“Back When I Was a Minority…”: Parenthood as a Faulty Analogy for the Problem of Privilege

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I believe that, in discussion of minority issues, privileged people should not steal the floor. Frankly, I don’t think any minority is required to listen to privileged opinions on an issue that only the marginalized person can fully understand. So, yes, I think a great deal of the social justice movement relies on a person’s willingness to shut the fuck up. This is something I still sometimes stick my foot in my mouth over, because I have privilege (as do most people), and I’m not perfect.

Yet, this is something that privileged people are most likely to object to. They co-opt the term “silencing,” and accuse minorities of being bigoted because we dare object to hearing the same warped rhetoric again, again, and again, from every new privileged party that jumps in front of us.

I’ve run into plenty of versions of, “You saying men shouldn’t have an equal say in gender/sex equality is like saying white people shouldn’t have an equal say in racial equality.” Yes, yes it is. While I know this is supposed to be an attack that puts me on the defensive (get it? ’cause I’m white), it just doesn’t. Because that’s exactly what I’m saying. White people are privileged, we do not deserve an “equal say” (or necessarily any say at all) in issues of racial inequality. I’m comfortable relinquishing that control to the people of color who are actually affected by their own systemic oppression. They are far more capable in this discussion, and I will always be ignorant to at least some (I believe most) of the nuances of that debate.

Well the other night I was on the receiving end of an interesting analogy that brought whole new sorts of fallacies into the mix:

“[Y]our [comment] is like saying someone can’t have ideas on raising a child because someone doesn’t have children themselves.”

Now, this is interesting for a few reasons. Primarily, I actually do think that most people without kids could do with a good dose of shutting the fuck up about parenting. Everyone is the perfect parent to their fictional kid. Their child will never have a meltdown in the grocery store, their child will never talk back to them, their child will always say “please” and “thank you,” and never ever swear. And these people, as parents, would never lose their temper, they would never feed their child unhealthy food, they’d never miss a recital or let back-talk slide. Parenting wouldn’t affect their sense of self, because they’d always stay perfectly coiffed, they’d never have cheerios ground into the floor mats of their car, and they’d balance parenting, work, and a social life effortlessly. Clearly, those of us in the trenches of parenting just don’t have their superior skillz. These people would raise the next Gandhi or Mother Teresa, because they have absolutely all of the answers.

Damn, do I ever wish those people would start having kids. The world would be a way better place, amirite?

But it turns out, hypothetical kids are a wee bit easier to raise than the ones that actually eat, cry, talk, and have the audacity to have their own dynamic personalities and needs. Somewhere between removal from the womb and college graduation, children tend to become individuals, who present distinct needs and unique challenges. Parenting is a job done on the fly; children scoff in the face of your precious, precious plans. You cannot possibly know how you will handle those unique needs and challenges until you are in the trenches, with each individual child demanding that tailored approach to parenting.

And there’s another major reason why that analogy utterly fails. You see, childfree people are in a unique position to comment on the lives of children: The used to be children themselves. So while I think the nuances of parenting are things you simply can’t predict until you have that individual dynamic with each parent-child relationship, I do believe that childfree people should be allowed certain allowances in these discussions. It is entirely possible for a childfree person to bring forth an issue they faced as a child that is worth parental consideration. Perhaps they were abused by their parents, and they have insight into the most damaging scenarios they faced. Maybe they felt truly loved and supported, and could share a story of how their parents fostered the strong familial bond that let them feel safe when tackling difficult issues. It doesn’t really matter what the specific scenario is, every adult has experience being a child. They have experience of being on the receiving end of those rules, punishments, praises. They have experience with that anxiety and frustration, that affection and comfort. I reiterate, very, very simply: They were once children themselves.

Show me a white person with experience being a person of color. Show me a native-born citizen with experience being an immigrant. Show me a cis person with experience being trans*. And yes, it is derailing and offensive to hold trans*men up as having “experience” being women. While possibly having experience on the receiving end of legislation that technically affects them, they are still men, and as such, they benefit from male privilege. (Note: They are privileged as men, not as trans* people; there is no “trans* privilege.”)

Straight, white, cis, native-born men were not born minorities who spent 20-ish years growing into their privilege. They do not have experience as those people they are privileged over, and thus their opinions can absolutely never carry anything near the weight as the opinions of the minorities in question. Even those rare circumstances when someone does transition from minority to majority–a fat person becoming thin, a disabled person receiving treatment that eradicates their disability, etc.–can’t be held as a loophole. Because while those people, much like childfree adults, remember what it was like when they were on the other side, they are still being actively affected by their current state of being. The privilege they are being granted in their current reality has the power to warp their memories and opinions as someone who was once a minority. The social hierarchy is a complex, malleable, tricky system, and the simple fact is, no one can understand all the nuances of marginalization like those currently suffering from it.

