“I Am Not Here to Educate You”

I have been known to utter this from time to time. Rage. RAGE! That’s usually the underlying emotion behind the utterance.
But then I remember. Not everyone is a native English speaker. Or, in my very particular case, not everyone who speaks English knows how to relate the ideas to Dutch (the language of the country where I live; or Spanish, my native language). So, when I use certain words, others might effectively not know what they mean. Then there will be many people, just like me, who were educated at a place where Gender Studies or Racial Studies or many other sub-branches of the humanities do not exist. Yes, that is right. The assumption on the Internet, especially in the Internet that takes place in the English language, is that we all share a common knowledge, a common language, so to speak. And certainly, the basis of the language might, in appearance, be common. But it might as well be a foreign dialect because so many people will not understand it. We talk about gender (and not gendered), we talk about race and privilege and we assume that everyone, by virtue of being able to understand English, will know what those words mean and know how to use them in the way that us, speakers of the Social Justice dialect do.

And then, of course, there is the lived experience. Because so much of the English language internet originates in an hegemonic place, North America, it is accepted as sort of default that these North American discourses are a) known to everyone and b) universally applicable. And we label Whiteness or “Color” from a North American perspective that is very, very specific to North American socio-cultural constructions. But that might as well be useless to explain realities someplace else. I have tried to explain before how racial constructions, perceptions and identifiers are pretty different in some countries in Europe (and more specifically, in The Netherlands, where I live), but still, I see that dominant view of what is White and what is not, will be predominantly North American. Which, OK, I know the difference. However, not everyone else will.

But the hegemony still stings because it is generally reductionist. And because it can erase other realities and other constructions. And this is not about White hegemony only. Sure, that plays a role, but in the Social Justice dialect that we speak, we also do not leave any room for ignorance of the workings of our dialect. Ignorance is punished with public shame and  shunning. This, right there, is how I suspect we exercise our online privilege. By telling those who are ignorant, that we are not here to educate them. And certainly, I am not there to spend hours of my time to explain to others the intricacies of the Social Justice dialect, of our unique, socially approved language. They have, I assume, access to Google and to the same English-speaking Internet that I do. Except maybe some of them don’t. Except maybe some of them do not even know where to begin this search. Because, in order to search efficiently, we need to know what we are looking for and when one doesn’t even have the right parameters or prior contextual knowledge, they will not know where to begin.

Just to offer one example out of many possible: in Argentina, within the Social Justice movement, most transwomen self-identify (and there is a wealth of Spanish language literature, blogs, studies, legislation even originated from them) with the word transvestite. Many of them do not use the term transwoman and mostly, refer to themselves as “transvestite” (travesti, in Spanish) and their social activism revolves around that term. What would happen if, unbeknown to me, from a North American gender perspective, I wrote about gender using the term “transvestite”? The assumption would be one of ignorance and erasure.

So, while I do not exist to provide one on one guidance and hand-holding, I might as well acknowledge that I know the dialect and can use it with some degree of success (some degree, considering I am not even a native English speaker), and that means I have more privilege than those who can’t. But more importantly, I will try not to assume bad faith when I come across ignorance of my reality and instead, will consider the possibility that the person who asked something really doesn’t know any better. I know some will have bad intentions behind what they claim to be ignorance and try to use said claim to derail. But such is the risk, isn’t it?

4 replies on ““I Am Not Here to Educate You””

I am very new to this topic, so first let me apologize in advance for any missteps on my part. The contemporary concept of “privilege” is fairly new to me, and not one I’ve had much opportunity to discuss with others, thus far. Its entirely possible that I have misunderstood some of your points. That said:

Doesn’t the very idea that one feels required to educate others on the subject, in itself, indicate an assumption of privilege? It suggests that one has, by one’s own hard work or natural inclination, achieved a higher level of understanding than others. When you add to that irritation at being “asked” to educate others to bring them up to one’s own standard, it becomes even more problematic, for it not only assumes that one’s own understanding /language/concepts/etc. are better than those of another, but that it is that others’ own fault for not knowing and adopting that standard.

The final paragraph of your essay, particular, struck me as an example of this, when you held up (privileged) the primarily US English dialect surrounding this topic over the language that others might use to discuss the same topic within their own communities. And, again, when you suggest that another person is ignorant, “doesn’t know any better” and is in need of guidance and hand-holding because they don’t immediately adopt your reality as The Reality.

Hey T,

I am trying to catch up on much internet reading, and picking this post today is great timing for me. I recognize what you are saying. And it gets tricky when having a discussion or debate under the broad banner of social justice, when the participants, are coming from different backgrounds with varying experiences. It can be frustrating. And the Amurikan voice often dominates because, well that’s how we are, the noisy squeaky wheel. We’ve asserted our position on the world stage as such.

One of the most important lessons I learned recently is that progress (education, understanding, etc) can be achieved if one recognizes that you can only work within the relationship you have with the other party (parties). I myself struggle with this when exploring issues with East Asians. Sometimes I just need to be quiet and listen because I am not Chinese-Chinese. In fact as a Taiwanese I am not familiar with mainland Chinese—see I’ve just given myself away with inserting mainland before Chinese–culture and politics. Mostly all my ideas and language are framed as a second generation Amurikan. Among us North Americans there isn’t always unity. The American voice sometimes crowds out the Canadian one.

Anyhoodle I need to be a better listener and observer first before grabbing that megaphone. You have a unique perspective, and I always appreciate your POV, so thanks.

I’ve been thinking about this problem in a different way recently. My issue is less with the internet and more with real life interaction. I’m involved with some social justice issues at my university that I care about deeply and which I have spent a lot of time studying both experientially and theoretically (as in academically). I sometimes feel so confused about how to communicate with people who aren’t that versed in the language (ie. biopower, what the eff is biopower?), and how to do it without coming out a) condescending or b) unreasoned. Anyway, I guess, what I’m trying to say is that if we can’t communicate and check our privilege, in whatever form it takes, it might become a lot harder to effect social change since no one except the ivory towerese speakers will give a shit. I definitely think you’re spot on though with the not assuming bad faith. That can’t lead anywhere good.

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