Wednesday, July 10, 2013

FGC Gathering: Some Thoughts on Privilege

There were several themes in the air at the FGC Gathering, and one of them was the concept of privilege.  I heard at least two messages in meeting for worship about privilege, and I know many people were in conversation about it.

All of that made me think about the difference between privilege and privilege.

I think you know what I mean, but just in case, here's an illustration.  Imagine a middle-aged man beginning to give a talk by saying, "I feel so privileged to be here tonight."  Now imagine a young woman with hairy legs and a shaking voice saying to that man, "Check your privilege."

It's the same man.  He has the same amount of privilege.  But it's different, right?

As I write this, I am keenly aware that I am a newcomer to this conversation.  But I sense an opening, in myself and in the Religious Society of Friends, that we are ready to engage more deeply on this issue. 

Part of that opening is inspired by two recent posts by Joanna H (Privilege, part 1 and Privilege, part 2).  I also know that many Friends (and others) have been working hard on this issue for years.  Ones that come immediately to mind are Liz O, Vanessa J, Jeanne B, and George L, and I know there are many more.

This is not meant to be a treatise on privilege.  Rather, I am taking a page from Parker Palmer and trying to write about something I don't completely understand.  I know it is challenging, and I appreciate you hanging in there with me.

It feels disingenuous to talk about the ways I feel marginalized without first acknowledging my own privilege.  Yesterday, a co-worker and I took a minute to list all of the ways we could think of that I am privileged.  It was a long list. 

I am: white, able-bodied, blue-eyed, Christian, reasonably attractive and fit, very well-educated, employed, cisgender, and a U.S. citizen.  I come from a middle class background and I have a vast safety net of family and friends.  Although I identify as bisexual, I usually come across as straight, which means that I have the choice of whether and when to reveal my sexual orientation.  The list goes on.  I did not do anything to earn this privilege, and all of these things make my life easier.

I am also a woman and a young adult Friend. 

Over the past few years as I have traveled among Friends, I have encountered assumptions about me and about who we are as Friends that make me feel alienated as a woman and a young person.  [Note: it feels a little strange for me to identify here as young.  I am 31.  In all other parts of my life, I am a real adult.  But in the context of the Religious Society of Friends, I am young and I am grouped into Young Adult Friends (YAFs), regardless of whether I identify as one.] 

This post is about the ways I have felt marginalized by my gender and age.  I am not trying to fix things.  I am just going to list of some of the assumptions I have come across and attempt to explain why they make me feel "other."  Although I am trying to separate them out, there is some overlap.

Assumption #1:  YAFs do not have much Quaker experience (and have lots of free time).  Last year, when I was in Kenya for the World Conference of Friends, a woman sat down next to me at breakfast.  She mentioned that she was on a nominating committee and asked me what my gifts and talents were.  I told her that I was pretty busy.  She said, "You're young, how busy could you be?"  At the time, I was clerk of my meeting in addition to holding down a full-time legal job.

Assumption #2:  We all have the same amount of money.  We don't.  Some people, when they want to go to a Quaker event, just write a check.  I don't think I have ever paid a full registration fee for a Quaker event.  In order to go to the FGC Gathering this summer, I had four grants (the Pickett Endowment, a workgrant for leading a workshop, a travel grant, and a scholarship from my meeting).  Young people are more likely to be taking the cheaper options: sharing rooms, getting fewer meals, or camping.  YAFs are less likely to have vacation homes.  At the World Conference of Friends, much was made of having Friends pay their fair share based on their home countries' gross domestic product.  But while we were there, a YAF from one of the wealthiest countries confided in me that she had been homeless just months before the conference.

Assumption #3:  The people who want to be there, are.  Sometimes when older Friends sigh and say, "Where are the young people?"  I want to respond, "They are at work!"  We do not all have flexible schedules.  I am fortunate enough to have a job with paid vacation leave, but even so, I had to save up for months to have enough vacation time to go to the Gathering for a week.  It is time I did not spend on other vacation or to see my family.  Young Friends are working to pay rent, support their families, or pay off student loans and other debt.  YAFs have to carefully discern whether to attend Quaker events.

