During a speech celebrating Nelson Mandela’s would-be 100th birthday, President Obama condemned the idea that only people from marginalized groups can comment on marginalized groups’ issues.
Obama made the comments when he was discussing the best way to interact with those with whom we disagree.
“Democracy demands that we’re able to also get inside the reality of people who are different than us, so we can understand their point of view,” he said. “Maybe we can change their minds, maybe they’ll change ours.”
“You can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start,” he continued. “And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they are white or they are male, somehow there is no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
It might not seem like all that big of a deal, but what Obama did in that last statement was rebuke a way of thinking that has actually become quite pervasive in social-justice circles. In these circles, it’s often the case that men have no authority to speak out about certain issues just because they’re men, or that white people have no authority to speak out on certain issues just because they’re white.
In fact, some people have taken this view to an even more extreme place. In a recent essay for the blog Everyday Feminism, a self-described “non-binary South Asian scholar and artist” named Ayesha Sharma stated that there is actually no way for a transgender person or a person of color to even be safe in a social-justice space where the majority of the group is white and cisgender.
“No feminist space that is predominantly white and cis is ‘safe’ or ‘open to everyone,’” Sharma writes.
Sharma explains that “the leaders of these spaces” may try and do their best to make those spaces comfortable to everyone, but “white and cis people, for example, end up having cultural and social power in that they’re in the majority.”
“This can mean that marginalized people in those spaces can often feel silenced, small, and microaggressed,” Sharma writes.
Issues such as racism and sexism are huge problems in our society, but the only way that we’re ever going to be able to solve them is by having open conversations.
In other words: Sharma believes that white, cisgender people who make an effort to involve themselves in social-justice issues can not only make marginalized people feel uncomfortable, but it can also make them unsafe — just because those people happen to be white and cisgender.
On this issue, Obama is right. A white man may not have experienced racism or sexism himself, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to talk about it. Yes, there is something to be said for the fact that no one can ever truly understand an issue unless they’ve lived it, but it’s definitely the wrong move to shame people for simply trying to discuss something. Issues such as racism and sexism are huge problems in our society, but the only way that we’re ever going to be able to solve them is by having open conversations — conversations that we encourage everyone to be a part of. After all, the more people we get talking, the better chance we have at coming up with solutions.
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