Thursday, April 14, 2016

Needful Things

"White people need to engage in critical race discussions. Men need to engage in critical gender discussions. Heterosexual people need to engage in critical conversations about sexual identity. Enabled people need to engage in critical conversations about the abilities spectrum. Wealthy people need to engage in critical conversations about poverty - the list goes on. Most importantly, when these conversations happen, we need to replace egos with open minds, and abstract promises with concrete action for any progress to occur."
Wade G. Morgan. "Dear Silicon Valley, Can We Talk?"
I'm always leery of statements that claim that people "need" to have discussions about things that disadvantage other people. Take the first sentence from my quoting of Mr. Morgan: "White people need to engage in critical race discussions." Okay, I'll bite. Why? What's in it for them? What need of theirs would this discussion meet? Of course, to be honest, this may not be what Mr. Morgan is actually saying. American English can be very imprecise at times, and it seems to me that what he's really saying is "We need White people to engage in critical race discussions," in the same way that when you've asked someone for a favor we understand that "What do I need to do?" and "What do you need me to do?" are taken as synonymous constructions. But sometimes, it's helpful to inject a little precision into the language, because it helps us understand both what we're saying, and what we're being told.

As an "enabled heterosexual male," when someone says to me that I need to engage in critical discussions about gender, sexual identity and the abilities spectrum, my first reaction is that I have no need to do any of those things, thank you very much, and while I certainly don't mind participating in such conversations, there is no pressing hole in my life that will be filled by them - and I certainly don't consider other people to be doing me a favor by facilitating my entry into those discussions.

The idea that those discussions need me, on the other hand, is a different position. I understand that the problems of gender, sexual identity and ability won't be solved by women, homosexuals and the disabled simply talking to each other. And I think that a lot of people understand it this way.

Sure, it may be an exercise in pedantry, but sometimes, it really is the message, and not just how you deliver it, that counts.

1 comment:

John McGuinness said...

I suppose there are two possible benefits.

One is a slightly patronizing assumption that those living with the benefits of unexamined privilege would lead a fuller, more honest life if their eyes were opened through conversations with those who do not share those privileges. Otherwise, they will be continuing down a path of self-ruin, complicit in continuing institutional prejudice.

Maybe, but probably not terribly convincing when put that way.

The other is that industries, etc. would benefit from the talents of those who are currently being shut out. If women are being systematically excluded from the tech industry, there goes 50% of the brain power. Wouldn't we all be better off if we could stop excluding them?

Again, maybe. But it may also be the case that I'm on the margin of talent and would lose my job if the gates were opened to others. Not everyone is a winner.