You can’t get permission for some things

This is the third of a series of posts. The first one was on difference, the second, on offensiveness.

My most recent post was about offending people, and how the inevitability of doing so shouldn’t cause us to go silent on speaking our truth.

One thing I notice that people do — myself included — when they’re worried they might cause offense, is try to seek “permission” for something they think, do, say, or like. The thinking is, if other people agree with you, then you can’t be wrong. Or at least you won’t be alone in that wrongness (which seems somehow better than just being wrong on our own).


For example, let’s say you’re watching a comedy movie.* It’s funny, but you secretly suspect that the film’s depiction of, say, Mexicans, plays into stereotypes. This makes you feel weird about liking the movie. But you go online or talk to some friends, and someone says, “I’m from Mexico, and I think this movie is hilarious. Haters need to calm down and not take things so seriously.” You sigh with relief. A Mexican said it was okay! Now you’re free to like the movie, because if they’re not insulted, why should you be?

To which I say: WHOA there. First, you’re assuming that only members of a group have the right to be insulted by stereotypical depictions of that group, which is false. Second, you’re assuming that it’s up to members of a group to notice, object to, and correct harmful depictions of themselves. Not true. You can do that too. It might even be helpful, especially if members of that group are feeling too marginalized to speak up. Third, and this is the biggest one: there is no such thing as permission, just as there is no such thing as a single spokesperson for all members of any group.

“But wait,” you say, “there are spokespeople!” Well, yes; there are advocates (someone who speaks on behalf of a group) and allies (someone who stands in solidarity with a group); they are important, but we can’t confuse their work with some kind of permission. I see people do this all the time; again, myself included. We think that by saying “I’m an ally” and being accepted as such (by some members of the group), we’ve somehow received permission to do everything we currently do. No. We have received some measure of something on the praise-to-tolerance spectrum, from one or more members who claim membership in the group. But that’s all. We don’t get some kind of blanket pass to say whatever. (Ahem, “Some of my best friends are Black”, or “Haha, I can say that because I’m Chinese!”, or “I volunteer for social justice, so I already know a lot about this and don’t need your input.”)

In fact, I don’t think anyone gets a blanket pass, not even people who belong to the group in question (some disagree with me on this). Yes, this is an issue too. While we often seek permission from someone in a group to which we don’t belong, we can also seek permission from other members of our own group, especially when we feel conflicted about our own place in that group. I know I’ve looked to more outspoken people of color for cues on how I “should” behave, because I worry that my privilege somehow disqualifies my voice/experience/validity. This kind of self-check can be useful — it’s what role models are for — but here, once again, there is no such thing as permission; I can’t say XYZ and expect some certificate from on high that validates my views forever and confirms me as an exemplary member of the group (or ally). If this kind of permission existed, disagreement wouldn’t happen! If, for instance, one white person could speak for all white people, we could have skipped every presidential election before 2008! (I mean, that sounds really obvious, but the truth is, while we know this when it comes to the default — white, straight, etc — population, plenty of people persist in thinking that their one gay friend, for example, speaks for every gay person ever.)

Another way of putting this — and this is really the heart of what I’m trying to say — is that we cannot look to others to absolve us for our own thoughts. When we seek “permission,” or even imagine that permission exists, we’re hoping someone will free us from the prickly burden of having to question ourselves. We’re hoping someone will say, “Hey, I know it’s confusing, but it’s going to be okay. You’re still a good person, don’t worry about it. There’s always going to be someone who’s upset.” Those reassurances may be what we want in the moment, but their comfort means nothing. Unless you’re a terrifically persuadable person, you’re still going to have that uneasy gut feeling telling you something’s wrong. And in my experience, that feeling doesn’t go away until it is addressed, directly addressed, in a way that is usually highly uncomfortable and drawn-out (but ultimately enlightening).

So what can we look for — that isn’t permission? How do we take ownership of the things that bother us? Well, when I find myself grasping for permission, it’s because I feel that my own authority isn’t sufficient: I don’t know if something is wrong (though I suspect it is), and if it is, I don’t know why (though I may have some vague ideas). For questions like this I do believe it’s important to reach out to other people, not for permission, not for validation or to shift the responsibility onto someone else, but for the knowledge and experience others can contribute — whether they’re members of your own group (who have maybe thought about things a lot longer than you have), or members of a group to which you don’t belong (meaning you can’t possibly fully understand their experience). I say, consult both; each will offer something the other can’t.

For example, one of the best and most-often-repeated pieces of advice for writers who are writing the Other is to have an early reader who identifies as that Other go over your manuscript. Ideally you’d have more than one such reader, because — as I keep saying — no one person represents everyone else in their group. Don’t write about Mennonites without talking to some actual Mennonites (and researching books, films, and art made by and about them). Don’t just pontificate in a vacuum. And obviously, when you do this outreach, pay attention to what people say. You don’t have to listen to everyone — there are always going to be some outliers — but what got you started on this was a feeling that your own experiences were incomplete. Learning about other people’s experiences can be fascinating, but it can also be painful; it can make you feel complicit and guilty and depressed. That is important. Your experience is valid. Other people’s experiences are valid. It’s up to you to synthesize them in a way that makes sense to you. Your synthesis won’t look quite like anyone else’s, but that’s good; you can use it to reach someone else who needs what you have to offer.

Everything in this entire world is problematic. As I said in my last post, we all have the right to be ourselves, and we all have the right to be offended by other people’s choices. That’s not a reason to be silent and do nothing in fear of causing offense. But in shaping your words and actions, when you find something striking that yucky feeling in your gut, carefully consider whether you’re somehow seeking (or thinking you already have) “permission” to avoid digging deeper into that feeling. I guarantee you, that permission does not exist. You have to take responsibility. You can get help from others, but ultimately you’re on your own. If that thought scares you, I’m with you on that. And if it feels liberating, I’m with you there, too.


*I chose Mexicans in movies because I really enjoyed this bit from comedian Gabriel Iglesias. go back

PS. On a related note, besides “permission,” I often see people (myself included) acting as if our diversity was somehow earning us “points.” You know: points for reading Chinua Achebe, or eating chicken feet with chopsticks (bonus points if you order them in Cantonese!), points for each of our trans friends, points for speaking Spanish to the housekeeper. The governing body that assigns these points is the same one that issues those permission slips: in other words, it doesn’t exist. Any points granted are redeemable only at the shabbiest of prize counters, the kind where the action figures don’t have joints and the sheen on the pearl necklace comes off the first time you wear it. People are not points (or tokens) to be collected; neither are cultures. The prize for diversity is not permission, but the richness it brings to our lives and the depth to our understanding.