Wednesday, April 02, 2008

talking about privilege

It’s probably the aftermath of Obama’s speech, plus some other reading I’ve doing lately: I’ve been thinking obsessively about what happens in conversations about injustice (particularly racism, sexism, and heterosexism) and privilege, and specifically what makes so many of these conversations disintegrate into nastiness, cynicism, defensiveness, and defeated retreat. It seems like it happens a lot. It happens among good people who could probably do a lot better.

I have heard arguments against getting too “workshop-y” about such conversations because creating lots of guidelines for how, say, white people should interact with black people, or queer people should interact with straight people, inhibits authentic communication and cements our otherness to each other. I can understand some of these arguments. When the Mennonite church was going through its decade-long freakout about gayness (it’s supposedly over because a bunch of straight men announced that it is—don’t get me started), there were guidelines coming out right and left about how to interact with LGBT people—or perhaps more accurately, how to deal with their existence. Even the most well-intended ones (and they were NOT all well-intended) were largely written by people who sounded as though they had never actually interacted with an openly gay or lesbian person in their lives without getting twitchy. It might have been a different story had actual living, breathing queer people been permitted to create some of those guidelines. But one of the defining characteristics of that so-called “dialogue” was that LGBT folk themselves were almost completely sidelined. The terms of these discussions were dictated, in the main, by people who seemingly never thought to question their entitlement to dictate those terms.

That was the problem, of course. That’s why I view those years of “dialogue” as a heartbreaking failure. Because we can’t have a real conversation about inequality unless those whom society has already gifted an ample bully pulpit are capable of enough generosity and discernment to at least relax their grip on the reins. Of course, in that situation it was practically impossible, because a lot of those pulpit bullies believed that the discussion was not about inequality but rather about sin—and I don’t know how to talk to people like that, nor do I care to bother anymore.* What’s more interesting to me is how people with open-minded intentions still end up behaving like asses.

I lurk occasionally on a Mennonite group blog that was started by liberal folk but lately has been plagued by straight white males who become hysterical when it is suggested that they bear the slightest bit of responsibility to do anything about inequality. They chastise female and minority contributors for “creating divisions” whenever such contributors speak about issues specific to their group interests. They "refuse to apologize" for being straight white males. Whenever someone has the temerity to point out that the discussions on the blog are increasingly dominated by the voices of straight white males—rarely without acknowledging first how many very fine and lovely straight white males are present in that group, which is true—at least one has to whine how terribly he is being discriminated against and/or “censored,” and how much privilege he does not have. (See Marie’s comment on my last Obama post, re: white people hating to be referred to as a group entity or generalized about. Straight white males—though not all of them! not all of them!—hate it especially. As a group, they're extraordinarily protective of their individuality.) Never mind that there are any number of other online Mennonite forums in which straight white males with an unexamined sense of entitlement are abundantly welcome to spout off at will—no, instead they have to come to a site that was once relatively safe for women and queers and, to use the words of one fed-up lesbian contributor, “shit in everyone’s lemonade.” In theory, at least some of these guys are into equality. The problem is that they believe equality is best achieved by not talking about inequality. If we do talk about inequality, then by God, they want to be the ones doing the talking.

Of course, this whole “don’t talk about it and it will go away” attitude is hardly the sole province of jerky straight white men. A mostly unspoken version of this ethos governed the racial education—or lack thereof—of many of us white Gen-Xers. We’re all one big happy family, there’s no such thing as race, and therefore no need to discuss it. I didn’t really have to face the danger of this attitude is until I started leading discussion sections for general education classes on jazz (and later reggae) at Michigan State. This is a dubious job to give to a white, twenty-two year old graduate of a Mennonite college in North Newton, Kansas, but I coped. One memorable day, a white student announced that she didn’t understand why we had to talk about racism all the time and if we stopped it would go away blah blah blah. You know, the standard. It was the first time one of my students had said something so patently idiotic (though not the last) and I was flummoxed. I kept waiting for one of the black students to bail me out and tell her why she was being dumb, but they were silent, possibly tired of the onus always being on them to deal with this kind of crap. I can’t remember what I finally said, though I think it was something to the effect of, “No! Bad!” As proof that I had not enlightened her, this same student turned in a paper later in the semester in which she referred to Mrs. Butterworth as a “creative black person.” Again, at a loss for words of wisdom, I underlined the sentence in red and wrote in the margins, “Mrs. Butterworth is a pancake syrup.” (Had I been feeling more caustic and less despairing, I might have pointed out that Mrs. Butterworth is the white pancake syrup and she was probably thinking of Aunt Jemima.)

So these days, I believe in some guidelines, things like this list. Not because I think that we all need to be nannied whenever we cross our various social boundaries, not because I believe that we necessarily need to go seminars and training sessions in order to learn how be friends or interact across such boundaries. But there’s an art to being a consistently compassionate person, and there’s an art to challenging injustice, and we don’t achieve these things just by meaning well. I have guidelines for interacting with my straight white male spouse, and there’s no one on the planet with whom I have a more unguarded relationship. He has guidelines for interacting with me. Our guidelines involve assuming that the other person is the resident expert on the experiences of his/her gender. That guideline doesn’t automatically solve every gender-related conflict that comes up, but with it in hand, we’re far better equipped to solve such conflicts without destroying each other.

Part of respecting our common humanity is acknowledging the things that separate us. If we can’t name those things, and if we can’t listen to each other name those things, then they’ll continue to separate us a lot longer than they need to.

* An ex-Anglican friend once said, "I don't want to dialogue with homophobes. I want to defeat them." Now there's the kind of candor that tends to be lacking amongst Biblical pacifists.


Animal said...

Good points. Cool list. 'Nuff said!

Jenn-Jenn, the Mother Hen said...

I took a Global Social Inequality class over the summer, and one of the things that really stuck with me was a chapter discussing a Global Women's Conference in the Middle East one year. Because the women heading the conference were white, Christian, upper-middle class (and higher income brackets), the conference was an abysmal failure because they were trying to relate to Middle Eastern, Muslim women with no money or property of their own, yet the conference leaders were trying to relate to them using their own whitebread guidelines. [sigh]

Steph said...

Wow, that is interesting. Seems like they could have seen that one coming.