One thing that white men like myself really love to say is “I just see people.” This is super easy for us to do. It lets us tell the world “Hey, I totally don’t mind that you’re black/a woman/disabled/queer/trans” while also apparently letting us get out of actually acknowledging privilege and oppression. It also lets us change the subject so that we don’t have to keep listening to oppressed people’s feelings. THe thing is, you can’t opt out of society that way. People of color are oppressed. Women are oppressed. Disabled people are oppressed. Queer people are oppressed. Trans people are oppressed. Just because we aren’t oppressed and just because we don’t personally have a problem with any of those oppressed people doesn’t mean we get away with just saying “I just see people” and changing the subject.
As noble as it sounds to claim to “look past labels,” what you’re really saying when you refuse to engage with reality like that is “I don’t see your problems.” The problems aren’t individual people. The problem is a system. A system that benefits people like me and hurts people who are different from me in many ways. When all I say is “I just see people,” I’m saying “fuck your problems, I have shit to do.” The fact that my disabled friend is amazingly funny and insightful is why she’s my friend. But she is also in a wheelchair. Just because I have the luxury of forgetting that fact doesn’t mean she does. She can never forget it and it’s a huge part of her life. When she complains about being fetishized by men she dates or the problems with finding an apartment she can enter and exit freely, saying “I just see you, my friend” accomplishes absolutely nothing but, I can only imagine, making me in to a shitty friend.
Our society is broken. My experiences are different from other fat, nerdy, straight, white, cis, atheist men, but they are usually subtle differences. By black friends, my latino friends, my disabled friends, my gay, lesbian, and bisexual friends, my transgendered and transexual friends, and my female friends all have vastly different experiences in the world. Often those experiences are of oppression that I don’t have to deal with. When I say “I just see people” I am weaseling my way out of helping make things better, but I am also denying a part of who they are. People like me are considered by our society as the “default” and I have the, yes, privilege, of ignoring differences. Most people don’t. I didn’t ask for privilege, I don’t feel guilty about it, per se, but I also don’t think it’s right that I have it.
When we stand on the sidelines we are never helping the oppressed. Our Inaction only helps the system stay in place. I don’t want to be that guy. I see people, it’s true, but I see black people, Asian people, Latino people, disabled people, queer people, female people, trans people, etc. I see the whole person and I do my best to understand their experience and to more fully understand mine. Acknowledging differences doesn’t make bigots and it’s vital to making us all included.