This is where I've heard most Quaker conversations about privilege begin: with the assumptions that we carry inside us about what Those People must be like. I know that I struggle both with what I assume about other people and with what they seem to be assuming about me.
I struggle with other people's assumptions most in the matter of class. I've known a few people who assumed that as a woman I was weak or foolish, or that I ought to be submissive to or afraid of them, but these people were unusual in my world, and I generally didn't especially like or respect them. I found it fairly easy to confront them if that seemed useful, or to ignore them. I come into contact with many more people who make assumptions about those of us who work with our hands, or didn't go to college, or take some form of government assistance. I really like and respect some of those people. I also seem to have a lot of sore spots around this issue. I am still trying to learn how to respond constructively.
We've had (non-Quaker) guests tell us that people who receive 'welfare' of any sort are lazy and live high off the hog. Upon further conversation it often turns out that they don't know any of us 'freeloaders' personally, and also don't know that the majority of working-age food stamps recipients actually have jobs that don't pay enough to feed their families, or… I try to tell them a bit about my life and the lives of the people I know, and to ask them what experiences have shaped their opinions. I don't always do this gracefully, because I struggle with my own uncertainty about taking Medicaid as well as my indignation at the thought of other people I know who struggle to make a decent life for their families while dealing with the challenges of poor health, lack of transportation, and lack of decent local employment opportunities. I am learning to acknowledge my defensiveness; this seems to have a disarming effect in person. (Not online. Does anything help online?)
Even among Friends I hear some statements that trouble me: "He doesn't talk as though he's had much education, and he works at Price Chopper, and I think he's pro-Bush; what does he think he's doing at Meeting?", "I'd love to deepen my antiracist work by forming relationships with local people of color, but I can't--the only people of color in my area are menial workers." Those shocked me when I heard them, but they were explicit enough to be easily addressed. "She didn't go to college, but she's really rather bright…." is so mild that it seems oversensitive to say anything about it; but I think some Friends who might say this might object to the statement "He's gay, but he's really rather strong/decent…" "Eighty thousand is a minimal salary if you want someone really responsible and spiritually mature…" isn't directly negative abut anyone, but it seems to suggest a valuation of those of us who work for less, or for nothing. I'm still trying to discern when it is helpful to speak up about these little things and when it's better not to.
Then there are my own harmful assumptions. In the aftermath of confusing conversations on race, mentioned in the previous post, I have tried to watch my mind. I haven't seen much there by way of race prejudice. But I do see myself making other false and destructive snap judgments based on superficial characteristics. Overweight… self-indulgent, undisciplined. Lots of makeup… shallow, looks-oriented. Lots of jewelry, or clothes with prominent brand names… consumer showing off; not someone I want to talk with. Large sharp-looking piercings or prominent tattoos… this one's trying to scare people; steer clear. I know these assumptions are wrong in both senses--incorrect and morally inappropriate. I know plenty of people who are obvious counterexamples. I know plenty of alternative explanations for all the characteristics I tend to judge about. But the assumptions are still in there. I try to make myself fully and quickly aware of them and remind myself that they're not true. And I think I keep them to myself...but perhaps they are more obvious than I like to think. When they are obvious I hope people will have the courage to tell me, and I hope I'll have the grace to listen well.
I think this thought-correcting process is straightforward, if not easy, for characteristics that aren't under the other person's control: race, gender and orientation all the time, weight and poverty most of the time. I think it's more complicated when it comes to the things that are at least partly matters of choice: religion, voluntary poverty, wealth, manner of dressing (again, unless dictated by low income), language and behavior, etc.
I do sometimes look at other people and feel concerned about the choices they're making. Either concerned for my own safety and equilibrium around them (I have selfish but, I think, legitimate reasons for avoiding people who are using foul language or using drugs or drinking a lot), or for the well-being of the other person. I think it can be a disservice to stay quiet about those things in the attempt to avoid giving offense. I've been helped sometimes by people speaking directly to me about their concerns about rude or shortsighted things that I was doing. I'm aware that some people are also concerned choices I have made deliberately, including being Christian, being celibate and eschewing formal education and employment. Sometimes I am able to hear these concerns and respond in a way that seems to deepen the relationship or at least to do no harm. Sometimes not. I've tried to get a handle on what makes the difference as I try to figure out how to talk to other people about choices that concern me.
It helps if the concerned person has taken time to get to know me as a person rather than simply identifying me as a member of a group. It helps if they ask what led to my choice rather than assuming that they know. It helps if they tell me what in their own lives has caused them to be concerned about the choice I'm making. Those are simple things to remember, and I'm getting better about sticking with them. There's also something else that's harder to pin down. I keep looking at my motivation for talking to the other person. I try to keep my mouth shut if I find that I mostly want to tell them off, or to disassociate myself from them, or to make them stop making me uncomfortable about my own choices. I try not to speak unless I can remember all the way down to my bones that, however different we may seem, we're one in God.
I'd be interested to hear how you deal with your own assumptions and other people's, and how you decide when to speak and when to remain silent.
Link to part 3, Doing Good Badly (it's shorter, I promise!)
Link to part 3, Doing Good Badly (it's shorter, I promise!)