Saturday, September 19, 2009

Privilege and The Importance of Discomfort

There are certain discussions that make me really uncomfortable. Not always, but often enough. I am really uncomfortable, for example, when race/gender/sexuality/ethnicity - pretty much any identity discussions hit on something that I should feel kind of guilty about. I also get very uncomfortable when discussions about behaviors and choices start to force me to think about behaviors and choices that I am not happy about in my own life - when the discussion hits close enough to the mark that I start making associations. Sometimes it gets really uncomfortable - like lose sleep over it, feel like shit about it uncomfortable.

That's the best time, because the worse it feels, the more you are growing and making positive, fundamental changes.

We don't change our thinking or behaviors when we are all cozy and comfy. We don't have any impetus when things seem rosy, so we get complacent. It isn't until we are uncomfortable that changes we need to make can happen. The problem with this, is that all too often we decide to just blame what or whoever exposed us to the discomfort and attempt to banish them or at least get them to shut up and stop making us uncomfortable. Like we really want our token brown/gay/trans/ethnic minority friend around to make us feel hip and progressive - we just wish they would talk and act more like us and quit trying to make us understand their perspective. It is sooo uncomfortable when they do that...

The problem is, by and large they do. They want to - you know - work and have friends and all that, so they do shut up and just pretend it's ok. They often actually feel guilty for our fucking guilt! I want you to think about that for a moment - one of the many things that privilege means, is that minorities actually feel guilty for our fucking guilt, so we don't have to be uncomfortable enough to do something about it. Talk about fucking privilege - we make them feel guilty about our guilt that wells up when they talk about their discomfort. Here's a tip - the feelings of the disenfranchised are valid. They have a right to feel that way, even if you didn't intend something you said that was offensive to be offensive.

I have been trying to write this post for sometime now, but keep getting blocked by my anger about one of the most egregious points of contention; I have the privilege of writing this post without much concern for retribution. I don't really need to worry overmuch about how people who will have an impact on my career - my future might feel about me for saying this. I am not going to get labeled an angry brown/gay/trans person for saying this. Sure, some folks may argue with me about this, but in the end I sport beige skin and rather than a uterus, I have a cock - and I am engaged in a heteronormative relationship.

So it's all good, because I am in baby!!! I'm part of the club.

But if, for example, my totally brilliant and super hot girlfriend decided to write openly about this under her real name, it could well have an adverse affect on her future. Folks might decide that they really don't want to hire an angry brown women. At the very least, she will be told that her feelings aren't valid. Hell, that whole thread is chocked full of people who just can't believe that people who really don't like to be referred to as "the brown person" have valid feelings on the matter.

The message I am getting there is; "Your discussion about things that make you uncomfortable is making me uncomfortable - I sometimes say things like that and hearing how it makes you feel is making me feel vaguely uneasy and bad about myself. And of course, my feelings are far more valid than yours, so please just shut the fuck up and let me get on with feeling good about being a decent person."

Shut the fuck up, you whiny little asshole. Seriously. Shut the fuck up and consider why you feel uncomfortable. Hell, just think about that discomfort and consider that rather than shutting people down for making you feel that way, you can actually change your behavior and respect the feelings of others. Because the last time I checked, my GF can't change the color of her skin (and I would be really bummed if she could and did - she is totally hot). Isis can't change the experience she had growing up. That token queer friend of yours can't do anything to change how he internalized all the times he was separated out by his sexuality.

You however, can accept and embrace your discomfort, allow it to foster change in your life so you can quit being a fucking asshole and making others feel bad about things that they cannot change.


Greg said...

I believe the "I was talking to this black guy" phenomenon ranges from the nefarious (="I was talking to this black guy, so now I've cued you in to that this guy was XYZ") to the mundane memetic (whereby it is not "meant" to be anything). People (mainly white people but no, this racial reference pattern is not at all exclusive to white or to privilege) simply need to train themselves to not do it.

This needs to start in schools. Teachers have to NEVER use this phpraseology when speaking amongst themselves. It will work outwards from there (slowly). People have to be corrected at a young age for doing this. It does not matter how harmless one feels it is, or how harmless it may in fact be under certain limited IMMEDIATE circumstances because over the long term it is simply perpetuation of a meme that is always there, always messing with us.

Having said all that, I have to tell you a funny story....

...So I'm sitting there in the rain forest in Zaire, Africa. This guy who is an Efe Pygmy person, comes over to me.

He says: "Hey, Greg, have you see Karakbotu?"

"Who's karakbotu?" I say.

"You know, that short black guy."


