Identity and vulnerable social positioning aren’t necessarily constant things. You move. You grow up. Maybe your gender or sexual orientation shifts. You lose your job and your house, or you become middle class for the first time. I’m thinking about when people move to the easier side of things, and proceed to forget what it was like, to forget where they came from, to look down their noses at the people who are still there.
Moving to the easier side is a universal experience among adults, who have all been children. Why is it considered to be such a remarkable thing when an adult can relate to children, can remember what it was like to be a child? We’ve all been there. It was strange and confusing, full of rules we didn’t understand. We were dependent and vulnerable. Surely, in adulthood, we’d have some sympathy? No: it is all too common for adults to exploit, hurt, or even just sneer at kids as stupid or disgusting or not deserving of public space.
Why, then? I think a good part of it is, far from being a result of forgetting such experiences, actually the fallout of remembering them. People remember what it was to be vulnerable and contemptible, and want to align themselves with being very much not those things by thrusting them at other people. If you’ve supposedly pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, well, everyone else can do it, too, and there’s something wrong with them if they don’t, right? Not so much, because structural inequality is a structural rather than an individual problem. Yet it’s often hard to remember the specifics of what hardship was like – but easy to remember the emotional awfulness from which you want to distance yourself. You don’t want to go back there. And, often, people don’t want to associate personhood with the people who are still there, because that requires humanising a part of themselves they want to forget.
Existing in solidarity with people who are vulnerable in the ways in which you have been vulnerable, then, can be a hard task. In a way, it’s asking you to be in solidarity with a version of yourself that was difficult to be, and maybe a relief to leave behind. It’s about healing up and accepting yourself even as you work with others.
I think this is why we need to value empathy and emotional connections and personal histories more when it comes to activism.