Everyone has a right to an opinion, naturally. We are all human beings. We observe. We think. We act based on what we think about what we observe. There are sometimes when it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself, though, or to at least hold off on sharing them so that you can listen to opinions you might not often hear or that others might not often hear.
This is a quandary I often face, being both a male and a person of color. I get annoyed when there are debates about antiracism, and sometimes white people just won’t shut up and listen to people of color. Likewise, I get annoyed (yes, even at myself) when there are debates about feminism and sometimes men just won’t shut up and listen to women.
I do feel for white people, though. I feel for them. I really do. As a man, I often can’t resist the urge to share my opinion, to argue back and forth and always feel as if my opinion needs to be expressed and listened to, regardless of what other people’s opinions I might be stifling. It’s tough. It’s tough to just be quiet and listen. I’m also particularly argumentative by nature—have been ever since a very young age.
I have to remind myself, though, that space is important. Just as white people sometimes have to give us our space to just think and articulate our thoughts without constant interruption and objection, I have to give women that same space. I have to give gay people that same space. I have to give non-Americans (whom I run into with increasing frequency in online discussions) that same space.
Since I am part of at least one marginalized demographic (Asian-Americans), it’s easier for me to see how dominant or chauvinistic I can be in other respects. How often have I been shamed by spouting my mouth off about some issue only to be told by a European that what I said applies pretty much only in an American context?
I remember in college there were big debates about the Take Back the Night march every year. The march was run in such a fashion that men were not allowed to speak during circling up, and men could participate in the march but not be in the front of the march. A lot of men called this reverse sexism. There were even women who were saying men should be allowed to speak. Finally, one year, the organizers of the march said that men could speak in the circling up but only if they were sexual assault survivors themselves. That year was a disaster. Several men did speak up during the march, but none of them was a survivor or shared a story of themselves dealing with being sexually assaulted. They just went on tirades about how women need to be more careful. What the fuck?! I was ashamed to be a man during that march. Take Back the Night is all about taking back the night, creating at least one night a year in which women can feel a safe space. During that time, to be lectured to be more careful is a great way to have the entire night’s objective be undermined. Men ruined it once again.
I didn’t really mind being in the back or not saying anything. I knew that my very silent presence in the back was already saying something: “I support this effort.” I didn’t have to speak out in a circle or be in the front. I just had to be there.
Are there times to speak out? Surely. What a shameful society we’d live in if white people could never talk about race, men could never talk about feminist issues, and straights could never talk about queer sexuality. But there are times. That’s the trick.
Figure out when you’re in a debate. Then debate. But also recognize when people are just trying to articulate their thoughts in a safe setting without being attacked and try, try to understand the need for that space. I’m still working this all out on my end, too. We all have opinions, and we should all have the right to have opinions, but there are times and places to express those opinions. Sometimes you should just listen. Sometimes I should just listen, too.