‘Not all’: Five Better Responses to Criticism & Guilt

Fran Newton is a freelance writer based in Bristol, UK, with experience producing content for a number of publications including Rife Magazine and The Guardian. Here Fran writes an opinion piece that looks at the common use of the response 'not all' when someone voices an opinion of an oppressed group.

I’m sick of hearing ‘not all men’, and sicker of its various other incarnations: ‘not all white people’, ‘not all cis people’, ‘not all straight people’, ‘not all [insert privileged group here]’. As a woman, I flare when men say it, and as a cis, white person, I cringe when those who supposedly represent me stoop to the same level. No other comment, in the face of social criticism, could be more counterproductive. 

It’s ‘not all’ that demonstrates the refusal to engage with accountability and self-analysis that is the preserve of the privileged, and so obviously betrays unacknowledged guilt. If your first response on hearing the concerns of an oppressed group is to prove to them their oppressor’s innocence, you’re avoiding what’s being said – and probably because it’s all a bit too real.

Hearing universalising statements about your own privilege is difficult. It’s meant to be. Those statements intend to make you question your own complicity and realise the work you need to do. They’re not meant to elicit defensiveness or a withdrawal of sympathy. Here, instead, are five better responses to those moments when you might feel the need to say ‘not all’.

Shut up
Consider your immediate context. What will be the effect cracking out ‘not all’ at this particular moment? Bear in mind that no woman has ever heard a man say ‘not all men’ and responded with ‘Yes, you’re so right, thank you for enlightening me. My numerous experiences with gendered aggression have been cancelled out. Sexism is fixed, folks! We can all go home now.’
Crucially, it’s likely that this moment is not about you. Jumping into the conversation to centre yourself and your special innocence derails the opportunity for an oppressed individual to voice their experiences and is therefore often rightly deemed a demonstration of entitlement in practice. ‘Not all’ shows that the speaker has failed to check their position in the space, and so works to reinforce that yes, actually, all [insert privileged group here] are like that. Surprise!

Listen and Believe
You’ve realised that now is not your time to talk – here’s a gold star. Now listen to the experiences being described, and, most importantly, believe the speakers. Belief as a tool in activism is seriously underrated: imagine the difference we could see in social justice today if public figures like judges, politicians and media outlets were just a little bit more inclined to simply believe trans women on the subject of sexual assault, or people of colour on unprovoked police brutality. Recognise that the assumption that oppressed people lie about their experiences is a tool of oppression in itself, and that by engaging with it, you’re reinforcing prejudicial structures.

Look Beyond Yourself
Still feeling fidgety about the generalisations? Observe how those with the same privileges as yourself engage with issues of gender/race/sexuality and other intersections. Remember the time you squirmed when a friend’s grandparent started #tbt-ing to the good old days of the Empire, or when that racist group chat was leaked at your sister’s university, or your female friend got groped four times in one night. It all comes rushing back, doesn’t it?
Young people who think of themselves as progressive tend to surround themselves with like-minded others, which might mean that you rarely encounter bigoted comments at your pub table or on your Facebook feed – but it doesn’t take a lot of looking to see the realities of prejudice and privilege still at play worryingly close to home. Don’t use your privileged experience as the basis for dismissing the complaints of marginalised groups. You don’t live in their skin.

Hit The Net
So there are some bad eggs, but all is still a bit strong, right?
The internet provides endless resources out there through which you can educate yourself about just how far the rabbit hole of structural gender/race/sexuality bias goes (not to mention your local library!). If you don’t have time to sit and read a stack of books, amazing activists with a strong social media presence like Rachel Cargle and Munroe Bergdorf are constantly producing easily accessible content through which you can learn about the real extent of public bigotry and better understand the role you play in it. Listen to a podcast or a lecture, too, or watch a Netflix documentary.
At some point in engaging with culture that observes and discusses wider structural prejudice, you’ll hopefully start to twig that the universalisations about widespread sexism, racism, homo- and trans-phobia and other forms of bigotry are, well, pretty valid. Sometimes ‘all’ is just easier to say than ‘the vast majority, even subconsciously, and especially the ones that really matter like the US Supreme Court judges and the President’.
(It’s worth pointing out that although some fantastic people create educational resources of their own volition, privileged individuals should never expect oppressed people to provide the labour of educating them about their own experience upon request. Your growth is on you.)

Divert Your Energy
In educating yourself about social justice issues, it’s crucial to focus on how hegemonic political structures are legitimised and reinforced both through active bigotry, and through the passive existence of privileged individuals. The ‘not all’ response is an attempt to further that passivity from accountability. ‘Not all’ men actively go out and commit sexual assault, true, but unless they’re actively working against it, all men do passively benefit from ingrained societal misogyny. The only real way, then, to ensure that ‘not all’ privileged individuals are complicit in oppression is to divert that defensive passivity into active and positive work towards equality.

Imagine the progress that could be made if all the people constantly reiterating ‘not all’ put their energies and their privilege into dismantling oppressive structures, rather than trying to earn themselves the proverbial cookie of absolution. It’s a win-win.

Keep up to date with more ofd Fran's work here.

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