Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Life as Majority

(NB: Anything that is enclosed in brackets [x] inside of someone else's quoted work is my added opinion.)

So I've recently had some drama in my life, even if it is more of an internal struggle over my current situation. While I had hoped I'd be disciplined and kind enough not to open my mouth and spread the misery, I've already failed at that so I figured, fuck it, I might as well write about how I see this playing into a larger social narrative as well as how my past influenced this moment and where I'm pointing my compass from here.

In the last post that I wrote, I brought up the concept of PRIVILEGE. I'd like to start by talking a bit more about that. So last time, I wrote that wikipedia defined privilege this way: "A privilege is a special entitlement to immunity granted by the state or another authority to a restricted group, either by birth or on a conditional basis. It can be revoked in certain circumstances. In modern democratic states, a privilege is conditional and granted only after birth. By contrast, a right is an inherent, irrevocable entitlement held by all citizens or all human beings from the moment of birth."

Now I want to add a bit from Tim Wise, one of the foremost (white) American anti-racist thinkers out there. It's from "Denial - Privilege and Life as a Majority." Now I'm going to quote a great deal of it, but it's also worth it just to go to the page and read the whole thing.

"Sometimes it can be difficult, having a conversation with those whose political
views are so diametrically opposed to one's own.

But even more
challenging, is having a discussion with someone who simply refuses to accept
even the most basic elements of your worldview. At that point, disagreement is
less about the specifics of one or another policy option, and more about the
nature of social reality itself.

This is what it can be like sometimes,
when trying to discuss the issue of white privilege with white people. ...

Of course, what is ultimately overlooked is that denial of one's
privilege itself manifests a form of privilege: namely, the privilege of being
able to deny another person's reality (a reality to which they speak regularly)
and suffer no social consequence as a result."

For those who don't know, I am white and that is one of the areas in which I do have privilege. But I think that is why what Tim Wise writes speaks to me. I know I have this white privilege, knew it somewhere inside me long before I knew what the word meant in this context. Maybe I've always been a bit too overly empathetic, but even as a pretty young kid, I hated when things were unfair or unequal. These emotions became magnified when I was 7 and my family moved to a suburb just south of large Midwestern city. Unlike the large but mostly white student population of my former elementary school, black students made up probably 25% of the student body at the small private Christian elementary school outside of the large Midwestern city when I began attending. (The mix was probably 50-50 by the time we moved.) I had a big culture shock, as I'd never really been exposed to black culture. I wouldn't call my family racist, but, like many people of all colors, we tended to partake in culture that reflected us, or at least our skin tone. I could have sang you the soundtrack to the Big Chill, having listened to the tape so often in my mom's car, but I didn't even know what rap was. While the powerful white students in my class didn't give you a second thought if you weren't up to their level of pretty and well-dressed, my black classmates, even the most popular and powerful, would let you in with them, but only after you endured the push-pull of gaining their trust, which meant showing you didn't have a racist molecule in your body. Looking back, I wonder if it wasn't the friendship version of "you either like me for me & don't act like I should be any different, or you never really liked me at all and don't deserve my energy," something my mom drilled into my head about romance with boys, which I wonder if the black students' parents, kids during the Civil Rights Era, drilled into their heads. While I won't say that I left that school with a fully developed racial consciousness or a complete understanding of the psyches of black children, I do credit it with teaching me that minorities are both just like whites and not at all like whites, that every kid I knew was just as deserving of respect as me, whether they were white or black, but that the black students had a different reality, from our history of injustice to minorities to the higher incarceration rates of their older family members to how teachers treated them. It wouldn't be until college that I would actively try to develop my race consciousness, right alongside the gay consciousness I snuck in while in high school and the feminist consciousness that had bloomed during my first Women's Studies course. It's something I'm still working on today and probably will be working on until the day I die.

But being more aware of things means I see more, whereas before I might have had that little "something's off" itch, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Even having read just the same amount of things I have by authors of color, women authors, gay authors, disabled authors, about the ways they have been made to feel less than, about the horribly intrusive and ignorant behavior they've been subjected to, I have started to see that all around me, recognize it, felt my own heart hurt. But I've been a 'humorless, too sensitive, too PC, stick up her ass bitch' for as long as I can remember and I started calling people on using words like "gay" and "fag" as derogatory terms when I was a senior and just coming out. By my senior year, I had a modicum of respect from my classmates because I was the go-to study-buddy girl. I also came armed with facts. So when I challenged them saying it, bringing up that it often felt to a gay person like the equivalent of kike or the n-word, I also told them that, in this classroom with 15 people, statistically, there would be 1.5 gay people. If I was the .5, as a bi-person, who was that other person that they probably just hurt, that they probably dug the knife in everyday? Look, I have no delusions that it changed what they said when they were in the hall or another class. But it got the speaker to think and, if there was another gay person in that classroom, I hope they got the message that they were worth being stood up for.

But now I'm older, have less clout, am a bit less likely to open my mouth. In part, it's because of this nifty little trick we blog people call derailing. This page, Derailing for Dummies, which is completely hilarious, sums it up pretty well:

"You know how it is. You’re enjoying yourself, kicking back and relaxing at the
pub or maybe at the library; or maybe you’re in class or just casually surfing
the internet,
indulging in a little conversation. The topic of the conversation is about a
pertinent contemporary issue, probably something to do with a group of people
who fall outside your realm of experience and identity. They’re also probably
fairly heavily discriminated against - or so they claim. The thing is, you’re
having a good time, sharing your knowledge about these people and their issues.
This knowledge is incontrovertible - it’s been backed up in media
representation, books, research and lots and lots of historical events, also
your own unassailable sense of being right.

