Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

It’s My Job To Educate You

I had about 20 minutes to kill today and I saw a tweet that set me off on a thought-path. Given I’m in a noisy cafe and in a rush, these thoughts are quite rough and are intended to be the start of a discussion, rather than the final word. But the central point is one I think is deeply important. It might not be my “job” or my “responsibility” to educate you – but there’s no doubt in my mind that irrespective of that, I’m the best person to do it. And so, when I can, I will.

Today I want to discuss the phrase “it’s not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressor’. There are variations on this, such as “not the responsibility”, “the onus is not on the oppressed” etc etc etc. I take issue with this phrase. It seems like yet another pat, memefication of activism, that sounds good, looks good, but achieves little. Let me explain what I mean.

As a woman, I am oppressed on the basis of my gender. I am paid less than men for the same work. My emotions and body are deemed problematic. I am expected to conform to behaviours that I don’t want to – but blamed for being weak when I do. I am expected to spend reams of time and money to fit into an oppressive and completely unachievable standard of beauty, do serious damage to myself with unwearable shoes and clothes – and mocked and belittled if I do. I face the daily reality of sexual harassment, the threat of rape, being disbelieved when I talk about my trauma, when I talk about sexual violence committed against me, and of course, when I talk about my oppression.

This final point is really important. It does get exhausting to explain your oppression to people who don’t understand, and worse than this, who don’t care to understand. It is exhausting to have to repeat yourself over and over again, on a daily basis, to people who, even if they do try to, can never really understand what it’s like to have been brought up to hate, belittle and demean yourself, and to know that you are hated, belittled and demeaned for what you are. You can never understand what it is like to be a woman if you are not yourself a woman. You can have sympathy, you can listen to stats and figures, you can accept that we are oppressed, but the kind of intimate, and crucially, intuitive knowledge of gender oppression can only come from a woman, because she has lived with it every day of her life and it is all she knows. It informs her worldview. It informs every decision she takes from the moment she gets up, to the moment she goes to bed; from the moment she’s born, to the moment she dies. I cannot tell you, if you are not a woman, what it feels like to be in a woman-only space. The sheer relief at being understood, implicitly, without having to explain.

The other day, I was in a women-only space, and one of us started talking about when she had almost been raped. And the response from the other women wasn’t “how awful that that happened, how did you feel?” – and we realised that it was because, rather then being shocked, her words had triggered our own memories. She was describing our own experience. She didn’t have to explain how she felt: we knew, because we had been there ourselves. There is nothing quite like feeling understood without having to explain.

And so, I have sympathy for people who trot out this line. It takes the aching burden off our shoulders, of not only have to suffer, to live this oppression, but of having to continually justify it, explain why the daily pin-pricks you feel are so disheartening and grinding, having to continually place those pin-pricks in the wider context of the daily fear you feel – fear of sexual violence, of being mocked and belittled, of not being the default, of not being believed.

Today I was at the launch of Women For Refugee Women’s report on the treatment of female asylum seekers in the UK. The stats are shocking. The treatment of the women is appalling. And one of the worst things, one of the things so many women will recognise, is the repeated theme that these women are not believed. They are not believed when they recount the rape, the torture, the oppression they have fled. And this morning, they were publicly branded liars by the Home Office, who dismissed the whole report as a fabrication. Once again, women’s voices are being ignored, diminished, undermined. Women, are being ignored, diminished, undermined.

It’s exhausting and demoralising to be disbelieved, to be diminished, to continually have to explain, justify. Rinse and repeat. But here’s the thing: the routine dismissal, disbelief, diminishment and casting aside of the oppressed will not be solved by buying into that very diminishment. It will not be solved by its perpetuation. It will not be solved by letting other people speak for us because it’s just too tiring to keep speaking up about the same thing, to say it over and over and over again till you collapse with exhaustion and get up the next day and do it all over again. I understand the temptation. I understand the frustration that we have this added burden of explaining ourselves to people so entitled they don’t even recognise their entitlement. To people who don’t believe us when we talk about how we are made to feel and who demand explanations. “It’s not our job” line, sounds so clever, so black and white, so neat (especially because, of course, it’s not our “job”). And this grain of truth, this neatness, make it sounds like a solution. But the thing is, it’s not. It’s the opposite of a solution: it’s part of the problem.

No-one understands the oppression of women better than women. No-one is more able to explain the daily indignities, fears, miseries that make up the lot of being a woman in this world, than a woman herself. More than this, since part of our oppression is that our voices are not heard, it is even more imperative that this, that talking about our own oppression, is not something we hand over to someone else. It is not a job we can farm out to google. It is something, if we are serious about ending our oppression, rather than talking about it on twitter, that we have to own ourselves. Speaking about our oppression is not just part of the fight: it is a victory in itself.

7 comments on “It’s My Job To Educate You

  1. Muggins
    January 30, 2014

    The 3rd paragraph obeys Newtons 4th law: “Any sentence or paragraph that begins ‘As a woman’ or ‘AS a feminist’ is bound to be suspect in all parts”.

    “Paid less than men for the same work” simply untrue

    “My emotions and body are deemed problematic” By whom? Evidence? Meaningless rhetoric.

    “I am expected to conform to behaviours that I don’t want to – but blamed for being weak when I do” Again, by whom? And this is nothing to do with bring a woman. Same happens to men,. Next.

