“And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you, because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack the standing to speak on certain matters” he added. (Read the whole article here)
The idea that only those who have personally experienced discrimination are allowed to speak about the discrimination is found across the board whether we talk about sexism or racism. Classism is curiously exempt, perhaps because it's seen as more of a political issue, rather than a personal issue.
It is true that a man can never fully understand what it's like to be a woman or the feelings created by the systematic exclusion from opportunities due to sexism. It is also true that a white person can never fully understand the effects of racism on the mind and psyche of a person of color. But this doesn't mean that they cannot see and understand the evidence when presented.
The idea that only those who have personal experiences are allowed to talk about a subject is - ironically - based on sexism and racism. The idea that humans are so different that we can never really understand those who aren't like us is found at the core of sexism ("equal, but different") and racism ("equal, but separate"). Men can never be women and women can never be men, therefore they should have different, but equal, roles in life; the glass ceiling cannot be broken, shouldn't be broken. Similarly, people of color are different from white people. So different that they can never co-exist, hence they should live separate, but equal, lives. In truth, there is no equality, there is only difference and separation, and the main goal is the accumulation of resources in the hands of white people, and within this group, in the hands of men.
The white wealthy male didn't show up out of nowhere.
Although we can never fully understand someone's personal experience, we can still understand enough to know that discrimination hurts; human tears aren't different. We all hurt in the same way, although the reasons may differ. We can have empathy towards someone who has lost a person they loved, because we have also lost people we loved. To say, "I know," is false; we cannot know the depth of their despair. But we can say, "I understand."
Understanding is at the core of empathy.
As humans we have also the ability to think abstract thoughts. We don't need a personal experience to be able to imagine an event in our minds. We can imagine the line our bones would create if lined up one by one, although we will probably never see it in real life. We can imagine what it would be like to fly unassisted, although as humans we can't fly without a mechanical device. It is our ability to think abstract thoughts that allow us to "see" the world the way it should and could be, and go for it.
It is because we can empathize, and think abstract thoughts, that we can do something about discrimination. We can call out bullying when we see it, although we have never been bullied, because we can see the hurt it causes. The lack of empathy is behind the idea that only those with personal experiences are allowed to speak. Those who have no empathy claim humans are so different that we cannot understand other people and that we cannot work together. It cements power structures as only those with proximity to power are allowed to become leaders as they have personal experience of what power looks like. It creates class hierarchies, and generational poverty. It creates a world of us vs. them.
I believe the intent behind the insistence that only those with personal experience are allowed to speak is the tendency to have men center themselves on feminist issues and white people creating a platform for themselves when speaking about racism. These are real concerns. But to remedy isn't the denial of everyone's role in combating discrimination wherever it is found. How can slaves free themselves? Who listens to a slave? Not the masters. How can trafficked children free themselves unless adults speak on their behalf? By actively listening to those who are being hurt by discrimination and oppression we are able to form a better understanding of what is going on. But this listening must also result in everyone speaking up. Silencing those who have formed an understanding is to throw away the only opportunity we have to come together as one humanity to ensure that all of us have the same human rights and the same access to the respect and dignity that is our birthright.
We are many, but we are one.
Let's join hands.