Passing the Mic

We have a lot of rules for who's allowed to speak, and when. Here's when they backfire.

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A lot of what people associate with social justice revolves around language. What words you’re “allowed” to say, definitions of new terminology, the impact of biased language, and more.

Everyone is supposed to learn the new language, the new rules, and unlearn oppressive language habits they were taught. Good intentions aren’t enough – the specific terminology we use matters.

Beyond this, there are a lot of rules about who is allowed to speak and when, based on the social identities of the speaker in relation to the topic at hand.

I’d say all of this is well-intended, and coming from a sincere place. The primacy of language is rooted in a feeling that it’s something that can do or undo oppression, and it’s also a locus within our control. There is a feeling that we can’t choose our history, or what systems govern our society, but we can choose our words.

While these rules might feel fuzzy in general, they’re written in bold, indelible ink within the social justice dogma (SJD). The phrase “pass the mic” evokes this distinction.

The rule is that if you’re a dominant group member, you’re supposed to “pass the mic” to a marginalized person. Let them talk about the issue, using their own voice.

In the social justice movement broadly, this rule is viewed as an ideal scenario, but not something that’s set in stone. It’s something that we should do when we can, but something many people recognize doesn’t make sense in every situation. Or isn’t always possible. And people navigate that gray area fairly well.

Within SJD, it’s a rule with consequences. And adherents of the dogma, or people afraid of doing the wrong thing in the eyes of SJD, follow this rule to a T. I’ll explain what I mean with an example.

And as dogma became more and more infused with social justice as a whole, I started seeing the rigidity of this rule creating outcomes that were far from ideal.

For example, I was in a racial justice training and a White participant explained that they were in line at a grocery store and they overheard a “racist microaggression” between the customer in front of them and the cashier. They ended with, “As a White person, I knew that it wasn’t my place to speak up, so I didn’t. But I wasn’t sure what I’m supposed to do in a situation like that.”

I Didn’t Know I Was Trans

A few years ago, I invited to speak at a fancy event with a lot of powerful people. My topic was the evolving language of social justice, gender, and sexuality, and wasn’t until the second day. On the first day, I was going to other talks and participating in the conference.

One of those other talks featured a prominent trans woman speaking about her experience, and giving the audience a primer on all things transgender (something we commonly call a “Trans 101”).

While responding to a question about who is considered to be transgender and who isn’t, “Like, specifically, are cross-dressers trans?” She began her answer with, “Yes, cross-dressers would fall within the broader transgender umbrella.” Then she noticed me in the audience and decided to use me in her example.

“Okay, so, Sam, for example,” she said, pointing to me. “He’s wearing a woman’s scarf, which is an example of cross-dressing, which would put him under the trans umbrella.”

The audience member nodded, they understood. And I heard a ripple of surprised “Oh!” murmurs from the crowd, suggesting to me that a bunch of people in the audience didn’t know that, and now they do. “Oh! I had that wrong before. Good to know.”

I was surprised as well, but for different reasons.

Because, to me, the scarf I was wearing wasn’t ‘a woman’s scarf,’ it was my scarf. I wasn’t cross-dressing, I was just dressing. And cross-dressers didn’t fall under the transgender umbrella. And I definitely didn’t know I was trans.

As a speaker invited to that event based on my expertise on gender identity and expression and having written a book about those things, one would expect me, of all people, to know.

I was sinking into my seat, feeling completely stuck in that moment.

Either I didn’t know what I was talking about, or she didn’t, and we were both talking about roughly the same thing, at the same event. Making this more complicated, while I was pretty sure I knew what I was talking about, I was absolutely sure I couldn’t correct her.

Even if it felt like she was misinforming the audience. Even if I was sure that all of these powerful people were going to take this (I believed) incorrect information back to their castles, and spread it through the land.

I knew – as much as I knew I wasn’t trans – that, as a cisgender man (someone holding two dominant identities in relation to this person’s two marginalized identity), I could not correct a transgender woman, publicly, at an event where she was the speaker, and the topic was being transgender.