    “I am expected to spend reams of time and money to fit into an oppressive and completely unachievable standard of beauty” Please feel free not to.

    All this use of the passive in feminist rhetoric: Women are expected, victimised, deemed, silenced etcetc But you never say by whom. You don’t seem to mind that what you say doesn’t mean anything. Typical politician

    • Week Woman
      January 30, 2014

      Have approved your comment, Mr Muggins, as you demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about in the blog, so thanks very much for that.

  2. womanist
    January 29, 2014

    Also, its so important that we listen to and believe others about their pain. But it is a two way street, if someone tells you that you have hurt them, and they are upset with you it is inconsiderate, maybe even gas lighting to then turn around and cry out they are hurting you, and make it about you without out reflecting and taking into consideration what they said. I’ve had abusive men I been in relationships with, cry out, make it about them, and ignore my sincere hurt when I confront them about something they did. They would say I’m problematic, emotional even delusional and guilt me into shutting up because it ‘hurts him.’ I’ve witnessed white women do the EXACT same thing to Women of Color online. It ignores the real issues. I hope my sentiments were not offensive and as a Woman of Color myself I’m rooting for you Carol.

  3. womanist
    January 29, 2014

    I understand your POV that ONLY the OPPRESSED can tell, share and articulate their oppression to their oppressors. But sometimes while trying to ‘educate’ their oppressors, the conversation then becomes sadly centred around the feelings of the oppressor. You or anyone can educate yourself simply by LISTENING and not demanding questions.

    Do me a favor, close your eyes, picture yourself as a Women of Color and re read what you wrote.
    Also, criticism ISNT OPPRESSION by the way and DISGUSTING that someone would equate it to that especially if they’re in the public. Women, and feminist SHOULD critique each other because like any other party from the beginning, and hundreds of years it has been flawed and deeply embedded in racism.

    Oppression happens to you and can be BY you also.

  4. translationscrapbook
    January 29, 2014

    Great article, but I would very, very, very much say that it depends.

    If you have not taken on the role of activist or educator, it can get pretty annoying having people come up to you and expect you to be their teachable moment, especially if that’s literally the only time (or practically the only time) they notice you. Even if you have taken on the role of activist or educator, being seen as an information dispenser and/or having to politicise your life just to get by suck.

    When I’m not translating, I do a fair bit of writing (on other blogs) about things that affect me, like being a woman, mentally ill, an immigrant, bisexual, blah…And some days, although I have freely chosen to write about these things because I think it is important that people more privileged than me understand that we’re not all just sex objects, scroungers and paedophiles, I do just think “I cannot be bothered with doing this education business right now” because it involves politicising part of my existence. More specifically, it involves politicising certain parts of my existence that are pretty fundamental to me in various different ways and that I would like to see recognised and loved, but that I don’t like dragging into debates over whether I deserve fundamental human rights or not. And I’m an incredibly privileged person – so for someone who has to deal with more trouble and abuse in their life than I do, this goes double or even triple. If someone’s struggling to get by, their survival is more important than educating a random passer-by. Education can happen later.

    I also think good allies are really, really important because oppressed people are not walking info dispensers; I know the concept of an ally is often denigrated because ewww privileged people, but I find that having someone to help when I can’t do the job on my own is really useful. Plus allies often have a higher social status among privileged people and a louder voice (metaphorically speaking anyway), so they can help amplify a message. And not everyone wants to, or is capable of, “speaking up about the same thing, to say it over and over and over again till you collapse with exhaustion and get up the next day and do it all over again”; I’m not trying to be ableist here, it’s simply that I’ve tried to do that and had nothing to show for it but burnout and severe anxiety and depression. So I don’t particularly like it when people endorse that, because I know the effects it can have on your health (I understand you probably didn’t mean any harm by what you said, but still).

    That said, if you have willingly chosen to speak out about oppression, you have a responsibility to educate at least some of the time in my opinion. You make a statement, you explain it to others.

    If I have said anything oppressive here, please call me out vocally.

  5. Jennifer Howze
    January 29, 2014

    Interesting points. I agree that the shared experience of being a woman is something that creates a bond among women and is something that’s it’s hard or even impossible for any man to inhabit. Every evening I get off the Tube past a certain time, I walk the few blocks home alert, aware of who’s walking around me, and attuned to any hint of menace or danger. I doubt many men of my age give that kind of journey a single thought.

    That said, we can go too far down the route of telling other people that because they are not like us that they can’t understand or support our causes. When I was at university, a lot of the black students on campus wore t-shirts with the slogan, “It’s a Black Thing, you wouldn’t understand”. On one hand, they are right. I’m not black and it’s impossible for me to live life and have the experiences of oppression that a black person would. But while we may not be able to completely know another person’s experience, we can strive to understand and welcome the attempts at understanding from others who could never walk in our shoes.

    It’s when we come up against some people who insist our experience isn’t there at all such as in the examples you mention that, of course, we need to raise our voices loudest of all.

  6. MarinaS (@marstrina)
    January 29, 2014

    FWIW, I don’t think I agree that refusing to talk about our oppression to the willfully sceptical is part of the problem. It’s a self care strategy that people have real need for, quite often. I don’t think we should push ourselves to the point of burn out (hint hint).

    But I do completely agree with you that, yes, as women, it is definitely part of our RIGHT – and I would even emphasize that over “responsibility” – to put words and images to our oppression.

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