So in this final semester of school before I graduate, I am taking a class called Feminist Perspectives. In a nutshell, it is a class that goes over the different types of feminist theories that have been developed since the first wave. The class also seeks to locate those different feminist theories and place them within their historical context so that we can fully understand where the authors are coming from.
And for the most part, I really enjoy it.
One aspect of the class that is particularly interesting is the execution of the feminist classroom as a style of teaching. This involves many different things, but the one aspect that I want to focus on here is the formation of agreements. Agreements are ground rules for the class that everyone agrees on and that help facilitate communication. One of the agreements that we all “agreed” to was that we would all enter the space assuming that everyone has good intentions.
This bothered me. It bothered me because for those in positions of privilege, there is no risk in assuming good intention. Straight white men don’t have to worry about being assaulted by microagressions or being subjected to language that is harmful. They can assume that everyone has good intentions because they are the least likely to be hurt in those situations. But for those in positions of less privilege, there is a lot of risk in assuming good intentions. I can’t assume that you are coming with good intentions because you, as well as I, have been socialized to act and think in ways that are oppressive and harmful.
People in positions of privilege will fuck up. It is inevitable. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that people in positions of privilege are inherently bad people. Its just that they don’t know any better. They’ve been given these scripts and there privilege allows them to take those scripts at face value even if they are really harmful. And they are harmful regardless of whether or not the person means it to be harmful. Intentions are not magical and if you say something oppressive, it is going to cause damage regardless of whether or not you didn’t mean it that way.
So there is a lot of risk if I assume that you are coming with good will because regardless of whether or not you are, what you say will affect me. Further, having good will doesn’t absolve you from the harm that your words cause. Because what matters is not whether you meant it to be hurtful or not. What matters is what happened and the consequences that result. If I run over you with a car, even if I didn’t mean too, you are still gonna be laid out. And I’m still held responsible for the action.
When discussing topics such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, cissexism and/or ablism, its super important that folks who are privileged in some or all of these areas check themselves. If you think it might be oppressive, think twice. And if you do say something oppressive and someone calls you out, listen. Listen and don’t do it again. These conversations need to be had, to be sure. But the needs of the oppressed must always be centered.