The issue of privilege kept coming up at Quaker Spring--in informal conversations, in Bible studies, in evening plenary sessions. I think it's a conversation we need to have. I'm still learning how to have it.
I've been on the edges of Quaker conversations about racism before. Often I've found them daunting or confusing. I know racism is a real and damaging force in our society and our Society. I know I continue to contribute to it economically, in spite of my efforts to realign my economic life. I know I continue to benefit from an economic and political system that perpetuates it. I am looking for better ways to work on this issue. I am troubled and confused when I am told--usually by white Friends--that I, being white, necessarily harbor fear, contempt and stereotypes about darker-skinned people, and that I communicate these reactions and stereotypes unconsciously through my words and my behavior. I don't perceive these racial stereotypes in myself (I do have some other stereotypes going--more on that in the next post), and they aren't specific about what's harmful in my words and behaviors, and I am left to guess. This guessing can be counterproductive. Some years ago when my community was often involved in hosting migrant workers--Latin American, of varied hues--I realized that I was burning up a lot of emotional energy worrying about whether and how I was exuding Subtle Racism. I'd read one book that mentioned long-haired white women messing with their hair in a way that seemed designed to point out how different it was from the hair of, say, African-Americans. I tend to fidget with my hair when I'm nervous. I'd worry about appearing racist, mess with my hair as I worried, catch myself doing that, worry about what it might convey, and then fidget more due to nerves… My mother advised me to worry less and just carry on treating our guests like people. It seemed to work, from my perspective.
But I do know how limited my perspective is. I've tried to understand race privilege by analogy with class privilege. I've been painfully aware of that issue since I began to study economics in my early teens. That awareness drove me to the Quakers and then to the Catholic Worker. Now I regularly eat, work, talk and pray with migrant workers and social workers, kids whose parents have maids and kids whose mothers are maids. I hear the things people say explicitly and imply indirectly about people of other classes. I see people from different backgrounds struggling to find common ground. And I notice how often the folks with more privilege just completely fail to notice what's going on with the folks with less. I'm learning how to speak to people when they seem to be unseeing others. I hope someone will speak to me about the ways in which I'm blind.
At Quaker Spring we didn't divide out different issues, most of the time; we mostly looked at privilege across the board, whether it pertained to race, class, gender, religion, orientation… I heard some good and painful connections being made. I heard some stories and observations that stick in my mind as a challenge to my life. And I think I heard a conversation that didn't fully come together because different people were talking about very different questions.
It seems to me that there are two distinct, though connected, sets of questions at the heart of our discussions about privilege:
How can we build true community? What obstacles prevent us from seeing one another clearly and engaging with one another honestly and lovingly? How can we remove these obstacles?
How can we do justice? What in our personal and political lives deprives people of the vital goods they need? How can we remove these seeds of oppression?
I kept wanting to talk about the second set of questions. More Friends were focused on different aspects of the first set. At first I found this frustrating. Now I'm seeing the value of it. In a small group discussion on Luke 6:17-26 another participant observed that we don't really change our lives until the way they are bothers us so much that we can't sleep at night, and that we don't get bothered in that way until we learn to see the people who are being hurt as part of our community. I think that's often true.
So in the next set of blog posts I'll write about some of the obstacles I see to community and to justice, and about possible ways of healing. This whole question was going to be in one blog post, but it got way too long. I hope to put a new post up every day or two, depending on how exigent the garden and the guests are. I think the first set will be on obstacles to community--outright prejudice, inability to communicate or imagine across boundaries, unseeing, and unhelpful attempts to help--and the second on justice and what gets in the way. This is just what I can see right now. I hope to hear from you about the questions, obstacles and cures you see. I hope to keep learning how to see people clearly, how to challenge people lovingly, how to accept challenge honestly, how to live rightly. I know I'm going to need help.
Link to part 2: Prejudice
Link to part 2: Prejudice