There is a big difference between experience and opinion. When you experience something, you know it on a much deeper level then someone who read about it or was told about it second hand. The difference between reading about sex and experiencing sex is clear to almost anyone. When you experience an event, all of your senses are engaged and to forms a memory that is much more tangible and reliable then opinion or hearsay. Don’t get me wrong; opinion is all well and good. We certainly wouldn’t be able to have many conversations without opinion and conjecture. But if you are gonna do brain surgery, you need to have the experience of study and practice and not just an opinion about it.
Why is it, then, that white people think that their opinions on racism are more valid then the experience of a person of color? Or cisgender people thinking that they know better then trans*people as to what is and isn’t offensive? I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that such-and-such isn’t offensive because they know better and why are you so sensitive? Can’t you just take a joke? And those people are usually ones with privileged identities who haven’t actually experienced that form of oppression but rather, they have an opinion about how that experience looks and feels like. They don’t actually know and they will never actually know.
The thing that most people fail to realize is that their opinions carry less weight than the experience that someone has. More often then not people who have opinions not based in experience are just wrong. This is because they just don’t know what they are talking about. And when they insist that they do, or they insist that their opinions exist on the same level as those with experience, they are perpetrating those systems of power and oppression that started the discussion to begin with. It’s a vicious cycle where the perpetrator can deny the existence of not only the crime but also of its consequences. And the perpetrator can do this because they already have the institutional power to do it.
Moreover, the mark of a good ally is that they are willing to admit that they don’t know. They admit that they will never truly know and that they can never truly understand what it means to go through that. But that doesn’t stop them from advocating for justice and working along side those effected by oppression. That doesn’t stop them from acting strategically to end white heteropatriarchy and capitalism. The mark of an ally is someone who does what they can to mitigate their privilege.
However, the fight for liberation will not be won with allies and it certainly won’t be won with opinions. It is only through experience that we can learn how to most effectively dismantle those systems of power and oppression. Hard earned experience is the teacher we need to fight back. The reason for this is because experience is real. It is tangible and you can hold on to it. Opinions are none of these things. And it is experience that gives birth to radical theory and action. And when radical thought is grounded in experience, it is the most insightful and most effective. The fight for liberation will only be won by those who suffer from oppression and even then only with radical action and radical thought.
So if experience is vital to know how to fight oppression, then what class of people generally experiences the worst forms of oppression? In other words, which class of people knows the most about fighting oppression? And what do we mean by oppression anyhow?
I would argue that any definition of oppression has to be grounded in the material experience of the oppressed. It is not enough to have theoretical ideas of how oppression and power manifest. It is not enough to have theoretical ideas of who experiences oppression and who has power. It needs to be real. And it needs to be situated within its own context. For example, I can’t count how many times a white gay man has cited their gayness as being the reason why they are so oppressed. And while it is true that their gayness makes them susceptible to certain forms of oppression, the fact remains that they are still white men. Moreover, for the most part, being gay doesn’t show on the surface and so they can skate by with just being perceived as white men. The oppression that they “feel” isn’t real.
With that being said, what does oppression look like? I would argue that someone who experiences oppression is someone who has markedly less access to resources then other people. By resources I mean not only money, jobs and education but also social capital, access to public space and access to a safe living environment. This includes an environment that is free from pollution, toxins, and violence (both violence directed at the person and violence in general). This lack of access is rooted in white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism but it can manifest in ways great and small. From not being hired because of skin color to white people coming up and touching your hair without consent to being bashed for being perceived as the “wrong” gender. Obviously, gay white men do not fit this bill.
I would argue that the class of people that experience the worst aspects of oppression are transwomen of color. If you are fat, disabled and/or poor, even worse. Transwomen of color literally get the shit end of every stick. Transwomen of color often have very few opportunities to get a decent education or even find a job. They are often kicked out of their homes and forced to do sex work to support themselves. On top of that, they often killed by their johns for their trouble. Transwomen of color are assaulted and killed more often then their cisgender and white peers. And even if they survive their assault, the police and healthcare professionals often ignore or write-off the attack. Often times, the police themselves are the perpetrators of anti-trans violence and they act with no reprisals. Whether its through anti-sex worker policing or racial profiling, transwomen of color are often arrested or assaulted by the police for doing nothing but trying to feed themselves. What’s more is that if they aren’t physically assaulted, they are verbally harassed. They are denied their identity from almost every class of person. Whether its the Christian right or so called radical second-wave feminists, the existence of transwomen of color is erased time and again. What’s worse is that if someone doesn’t kill them, the stress of living such a life will. I know of no transwomen of color who have reached old age.
Why is this? Why do transwomen of color experience such devastating forms of oppression? Because they exist at the deepest intersections of white capitalist heteropatriarchy . They are effected by racism, classism, sexism, cissexism, xenophobia, heterosexism, and if you are an immigrant, imperialism.
At this point you might say something like, “Ok Morgan. Transwomen of color have it bad. I see that. But what does that have to do with experience and knowing how to fight oppression?”
And I would reply that it has everything to do with fighting oppression. If we want to effectively tackle all those systems of power that keep us oppressed then we need to keep the concerns of transwomen of color central to all of our organizing, whether it is queer organizing or otherwise. Moreover, since the experience of transwomen of color is framed by such desperate oppression, they will intuitively grasp what needs to be done to make the world better. Being on the bottom, or near the bottom, they can look up and see the dirty, fucked up underbelly of society. They can see where and when to strike to topple that monstrous beast.
If we are to make this world truly equitable, then the needs of the lowest need to be prioritized.