Assumption #4:  Everyone feels safe.  Like many women (and also a lot of men), I am a survivor of sexual assault.  One of the consequences is that I am very sensitive about people touching me, especially men.  As a woman, I have found that many men—including Quakersfeel free to touch me in ways that they would never touch other men.  At Quaker events, there is a lot of hugging and other casual touch, and Friends have at times made me feel uncomfortable (or even shamed me) for avoiding hugs.  (And don't even get me started on "cuddle puddles.")

Assumption #5:  Everyone has an equal opportunity to speak and be heard.  This is a hard one because Friends have always held that men and women are equal.  However, in our culture, women are socialized to keep quiet and men tend to interrupt and to dominate the conversation.  Although Quakers try for more equality, we don't just leave those patterns behind when we are in Quaker settings.  One of the ways this comes out is in conversations about vocal ministry.  The assumption often is that ministers tend to speak too soon and for too long (more common for men).  My experience is that I am more likely to be unfaithful by waiting too long before I speak (more common for women).  Rather than being told to "be humble" in ministry, women may need to be told to "be bold."

I could go on, but that feels like enough for now.  I am not sharing these to try to make anyone feel bad.  I just ask that, if you find yourself making these assumptions, you stop to think first. 

Check your privilege, Friends.  And be grateful for the privileges God has given you.


  1. I really resonate with this post, especially assumptions 1, 2 and 3. Thank you for your ministry!

    1. Thanks for saying so, Liz! I'm glad the post spoke to you.

  2. Ashley, Thanks... I'm printing this out... for my meeting, and beyond.

    Things I notice:

    1) When facilitating mixed-age groups, I notice that younger people are often dominated by older folks who wish to "impart" wisdom, and are not as inclined to listen to others' concerns --

    2) I'm not the "touchy-feely" sort... though not for the same reasons. I found my boundaries consistently impinged a few years back when my small group expected "healing touch" was the norm. That happens a lot.

    3) In mixed cultural groups, I find it's most often the white folks (all ages) who initiate/dominate the conversation, without waiting for other perspectives.

    Christine Greenland

    1. Thanks for adding your perspective, Christine.

  3. Thank you for writing this!

    Thanks especially for #4. I do tend to be a hugger, though I don't hug people I don't already know fairly well without asking if that's okay--I wonder, though, if asking still feels like pressure? But beyond that I do have boundaries further out than some Friends seem to assume. I find the name 'cuddle puddle' alarming, and I remember the Quaker gathering at which we'd been wrestling with some tender questions about economics and calling and God and then the workshop leader said we'd all get in a circle and give each other back rubs to help everyone relax again. . . I found the back-rubbing rather more tension-inducing than the conversation.

    I hadn't thought of the issue of advice given to ministers as gendered, maybe because my temptation is definitely to speak to much and too lightly.

    The part about YAFs as having less money, not having vacation homes and having to pay off college loans makes sense now I think about it, but it struck me oddly at first, since where I come from going to college and owning a home are both signs of privilege that are far from's all a matter of one's context, I guess.

    1. I'm glad it spoke to you, Joanna! Thanks for coming by to read it.

      I am sure that my writing shows a lot of my own assumptions and biases, which is why I do my best to ground what I say in my own experience.

      Of course, like everyone, I can be inconsistent. Sometimes I am happy to give out hugs, other times I glare at anyone who invades my personal space. In my workshop, I asked Friends to be clear about what their physical boundaries are, especially when it came to intercessory prayer (a time when many people feel it is appropriate to "lay hands").

  4. [I received this comment from Friend Pablo in an email (evidently Blogger did not want to post it) and said I would post it on his behalf.]

