On Knowing and Listening to Marginalized People
By Derek Newman-Stille
I recently wrote an autobiographic story of my experiences of police violence as a queer person for Fireside Quarterly. You can check it out here: https://firesidefiction.com/faded. When I was writing it, I knew there would be a backlash. Despite the fact that there is evidence of police violence all over the news and that police violence continues to happen and is getting more noticed because people are now able to film it (when their phones aren’t taken away by officers), I knew that people will frequently say that police are out for the public good and that marginalized people experiencing violence are lying. I know this because this has been the experience any time I have talked to people in positions of hegemonic power. Every time I talk to oppressed people, they understand and share stories of their own about violence.
This happens because silencing marginalized people is a common tactic for those in power.
I think I need to repeat that: silencing marginalized people is a common tactic for those in power.
One of the strongest ways to silence people is to say that they must be lying. Disbelief becomes a common barrier against truths that disrupt power or call it out. It’s how people in power stay in power. They claim that others must be lying.
And the frightening thing is… the statement “they are lying” often carries more power than any evidence brought out by people from marginalized groups. This is because it is easier to believe that marginalized people are lying and to ignore the evidence than to question the entrenched power systems in our society.
It’s the same thing that happens when people say things like “he couldn’t have abused you. He’s such a nice guy to me” or “he isn’t racist. He’s always been nice to me as a white person” or “he’s not homophobic. He’s so kind”. We are used to our society making excuses for other people and ignoring the terrible things that they do. People get used to thinking that if someone is kind to them, it means that they must be kind to everyone. They assume that people who treat them well as straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered, white people, that this means that they can’t treat people who aren’t these things badly.
My narrative for Fireside Quarterly contained my experiences as a queer, disabled person and an abuse survivor. It talked about my very regular experiences of police violence because of those marginalizations.
The responses to my narrative point out the polarism that I talked about in my story – the fact that these experiences are all too common for marginalized people… and that there are systems in place to silence us. From marginalized people, I received responses like “thank you for sharing [this story] with us. I’ve experienced hate crimes many times with the same results. Thank you for telling your story in hopes that it will help others” (J.W.), “thank you for sharing some of your story. Your resilience and softness are mighty!” (A.P.), “such an important essay” (S. S.), “heartbreaking, and a very important read” (K. K.), “Such a powerful story. I’m so glad it’s being shared with others who may need validation for their voices or be challenged on their preconceived notions of law enforcement” (S.T.), “Thank you for sharing this honest and raw truth. It will validate so many and hopefully educate as well” (C.G.), “This is a significant one of a number of reasons police do not belong at Pride” (T.J.), “Everyone needs to read this. I live this most days. It’s so common for me and others that identify as queer. We shouldn’t fade, we should freaking sparkle” (J.W.).
There were also incredible people pointing out their experiences of privilege and the fact that not everyone experiences the violence that I talk about: “this piece reminds us that we live in various worlds. And too often, what we’re taught is the acceptable safety net simply doesn’t exist for non-conforming people, and worse, that their voices have been and continue to be unheard. We all need to learn better” (K. K.). This is an important acknowledgement that power shapes people’s experiences differently and that violence experienced by one group may not be experienced by all. The author of the above quote points out that the most important thing we can all do is listen to people’s narratives and experiences.
Not surprisingly, there were some people who responded in the same silencing fashion I have often experienced from people in positions of power, telling us that our stories are untruthful. One police officer states: “having been a police officer in the US here in MA and NH I can’t imagine the response that was received. Officers that I know would react professionally to deal with any abuse situation. As for the “vacation” excuse, I can’t figure that out. If this is true then Canadian law enforcement has lots of work to do” (K.G.). It is ironic that after writing about police silencing marginalized people and saying that they are lying about their experiences of violence… a police officer goes online to do exactly what I was talking about. K.G. Claims that I was lying and does so by inferring that all police officers treat abuse cases and cases of violence against the Queer population positively in a way that officers often do when covering for each other. The inference that any person who is marginalized MUST be lying about police violence is the reason why police violence continues. It is part of the silencing process.
It also takes an incredible amount of ignorance to suggest that police violence is a myth when there are so many examples of it. And police violence is perpetuated because police refuse to look at the violence in their own system because they are too convinced that “we’re all good guys and any one that calls any one of us out for violence must be lying or a criminal themselves”. When you criminalize people who call you out on your crimes, you don’t stop those crimes, you merely bury them further and perpetuate them. What would help is if police openly and honestly looked at their colleagues and themselves, examining what they say in the locker room or in the car and wonder about how these opinions travel into their assumptions about the people they are interacting with.
Thankfully, people called this police officer out, saying “We all have a lot of work to do, and the first thing is to listen” (R.H.), and “with all due respect, it is disheartening to hear you wonder ‘if this is true.’ As part of the LGBTQ community, I have endured eerily similar situations in every city and state where I have lived. I have been the victim of hate crimes simply based on my appearance and in most cases have been ignored, or worse, by law enforcement and others. I have no doubt that this is true. Every. Single. Word.” (C. C.). ”
However, like most people in a position of authority, when called out by another marginalized person, the police offer felt the need to double down… and worse than that, used what I call the “but I have a gay friend” method of trying to suggest that they can’t be homophobic: “This has not been my experience in dealing with the LGBTQ community ever. My first job in police work was in Provincetown on Cape Cod in the 80s and we were taught to treat everyone the same. I have held to that throughout my career. I would hold any other officer to that same standard. That’s how I’d respond to any call for assistance for anyone being abused or assaulted” (K. G.). He then suggests that this “attitude” “has absolutely not been with officers I’ve worked with so I just can’t comprehend that we in law enforcement wouldn’t react as I would” (K.G.). For those who don’t know, Provincetown boasts an inclusive queer community, so this offer is saying that because he worked there, he can’t be homophobic. Further, he suggest that he hasn’t seen any officer react with a negative attitude toward queer people and can’t believe that any officer would. This is an extension of the “he’s a good guy, he would never beat someone up” argument, but abstracted onto a whole profession. It requires a huge amount of ignorance and intentional erasure of evidence to say this.
And this highlights the problems that I discussed in my Fireside Quarterly autobiography – silencing marginalized people is embedded in our society and it gets perpetuated constantly by people who use the justifications above to NOT look at their society. Our society is invested in silencing marginalized people because that allows it to run smoothly without having to look at ourselves, our assumptions, or our beliefs and challenge them.
It is easier for us not to pay attention.
It is easier for us to silence.
But is it easier in the long run? What future are we creating by silencing people? What are we allowing to happen because we don’t want to notice it, don’t want to listen, don’t want to pay attention?
As one of the people who responded to officer K.G. Said “When people tell difficult stories of victimization, the response can’t be ‘I wouldn’t do that’ or ‘my colleagues wouldn’t do that’. It’s not about what we would do. It’s not our story” (R. H.).
And I feel that R.H. is expressing an important point. It is our responsibility to listen, and not to listen so that we can say something back, but to really listen and hear what people who have been victimized have to say.
It’s not easy for us to tell our stories.
It hurts to tell our stories.
It brings us back to moments of horror, powerlessness, pain, and suffering to tell our stories.
Is it that hard for people to listen since we have given so much just to tell those stories?
I want to thank all of the people who have spoken up about my article and who are inviting others to question their assumptions and change their perspective. I especially want to thank those who have stood up to people who have wanted to silence me and to all of the people who work to stand up for people who are silenced.