Funny how synchronicities happen, isn’t it? As I may have mentioned, I have been pretty cranky lately. Feeling a bit put-upon by my relative place in my relative world. Annoyed with myself for feeling so when I know my relative place in the bigger world.
I have been thinking a lot about privilege and the many ways we can be blind to it and its effects on our relationships. Most of that thinking has been of a self-righteous nature. A friend commented a couple of years ago about how ‘liberal’ white men are often the most blind to their exercises of privilege, particularly when it comes to gender. In fact, some of my ‘feminist’ male friends and acquaintances have ultimately, in practice, been the most sexist. Lately, I have been thinking about my own experiences of this and it has been pissing me off.
Then Marianne Elliot shared a piece by Julie Daley, part four in a series (of an unknown number) called So Many Silences. It seems this Julie has taken on the trifecta of power, oppression, and silence–taken them on by voicing her experience of them with ambiguity and clarity and anger and hope. It struck a chord.
As a white woman, I know both privilege and oppression. And, yes, I know I experience both, that one does not negate the other.
How is it that those of us who have a finely tuned intellectual understanding of power and privilege–who can hold forth expertly and at length in de-constructing ’conversations’ about the experiences of those oppressed by these systems–can in the same moment be blind to our own complicity, our own expression of our place in these systems?
Right now, I am thinking that this may, in part, be due to the “flatness” of many conversations and thinking patterns about power and politics. Let me explain what I mean.
A few months ago, I was able to attend a workshop for Narrative therapists featuring Jill Freedman and Gene Combs. Narrative therapy is known for its interest in working with people’s stories to help minimize the effects of negative identities in their lives. For example, a Narrative therapist might help a “depressive person” (identity) find ways to minimize the effects of depression (an outside influence) on them. This particular workshop (“How are we becoming other than what we have been?”–a very Narrative-speak kind of title) was about taking this process a step further by working with the positive identities in ways that open up more options and possibilities for action. It was a great workshop, with great conversation (especially one with Charley Lang about his grandmother) but one bit of the presentation stood out to me.
In talking about the limiting effects of our positive identity conclusions, Gene gave the example of being a ‘good person.’ He said something to the effect that, when one decides (on the basis of evidence, comparison to others, whatever) that they are ’good,’ a sort of myopia is invoked. If I do something that hurts another, I mightn’t examine it in much detail because I am ‘good’ so nothing I do could be that ‘bad.’ ‘Good’ becomes a flat description of who I am, without dimension or depth or space for movement, for what I might do.
In terms of power and oppression, this shows up all of the time in phrases like:
“I’m not racist but…”
“I know that (fill in marginalized group)s feel (fill in generalized emotion/experience.)” (When spoken by someone outside the group to someone from that group.) Aside: There’s a funny piece on how this can play out in humanitarian work if you want a break from this stuff.
“We’re all the same, really, when it comes down to it.” (Spoken by someone with relatively more money/power/hot running water to someone without one or more of these life essentials.)
Gene went on to assert that none of us are essentially ‘good,’ really, and then he spoke (I am sure of it) directly to me
“you are only as good as your next action.”
And this is where social justice living can get hung up. Unmasking privilege and power are ongoing actions, not something that one does (preferably at a ostentatiously spartan retreat center with candles and long walks in nature) and then wears as a mantle. Encounter groups and participant conferences do not change systems. Daily awareness and accountability and action do that. Willingness to choose to be as uncomfortable with an oppressive system as the one who has no choice in the matter. Honesty to acknowledge that I’m not always able or willing to make that choice, or even to see that it’s there.
In part two of her series, Ms. Daley says,
There is an old, worn out relationship between me and men. In opening the door to seeing my complacency and silence, I see even more clearly how these things are fueled by my conditioned loyalty with men, especially the men in my life that hold power. The men in my life who hold power are white men. Educated men. Middle-class men. Men I love.
If you asked them, they might not feel powerful. In fact, I bet they don’t feel powerful. So many men have said they feel powerless in this culture. Yet, in relationship to me, they seem powerful. They seem to hold the power.
Wow, that resonated with my cranky side!
It’s also how I imagine I seem to non-white, non-straight, non-able-to-access-a graduate-degree-with-hardly-a-second-thought folks. This makes me uncomfortable and curious and bold.
So, I take of the mantle of the “good.” I let go of the labels “progressive” and “enlightened.”
And I resolve to act–in ways visible and not–to become that which is other than what I have already been and make my corner of the world a wee bit other than it already is.