As a black, female-bodied, queer, non-cis, big person, I’m getting pretty darn close to winning the “oppression olympics.” But, I have class privilege, and I (mostly) have ability privilege. I’ve been aware of the role of privilege for most of my life.
In 1984, in graduate school, at the tender age of 24, I wanted to volunteer to do something good in the world. So I got involved in this literacy organization in Cleveland, OH, and I taught a black man in Hough, a poor, black neighborhood in east Cleveland. I’d never visited a neighborhood like it before. The public housing was dilapidated, and the empty apartments were boarded up. I never felt unsafe going there and teaching him, and I learned something really important about the lived experience of people who didn’t have the class privilege I had grown up with.
I think it was that experience, more than any, that solidified for me what my job is in this society of layered oppressions. My job in listening to people who are oppressed in the ways that I am not, is really hearing what they say, and altering my worldview, and correcting my speech and behavior as needed based upon what they say. It seems pretty simple and obvious to me. I can’t begin to know what it’s like to grow up without the kind of privileges that I did. I can’t begin to imagine it – but if people tell me, I can change my own attitudes.
So this is my job: when someone without the class or ability privilege I hold tells me something, I listen. I make sure that I spend time looking deeply and my own perspective in the light of this new information. I don’t hold on to my preconceived notions, but I open myself up to understanding more about what it must be like to have that history and experience. And there is a kind of grace in it, really – it’s not just work. It opens to door to love and understanding in a way that nothing else can. And it’s like sowing seeds of justice. And I also know I can’t be perfect at it, and that’s OK too – I allow myself to make mistakes.
I am very lucky to not have been the object of a whole lot of overt racism in my life, except for my brief stint in living in Colorado in the 80’s, where there were two particular incidents where I actually was concerned for my physical safety. One was accidentally running into a post-church breakfast meeting of the Laporte Church of Christ (a white supremacist church) while I was picking up cinnamon rolls for my housemates and friends. (Of course, I’ve been followed in stores, heard car doors lock while I walked by, etc. I tend to ignore those, because it’s healthier for me.)
But over the course of the past week, with the incident at the Charleston church, and the conversations that have followed, I have run into a lot of something else, which has been more painful than I expected. It’s not really racism – it’s certainly not overt racism. I think if you asked these people whether or not they think that everyone should have the same rights and chances, they would say , “Of course, yes.” But they have a kind of complete tone-deafness to the experience of oppressed people (namely, in this case, African-Americans.) They are unwilling to do their job. They are unwilling to listen to the lived and historical experience of people who don’t have the privilege that they do (in this case, white privilege) and have it change their perspectives.
No amount of speaking about loving your enemy, or practicing non-violence, or marching, protesting, vigils, even changing the law, will change the status quo around oppression in our country without all of us doing our jobs. I think that the sea change in the gay rights movement came by people doing their jobs – they finally saw and understood what it meant to be gay in our society, and a lot of them changed their perspectives.
And as I look back on my life, I realize that there have been, and are, a few people in it, acquaintances and friends, who couldn’t, or wouldn’t do their jobs. And I’ve come to the point where I’m really clear that it’s just not acceptable to me anymore.