself to learn from you; the least you can do is provide me some resources! But, at any rate, I figured this was the best response the pastor could possibly give on this particular issue. Then, I scrolled down to see what resources had been provided. Here are a few of the responses:

Really, there are so many search engines to work with out there. Just type that word in and read.

Why should he do it when there are WOC he can expect to do the legwork for him? He “wants to learn”, but doesn’t want to do it himself. -_-

Preston, seriously? Are you completely unable to Google? Why would you expect any of these fine women to do your due diligence for you?

Ouch.

“Give the guy a break, “I thought to myself as I read these remarks, “he’s trying!” 

Out of curiosity, I decided to Google “intersectionality” to see what I could find. It turns out they were right; there is no shortage of material. One of the first things that popped up was a recent presentation on the subject from Kimberle Crenshaw, the woman who coined the term. I listened to the talk, and now I have a bit of a better idea about what “intersectionality” is. And, no, I didn’t have to ask a woman of color to explain herself in order to find out.

But what’s the big deal with asking, “How can I help?” Why does it bother people from marginalized communities so much when straight, white, gender-conforming males ask them for direction? Obviously, I’m still new at this, but I think I’m beginning to get an inkling…

  • First, it’s because they’re exhausted. Many of them have been fighting for a long time for their rights to simply be who they are, and they’re just tired of getting asked the same old questions. These are questions they shouldn’t have to be answering in the first place, and yet they get those same questions over and over again. They’re just tired of playing the game.
  • Second, it’s because they don’t owe us explanations. When we ask them to teach us, I feel like they see it as an ultimatum: “Okay, I’ll try to see it from your perspective. But first you have to convince me that it makes sense.” No, they don’t. They don’t have to articulate themselves in a way that meets our demands. We are not a standard that they need to meet.
  • Finally, I feel like the whole “help me understand” thing is often seen as us trying to be heroes. We’re trying to show that we’re good, progressive people–that we have the moral high ground. We’re condescending to people who are beneath us, so that we can better understand their situation. I don’t think that is how any of us consciously go about interacting with “the other,” but I can certainly see how it may be perceived that way. And, if I’m being honest, sometimes that’s the way it feels.

Not all people have ignored me when I’ve reached out for help in understanding their perspectives. Samantha Field, who identifies as a bisexual woman, was kind enough to reach out to her community when I asked for podcast recommendations. It turns out that asking this one question has profoundly transformed my access to voices from the LGBTQ community in particular. Emmy Kegler, one of Samantha’s connections, sent me a slew of recommendations. Over the last few months, I’ve been listening to these podcasts–and they are continually transforming the way I think about God and sexuality.

So, yes, sometimes asking for help can go a long way. I don’t think most of the people from these marginalized communities are opposed to helping. Sometimes, they are (rightly) suspicious of our motives–and they don’t want to be suckers. But, more often than not, I think they’re just busy about doing their own good work, and we shouldn’t expect them to set it aside to hold our hands while we cross the street.

If we’ve exhausted all our resources and are still struggling to understand an issue, then I think it’s okay for us to reach out to people and ask what we’re missing. But, let’s at least show them that we’ve been engaged enough to have done some preliminary research. Let’s bring something to the table. Let’s not be so lazy.

I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago in which Robyn Henderson-Espinoza made the claim that “liberation is not about equality.” I didn’t quite understand the nuance of the statement, so I reached out to her on Twitter to ask what she meant. I did not really understand her response, so I asked for more material. She was kind enough to direct me toward some areas to explore.

I was letting this topic stew when I encountered the Twitter exchange that prompted this post. After thinking about what was really going on between the lines of this conversation, I thought about how I had reached out to Robyn. Then, I decided abruptly to Google “Liberation vs. Equality.” The first four search results were articles dealing explicitly with the issue about which I had been confused. I read those articles, and now the whole thing makes a lot more sense to me.

Sometimes, it really is as easy as doing a simple web search.

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About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
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