Privilege and Defensiveness: Unlearning in Order to Learn

In our first blog piece for 2017-2018 we hear from Queen’s alum, Mike Young. In his piece, Mike passionately discusses privilege, anger and courageous compassion.

There are a great many hurdles that one is likely to encounter while doing social justice work. As a cis-man who does not identify within the Queer Community and is of Euro-settler descent, I’ve become increasingly focused on the questions surrounding privilege within the anti-oppressive space. In particular, I’ve found it both internally productive and professionally relevant to begin interrogating and unpacking the relationship that exists between privileged socio-political locations and a tendency towards defensiveness. A relationship, I believe, that is central to answering the question: “Where do we go from here?”

It seems we live in a world where people are consistently enraged with political and social institutions, each other, and even sometimes with themselves. Unfortunately, we also live in a place in time where these feelings of anger/sadness/frustration, often borne out of sickening real-life experiences, are incredibly valid. The human condition in 2017 appears tattered and bruised in many ways, and it calls us to look ourselves in the mirror and do what we can to be productive pieces of a collective puzzle.

I have had countless conversations with friends and family over the past several years about issues surrounding sexual/gender diversity, anti-racism, sexual violence, and mental health. Through these conversations I’ve had what I think are illuminating moments that speak to a trend in our social consciousness. This trend is built around the notion that many folks feel that they care about these issues, but are not interested in engaging with other folks who are angry at them for saying the wrong thing. By extension, words like “racist”, “misogynist”, and/or “bigot”, just to name a few, have become dialogue-enders for many. Of particular note, though, is that this trend also seems to be correlated to one other prominent and noticeable feature: the folks who most passionately talk in these terms are often folks of privilege.

What is privilege? It is quite literally the ways in which different parts of one’s identity might serve to insulate them from different systems of oppression and discrimination. It is not something that one should feel guilty about or apologize for, but it is unquestionably something that we should all take time to become aware of and more importantly, accountable to. Privilege, then, is not something one should feel bad for possessing, but it is something that we are called to use in positive ways and to leverage to make space for the amplification of different voices. We’re called to understand how much space privilege affords us in different ways, and to understand how we can use it for good.

What is anger? Anger is a tough one for a lot of folks. For me, its value was something that I long struggled to understand and come to terms with until I read Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger”. The fact of the matter is that anger is unavoidable, valid, and productive. Unavoidable and valid in the sense that daily manifestations of systemic oppression will make folks angry over time, and that we ought not to police the tone with which people respond to oppression in lieu of seeking to dismantle oppressive systems; productive in that it has directly led to social and political change over generations, especially when public anger has forced public institutions to respond and prove that they hear the voices of their people.

I was unable to validate and empathize with anger because I was blinded in many ways by privilege. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what it was like to fight every single day, simply because of who I was, where I came from, who I loved, or to whom I did or did not pray. All it takes is a moment of active listening to hear the stories of folks for whom life is a constant struggle, and whose protest or activism is often deemed radical or “too emotional”, to understand how and why anger is so prevalent within anti-oppression activism. It might make you uncomfortable. In fact, it probably will, and that’s kind of the point. If we don’t become uncomfortable with the ways things are, these ways will remain indeterminately.

And this is where privilege and anger meet the final piece of the puzzle: defensiveness. A white person wears a Halloween costume that is meant to be lighthearted and celebratory that is called out as cultural appropriation and racist. A common response? “I’m not a racist and I don’t appreciate you throwing that word around”. And the dialogue ends. And this story is repeated and repeated, often in less direct ways (with people engaging with social issues online, for example), with anger being generated by oppressive forces and defensiveness becoming a defacto response. In my experience, the crux of the issue lies in the blindspots that privilege creates, which reactions of anger often illuminate. When someone doesn’t realize that their actions or words are racist but is called a racist by someone who experiences it, there is often an aggressive bout of cognitive dissonance that takes over. This happens organically and makes logical sense, but it’s a recurring script that we must take the time and effort required to interrupt.

The moment I realized that I was mobilizing this very script every time I ran into a response of anger was one of the most important moments in my growth as a person. As someone who has just recently started a new initiative that more-or-less commits the rest of my life to remain focused on anti-oppression in its many forms, I’ve become passionate about being part of a new script that can help facilitate multi-directional growth, compassion, and humanity:

  1. I’ve been called out. Someone is communicating to me that I’ve hurt them, and I didn’t mean to. I feel bad and uncomfortable.
  2. I realize that in the situation, the worst I have to worry about is having a label associated with me; I don’t have to worry about experiencing the violence of oppression itself (when I hold a privilege within that particular social location).
  3. I apologize, I validate, and I listen. If the person I’ve hurt decides to share with me what I can do differently next time, then I try and learn from it. If they don’t, I take it upon myself to read and reflect in order to see how I can be kinder and better next time.
  4. Repeat.

For a long time, the onus has been on folks who experience various systems of oppression to dismantle them. It’s time for folks of privilege to be courageous in their compassion and accountable in their activism, and to find new ways of working with one another to help progress these issues along. The tendency has to become critical reflection and growth rather than defensiveness and self-preservation.

I’ve come to understand this process as non-linear, as uncomfortable, and as extremely hard to do properly. I’ve made lots of mistakes and I get my guard up now and again. But I’ve taken the time to understand how and why anger bubbles to the surface, I have admitted that I often cannot truly understand how someone feels, I’ve committed to trying to figure out where I fit into the anger I’m experiencing, and I’m becoming increasingly aware of how my privilege makes all of the above even more complicated. In order to learn, grow, and become inclusive in our work, we have to commit to unlearning defensiveness. We need to create and learn a new set of social scripts, we need to rehearse them each and every day, and we need to recognize that every interaction is an opportunity to better ourselves and our communities that we need to start taking full advantage of.

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