There is a trend of entitlement on Twitter (and lots of other places, but let’s focus there) that revolves around this one simple phrase: “Explain to me why this is.” Now, this might not be an insidious thing on the surface. Explanations and education are a cornerstone of civilized society, and when our education goes, so does our rights. We should always be learning, so as not to be raging assholes to our fellow human beings. But here’s a little something you might not know about this phrase. The people who utter it usually don’t give a shit about actually learning. Shocking, I know! This is particularly true on Twitter, but I’ve encountered many people in the real world who use this phrase as a leaping off point to simply start an argument for argument’s sake.
Here’s another thing you might not know. People who wish to learn more about diversity, racism, sexism, ableism, LGBQTIA issues, et all, do not go find people on social media and sit down and say, “Explain to me why this is,” and actually fucking mean it. Instead, the people who want to know more use social media as a means of reinforcing research. They follow people who are already talking about issues in order to go directly to the primary source, and then back up these people’s experiences and opinions with reading articles, books, and engaging with activists in their communities.
I’ve seen this a lot in all communities, but for this example let’s use the black community on Twitter. White people flood into the mentions of people talking about real life experiences and the systemic racism in the United States. These skeptics want a step-by-step breakdown of everything that the person experiencing the racism says save for the transitional words. Basically, they want to pick a fight. They act like these activists and celebrities need to be at their beck and call to have “rational” discussions that basically amount to facts flying in one ear and out another for the sake of attention and underlying racism.
Here’s the thing, though. The onerous of educating you is not on them.
I’m gonna repeat that.
The burden of educating you on these issues is NOT ON THE PEOPLE WHO ARE LIVING WITH THEM EVERY DAY.
I, as a straight, able-bodied, white woman, and a product of the south’s education system (I shuddered too, don’t worry), has had some hiccups along the way. I’ve had lazy thoughts I’ve not had to shift because of privilege. I’ve had racist thoughts, and I’ve had sexist thoughts. I’ve had ableist thoughts, and I’ve judged people based on their body size. Societal standards have informed my opinions, and it has been a long, long road to correct this behavior. I didn’t slip and slide out of the womb an ally. The impetuous of youth and no real role models kept these negative thoughts in place until I was able to get out on my own and learn, and grow, and meet people from all around the world thanks to the internet. I’m not trying to change the narrative to how special I am. That’s not the point. The point is that I’ve had all those nasty thoughts. I’ve been there, so I know the struggle to change. I’ve been a poor ally and I’ve contributed to the wrong conversations at times. But I have never, ever assumed that the people in these communities owe me an explanation. The education is on me. It is MY responsibility, and it is continually ongoing. It never, ever ends.
Subjecting someone who lives with systemic racism to continually explain the problem to you and everybody else is unfair and wrong. If you are serious about being an ally, you don’t go into a person’s mentions and act like you hired them to teach you about a topic that sometimes can’t even be fully covered in a 300 page book. There are actual, literal classes you can go to. Some of them are even online. But you know what’s awesome about the internet? There is a literal world of knowledge at your fingertips. The search bar is your friend. You can follow people who are talking about these issues without demanding more from them, without throwing more crap in their way and hoping they trip. I’m not saying you can’t have questions, but you should be respectful of the fact that people who spend their lives speaking out, advocating, trying, lifting up the voices of the oppressed, etc., are still human beings who get tired, who can’t be everywhere at once, and who need you to take responsibility for your own damn Googling. They speak out about these things in many places and in many ways. This is good. This can be PART of your education. You follow them, you see what issues they are talking about, and then you go find out more on your own.
For instance, the next time someone talks about the school-to-prison pipeline, instead of trying to make the person who mentioned it explain the entire history of the issue that goes back to all the way back to the social structure of slavery and slave owners in 140 characters, you go pick up one of the many well-researched books, and you fucking educate yourself. Heck, there are wonderful people who talk about racism and social issues on YouTube, such as Franchesca Ramsey. You can read these books and watch these videos at low to no cost.
I understand that some of you are thinking that not talking to these people when they’re bringing it up in the first place isn’t fair. I get where you’re coming from, even if you’re wrong. I’m not saying you have to be silent – you can certainly ask for recommendations on who to follow and who is talking about the things you’re interested in improving about yourself. What I am saying is that it is on us to do the research on these issues before we try to engage on the subject (and use trusted sources. Hint: a trusted source isn’t someone trying to sell you on more racism with twisted data points). You see a term being used by someone that you aren’t familiar with, you look it up. Then, if you still have confusion about it, search some more. Then, once you do understand, maybe do a little more research to round it all out. If you still don’t understand, but have a clearer idea of the subjects, then you can maybe ask someone questions. But the important part here is not to act like they are entitled to answer just because you asked. This is entitlement, Twitter person, plain and simple. Again, human beings are on the other end of the line, and they get tired of not being paid to explain your ignorance to you. Sometimes they will be willing to have that discussion, other times they will know, as any reasonable person does, that if you really wanted to learn something, you’d be able to manage with the entirety of the internet and libraries at your disposal.
No one owes you their time, their story, or their attention.
We can have discussions. We need to have discussions. But non-allies need to stop acting like you’re being slick by asking that question, like you’re being such a reasonable, upstanding citizen, and then acting like it’s proof of something when people don’t engage with it. It’s not subtle. It’s not helpful. You’re contributing to the problem.
Becoming an ally is not easy. If you’re serious about it, you’re going to have to put time and thought into it. You’re going to have to put self-reflection into it. You’re going to have to look at the nasty part of yourself that feels like it’s better than people because society keeps telling you this – because society engages with people who look like you and sound like you. Getting beyond what is indoctrinated within us at a young age, getting beyond that privilege, is not pretty. If it were, it would be glamorized in magazines the way being a celebrity is often shown. It’s messy the way all self-reflection is, but it is worth it to become a better person who sees the people around you as equals worthy of respect.
At the end of the day, being an ally isn’t about holding the person having these conversations up to a microscope. It isn’t about you verifying them and acting like the Twitter police, just waiting breathlessly for them to misplace a preposition. It’s about shutting up long enough to listen to what people in these communities have to say. Chances are if you’re saying“Explain this to me,” you don’t care about learning at all.
So, the next time you feel the entitlement to force someone to explain a topic to you, stop and realize that your entitled thinking is precisely the problem. Right now, we are going through a very difficult time (read apocalyptic) when it comes to human rights. The right to live equally is being challenged at every corner, at every door. No one will escape unscathed. The last thing we need to do is spend more time questioning the people who are trying to afford us all basic decency and compassion. Stop contributing to the wrong conversations. So, here’s my ultimate guide to being an ally…
Step one: shut up long enough to actually listen.
Step two through infinity: Repeat step one forever.