So I didn’t.

I just smiled and nodded – while guilt and complicity swelled inside of me – and made the mental note that as soon as I got out of that room I was going to start phoning friends to figure out what I should have done.

The first friend I called was a social justice educator colleague was also trans (I mean “also” as in addition to being a social justice educator, not “also” as in “they, like me, were trans” – I was still sure I wasn’t trans).

They understood all the rules in question here (the language ones, the dogma ones, everything) as well or better than I did, so I figured they could set me straight (a pun!). I was counting on them to tell me that either I did the wrong thing, or I misunderstood the umbrella, or some third thing I missed that would have helped me make sense of it, and do better next time, should that improbably inconvenient situation arise again.

They heard me out, asked a couple clarifying questions, then said, “Well shit. I don’t know what to tell you. I would have done the same thing.”

Well shit.

Bye Bye Bi Erasure

“The difference between bisexuality and pansexuality is that pansexuality means you might still be attracted to people outside of the gender binary, but bisexuality means you’re just attracted to both binary genders,” explained the workshop presenter, before moving into a series of examples of “erasure,” which was the primary topic of the workshop.

I was a participant in this workshop, and doing my best to be a fly on the wall. I was going to be delivering the keynote of the conference later in the evening, but I never missed a chance to attend a gender and sexuality workshop.

A fellow participant raised their hand. The workshop facilitator called on them, and they asked, “I thought bisexuality and pansexuality were synonyms. Don’t some bi people use that word to mean attracted to multiple genders? Not just binary?”

The workshop facilitator responded, “I’m pan, not bi, so I can’t really speak to that. Are there any bi people in the room who would like to answer that question?”

Everyone awkwardly looked at everyone else, and nobody wanted to be looked at. I felt like we knew something smelled funny, but nobody wanted to be the one to speak up (because we all knew they who smellt it…).

I reluctantly raised my hand, sure I was going to regret it. I got called on, “Yes?”

“Okay, so I’m not bi, but I have heard other definitions that might be useful for clearing this up.”

I was going to suggest a “non-binary” definition for “bisexual”, that a lot of bi people in other spaces had been pushing for, specifically as pushback to this characterization of “bi vs. pan” that – ironically, given the subject of this workshop – led to a lot of bi people feeling like their experience was being erased. It was a definition I had started to incorporate into my curricula and writing, so it was on the top of my mind.

“Thank you, but no,” the facilitator quickly replied. “I’d rather not have us speaking for experiences that aren’t ours. Anyone else?”

When nobody else raised their hand, we went forward with the original definition.

Nobody Talk

At it’s most literal interpretation, this “pass the mic” rule results in a situation where nobody is allowed to talk. Because all oppressions are connected, and we apply Intersectionality Theory whenever we’re enforcing SJD, there’s always a marginalized identity that someone doesn’t hold. A voice they aren’t supposed to speak over.

I was on a panel one time with a few other social justice people, and an audience member asked us a question about policies regarding transgender youth in schools.

One of my fellow panelists – a genderqueer, feminine-of-center, Person of Color – gestured for the mic, we slid it down the table to them, and they replied, “None of us are youth, and we cannot speak for youth. If you want to know how to create policies that support the trans youth in your schools, you should be asking them.”

The audience clapped and we moved on to the next question.

Monoliths on Soapboxes

The most prickly thing about the “pass the mic” rule isn’t the examples I’ve listed above. I have countless more like those (lots of them personal, others sent in to me from readers and other activists), so I could keep going, sharing with you examples of when passing the mic has resulted in nobody feeling able to talk, or the “correct” person using the mic to amplify incorrect things.

What’s most prickly is the paradoxes created by adding “passing the mic” to other tenets of dogma or social justice truisms.

Here are a few to give you a sense of what I mean.

Don’t make a marginalized person the spokesperson for their people.

We’ve been taught not to ask someone to stand up on a soapbox and speak for everyone like them.

