Is It My Job To Educate Cis Straight People?
(The following post is an updated version of one of my old blog posts.)
Person A is writing about or discussing Social Justice Things online.
Person B comes across Person A’s writing or discussions, perhaps on Twitter or Tumblr, and has a basic-level question about Social Justice Things–sometimes the particular ones under discussion here, or maybe just something else that Person A might know about.
Person B asks Person A a basic-level question, hoping to learn more about the topic.
Person A is annoyed at the request and responds angrily: “I’m not here to educate you!” “Go Google it!” “[link to Let Me Google That For You results]”
Person B feels embarrassed and hurt, and concludes that Person A doesn’t really care whether Person B understands Social Justice Things or not. Person B may develop a very negative opinion about Social Justice People and Social Justice Things, because that’s how cognitive bias works.
Indeed, “Google is your friend” is a common mantra among my social justice blogger friends. On one hand, I can definitely understand where my friends are coming from. After all, as Audre Lorde once said:
When people of colour are expected to educate white people as to their humanity, when women are expected to educate men, lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world, the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.
However, as Mogilevsky points out, sometimes–just sometimes–“Google it” might not be the best answer. She writes that while many Social Justice 101 questions turn into vicious attacks, there are some who really want to know more:
In that way, social justice is very, very unlike physics. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know how ostensibly public platforms are functioning for marginalized people. If you don’t know much about social justice, you won’t know why I need support from people to process an incident of street harassment, or why a person of color might be looking for support to process a recent police shooting. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not think those things are even a “big deal” in the first place. If you don’t know much about social justice, you might not know about the harassment and abuse that less-privileged people have to deal with online from people who initially come across just like you.
So when we get angry at people who ask basic questions because we think it’s obvious that the questions are not appropriate for the situation, we might be overestimating how much they really understand about what’s going on. Just like I might get angry at an American who shows me the middle finger, but maybe not at a foreigner who does the same. The foreigner might not realize that it’s a very rude gesture. Social justice spaces bring their own culture shock.
Personally, I think there’s a very thin line between being a source for social justice, and being the primary source for social justice. I don’t mind being the former, but I can’t be the latter.
Most of my friends and family members are cisgender and straight, so when I came out as bisexual and genderqueer, I knew that I was going to get a lot of questions about my identities . . . especially since there’s not a lot of bisexual and genderqueer representation in the mainstream culture. Everyone knows someone who is gay, whether it’s a relative or a friend. And thanks to Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Jazz Jennings, mainstream America is becoming more aware of transgender people and transgender rights. However, when it comes to folk like me who do not fit into sexual and gender binaries, most people end up scratching their heads.
I don’t mind answering questions; that’s one reason why I blog about queer politics. I want to shake people’s preconceived notions about sexuality and gender. I want to let people know that when I say I’m marginalized, it’s not just because some asshole on the Internet was mean to me; it’s because I live in a society that says, because I was assigned male at birth, I should act like a cisgender heterosexual man or face the consequences.
I don’t, however, want to be seen as just a teachable moment. I’m a regular person with my own stuff to sort out. I want my identity to be validated, but I don’t want to be seen as just “the queer guy” (which is doubly problematic since I don’t consider myself to be a guy). I don’t want people to see me as just someone whose only purpose in life is to educate cis straight people. When educating cis straight people becomes my identity, then it becomes a problem.
Recently a friend on Facebook messaged me and asked what I meant when I said I was genderqueer. I explained it to her, and she seemed to get it, but then she started asking me about asexuality and pansexuality. It probably wasn’t her intention, but I got the impression that she expected me to educate her about all the letters in LGBTQIAA. You wouldn’t believe how badly I wanted to say, “Google it!”
I think Chicana feminist activist Gloria Anzaldua sums it up best:
We cannot educate white women and take them by the hand. Most of us are willing to help but we can’t do the white woman’s homework for her. That’s an energy drain. …We are in danger of being reduced to purveyors of resource lists.
And that’s how I feel about educating cisgender straight people: I am willing to tutor, but I can’t do the homework for them. I can’t represent an entire community, but I can tell my story.