Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Pitfalls of Privilege

The pre-scripts:

First, this is what my dashboard looks like:

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Yesterday, I found a post on facebook that featured the ways that companies like Target and JetBlue were expressing support for the SCOTUS decision, and I like going out of my way to patronize businesses that are inclusive.  Kudos to WordPress for this show of support; it makes me glad that this is my platform.

Second, fair warning; this is likely to turn into a whiny post.  Proceed at your peril.

Several years ago, I was subbing a Race, Class, and Gender class for a professor of mine; I was technically a student in the class, but I had a Master’s degree and a good 20 years on the rest of the group, so the professor and I mutually agreed that I would be better served taking the course as an independent study.  Since, though her student, I was also her colleague – I teach writing classes at the university – she asked if I would cover a couple of classes for her while she was away at workshops.  During one of those classes, a panel of students from the university’s GLBTQ alliance was scheduled to come and talk to the students.

I should pause here to point out what my regular readers already know; I am a fierce, loudmouthed, insistent LGBTQ ally.  Being an ally is an integral part of my very identity; it’s a foundational pillar of how I understand myself and my place in the world.  As such, it almost never occurs to me that other people might not know this about me, and I’m surprised (and deeply bothered) when I’m subjected to the default assumption that marginalized people have to make about people in the privileged classes.

Back to my story.  It turned out that the staff member of the university’s alliance – let’s call him Alan – who brought the panel of LGBTQ students to the class that day also happened to be a regular participant in my yoga class.  I’d known Alan from yoga classes for at least a year or two by that point, and we’d had occasion to chat a bit here and there in that time; I liked him very much and I got the distinct impression that he liked me, as well.

He got the panel kids settled and, as is common in these kinds of encounters, told his story first; it’s very often the adult/leader of these kinds of groups who breaks the proverbial ice, not only as a means of modeling the process, but also to clear a path and make the space for young people/students to tell theirs.  I remember thinking at the time that Alan did a wonderful job of it, too; he was clear and seemed at ease discussing some rather complicated issues of gender identity to a group of young people (most of the host class were freshmen or sophomores) who likely had little if any experience with even contemplating anything outside of the hetero-normative script.  Once he’d gotten the ball rolling, the kids he brought with him told their stories, the panel opened the floor for questions and discussion, and the class went very, very well.

Fast forward to yesterday.  I’d been planning on getting to the first ever Pride parade in Coastal City ever since I saw the event planned on Facebook; the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage equality on Thursday only increased my enthusiasm for the trip.  I packed up the girls, picked up one of Punk’s friends (who happens to be transgender and has struggled for acceptance in his family circle) and headed over to the staging area; we found our group (the parade participants were – quite ingeniously –  sorted into colors so that, when we all converged downtown from our respective spots, we’d form a human pride flag) bought tee shirts, and marched into our place in the square.

As I was listening to the speakers, I happened to look over and spot Alan.  I knew he’d be there – his name was listed as the point person for one of the color groups – but I didn’t really have any expectation of seeing him; there were a LOT of people there (the SCOTUS ruling increased the numbers quite a bit beyond what the organizers were expecting).  I made my way to him and nearly burst into tears when he pulled me into a hug.

I found him on facebook and sent a friend request when I got home, and he commented on a photo I’d posted of the girls and me in our parade shirts.  I commented that I intended to wear the shirt to this morning’s yoga class, and that my savasana message would likely be heavily influenced by some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the events of the past week or so (it was; I spoke about rejecting the idea of scarcity, particularly when it comes to energy and dignity and equality.  There’s more than enough of that to go around, and granting other people those things does not mean there’s less for you).

Alan hadn’t been to yoga in a few weeks and I wasn’t really expecting to see him, so I was delighted when he showed up this morning wearing his parade shirt, too.  We had a lovely practice – today was a good one – and he stopped after class to talk about the experience of the demonstration and about some of the nuances of the things I said at the end of class.  It was then that he admitted that he kept two facebook profiles; one for his friends and one for his family who, I gather, are not exactly supportive of his identity.

Then, Alan said something that hit me square in the gut, though I tried my best to roll with it.  He admitted that, the day he brought the panel to my class, he was taken aback to find that I was there and that he would “have to come out to my yoga teacher.”  He didn’t say as much, but the assumption in that statement was that he worried that I would judge him, that he was opening himself up to a risk in telling his story in front of me.  Of course, he followed that up with an affirmation about how positive the experience was, and how he understands now that I’m an enthusiastic ally, but I couldn’t help feeling devastated that my presence once made him uncomfortable.

