How ‘What About’-isms Use Inclusion to Silence Diverse Voices
Marginalized people’s stories are often policed and diluted when the privileged feel left out — this has to stop
Recently, I shared a LinkedIn post celebrating Kamala Harris as our first female, Black, and South Asian Vice President. The post included a simple photo, which used emojis to illustrate the history of American Vice Presidents. Thus, there were rows and rows of white male faces and a lone woman of color in the final slot. Decades into the American democracy experiment, many a glass ceiling had finally been broken.
But I wasn’t able to enjoy the moment for long.
One of my connections commented that not every Vice President before her had been white. He pointed to Charles Curtis, the 31st Vice President, billed as the first Native American to fill the role. While I appreciated the historical reference, it wasn’t intended to educate me; its purpose was to minimize my celebration. Essentially, the context was: “Sure, Kamala has made history, but what about…?”
As a woman of color, Kamala Harris represents the first time in American history that I’ve been able to see myself in the second most powerful position in the country. So, even though Charles Curtis may have been of mixed heritage, he did not reflect me or my community. And his existence shouldn’t be used to diminish the magnitude of this occasion.
These moments are called “what about”-isms, when a person belonging to a majority group attempts to flatten or discount the achievements or experiences of the marginalized. They’re infuriating, they’re humiliating, and they have to stop.
Understanding “what about”-isms
“What about”-isms happen in a variety of settings, but they often take the same shape. A person of color, or a person with a marginalized identity, attempts to share their lived experience. Then, a person belonging to a privileged group cuts in, looking for ways to insert their own experience and force the marginalized person to widen the scope of their comments to include others. In many cases, they openly antagonize the marginalized person by accusing them of discriminating against others. This happened recently in the TA Week conference when a panelist mentioned Black/Brown Folx. People were quick to tell her to use BIPOC or that using Black and Brown was offensive.
To see this in action, look to the All Lives Matter countermovement. All Lives Matter popped up in response to Black Lives Matter. The group’s argument was that BLM’s focus was too narrow, and it created an unnecessary hierarchy in which Black people’s needs superseded those of all other groups. But BLM’s intent wasn’t to say that Black lives matter more than all other lives — it was a clarion call to remind people that we mattered because so many treated us as though we didn’t.
If All Lives Matter had been focused on fighting against all inequality for every group, then perhaps its proponents would have found willing allies in Black Lives Matter. But All Lives Matter had no interest in a more equitable society — they just wanted Black people to stop complaining. In essence, their position be could be summed up as: “What about white people?”
“What about”-isms highlight a philosophical flaw in our culture, especially in the wider conversation about race, individuality, and personal trauma. Undercutting a marginalized person’s lived experience is intended to halt their progress and call attention away from their issues. This is designed to soothe the majority’s discomfort, instead of opening up opportunities to address societal inequities.
And psychologically, these moments happen because the majority doesn’t want to feel left out. People of privilege don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against or denied opportunities because of who they are. They don’t want to feel the guilt of having contributed to your suffering, because taking part in these conversations — and really listening — will force them to relinquish some power and admit some wrongdoing. They’d rather commiserate than be burdened with the realities of your experiences. It’s their well-being over your advancement.
Combatting “what about”-isms
Unlike so many other negative social trends, “what about”-isms can be remedied quite easily.
If a “what about” -ism is directed at you, you have one choice and one choice only — speak out and fight back. Continue to tell your story, restate your point, and make clear that you’re not trying to discount all other experiences by sharing your own. Of course, you acknowledge that others have endured hardships and negativity, but in this very moment, you are speaking for yourself. You can’t give space to anyone who attempts to diminish you for their own sake.
And for the people who constantly challenge marginalized people with “what about”-isms, you must listen. Understand that everyone’s lived experience is valid. Instead of minimizing others, seek to build bridges and find commonality. Show empathy and help work toward solutions. Instead of ,“What about…”, try, “How can I help?”
This is the hard work of diversity and inclusion — hearing uncomfortable stories from the marginalized that may implicate you as an oppressor and that require you to think beyond your privilege. But instead of viewing these individualized testimonials as a threat, look at them as opportunities to grow, to assist, and to practice true allyship.
Original post can be found here: https://diversityforward.com/saidwhatisaid/