A huge part of privilege is that we are able to totally ignore the fact that we have it. If you don’t have to deal with any given oppression – sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia etc – day in day out, if it doesn’t affect you, you might not notice microaggressions (or even larger structural issues), or you might notice but look the other way, or you might notice and think to yourself “that’s a bit iffy” then forget about it and get on with your day – bear in mind this is a privilege not afforded to the marginalised group in question. Until, of course, the people directly affected point out the problem and ask for change – then, because you can’t ignore it anymore, you might think they are the problem for “creating divisions”, “starting arguments” or “making it political”. Honestly, I’ve been there; I think we probably all have at some point.
This demonstrates two things. Firstly, we should listen to marginalised groups we’re not a part of, because they know their own oppression better than we do. Secondly, those arguments are necessary. Because here, “neutral” or “apolitical” means “don’t rock the boat”. It means just passively keeping things the same. And that means continued oppression.
Yeah, I know. Conflict is always unpleasant, and it’s sad and frustrating that these conflicts keep cropping up. But the solution isn’t to simply suppress the conflict; the solution is to tackle the oppression that’s causing the conflict. To reiterate: the oppression causes the conflict. People seem to have this idea that marginalised groups just love arguments and get angry all by themselves. Unless you just happen to be a white, straight, cis, abled, financially comfortable man who also has whichever other privileges I’ve forgotten to list, you’ll know that’s not true in terms of your own marginalisation(s) – so why do we have such difficulty in transferring that knowledge to situations where our group is the oppressor?
To be told that your words or your actions are harmful is uncomfortable, but it’s nowhere near as uncomfortable as actually being on the receiving end of that harm time and time again, every day, everywhere, even in supposedly “safe” spaces because many people think that “safe” means “neutral” and argument-free. Safe spaces should be safe for all the people they aim to support, including those who are marginalised within that group. This means that structural oppression has to be addressed, and that can mean conflict. It might seem theoretical and pointless to you, but for others, it’s the first steps towards making a space safe and positive again.
In short, privilege matters. This is also why, in these situations, “compromise” is not a solution (that’s basically saying “we’ll be slightly less harmful/less obviously harmful and you’d better be grateful for it”) and why the privileged group in these arguments using “this makes me feel unsafe” as some sort of checkmate phrase just doesn’t work – usually they’re referring to the discomfort of having the problem (which they are complicit in and/or benefit from) pointed out to them, whereas the oppressed group are talking about, well, literal safety.
Basically, “safe” does not always mean “safe from criticism”. And “neutral” does not always mean “equal”.