Alan’s admission bothered me so much because I’d already been pondering the cost of my privilege.  The other day, this article put me on my metaphorical knees.  How does one work around being of genuine heart while at the same time being part – through no fault of one’s own – of the oppressor class?  Worse, how does someone like me work through the recognition that it’s just not about us while simultaneously struggling with some very real emotions around intention and representation and assumption?  “Oh, poor me, the privileged, white, straight, cisgender, middle class, English speaking, well-intentioned citizen.  It’s so hard to be an ally.”  Yeah; that shit doesn’t fly.

At the same time, my heart broke when I read that article (and here’s where the whining starts).  It seems as callous to dismiss allies’ emotions as it is to dismiss those of the oppressed classes.  It wasn’t fair for the author to project his hostility onto that woman; I have no doubt she was there as an ally for the black community, and I have no doubt that she was probably carrying some pretty hefty emotions with her (how often are white people of good conscience deeply, profoundly ashamed of their whiteness in situations like these?).  He’s essentially doing to her – making assumptions about her based on what she represents to him because of her skin color – that he wants others to stop doing to him.  It’s got to stop somewhere, and while I recognize that I have exactly ZERO right to tell ANYONE how to process their emotions, I couldn’t help feeling a little indignation when reading that piece.

I am absolutely heartbroken to think that I would ever represent a threat to anyone.  Because so much of my identity is wrapped up in being an ally and in being compassionate and nurturing, I felt as though I’ve somehow failed when Alan told me about his misgivings that day, or when I read that someone is made uncomfortable by the presence of someone like me in their spaces.  I have no earthly idea what to do with those feelings though; even though I understand that part of the work of being an ally is in the bone-deep recognition that it’s not about you (notice the emphasis?), I also recognize that an important part of the work of being an ally is in tending to our own souls so we have the strength and fortitude to keep fighting.  I will continue to try to work around the way I feel when I realize that, short of tattooing “I AM AN ALLY” on my forehead, there are going to be times when my presence in a place makes someone uneasy.  I only hope that it doesn’t happen often.

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June 26, 2015

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In Case I Haven’t Made Myself Clear

I have, on the wall of my ‘office corner’ in my kitchen, a postcard that I bought from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum when I was last in D.C. It says “It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act.”

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(please note, as well, the “what you do matters” button.)

I keep that postcard there to remind me that it is one thing to FEEL, but another thing entirely to DO.  Change doesn’t happen if people are standing around, wringing their hands  and clucking their tongues and lamenting the horrid state of things; change only happens when people get off their asses and work to make things better.

Yesterday, I read this post from Chookaloonks.  Go read it; I’ll wait.

As an ally, I have long been conscious of the place MY voice has in the conversations about the issues and problems facing the populations for which I advocate.  I am sensitive (and smart) enough to understand that, as a white, middle-class, straight, cis-gender, educated, English-speaking woman, I enjoy an incredible amount of privilege that many of my brothers and sisters don’t, and that, despite all my effort to be as aware of the effects that privilege has on my perspective as I can possibly be, there are going to be times – perhaps a lot of times – where I just don’t see what others are seeing.

It is because of this awareness that I realize I should probably talk a hell of a lot less than I listen, and so when something like Charleston happens, I tend to step back and hold my tongue. I’ll do some of the things Karen mentioned in her post; I’ll re-post newspaper articles and opinion pieces, I’ll share memes and quotes from others, but I’ll often refrain from speaking in my own voice because I recognize, with a kind of bitter ache, that as part of the majority, dominant group, my voice doesn’t need to be heard.  My job, when something like this happens, is to try to wedge out space for the voices of the people who are affected by the violence, the marginalization, and the discrimination that creates these situations in the first place.  My job is to listen to those people.

Karen’s post got me thinking about that stance, though, and I was instantly reminded of the postcard on my wall when I read her words.  “SAY SOMETHING,” she says, “make it clear, in your own words — not just retweeting or resharing the words of Jon Stewart or someone else — tell folks how you feel.  Take a stand, for heaven’s sake.”

I like to think that no one with even a passing familiarity with me could imagine for even a moment that I don’t abhor, loudly and vehemently, every single aspect of our culture that separates people from one another and allows us to denigrate, demean, and even kill each other.  I despise the pernicious mechanisms in nearly every aspect of our culture – our military, our economic system, and especially our “justice” and “education” systems – that keep some people down while making it easier for others to enjoy opportunity and potential.  More than that, I rail against the culture of ignorance that allows these mechanisms to remain in force; the insistence of some that we don’t even have a problem, much less that they could be in any way responsible for it.  This actually energizes a large part of my teaching practice; I expend a great deal of thought and effort into teaching my children – both biological and academic – to shun the kind of ignorance that allows us to hate one another so casually and so tragically.

So, right here and right now, I want to make sure that I have been exceedingly, transparently, obviously, and painfully clear about where I stand on issues of equality and human dignity.  When I say I’m an ally, I mean it; I’m all in, and I stand at the ready to do more than just talk about it.

Any questions?

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