Most of this backlash, this attempt to nail down an analogy like this, is because privileged people get scared when minorities tell them to be quiet. Because the glory of privilege allows people to always be heard, and it’s disturbing to give up that power. But sometimes, if you want to be a decent person, you need to be willing to be fucking uncomfortable. Remember: Minorities have been dealing with that discomfort for far, far longer.

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About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
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5 Responses to “Back When I Was a Minority…”: Parenthood as a Faulty Analogy for the Problem of Privilege

  1. A. says:

    Excellent post. I really love all your points, and I really think it makes perfect sense. Hopefully it can help educate some of those people who don’t really understand the privilege that they carry.

    • bunnika says:

      Thank you! I’m really hoping it might make in impact with some people, somehow. I originally started writing this blog because I wanted links to share with people when they tried to engage me in problematic dialogues, since it can be really hard to be cool-headed and logical when you’re staring privilege right in the face. I have actually had people cool down, step back, and apologize after reading, and it really gives me the hope I need to keep trying.

  2. Smoochagator says:

    This is an excellent discussion. I agree with you that most people who don’t have kids should STFU about how I could do a better job raising my minions, but yes, you are right that they can offer helpful input on how my decisions may affect my child simply because of their past experience. But the rest of your post actually applies to the parenting analogy as well – grown people often forget what it was like to be a child once they have the privilege of being an adult and sometimes advocate harder lines of discipline for the unruly toddlers they see in Wal-mart. ESPECIALLY people who are hardcore childfree-by-choice because they tend to see children as things, not people. Being a parent can (not always – some people are just plain hard-hearted) open an adult’s eyes to how difficult it is to be a child in a world full of power-drunk giants. And there are some childfree/childless people who have gentler attitudes towards kids that a roomful of breeders. Exceptions to the rule and all that.

    The other problem with formerly oppressed people being “liberated” (I’m thinking particularly of fat people becoming thin) is that they’ve often internalized their society’s cruel ideals and can potentially become oppressors themselves. Actually, many of them have already been working hand-in-hand with society’s oppression through self-loathing.

    • bunnika says:

      grown people often forget what it was like to be a child once they have the privilege of being an adult

      Yes, precisely! There’s a dissonance that comes as you grow older, because you’re simply not able to completely inhabit that childlike state of mind anymore. And it’s really easy to get upset at the screaming kid in line or on the airplane, and judge the shit out of the parent, but it’s really not your place. I’ve had to abandon a cart while on errands because my then-two-year-old had a meltdown, and I sure as hell didn’t expect to be “that parent.”

      they’ve often internalized their society’s cruel ideals and can potentially become oppressors themselves. Actually, many of them have already been working hand-in-hand with society’s oppression through self-loathing.

      This is extremely true. And any minority can internalize that bigotry, whether we’re allowed a chance to “transition” to privileged party or not (god knows I have to still fight my fair share of internalized misogyny), and that transition can be an easy trigger to an attitude of, “I bettered myself, why can’t you?” Instead of looking back on how your prior poor treatment was oppressive, you blame those still in the social minority for not bootstrapping themselves out as you did. It’s an ugly cycle. :-/

  3. robertsloan2 says:

    I’m a transman and I agree with you about transmen! Seriously. I walked through a lot of situations that were very risky on gut assumptions of male privilege that I didn’t understand. I sometimes wondered why it was I could bluff so effectively. I know why now – sometimes people responded to the scripts I presented.

    I’m learning. I’m listening. I’m getting to where it’s all right to just be me, listen to others, tell my story when I’m up to it and have the spoons. My editor, a woman, finally gave me the right term for where I stand, feminist friendly. I don’t always agree but I’ve got my ears open and I’m willing to be convinced. I feel a great relief when ignorance falls down, it resolves a ton of cognitive dissonance. It’s sometimes hard in the moment but it’s also relief.

    Thank you for understanding that I never was a woman. That throughout my unspeakable childhood, I scared everyone precisely because I could not pretend to be a girl well enough to put anyone at ease even at the times I tried. Nothing made sense. I write science fiction because I grew up in the outer limits of the twilight zone – because those TV shows talked about shunning and discrimination and authoritarian power and the things I faced, without claiming I was just so lucky and had everything a child could ever want.

    Noticed in the comments rules – good simple rules, I like them and think of your comments discussions as a safe place – that you’re also pagan. Way cool. I’m also pagan, solitary, not at the moment associated with any particular path or group.

    Thank you for making a safe place. Thank you for writing these good articles. The more I learn, the better I can write and the better I can live. I’m still in what is probably a lifelong process of figuring out just what “being a good man” means when all the old paradigms I was taught are oppression. That’s its own struggle.

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