Know Better, Do Better – Tips for Allies, Advocates, Accomplices

In another post, we discussed how our campus culture and climate around gender is created through everyday interactions.

In addition to offering tips for how we can improve our culture and climate culture, we highlighted the relationship between what we know and how we behave, which was summed up in Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

The relationship between knowing better and doing better reflects a necessary process of learning, of thinking beyond our own personal status quo.

But even that process can be risky or harmful to others, like when someone recognizes their privilege and thinks, “Okay, maybe there’s room for me to learn something here. Maybe I can do better,” but then proceeds to ask the people of color, the queer folks, or anyone who embodies some type of difference – and just happens to be around – to educate them about what it’s like to be “different.”

First, it’s good to recognize that there are a lot of things about someone else’s experiences which you probably don’t know, especially if you don’t find yourself confronting things like racism, sexism, or homophobia (and thus having to understand and think about them) in your everyday life.

But a very real problem arises when well-meaning people with privilege turn to those with marginalized identities as the go-to-resource for their own education about what it’s like to live with oppression.

On the surface, it might seem like this is great way to respond to the recognition of one’s own privilege, because it supposedly reflects a desire to learn more about the experiences of others that one realizes they simply won’t and can’t understand first-hand, like if a man looks to a woman and says, “So, please explain this whole male privilege thing to me. I’m curious about how that affects how I get to move through the world in a way that’s different from you.”

What curious folks with privilege don’t often recognize, however, is that this places an additional burden on those who are already burdened with the daily realities of oppression by asking them to be the explainers, the educators, the representatives, the informers.

It also falsely assumes – or hopes – that the intricate complexities and cumulative experiences many people could be summed up in a convenient, easy-to-swallow “pill” of a few sentences by one person, or worse, be encapsulated by “my one friend who…”

Rather than investing the time, energy, and attention into the slow and continuous process of becoming more and more informed by listening, widely reading, and learning on their own, people with privilege frequently default into making those who are different from themselves into helpful bridge that they get to walk over, which can be extremely painful and exhausting for those who are already tired of so many privileged folks not caring enough to “get it” already.

This is a point that (I think, I hope) most people can understand. But maybe a poem will illustrate the point more…poetically.

The Bridge Poem

by Donna Kate Rushin

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Can talk to anybody
Without me


I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the Ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…

I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

Forget it
I’m sick of it

I’m sick of filling in your gaps

Sick of being your insurance against
The isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people

Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip

I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
Your manhood
Your human-ness

I’m sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long

I’m sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf you your better selves

I am sick
Of having to remind you
To breathe
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self

Forget it
Stretch or drown
Evolve or die

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
My own weaknesses

I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

If you find yourself approaching others thinking, “I’m just curious! I want to better understand!” take a few minutes to check your motivation.

Are you really curious? Do you really want to better understand another person’s identity and experience?

If so, great! There are lots of resources online could help get you going. Start with Google if you don’t know where else to begin.

If, after all of that self-reflection, you still want to talk to a human person about their experiences, know that there are better and worse ways to enter into those conversations.

For instance, if you really want to learn – like really, really want to learn – that requires being able to listen without seeking to only hear what affirms your already existing preconceptions, or getting defensive if someone shares something that challenges you or your perspectives.

It also requires that you appreciate and recognize the significance of your request and how that situates another person in relation to you, and how you, in turn, should situate yourself in relation to them.

As Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman explain, “You are asking us to make ourselves more vulnerable to you than we already are before we have any reason to trust that you will not take advantage of this vulnerability. So you need to learn to become unintrusive, unimportant, patient to the point of tears, while at the same time open to learning any possible lessons. You will also have to come to terms with the sense of alienation, of not belonging, of having your world thoroughly disrupted, having it criticized and scrutinized from the point of view of those who have been harmed by it, having important concepts central to it dismissed, being viewed with mistrust, being seen as of no consequence except as an object of mistrust.” (This excerpt is from Have We Got a Theory For You! Read the whole article – it’s great!)

It’s clear that one of the most effective ways to better understand each other and how we can support one another is by engaging in dialogues across our differences.

Such dialogues can create the foundation for building genuine, reciprocal, mutually-beneficial relationships, but the point is that you can’t just jump in and assume that good intentions are enough to make it work for everyone.

It is necessary and important to engage in this type of conversation, but it’s more important and necessary to engage in this type of conversation well and full of care.