Tag Archives: talking about race

Lived Experience: A Perpetual Dilemma

22 May
Who could imagine that a self-described feminist would have a problem with listening to lived experiences? But I have a confession to make– I know it’s wrong, but sometimes I just don’t want to hear the stories some people tell me.
My I’m not listening wall comes to my defense when I hear several key trigger words:

“All the women I’ve ever met really want to have kids. My one friend, who said she didn’t want to have kids, got pregnant and now she loves her baby! This proves that women are biologically predisposed to parenthood!”

“My grandmother is really racist because she grew up in a different era. Her experiences excuse her racism.”

“I once met a guy who was on welfare, and he told me he would never get a job because he got paid to do nothing. Because of this experience, I believe that all jobless people are lazy.”

Do these phrases sound like something you would never ever hear? Well I assure you, I hear almost these exact words at least once a week. It happens when I teach, when I talk politics, and even when I discuss scholarly work with peers.

However, I am not writing solely to complain. Feminist research (and my own values) insist on listening to the lived experiences of others. Yet I have such a hard time listening to certain experiences, experiences that challenge my world view, that I’m starting to question my commitment to this practice.

The problem is that lived experiences can be powerful. I am on a plane and reading How Does it Feel to be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, by Moustafa Bayoumi, a gift from a professor aware of my interest in race and prejudice in America. The book tells the lived experiences of young Arab Americans post 9/11 and shares their stories about what it means to be a problem in their own country.

I’m going to guess it feels pretty shitty.

The author uses the term lived experience often, almost as though to implicitly force readers into accepting the stories as fact, as real. Readers cannot deny that these experiences were lived by someone. They happened to someone. It’s powerful, and it would be hard to somehow argue or disagree with the ideas in this book because of its use of personal experience.

I am familiar with this technique. I use it often to convince my students and other skeptical audiences that racism is still an issue in the modern US. Lived experience acts as trap, a rhetorical maneuver that requires listeners to accept your claims or doubt your integrity.

It is nearly foolproof, and that is why it is so frustrating to encounter people who use their experiences to prove that racism, classism, sexism, doesn’t exist (or are biological, or are not widespread problems so much as individual acts perpetrated by a few people). How do you fight that (1) At all; or (2) Without being a hypocrite?

Let’s look at an example. When I teach, I often tell a story of a time I witnessed racism. Since my audience cannot deny that this experience happened (to doubt the experience is to doubt my honesty, my truthfulness) they then have to (1) Accept that the story is true, and a racist act occurred in America; and (2) Reconcile this information with their own, different experiences– experiences which they often swear contain no whiff of racism, observed or enacted.

And now, of course, you can see why I am skeptical of lived experience. I know that racism is a pervasive problem in the United States, a systematic, institutionalized issue. Research has proven this. You would have to figuratively live under a rock in order to not have witnessed any acts/effects of racism.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist over Time: Poverty Rate by Race and Ethnicity, 1973-2009. Graph from the Sociological Cinema’s Facebook page.

Yet so many people, in my discussions with them about race, swear they’ve never seen any racism in their entire lives. Do I doubt their experience? Yes. But how, when I am willing to listen and value other lived experiences, such as the ones told by Bayoumi in How Does it Feel to be a Problem?

I am also bothered when people share one or two stories of observed racism and then fail to allow these moments to connect to the widespread problems of institutionalized racism. In this situation, lived experience isolates and sanitizes the discussion  and doesn’t allow the conversation to move forward to discuss larger implications of lived experiences. How can you redirect this conversation without demeaning or doubting experiences?

And furthermore, what about when someone tells you that every experience they’ve had with a certain race, or a certain gender, or a certain class, confirms one image. They tell you that all the poor people they’ve ever met have been lazy and that’s why they’re poor. And because of these experiences, they believe all poor people are lazy. And don’t deserve health care or welfare. What do you do when lived experience is used that way?

This is proof that people actually use personal experiences to justify sweeping, racist generalizations. Just in case you were skeptical. P.S This was from yesterday in Slate’s Dear Prudence column.

Sometimes I feel like if one more person tries to talk to me about their lived experiences in one of those previously listed, insufferable three ways again, I will scream. But then I feel like I am being a hypocrite. Are people only allowed to use personal experience in the ways that I decree? Am I a fascist? What gives me the right to limit how and when and why lived experiences can be used.

For now, and for the past several years, I have decided that I have some control over what assails my ears.

This is me. In dog form.

If, during my personal free time, I feel myself being pulled into a conversation heading down one of those three roads, I try to excuse myself as quickly and politely as possible. (I am not always successful at being polite).

But more and more often, as I try to escape I’m accused of being one sided.

I want to tell my accusers that I’ve heard their stories before, a thousand times, and they’re all the same and they’re all used the same way. I want to tell them that their stories have no significance to the larger conversation, often because they simply have not immersed themselves in the literature, and they have no interest in being immersed, in having their experiences connected. I want to tell them that I know that they know there is no defense against lived experience, or at least not one that works, and so they are taking advantage of my inability to escape in order to assail me with their offensive stories, and that’s not fair. I want to tell them that I’ve had successful conversations with people with differing views before; I’m not one sided. I do listen. But not to this.

But… why not to this?  How can I justify my refusal?

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