On Owning Your Voice and Using It Responsibly

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Over the last couple of weeks I've seen some incredibly powerful examples of women owning their voices and standing up for themselves, reclaiming their stories and their experiences in the process.

In the wake of Brock Turner being found guilty of three felony sexual assault charges and sentenced to a pathetic 6 months behind bars, Emily Doe stood up in court to read out a letter to her attacker.

After being subjected to homophobic slurs and physical threats from an Uber Driver on their way home from dinner, Lucy Thomas co-founder of youth advocacy and Anti-Bullying initiative Project Rockit and her partner not only called out the driver, but filed a complaint with Uber and went public with their story.

Content Warning: homophobia

At recent gigs across Australia women have been banding together to protect one another in mosh pits, defend themselves from larger men who behave in sexually and physically threatening ways, and as Karina Utomo from High Tension did, use their platform and microphone to eject crowd members for groping women in the pit, and then propose a forum to discuss ways that things can be improved.

Yes it's extremely disappointing that all of these women have been responding to male perpetrated violence and toxic masculinity, but for me last week felt like there was a genuine sense of something bigger starting to change.

Women are starting to have their voices heard. We're starting to support one another, and our stories are being amplified the world over. It feels as though more people are starting to take us seriously.

We're finding strength in our vulnerability.

We're carving out our little spaces and making them our own, and by doing so we're encouraging others to do the same.

This is something that makes me SO proud of women. At times like these, the importance and power of of us telling our own stories feels so, so clear. I spent the last week feeling so filled with hope after seeing how far reaching the impact of Emily Doe's letter was that US Vice President Joe Biden responded on issues including rape culture, toxic masculinity, and the responsibility of bystanders in a heartfelt letter of his own.

But while it's so crucial that we have these conversations, and I will always be here for women finding the confidence to own and use their voices, there are times when our personal opinion might not be the most appropriate one to share and we would do better to listen and learn instead.

This is especially important after the horrific massacre at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida where LGBTIQ+ people of colour were deliberately targeted on a Latinx night by a solo gunman.

It's not enough, nor is it accurate to suggest that this is an isolated event, that this is an Islamic issue, a gun control issue (although that is a HUGE issue), or that it is an "attack on all of us" without considering how the laws and behaviours of our larger Western societies continue to actively discriminate against, persecute, and oppress LGBTIQ+ folks and People of Colour.

It's not okay for news anchors and politicians to try to ignore or diminish the fact that this was a targeted attack against marginalised groups of people.

And it's not okay for cis-het white people to act as gatekeepers, filtering the stories of those who are directly effected by the systems that we benefit from - let alone misconstruing them for political gain.

Facebook have repeatedly removed this post and indefinitely banned the author Teshale Nuer from the platform

Facebook have repeatedly removed this post and indefinitely banned the author Teshale Nuer from the platform

While all of these are large, systemic issues, there are some very real ways that we as individuals can have a positive impact.

Check Your Privilege.

Solidarity, empathy and compassion are essential positive forces in this world. Relating and sharing over our similar experiences can be a powerful means of connecting with those around us - especially when we're trying to connect with people who may not share that much in common with us, and we're attempting to discover and build familiarity.

Does that make it okay for me as a white straight cis-woman to compare growing up with hemangiomas to those of a woman of colour describing her experience of racism?

No, it doesn't.

Aside from the fact that this is a total dick move, it's not okay to compare situations, or to play Suffering Olympics.

Sure as a person who grew up with hemangiomas, I faced medical complications, surgeries, as well as a lack of understanding from some people at school, but I cannot say that I understand what it means to experience the negative impacts of systemically entrenched racism across all levels of society.

On the note of privilege, it's worth asking yourself before stepping into a conversation or argument why you're doing so - especially if you're stepping into a space created by and for marginalised people.

What do you hope to contribute, and more importantly what do you hope to gain from joining in?

Are you asking questions in order to develop a deeper understanding of an alternative point of view, or are you speaking up because you believe that an important point has been missed?

Are you stepping in because you're driven by the certainty that you're opinion is the correct one, or to prove a point?

Is your opinion actually relevant to the conversation?

If you have an opinion on a related but separate matter to the one being discussed, it's worth considering if that discussion is the appropriate time and place to share your thoughts - particularly if you're entering into a space created by people who are sharing their experiences as a minority group, and you are someone who benefits from social privilege.

Examples this can include:

Reacting to #BLACKLIVESMATTER with, "All Lives Matter";

Interrupting discussions on Violence Against Women with reminders that "men get raped too!";

Erasing the reality that the Pulse Nightclub shooting was a targeted attack that deliberately terrorised LGBTIQ+ People of Colour by claiming that it was "an attack on all of us", or an act of Muslim extremism.

