I will keep this post as general as possible, as it is not my intention with this post to write about a specific issue faced by a specific minority. What I want to do instead is to make observations about some general mechanisms that seem to be at play no matter what type of minority we are looking at (might be LGBTQ, race issues, … : any kind of situation where there is a privileged and an underprivileged group).
The importance of being seen
When you are part of a majority group, it is often hard to imagine that not everybody is sharing your life experiences, or that certain things which might be obvious and easy for you might cause a struggle for some others, for reasons that are largely outside of their control (which they may or may not be able to overcome eventually, but where a failure of doing so cannot be blamed on these people exclusively.)
Such things are called ‘privilege’. And it is important to keep in mind that it is not a rebuke when someone of a minority group points out to a member of the majority group you that they enjoy some kind of privilege. Nor are they threatening to take this away from they when they are asking for some kind of accomodation that will level the playing field. Nor are they asking to be given unfair advantages. They are simply asking to be offered the same chances in life as the ones which the majority tend to take for granted.
No matter which minority we talk about, there are always issues like this at play. And the first moral responsibility of the majority is to be aware of that. And this is why it can be a form of implicit discrimination to make statements like ‘deep down we are all the same’. Because what you are really saying with that is that you think it is ok to project your own situation out onto everybody else, making yourself into the norm that everybody else should conform to.
The right to be just like anybody else
It can be bloody tiring to have to point out to others how you are different all the time, and having to spend all of your energy into educating people about your situation, especially when all too often, these are not neutral conversations, but conversations where you end up having to defend yourself, or get to hear that you are the one ‘being difficult’, simply because you dare to ask something, question the status quo, or even because you politely try to point out that you exist as well.
And not everybody even has the privilege of having their differences being invisible until they choose to point them out themselves. Unfortunately, having them being visible can mean that these are all people see (along with their projections and preconceptions of what that means), and forget that there is an actual person wanting to be seen as well.
Sometimes… you just want to a human being. You want to have fun, to live your life just like any other person, without having to be reminded, yet again, of what separates you from other people. Unfortunately, such reminders of difference are only all too frequent.
And I would like to point out one such in particular: lack of inclusion and no visible diversity when it would have been very easy to provide that diversity. Making what should have been a fun experience into yet another nightmare because you are once again forced to fight for your rights, while being slandered for being selfish and insensitive for the feelings of others for having the audacity to even ask. Sometimes even being accused of having the intention to sabotage other people’s party.
As I said in the beginning, I have no intention to give a specific example, as I do not want this to be about any group in particular, and so I will give this hypothetical example that hopefully will give you a bit of a feel for what I am talking about.
Imagine a situation where every shoe shop in town only sells shoes between sizes 13 and 24 (in some hypothetical sizing system). You yourself happen to have a size 12, and you happen to know for a fact that there’s a small percentage of the population that has that size as well. So one day you all come together, and decide to hand a petition to the owners of the shoe shops, asking if it would perhaps be possible to also stock a small amount of shoes in size 12. In asking this, you are prepared to make all sorts of compromises, being ok with having a smaller assortment to choose from compared to what exists in regular sizes, and things like that.
All you want is an opportunity to just have a shopping experience that is similar to that of other people, that is, simply being able to enter a shop and be assured of finding ‘something’ in your size, instead of having to mount an expedition to the one ‘special sizes store’ several hours driving away every time you need shoes. Seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to ask for, right?
Now, imagine that the other shoppers would react to this very angrily, as if you had asked for a special decree stating that ‘from now on, every shoe shop shall only sell shoes in size 12’, and be outraged at your audacity, and your attempt to erase them and destroy their shopping experience.
Sounds like a ridiculous story to you? That’s how discrimination works folks.. This is what minorities have to endure all the time: the trans person asking to use the bathroom corresponding to their experienced gender, the black person asking to not have to live in a completely white world, the gay person asking for the right to marry,…
So, next time you get this type of question from a minority person, be aware of your own privilege, and at least hear them out. Be prepared to make a small compromise to your own experience to allow them the comfort of not having to feel different for a change. What you will get in return is a richer life experience: for isn’t life so much more interesting if we are NOT all exact copies of one another?
How to be an ally
So you think you’ve understood, and now you want to help. How do you do that? First of all, remember that you are not the one experiencing the issue. Good as your intentions may be, your understanding of what is really being asked, and what may be considered as an acceptable compromise, will necessarily be imperfect. Instead, make a point of reminding people that the minority exists, and that their opinion should be taken into account as well.
Want to help? Then remember that you are not doing that by putting yourself in the spotlight. Instead, make use of your position of privilege to provide a bridge: allow the minority person to stand on your shoulder so that they can be in a position where they can be heard. If you know someone who might be able to help, then open the door, and allow the minority person to do the negotiations themselves.
You do not make accomodations by forcing everybody in a one-size-fits-all system, but rather by making it standard to have a rainbow of options to choose from (thereby making sure that everybody has at least one option that will actually comfortably apply to them).