Now Any Questions?
I’m in the process of rewatching one of my favorite shows, Avatar the Last Airbender. One of the funniest scenes of the series is where the characters are trapped in the desert and low on water. One of the characters, Sokka, runs up to a cactus he finds and drinks from it. Of course the cactus ends up having hallucinogenic properties. It’s unfortunate for him but hilarious for people watching the show. His sister points out how he doesn’t know anything about the local cacti and shouldn’t have drank from a suspicious plant. Sokka doesn’t learn from any of this and later in the episode attempts to consume another unknown substance (this time off a cave wall). The lesson being that you shouldn’t do things just because you are curious about it, and that you need to actually use what you learn about the world to shape your behavior and attitude.
In other news, I just got back from the Secular Student Alliance national conference in Phoenix. Funny enough, my second night there I instinctively grabbed at a cactus without properly realizing how bad of an idea that is. More to the point, I had the chance to have a lot of interesting conversations with people about gender and about disability. This included answering a lot of questions people had.
I knew prior to becoming vocal and outspoken about my various identities that I’d have to answer a lot of questions. Even if they’re personal. I decided for myself that I was ok with that, and I tell people all that time that I’m happy to answer any questions they have. But part of my responsibility as an activist and educator is to inform people that asking certain things can be harmful. Being curious about something is not always reason enough to ask someone about it. What exactly makes some questions inappropriate and unproductive? I don’t just mean things like “don’t ask trans people if they’ve had *The Surgery*”, and I don’t just mean things that are blatantly hostile and bigoted. Some well-meaning questions, and reasons for asking them, originate from a place of dehumanization rather than from a sincere and constructive desire to learn from other people’s experiences.
This difference is subtle, and I wasn’t sure how to explain it before this weekend.
Marginalized people choose to share our perspectives because we believe that it will in some way benefit our lives and the lives of others like us. We do it for ourselves. We don’t do it for people who are already privileged, who are already part of the system that is oppressing us.
When I answer the questions people have I expect them to carry that knowledge with them. I want them to do better, to learn how to be less harmful and oppressive towards myself and to others. Far too often this is not the case and I feel used. Far too often they have no interest in learning more or in reexamining their own behavior and attitudes. They don’t desire to listen to other people or read what others have already written (as if knowing me at all fulfills some sort of quota on exposure to trans issues). And even then they clearly have no interest in listening to me unless it’s on their own terms.
What gets to me about how some people approach asking questions is that I can tell when someone is doing it just to quench their own curiosity. What’s so frustrating about it is that the people who do this will carry on their merry way as if my perspective wasn’t the least bit significant or meaningful to them. As if it was just a fun factoid about this strange existence that they will never understand and which will never impact them.
People like this walk away without considering how the challenges and erasure we face are intimately entwined with the lives of people who benefit from our marginalization, including them. The questions they choose to ask have nothing to do with our lives being connected in this way, or about our perspectives having the ability to change their understanding of their own life. The questions they ask treat our experiences as isolated events and our identities as objects meant for their curiosity and entertainment alone. Our struggles aren’t meant to be used as quirky background scenery to make life more interesting for privileged people. This is one reason why it’s so dehumanizing and tiring for people to expect us to explain everything and to answer every question we encounter. Even if they aren’t particularly personal or intrusive questions. Even if we usually enjoy talking about our experiences and personal identities.
Many people including myself still love answering questions for people. We love to educate people and share our experiences because we know the good it will do. When you ask a marginalized person questions about their life and identity, it should be out a desire to give that person the chance to be heard and to learn from them. You should want to learn so that you are able to understand perspectives that you didn’t have access to before. You want to learn so you can improve yourself, so you don’t continue to harm the people around you. But you also need to know that it isn’t about you.
(Disclaimer: nobody at the conference asked me questions I was uncomfortable with. This idea was sparked by someone asking me how to go about asking someone questions without being intrusive).