While it may not be your intention, by raising a related but separate issue, your input might have the effect of derailing the conversation and silencing the voices that really matter and need to be heard at this time.

Yes your intentions matter, but the impact your words have matters more.

While you might feel as though you've got all of your ducks in a neat little row, you've checked all the little boxes and feel that you're speaking from a place of good intentions, I'm sorry but there are going to be times when you'll fuck up. It's inevitable. None of us are perfect, and because we can't always see all of the social privileges we're bound to say something that comes across as insensitive at one time or another.

It can feel shitty to have our mis-steps pointed out, especially if it's happening in public or on the internet. We all like to feel right, and deep down our ego always believes that it is right, and it will fight to be heard.

BUT here's the thing. When people who experience systemic social oppression are telling you how your words are damaging and problematic, you don't get to tell them otherwise.

While there has been plenty written and said about "Call Out Culture", here's the thing to remember: 

When people call you out, they're not doing it because you're a terrible person.

They're doing it to let you know that you could probably stand to learn more about a topic that impacts them directly.

It's quite literally your cue to stop talking, and listen.

This is really important.

Continuing to push your point once someone has found their voice and told you that your words are hurting them with comments along the lines of, "this is my opinion" is what's referred to as Tone Deafness.

More often than not, you'll find that people aren't looking to invalidate your opinion completely or tell you that you're not entitled to your feelings, but they're actually way more focused on dealing with the hurt you're causing them.

In the same way, it's not okay to derail the discussion by getting hung up on Tone Policing.

While it's totally reasonable to expect that people speak to you respectfully, it's not okay to drag the discussion down to a point where marginalised people are having to cater to your feelings.

Unfortunately, more often than not Tone Deafness and Tone Policing tend to run hand in hand.

This can play out as someone making problematic statements while demanding that people calm down, or by telling marginalised people that "we'd be more likely to care if you weren't so angry all the time".

More often than not these tactics not only rely on racist, gendered, or queerphobic stereotypes like Angry Black People; Hysterical Women; and Gay Drama Queens, but they also feed into and support them.

Obviously this isn't always the case, and yes you're always entitled to be spoken to with respect, but it's important to consider whether or not it's appropriate to demand that from someone when they're trying to tell you that you're hurting them.

After all, I'm pretty sure that we can all agree that if a hairdresser misjudged their straightening iron placement and started burning your skin you would expect them to move it and apologise as soon as you shouted out in pain.

You would be justifiably pissed if they ignored your cries and stood there continuing to burn your skin until you informed them politely that you would prefer if the straightening iron was slightly further from your skin, with your absolute best manners, and then assured them that of course it wasn't their fault that you got burned.

In this example, it's really easy to see the absurdity of Tone Policing in practice, but the same thing happens everyday in ways that have real and far reaching effects.

While I will never advocate for tolerating disrespect, I will always advocate for stepping back from a situation where you feel as though you're being treated poorly.

Let that shit go.

Arguments are never won under those conditions.

You don't need to get the last word, and if you've already made your opinion known then there's probably little to be gained by restating it, or attempting to justify it again.

So when is it okay to speak up?

There have been a couple of instances recently where I've had to weigh this up for myself. I'm often conscious of not interjecting in spaces created by and for other marginalised people, especially when they're already speaking for themselves.

Sometimes it's best to leave things be for a bit, step away and then if you feel that you genuinely have a valid point to raise that has not yet been discussed, and you're sure that you're welcome to contribute (Pro-Tip: When in doubt, ask!) then jump on in and share away.

If someone is being subjected to bullying, or is struggling to stand up for themselves, then you should step in.

What does it mean to be a good ally?

Okay, so this one is so important right now, and if you're a cis-gendered, straight white person wanting to know how you can help in the wake of Orlando, this is where being an ally comes in.

Same deal with being a straight dude wanting to help overturn rape culture and you recognise the ways in which toxic masculinity harms people of all genders.

Part of being a good ally is to stop being a bystander, and instead be an up-stander.

A good thing to keep at the back of your mind is that the standard you walk by and tolerate, is the standard you endorse.

While there are plenty of things that are beyond our individual control, like transphobic laws (including here in Australia) and no one person can dismantle rape culture, there are things we can do on an everyday level to make the world a slightly better place for someone close by.

We can ask the LGBTIQ+ people in our lives how we can support them. Maybe that means voting for Same Sex Marriage rights, or fighting for the continued delivery of the Safe Schools Program, if you're in the US campaign against the transphobic bathroom laws, donate blood or if you're in a position to do so, donate money to a support service they've accessed, or just be there for people who need you.

Listen and believe them when they share their experiences with you.

The same goes for not allowing this discussion being derailed by politicians and media outlets who seek to turn this into an excuse to persecute Muslim communities, or to demonise immigrants and asylum seekers.