Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Privilege, part 2: Prejudice

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!)


Ashley W said...

Thank you for your clarity and vulnerability in these posts, Joanna.  I felt inspired to write a post of my own about some of the ways I have seen privilege in the Religious Society of Friends.  Blessings as you continue to write.

randyvo said...

I am truly sorry that you experienced such thoughtless comments from Friends. I don't know if you were with some of our conversations at QuakerSpring about the SoF as a place for "refugees" from damaging churches. It's an interesting idea, and what a wonderful witness it could be for Friends - except it isn't always the case.

But you raise some really good questions. How do we identify and challenge the assumptions we carry with us? And how do we respond to the "uncomfortable other" in a way that really sees That of God in them and breaks through our assumptions and pre-conceived notions?

I wrestle with these questions myself - particularly with the issue of religious "differences". I have sensed for some time a kind of "fear" to fellowship with Christians of other traditions. I don't know why - I don't know what I think will happen - maybe that I find that I will be unable to see That of God in them other than as a general theory and I want to avoid that.

I have recently been testing what may be a leading and one which I will be weighing in the months ahead. I have been thinking of visiting churches of as many different traditions as possible in my area - as an ecumenical act of Christian brotherhood - but also to challenge my fear of the "religious other". I feel that fear itself may be a challenge to my faith journey and something I am meant to work through. And I know we never learn anything by simply thinking about it - we need to practice. So let's see where way opens.

Peace, RandyO

randyvo said...

By the way!

When I say "uncomfortable other" I mean uncomfortable to us - just to be clear. Wow. Good example of what we're talking about here! :-)

Joanna Hoyt said...

Sorry for this delayed response--our Internet was down for a few days. I'm intrigued by what you write about discomfort at the thought of worshiping with other sorts of Christians, and I'd love to hear more about how your leading progresses. . . and, if you were open to sharing it, about whether the fear of not finding That of God in them comes from hard memories of other attempts or from lack of familiarity. I wasn't always a Friend, and I have had the Light in people from a wide variety of traditions brought strongly to my attention, so I haven't had this particular fear. But I do find some styles of worship really hard to engage with constructively. This usually seems to have to do with temperament more than theology.

Kim said...
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Kim said...

Thanks Joanna for sharing your thoughts.

The later paragraphs made me think of how I interact with people (my 'job' is basically talking to people about Jesus and God all day). I talk to a lot of people from all walks of life everyday so am fairly accustomed to having to adapt myself to all kinds of situations and people (although there is always something new to learn about relating to people!).

I think I have reached a place where I generally don't feel threatened by The Other, whether it's other beliefs or experience(although it's probably because I've had a lot of experience dealing with The Other). And what motivates me more these days is the idea that everyone has their own story, and that there are over 8 billion stories out there! I find that exciting. And it also helps me keep things in perspective by remembering that my story is just 1 of those 8 billion stories, and my own beliefs/opinions are just one out of 8 billion! My faith in God is important to me, but so the faith of 8 billion others is important to God. And so if being right with God is as simple as putting others first, it helps me keep things in some perspective (when I am having my better moments!).

What helps me overcome fears I have about approaching different people is to act as much as I can as if that person is my best friend and someone I have a lot in common with. Or I simply try to talk to that place of God in everyone (even if I have to imagine it there first, before I 'see' it). It breaks down barriers and 'differences' in a way that can be quite amazing, at least, it gets the ball rolling. And I've been able to meet people from gangster girls in South-Central L.A. to members of the House of Lords in Central London, to farm workers in rural Latin America. A lot of people just want someone to talk to, and I think when I forget about myself and my own ego issues and just think about the other person, we can find even the smallest area of common ground to start with.

It makes me think though that perhaps we sometimes analyse things too much, and worry too much about how we might be viewed, rather than just going out there and trying to show love to, and take an interest in who people are. It's a pattern I have tried to change, and I will I still sometimes overanalyse things, just getting busy with being practical about showing people I care (strangers or acquaintances or friends)helps me see that a lot of the supposed 'differences' or 'barriers' are really just constructs of my mind! (I think we are told by society that there are all these differences, in much the same way as any consumer product is advertised, and we believe what society says. This can happen on both sides of the divide, but I don't think the vast vast majority likes or agrees with those 'divisions'; I think acting free of those imposed divisions ourselves liberates others to be and act free of those imposed divisions too.)

Joanna Hoyt said...

Thank you, Kim, for a very thoughtful comment, and for a good example.

I'm especially intrigued by what you said about sometimes having to imagine God in some people before you can see it. I think I know what you mean--I think I've experienced this--but I'd never thought to put it that way before.

And yes, I can definitely over-analyze and dig myself into a hole. Though sometimes analyzing helps me to straighten out my thinking instead of going round in worry circles.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, it's not over-analyzing to see that, in the latest case of "color-blind justice", white broad brush strokes on a pure white canvas does not do justice to the picture.

Joanna Hoyt said...

No indeed. There's pointless overanalyzing, and then there's the necessary recognition of the lies we tell ourselves that determine whom we choose to fear and whom to trust.