Asking someone to speak for “all” People of Color, or queer people, or women, or poor people, or any people, is something that happens organically in social justice spaces, and something we push back against – and for good reason!

It’s uncomfortable, puts people on the spot, can feel (and be) tokenizing, and – perhaps the only reason necessary – they can’t speak for all of “their” people. They don’t know all of their people. Everyone of their people has a voice of their own, and that person holds other identities beyond just that one that will inform their perspective.

This brings me to another rule…

Marginalized people aren’t a monolith.

There is no “one” experience of being any particular identity. There’s no universal Black experience, or trans experience, or Muslim experience, or etc.

In social justice spaces, we push back against the idea that any social group is a monolith, a single large object of uniform substance. There’s as much diversity within groups as among them, and saying otherwise reinforces stereotypes and prejudice.

Any situation that looks for an absolute, universal answer to an identity-based question is likely to bump up against this rule.

And even if any particular group was uniform, or existed as a monolith…

It’s not oppressed people’s jobs to explain their oppression to you.

This one has gotten more popularly recently, and it now feels like a mainstay. The way that it gets put into action is simple:

“Don’t ask trans people about being transgender.”

Or “It’s not Black people’s responsibility to educate you about racism.”

And if you want to know about those things? The answers and advice here vary, and will often involve some parts google it and other parts “Collect your people.”

That is, it’s dominant group members jobs to learn these things on their own, and they should be tending to other dominant group members, educating them, and helping them unlearn oppressive things.

…and pass the mic.

To whom?!

In what ways can one pass the mic without putting someone on a soapbox?

In what ways is passing the mic and having a marginalized person speak from their own experience in order to educate others not perpetuating this idea that a marginalized group is a monolith?

In what ways is passing the mic the same as making oppressed people explain their oppression to oppressors? How are dominant group members supposed to “collect their people” if they’re also passing the mic?

These paradoxes are people doing their best to follow the rules they’ve been taught, but being unable to because the rules themselves are incompatible. And they can lead to examples like the ones I shared above, as well as something else: a sort of game of social justice hot potato, where nobody wants the mic, and nobody is really allowed to hold it, so we all keep making sure it doesn’t end up in our hands.

We pass the mic in our company, organization, department, or group when we realize “diversity and inclusion” isn’t in our job descriptions, or it’s not our role, so it’s not something we should be doing – because of the identities we hold, or because we might not do it well, or because we’ve been told to pass the mic.

Pass or Fail

I think one of the reasons “pass the mic” is prevalent, and feels so important, despite the paradoxes and negative outcomes that arise from it, is because of the lack of financial transparency in social justice spaces combined with the expansion of the Social Justice Industrial Complex (SJIC).

In short, the SJIC has funneled a lot of money into social justice, and people thing anyone holding the mic is getting paid, so if we pass the mic to marginalized people, they’ll be the ones getting paid. And on the surface this seems great, especially if you ignore the paradoxes. Pass the mic!

But under the surface, things get trickier. The reality is that a lot of people holding the mic aren’t getting paid, when people are getting paid to hold the mic it’s usually the person paying who decides what they get to say, and social justice doesn’t trickle down.

Ultimately, the value of “passing the mic,” or any other rule we create, should be decided based on whether or not it helps us pave a path toward living social justice. While everyone hasn’t been passing the mic (and maybe everyone needs to, for it to work), we’ve been walking on this path for awhile now.

I’ve seen people following this rule misinform others, erase groups of people, abdicate responsibility for addressing injustice, and repeatedly put the burden of unraveling oppression on the shoulders of the oppressed.

All of that is plenty for me to say that we should, at the very least, question the efficacy of this decree. And if we’re passing it along to achieve other goals, or as an indirect way to solve other problems (e.g., around money, or harmful information), we might be better off taking a different path, or a more direct route altogether.

As much as I love paradox, I don’t want to live in the world where we fail because of how successfully we passed.

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