Thursday, October 29, 2015

Who's Got the Mic

One really difficult problem in discussing systemic oppression is how to explain the way our society hears and values some voices more than others.  It's a hard concept because it requires those of us who get heard more easily to be quiet in order to let others talk.  Some people feel like this, in turn, oppresses them, and like holding their voices down shouldn't be necessary to lift others up.  That's not really what's going on, but I've often had a hard time clearly stating why that is.  Because of that, I think about it, maybe not a lot, but bits at a time.  From that bits at a time, I've come up with a metaphor that I think may work.

Imagine your'e in an enormous school auditorium with hundreds of other students having a group discussion.  You've all been given microphones so that people can hear the discussion better.

There's a problem, though; the microphones don't all work very well.

Some of the microphones work fine.  They give voices full amplification with no static and never cut out.  The school gives these microphones to heterosexual, cis-gendered white boys who are thin, able bodied and well off.

Some of the microphones mostly work okay.  They might have some static and cut out some, and they're not as loud as the first set, but they still get the job done.  They mostly go to thin,cis-gendered, white girls who are also well off and able bodied.  A few might go to particularly well off white gay dudes, or other people who are one step away from being like the guys who got the best batch.

The remaining microphones suck.  Some are still better, some still worse, but in general they don't amplify the voice much, they cut out a ton, and they're static city.  Everyone else - black women, trans-women of color, genderfluid disabled folks, everyone gets these.  The further away you are from being an affluent white dude, the crappier your mic is.

Because of this, whenever a conversation happens, the white dudes are going to be the easiest to hear, and the ones people are most likely to listen to.

White women, gay men, and others who have a second tier mic will get drowned out by them a lot of the time.  However, their mics still work well enough that they get heard some of the time by some people.

The people who have the third tier mics rarely get heard at all.  Even when they do, the amount of static and crap their mics are generating make it hard to get their points across.

Now, understand, the white dudes did not choose to have the loudest mics.  They might not even like public speaking.  They also don't have the option of adjusting their mic or lowering the volume.  It's not that we're accusing them of intentionally hogging the stage.  However, while they're talking,people literally can't hear anyone else, so even though it's not their fault, sometimes we need them to be quiet for a while so that the people on the second and third tiers have a chance to talk.

Just as importantly, the people on the second tier - like me -  still have a huge advantage in being heard over people on the third tier, so even though we also have trouble being heard, we sometimes need to be quiet and listen carefully so we can hear what the third tier has to say.

Now in reality, oppression is much more complex than a three tier system, but the fact remains that, as a society, people who are not members of oppressed groups are listened to with more focus and respect than people who are, and similarly people who only belong to one oppressed group (ie. women, people of color, LGBT folks, fat folks, disabled folks etc) usually have an easier time getting heard than ones who belong to multiple oppressed groups.  Because of that, when we ask you to stop talking and listen, we're not accusing you of doing anything wrong, or even saying what you have to say is bad; we're just saying that your mic is louder and there are other people who also need to be heard.