I guess you had to be there.

Becca said...

First off, I agree discomfort is often useful. If you don't turn your discomfort into an opportunity for introspection and growth, you're missing out.
Secondly, I still call bullshit on the notion that it is a prerequisite to growth. How can you lack the ability to change in other situations? Are you really only inclined to ask yourself why you do things when you are uncomfortable? Are you really so uninterested in other people that you can't consider learning alternative ways of handling situations from them, just because it'll be another tool in your interpersonal skills toolkit?
Granted, on average learning without discomfort may be more gradual or seem less efficient. But I can certainly think of times when someone was made so uncomfortable they shut down as a defense mechanism. The correlation between discomfort and growth is imperfect.

@Greg- schools are usually worthless except for the most petty, soul-crushing indoctrination. The most they can do is discourage a certain behavior because it is not polite. That's a far cry from encouraging people to be empathetic and kind, thus leading to a different behavior. If you want kids to learn empathy and kindness, we'll have to start, ya know, treating minors as people who deserve empathy and kindness. And you won't find that prioritized in many schools.

DrugMonkey said...

This post makes me vaguely uncomfortable.

...tom... said...

They often actually feel guilty for our fucking guilt! I want you to think about that for a moment - one of the many things that privilege means, is that minorities actually feel guilty for our fucking guilt, so we don't have to be uncomfortable enough to do something about it."


Last time I knew guilt was a self-imposed emotion. I can not 'make you feel guilty'.

You do not like what I am saying, what I am believing, how I am acting then you, the person being offended or 'made to feel uncomfortable' . . .you tell me to shut the f*ck up or change my stupid thoughts or attitudes or verbal mechanics or whatever.

But then, h3ll, I am just talking out of my arsehole because I am 'privileged' and all that.



DuWayne Brayton said...

Greg -

I really was trying to be clear that this wasn't just about race - but then I read that thread at Dr. Isis blog and made significant changes to the post.

I didn't include a continuum of privilege that I intended to. Working my way from beige skinned, penis sporting types, to transgendered people being less privileged than others who are less privileged than you and I.

becca -

I am not certain I can disagree with you, but I'm not certain I can agree either - I'll have to think on that some. I am not averse to accepting that one can grow without discomfort - I'm just not sure it actually ever happens that way - at the least very effectively.

DM -

I am happy to hear that...

Tom -

Last time I knew guilt was a self-imposed emotion. I can not 'make you feel guilty'

Funny that, because emotions are not something we can control. We can control how we react to our emotions and to some degree, we can learn and grow in ways that change our emotional reactions - but that takes time and is not a direct control over our emotions. It is only a control over what feeds them.

As far as making someone feel guilty - when I do something that hurts someone else, I feel guilty - unless of course I intended to hurt them. Likewise, people who have been raised in a culture that tells them their feelings about race (or whatever identity is being discussed) aren't valid and they say things that make others uncomfortable, they feel bad about it. Not because they did something wrong, but because they did something they have been taught they shouldn't.

Let me ask you this Tom; What exactly gives you the right to tell someone you can't possibly begin to understand, who has had an experience in life you can't possibly relate to or comprehend, that their feelings aren't valid or are less valid than your own? Seriously, please explain what exactly makes you superior enough that you get to determine who's feelings are valid and what feelings are valid?

Oh, and Tom, how exactly is that determination you're making not a manifestation of privilege?

Greg Laden said...

Becca, I agree that schools are problematic, but there were two things that made me suggest this:

1) Regardless of anyone's opinion about schools, middle schoolers spend more time in schools than they spend anywhere while awake. So, schools matter no matter what. High schoolers may spend somewhat less time and it is too late for them anyway (only slightly kidding)

2) I am amazed at how racialized the day to day conversation in some schools .. and yes, DuWayne, I get that this is not exclusively about race but I'm only one commenter making one comment without intending to narrow down the topic explicitly. What I'm saying applies more broadly, especially in MS/HS ... anyway, the conversation in one school where I've observed does not involve the pronounds "he" and "she" and so on. It is all "The mexican, the black guy, the tibetan guy, the hmong guy" etc. etc. Under some conditions, the ethno-racial identities of the students, and to a lesser extent their gender identities, IS the framework on which the ongoing conversation is built,which I find incredible. Not all schools, but my guess is that this happens in schools with primarily heteronormative white faculties and admins in previously mainly white zones with recent immigration.

I do not assume that what we train teachers do to does not matter. I also don't assume that it fixes everything. That's why I said "a place to start."

Samia said...

*whoosh* ;)