Recently, I was discussing the struggles of a certain minority group with several people. Only I and one other person had experienced these struggles personally, and we were having difficulty getting the others to understand. They didn’t see how serious it was to us, never having experienced anything like what we were describing. They asked whether, or rather suggested, our experiences were the same as their own mundane ones. They thought we were overreacting. Finally, my friend said to them, “You’re trivializing the experiences of minorities!” Of course, after that, the conversation ended.
At Yale, too many discussions about the very real struggles that minorities face end like this. Whenever we are surprised or angered by someone else’s ignorance, we shut down the conversation rather than helping the other person understand. It prevents us from having honest and open discussions with potential allies about issues that, for many of us, are of paramount importance.
If we are going to hinder social progress like this, we should at least have good reasons for doing so. Anger and surprise, though, are not such reasons. It should not be surprising that people are ignorant about experiences that are wholly different from their own, especially when we enforce this norm of not discussing them. Anger is at least understandable. Like ignorance, we often can’t help it. When someone questions our experiences, it can feel like a personal attack. But when those questions do not stem from malicious intent, anger is misplaced.
It’s tempting to chalk this up to a misunderstanding, to think that, if my friend knew that the others did not intend to trivialize his experiences, there would be no problem. But the prevailing belief at Yale is that questioning experiences or comparing them to trivial ones is inherently wrong, regardless of the intent. In fact, the popular conception of an ally is one who does not question what they are told. This viewpoint, however, misunderstands what it means to be an ally.
Contrary to popular belief, blind acceptance is not a virtue. True, no one should question the legitimacy of our experiences, but neither should they just take them as given. As any teacher will attest, there can be no understanding without questioning. An ally who does not probe our experiences to figure out how they fit into larger social contexts is not trying to understand them. If we call out the people who do, we’ll be left only with social media activists, the people who are interested in virtue signaling and self-righteous outrage but do not particularly care what it is they are outraged about. We should be encouraging rational, respectful engagement with our personal struggles. Shutting down discussions whenever someone trivializes our experiences alienates exactly the people we want as allies.
Worst of all, when we require our peers to treat the minority experience as inscrutable and unassailable, it enables certain people to hide flawed arguments behind it. These people claim our support and use our identity because we, in our frustration, have provided them with a convenient tool of obfuscation. In the long run, the association of minority experiences with flawed logic invalidates any subsequent claims we may make. This kind of self-serving misappropriation of our experiences is, to me at least, far more offensive than some ignorant questions.
Yes, it’s exhausting to teach those around us about our experiences. And we should not have to justify our experiences for other people to take them seriously. But there is a difference between not taking them seriously and simply not understanding them. In refusing to have these important and necessary discussions, we are demonstrating that they are not even worth having. This is simply short-sighted. Social progress is worth the hassle of correcting a few inadvertently trivializing statements. But telling our regrettably ignorant peers to just accept our experiences gives only a momentary illusion of progress. We must work to replace ignorance with understanding. This process is frustrating at times, but it is the only way to achieve positive, lasting change.
Kathan Roberts is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.