Complex Conversations

Some friends of mine have been having conversations lately exploring different facets of identity.  I want to present these conversations together, because I think they’re a valuable glimpse in how people are trying to think about themselves in the context of others, and history, and the future, and possibilities.

ON SEXUALITY (white female, early 20s)
A female with many friends of nonbinary sexualities and genders posted a long question asking how appropriate it is for her to talk about certain subjects.  Being surrounded by many people whose identities do not conform with the mainstream, she is regularly exposed to provocative articles and polemics, and she wonders about her proper place at the conversational table.  Given that she is cis (born female, presents and identifies as female) and straight, she feels like she may not have the right to weigh in on topics like violence against gay teens or the transgender suicide rate.

ON RACE (black male, late 20s)
On Facebook, a friend has begun posting more race-related materials.  Prior to the last few months, his posts were emotionally neutral and racially silent: shoutouts to new babies, funny Buzzfeed stories, and questions to friends about runner etiquette.  More recently he’s been exploring ideas like equity vs. equality, morality juxtaposed against justice, African-American disruptors of the racial status quo, blacks in the media, blacks in the news, homelessness, and race baiting.  Most of these are reposts without comment, and it comes across as someone for whom race is both increasingly viewed as a part of his identity, as well as increasingly being called into question.

ON POLITICS (white male, mid 30s)
One friend has been fretting about the divisiveness and increasingly polemicizing nature of political discourse, obviously rueful about the prevailing “us vs. them” mentality and the lagging awareness of “the other” as “somebody like me who believes something different”.  His proposal, a little in jest but mostly intended to kickstart earnest conversation: “What if instead of, or in addition to, ‘study abroad,’ we decided to make it a national priority to send coastal and big city kids to red state schools…for a semester, and vice versa, so that we could all get a better sense of one another as fellow Americans?”

ON GENDER (white female, early 40s)
“I’m aware of the risk I’m taking by posting this, but I’m sick of being polite and quietly taking my ordained place as a professional ‘woman’. I began this journey as a [discipline redacted] student years ago. I was possibly one of the most ambitious students in my class, and won the top awards. Since I received my graduate degree, I’ve heard many sexist complaints directed at me more times than I can count. I look at my own professional development over the past years, and I’m no where near where I wanted or expected to be. I’m still suffering the trauma from working for an sexist and abusive boss years ago – who I feel completely derailed my career trajectory despite the efforts of my close peers and superiors who provided guidance and support. I refuse to be a victim and I haven’t completely given up – but damn, I feel awfully close sometimes.”

These conversations are all very interesting to me for two primary reasons.  One is that academic research has shown time and time again that privilege tends to be invisible to those experiencing it.  I’m not interested in white guilt for the sake of being a good card-carrying free lover; on the other hand, as a person intensely interested in issues of compassion, complex conflict resolution, and helping to nudge history in the right direction, it behooves me to understand what others thing the issues are, not just what I think is important and worth spending time on.  There is an exercise that can help illuminate this gap in perception.  It’s called the “Privilege Walk”, and the idea is to bring together 10-12 people of different races, genders, sexualities and socioeconomic demographics, ask them a series of questions, and based on their answers have them move backwards or forwards against a baseline, at the end of which you have a very clear idea of relative privileges.  This can be an incredibly emotional exercise for the participants, many of whom want to explain away advantages they’ve had by saying how hard they’ve worked for some things; and while this may be true, the questions frame the inescapable truth of how vast the legacies we inherit are.  (If you’d like to have a better understanding of the Privilege Walk and how ‘privilege blindness’ can work, I encourage you to take four minutes to watch a video BuzzFeed created called “What Is Privilege?” and draw your own conclusions.)

The other reason I’m interested in these conversations is that I have questions about my own identity.  I wonder about the legitimacy of drawing in past experiences of my own of sexism or racism.  I wonder about how much my participation in conversations like #blacklivesmatter and #justiceforleelah is welcomed by the people running it, and how much it is viewed as intrusive.  I am a white female in my mid-30s; I am beginning to have a vastly more complex view of my own identity, which includes the legacies I’ve inherited and all the stories that comprise my life to now (whether I like them or not), and I am grateful to the people who are being brave enough to put their questions and uncertainties and frustrations out there.  You, friends, are the giants of complexity upon whose shoulders I stand in order to try to understand my life and our world a little bit better.

How about you?  What is your complex?

— Posted on 31 August 2015 at 3:36pm by

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