The Dangers of Being a Majority Supporter of a Minority Group

February 8, 2007 by
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Religion 

If you’re like me, you’re in a unique minority.  I’m white, male, straight, middle-aged, middle-class, live in the suburbs, protestant.  I’m a member of every majority group.  I AM WHITE BREAD.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), my genetic and environmental background have combined to form a desire for justice in my ethical framework.  I want to work hard for a society where personal attributes like gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic background do not have any effect on how a person is perceived.  We have a long way to go, but I really want to help get there.

This has drawn me to support, actively and passively, civil rights groups that I do not belong to.  In general this is fulfilling work – I am doing something to help people other than myself (a very Christian activity) and helping to reshape the world into a better place.

Unfortunately, I have found that there are a number of pitfalls to this activity.  Recently, I experienced some of them again.  My comments on the Washington State “Defense of Marriage Alliance” proposal drew some strong negative comments from members of the gay community, here and on other blogs and forums.  This echoed some more personal experiences that I had working even more closely with the Presbyterian gay rights movement about 12-15 years ago.

So, for your edification and to help me get past the pain recently experienced, here are some thoughts on what can go wrong when a member of the majority tries to work on behalf of a minority group.  These are generally addressed to the majority person trying to work on behalf of the minority.

1.  You will never be a member of the group.  Ironically, this can make you a 2nd class citizen in the minority’s community.

Don’t forget this – you are not and will never be a member of the minority (well, with sexual orientation or economic status that’s not strictly true, but you get the idea).  Some members of a particular minority are likely to view anyone not of that minority with serious doubt as to their commitment to “the cause”.  In some cases, there will never be trust of a non-minority person.

As long as you are willing to toe the party line, you are probably safe from criticism.  The minute that you choose to criticize the beliefs or tactics of the minority group (or even one faction of that group) you become open to having your sincerity doubted.  You may be attacked for being a 5th-columnist (someone who attacks from within) representing the oppressive majority or a group of such people.

In today’s civil rights movements, an insidious concept has been invented – a pathological fear or hatred of the minority.  This is true in some cases – burning a cross on the lawn of a black family shows a tendency to dislike black people.  However, this concept of psychological fear or hatred of a group has been turned into a widely-used insult.  Nowhere is this clearer than with the gay rights movement.  “Homophobia” is the term used to label those who do not believe that homosexuality (or bisexuality or transgender inclinations) is fully acceptable in today’s society.  A breakdown of the term itself would lead one to believe that homophobia is talking about fear of homosexuals.  (or perhaps fear of homogenized milk?)  In actual use it is an insult hurled at those who do not support full societal acceptance of homosexuality.

The problem with this insult is that in many cases the root definition is not true.  Most anti-gay people are not afraid of gay people.  They do not cringe in fear, crawl under their beds (or into closets?) and lock their door when two men walk down the street holding hands.  They have (to some degree and depth) made a personal judgment of the ethics and morals of homosexuality and rejected it.  No fear – just a personal decision.

So, back to our intrepid non-minority volunteer.  If you choose to openly criticize the beliefs or tactics of the minority group (or often any portion of it), prepare to be labeled with all of the bad attributes of those that you’ve chosen to fight against.  You will be seen as “one of them” and not “one of us”.  Your words will be devalued.  In short, the minority will try to make you feel as held down and victimized as they do.

Even worse – members of the minority itself experience this.  One member of the gay rights community talked to me about how any gay person who challenges the tactics of the group gets labeled as “self-loathing”.  He’s got his own internal homophobia.

I’m sorry – but this is all BS.  It’s just the use of names and labels in an attempt to control that majority volunteer.

2.  Members of the majority will decry you as well.

In order for there to be a civil rights struggle by a minority group, there must be members of the majority to oppress them.  (Side note – the oppression might no longer exist, but the fact that it once existed is enough to prolong the cause.  Ask a left-handed person.)  If you choose to be publicly associated with a minority group, you may draw the ire of members of the majority.  If you support minority group Z, you will be labeled as a Z-lover, and probably as a Y-hater.  You will be told that you (are you ready for this) have hatred towards your own people – your own self-loathing.

If the majority group has chosen to level morality charges against the minority, you will be open to them as well.  For gay rights, your sexuality and sexual behavior may be questioned.  You may be a “closeted gay”.  In racial conflicts, this used to lead to your ancestry being questioned – that you aren’t as “pure” as you thought.

Paradoxically, this criticism is often easier to take than the criticism from the minority group itself.  You are at least pointed in the right direction – you are taking fire from the front – from those that you have chosen to battle in your drive for equality for the minority group.  The attacks from the minority group will more often come from behind, forcing you to battle on both fronts at once (and stand sideways, apparently).

3.  You will be told that you “can’t understand” what the minority group is going through.

This is true.  You truly are unable to feel the day to day pain caused by attacks on you for what you are.  You might be part of one minority other than the one that you are speaking of, and in that case your pain is somewhat transferable.  If you are a member of more or less every majority – you truly are unable to feel the pain.

HOWEVER, you obviously have a reason to be battling on behalf of the minority.  You are expending energy and feeling pain (and joy sometimes) as you work for the cause.  These emotions may pale in comparison to what a member of the minority is going through, but you feel them nonetheless.

You are lucky in that you have an escape route – you can simply stop working on behalf of the minority.  It’s easy to melt back into the passive center of your majority group.  However, this too comes at a cost.  In order to stop the pain from your work on behalf of the minority, you must feel a different kind of pain caused by your decision to ignore your ethics and morals.  In order to avoid the pain caused by this work, you cause yourself new pain by not being true to yourself (and in some cases, not being true to your religious beliefs).  For those altruistic enough to try to help people without helping themselves in the process, turning your back is actually painful – an self-inflicted assault on your soul.

So what do you do?

Majority people helping a minority – remember that you truly cannot feel the pain of the minority.  Remember that you are working with wounded people – people who are under attack for being what God made them.  They will sometimes react illogically to you and to themselves.  Be sensitive, and try to learn as much as you can.  Avoid hot buttons.

Minority groups dealing with help from the majority – be patient.  Those who want to help you fall into two groups – those who truly care and those who want to appear to care.  Members of the latter group will generally fall away over time.  The former group are the folks that you want to keep – people who are doing this for no personal gain (other than maybe satisfaction of doing the right thing).  Help them understand the pressures that you face.  Teach them about your community.  And remember that they are unlearning behaviors taught to them by ignorant people – they will come around in time.

All – everybody has the right to their opinion.  Sometimes asserting that opinion may cause pain.  Sometimes that opinion is right.  Sometimes it is wrong.  Sometimes it is ignorant.  Educate each other.  Avoid using the tactics of hate and marginalization on each other.  You’re all facing in the same direction trying to accomplish the same goal – don’t confuse each other with the enemy.

Comments

2 Comments on The Dangers of Being a Majority Supporter of a Minority Group

  1. -drm- on Tue, 13th Feb 2007 5:36 am
  2. Doesn’t the statement “You truly are unable to feel the day to day pain caused by attacks on you for what you are” slightly underestimate the ability of someone to empathize – to imaginatively stretch to understand another’s perspective? You surely right that we can never have another’s experience, but approximation? It seems if you could somehow emphasize empathy, it would give you greater ability to show how friendship and table fellowship might subvert majority/minority distinctions.

    A small response to a good post. Thanks!

  3. Mark on Tue, 13th Feb 2007 8:33 am
  4. A fair comment.

    Perhaps I should have said “You truly are unable to feel the day to day pain caused by attacks on you for what you are. You may be able to approximate it through empathy, but that will never be considered sufficient by members of the minority group.”

Tell me what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!