Sunday, July 7, 2013

Privilege, part 1: living with the questions

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


Micah Bales said...

Thanks for these reflections, Joanna. I'm really glad to see that you're jumping into blogging with regularity. I'll definitely be reading along!


Anonymous said...

Ditto, true Friends.

randyvo said...

For some reason I'm having trouble posting to your blog, so please bear with me if you receive multiple copies. Because this keeps happening I'm clipping and pasting in the hopes that THIS time it will get through!

I want to say thank thee again, Joanna, for your postings and the
interesting questions you raise. I am always interested in hearing
Friends talk about how their personal experiences with privilege have challenged their spiritual lives, and how individual experiences of racism or classism or sexism or homophobia, etc., have impacted their lives, especially when these experiences happen in the context of our spiritual communities. These are calls for personal and collective repentance - always an important thing - and a reminder that we must remain mindful and open to how our words and actions can be received by others. Having said that however, I’m not sure about the whole “subtle racism” thing. Is it really racism if it is not deliberate and we don’t intend or know it is happening? Isn’t that ignorance, or insensitivity or thoughtlessness...I’m just not sure how much we can take responsibility for how much others misinterpret our actions (your “hair racism” story being an example).

Besides, I fear sometimes that too much focus on our collective role on the social sins of society can act as an unintentional diversion. Yes, we can lament about our ancestors role in slavery or the genocide of indigenous peoples, but what is it that each of us can do personally to help the present victims of that legacy? We may truly carry concern for the poor and victims of violence and exploitation, but what we are given
are the people we deal with personally - and whether those concerns translate from beautiful theories to concrete actions with the people we meet. Collective guilt will not necessarily do that.

And Quakers, especially the liberal camp, are pretty good at the
collective guilt thing. And we can be pretty smug about not being the
type of Christians who like to point fingers at the personal sins of others. But I think we could do a better job of looking inward, at
ourselves, to see where our sins of commission and sins of omission are, and let the Light convict us of those, that we might repent of our personal mistreatment of the people we deal with each day. The
privilege that we have - those of us who are not the victims of racism or violence or oppression - is to use our time to hold in the Light those who suffer under these things, and to try and learn what we can do to help them find liberty. Maybe we can look at the privilege we've been given - and which we have not asked for - as Responsibility (and I do NOT mean in the 'white man's burden' kind of way!) Perhaps “to whom much has been given, much shall be required” may apply here. Peace, RandyO

Joanna Hoyt said...

Randy, thank you for writing so thoughtfully and posting so persistently. This only came through once, and I didn't even see it in my email before. I'm not sure why commenting is difficult...

I know I sometimes engage in extravagant remorse for relatively minor misdeeds, or for misdeeds I might or might not be committing, in order to avoid at looking at the important things that I am doing that harm people, or that I am failing to do and am called to do. It's good to be reminded.

And good to be reminded of the very constructive meaning of "to whom much has been given much shall be required." It's been heavily underlined in my Bible for a long time. On bad days it's a thing I obsess about; but when I am being sane and faithful it's a reminder of a responsibility that is a gift as well as a challenge.

Joanna Hoyt said...

PS-- I also think that sometimes we collectively engage in historic guilt or focus exclusively on personal prejudices to the exclusion of looking at practical ways of doing less harm and more good to the people whom we affect daily.

And I've taken the word verification requirement for comments out--I hope that may make commenting easier. I'm not sure what else I can adjust.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of adjustments, which are the essential part of getting along with other ethnic and racial and gendered human beings, let us not forget that, whereas the enlightened former-exploiter has moved a good way from racism, if not exploitation, the one growing up(over generations) with it is still seeing, and so feeling/experiencing, it as normal. The only difference is that the uncomfortable shoe is now on the other foot, so to speak.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Anonymous, can you say more about your comment? I think there's something important here but I am not sure I understand it clearly--I'm not sure who "the one growing up (Over generations) with it" might be. I realize my confusion could just be the result of brain melt after a long hot day in the garden.