Yet all of a sudden
something happens to put a dampener on your sharing of your enviable intellect
and incomparable capacity to fully perceive and understand All Things. It’s
someone who belongs to the group of people you’re discussing and they’re Not
Very Happy with you. Apparently, they claim, you’ve got it all wrong and they’re offended about
that. They might be a person of colour, or a queer person. Maybe they’re a
woman, or a person with disability. They could even be a trans person or a sex
worker. The point is they’re trying to tell you they know better than you about
their issues and you know that’s just plain wrong. How could you be wrong?

Don’t worry though! There IS something you can do to nip this
potentially awkward and embarrassing situation in the bud. By simply derailing
the conversation, dismissing their opinion as false and ridiculing their
experience you can be sure that they continue to be marginalised and unheard and
you can continue to look like the expert you know you really are, deep down

Congratulations You Have Privilege!

Just follow this step-by-step guide to Conversing with Marginalised
People™ and in no time at all you will have a fool-proof method of derailing
every challenging conversation you may get into, thus reaping the full benefits
of every privilege that you have."

Of course, the dynamic also gets trickier when you are a privileged white person telling another privileged white person to please stop using a specific word. It's difficult enough to be, say a gay person politely asking a straight person to please stop using "gay" when they mean "stupid," with the tried and true "but gay people do it!" and "well, I didn't mean it that way, you know I love gay people." When you aren't a part of that marginalized group and can't speak for a majority of ALL OF THEM being offended, and you really don't want to say they are racist, which you might not believe anyway, well, sometimes it just feels like a losing battle. I think this video by J Smooth sums it up pretty well.

But finally, sometimes you just don't want to be the educator, the activist acting civilly. Though Sparky, writing at Womanist Musings, is writing about being a gay man trying to educate straight people, I think it's just as fitting for people educating on ablism, feminism, or racism. (Emphasis mine, not the authors.)

"The point is, I knew where this conversation was going within the first 10
minutes - gods, the first 5 minutes. The opening lines, even. I knew that I was
heading into a long, unpleasant and awkward conversation that was likely going
to throw a lot of straight privilege at me, push a lot of painful buttons and
generally leave me frustrated, tired and feeling like shit. In short, within 5
minutes of the conversation starting I wanted it to end.

How do I know this? Because I've had exactly the same conversation and
variations of this about a squillion times before. All completely
unoriginal, all tiring, all painful and all immensely frustrating. And I'm quite
sure over half have been utterly, completely pointless wastes of my energy and
mental health

My point?

My point is sometimes I can't do it. And that's a shame because, even if
most failed, I know some of these conversations HAVE worked. I know some
ignorant people who bought a clue, listened and did their best not to do it
again. Yes, it can be productive. Yes it has worked. Yes calmly and reasonably
answering all the ignorant questions you've answered a thousand times or
politely objecting and explaining why something was offensive can and does work.
It's half the reason I ramble so much about sexuality on this LJ.

And sometimes I can't do it. Sometimes I'm tired, I'm in a bad mood or I'm
just sick to the back teeth of the whole damn hetero-normative world, it's
ignorance, it's insensitivity and it's endless reminders that I don't
belong. Sometimes I'm annoyed because it should be damned OBVIOUS
why I don't find that joke funny, or why I get angry at being called

These conversations are painful and tiring and frustrating. They're
very personal (they can't help but be
), they force me to confront
homophobia and homophobic ignorance head on. They force me to endure it and slog
through it. They force me to be vulnerable. They force me to expose that
vulnerability to someone who, at best, may clumsily trample all over me and at
worst may deliberately do some stomping

And I'd like to add that I shouldn't have to do that with my friends, with people who know me. Wait, let me sort of take that back. If I have a friend who actually wants to have a conversation about these things, I'm usually up for it. But, when it's not going to be a conversation, when I ask you to please stop using a word, at least around me, especially when you know that there's nothing you are going to say that's going not make it hurt me and nothing I can say to change your opinion about the propriety of that word, do me a favor and just don't fucking say it anymore. "I didn't mean it offensively/racist/sexist/homophobicly" doesn't really matter to me in that context, because intent is not all. Effect factors in and it did hurt or offend someone. And "I'm sorry you were offended" is not actually an apology. It's a deflection which says that the offended party is the one with something wrong, being overly sensitive, reading too much into it, not having a sense of humor, etc. Real apologies admit wrongdoing. Don't try to offer an apology when you aren't actually sorry and/or think you did nothing wrong. I could go on and on, but, in the end, I still get the very clear picture that I'm just an overly sensitive, too PC, humorless bitch. And if you think that's what I am, why would you want to be friends with me?

A friend recently seemed upset that I would want to go out and find friends who shared the same political and social views as me. Her assertion was that she wouldn't want to be friends with people only like her. I agreed then and I still do, in that I wouldn't want all my friends to be replications of myself. (Anyone who thinks that would be cool should see the movie Moon, where Sam Rockwell's character gets into a knock down drag out fight with his... well, I'll just say a man who looks just like him.) But that's not what I want. I just don't want the paragraph above this and I'm hoping that won't happen with people on my own wavelength. Don't know if it'll work out, but I gotta try.

"I've lived in this place and I know all the faces
Each one is different but they're always the same
...I'm moving on"

1 comment:

Anna said...

Bravo! Well said and excellent references (thanks for the link to illdoctrine's video bit). This is solid writing, dear. Keep it up. You should be published.