Blogging, though, is distinctly different from academic writing, where the rules are quite subjective, and where the personal and political blur. Blogging comes from a much less formal, much more casual place. The first person can be a very valuable tool, and I don’t want to silence or dictate people’s choice of voice. But in feminist and social justice writing, the first person can be applied too liberally or beyond its scope by privileged writers.
The first person is a powerful voice in feminist contexts. It’s often vital to creating a safe space, to communicating experiences of oppression, to helping readers understand the real, actual, concrete impact of the kyriarchy. With the best of audiences, it helps privileged people understand the impact of our actions. It is a way to tell our stories and claim our experiences as our own: a powerful statement in a world which endeavors to shut us down, erase, and silence us.
But its use can be less beneficial when writing about experiences and oppressions that are not our own. In these discussions, whether theoretical or based around a specific incident, first person use should be limited. When we take to task a privilege we hold, in most situations, the third person is largely appropriate. Frequent use of first person pronouns or anecdotes to begin paragraphs and sentences of pieces about oppressions unknown to us does not tell the reader so much about the oppression as the privilege we still hold and use. Instead, we are appropriating and erasing these experiences and words to talk about their own. Discussions of oppression should be centered around the oppressed.
If I write about abusive caregivers, it is not the time to discuss at length my fears about aging. If I write about police violence against people of color, it is not the time to relate a long anecdote about how one time I was intimidated by a cop. If I write about the exclusion of trans women from women’s colleges, it is not the time for me to break down my experiences with an all-male trustee board at women’s colleges. [note: links are examples of writing about issues, not illustrating any point about use of person on the part of the writer] I’m not arguing that these subjects should be segregated – used sparingly, personal experiences can be helpful to the reader, and social justice writers should consider marginalized groups in pieces about more mainstream issues and experiences. But when focusing on an oppression I do not experience, I should not use it as an opportunity to go on about myself and my privileged life.
When writing about a specific example or instance of an oppression I do not experience, I try to limit myself heavily. I’ll write perhaps about how I found something as an introduction. I’ll use small colloquialisms like “to me” or “from my limited perspective” to clarify that my point of view may not be universal. I’ll use qualifiers to establish that I am not the authority on something - e.g. “As a white/cis/able-bodied person, I don’t have the authority to say definitively that something is racist/cissexist/ableist.” Then hopefully I will link or quote some writers who do have the authority to write about their experiential oppression so I do not erase or silence them on issues of concern to them.
When I do write about my privilege directly and critically rather than systems of oppression, the ethics are a little different. Especially in the context of an apology, I use the singular first person soas to take maximum responsibility and emphasize my culpability in whatever I’ve fucked up. If it’s a bigger post in which I feel the need to call out to others who share that privilege, I try write in the plural first person (as in here). This helps readers connect themselves to the system of oppression we benefit from.
Each writer has to figure out how to navigate person and avoid centralizing their own privileges. I try to limit my own use of the extended narrative first person to the main oppressions I experience – primarily disability, but also on the axes of size*, reproduction, and sexism (of course). These are the only spaces where I’ll allow myself to begin with “I” in more than one sentence or paragraph, or use the first person in every paragraph, or use more than one personal anecdote or story.
We as oppressed individuals need to use our voices, our first person to argue our points, to tell our stories, to insist upon our rights. But we as privileged individuals need to consider the load of the benefits accrued from the kyriarchy and the crushing silence it can impose on marginalized persons. We need to shift that emphasis to those who have been damaged by voices like ours by laying off I, me, and my.
While the gist of this is critical, it's also about the power of the first person. I'd like to invite readers who are writers to share work in which you use the first person to describe and fight the oppression you experience.
*Though I really need to write outside my own experience, since I do have some measure of size privilege.