    Oh, Yes! Ashley,
    and since you’re young and have no children you also have lots of time for social action ministry and committee work and (we don’t call it this) diaconate ministry like visiting those in need and healing the sick... Well, i’m glad you run races some times. You’ll be in shape to fulfill everyone’s expectations
    You have many other privileges besides, but i don’t know that it really helps to beat oneself up about completing the list of benes that life has graced us or our parents with. We’d like to think anyone so situated would be likewise privileged, right?
    The whole privilege discussion (which some of us are surprised is finally happening after we pushed it and pushed it 20 years ago, 15 years ago, and 10 years ago to no effect...) is always about two subjects, i think:
    [1] judging: how we discriminate the differences among people and the assumptions we make about them and their diversity and how they would like to be treated (i prefer to put the positive spin on it; i’d hope that we’re just trying to be accommodating to different preferences...). I for one do not want people to be color, gender, age, background blind. E.g.: Like most black people who do not want their African heritage erased or ignored, i’m tired of trying to convince anglos that my latino heritage and experience actually matters to me since they don’t see me acting like a cartoon Messicun all the time. My marriages to 2 men who died of AIDS are as important to me and the being widowed was as hard on me as on people with legal marriages... and no one thinks of that, well, because, well, we wouldn’t want to point out that those marriages weren’t legal or that they were gay and that would be noticing a difference, right? So we still have to work so hard to differentiate and work with the subtlety between identifying what someone IS and how that’s important to them (or maybe just to their ego); recognizing or even celebrating their difference from oneself or especially from the “norm” (privileged); learning and sharing our differences; generalizing from the common experiences of those who are not median standard and accommodating to the needs and wider range of options inclusivity requires; prejudicing ourselves against groups because of individuals and vice versa; judging people because they don’t fit into one’s subconscious expectations of what people SHOULD be doing because of their age/gender/sex(&/or orientation)/economics/education/etc/etc...

    [Continued . . .]

  5. [Part 2 of Pablo's comment]

    [2] assuming we know what it means to be human: the range of human normality is SOOO much larger than the median of the most recognized standards and types. I blame the “Oh-we’re-really-all-alike [actually we aren’t although we do have many common bonds] so-we’ll-just-suppress-those-that-make-us-uncomfortable” attitude too often found among liberals and Quakers (not totally overlapping categories). Instead of asking, it’s easier to assume. Instead of listening, it’s easier to tell others what we expect them to do. It is a question of politics, which is power. Who has the power to make decisions; to ignore someone and their reality? One of the greatest privileges of privilege is the freedom to stay ignorant and be held blameless. If we stand up and say, “Hey! That’s not right!” when it affects us in a way that is not empowered by our society (our Society of Friends even?), we get branded, excluded, limited, judged. And if i say after they’ve judged me wrongly, “That’s wrong!”, then I am the rude one, arrogant, upstart, presumptuous and...Oh! …“loosey-goosey with the truth” ...well i just can’t remember all the things i’ve been called, and i’m relatively nice and kind when i accuse people of pushing me out.
    Nowadays no one is out and out biased, of course; we’re too subtle to discriminate directly. We don’t have to notice it when it’s institutionalized. They don’t pull your chair out, ask you to leave; just forget to set your place, or put food on the plate you bring, or tell you when dinner is, or plan it on a day you can’t be there…

    It’s most fun when they judge me because so many of my (dis)abilities and distinctions are invisible to untrained eyes: too white and blue-eyed to be a latino, too straight looking to be gay, too old to be interested in X, too young looking to be old and physically handicapped (but chronic pain and internal injuries are not visible and Value Village makes poverty invisible too...) and people with high IQs are never poor because there’s no discrimination. And definitely too out-going to be a real introvert. All those shoulds, toos; I didn’t get the memo. Who sets people up to judge my veracity? Let alone the reality and meaning of my experience? I spent so much of my life and energy getting to know and be those parts of me, and I spent so much of my life closeted because it wasn’t OK to be the things I am, or they made it clear I wouldn’t be accepted if I let them know. Now I’m out. It’s not OK and I’m not accepted...

    [Continued . . .]

  6. [Part 3 of Pablo's comment]

    This is where it comes to the spiritual part – we knew it had to get there – denying someone’s experience is spiritual abuse. “That didn’t happen” or otherwise implying your experience doesn’t matter, those are just another way to say, “If they have no bread, why don’t they eat cake? Let them eat cake!” That is what those with privilege say/mean when they don’t ask the minorities and the marginalized in. It’s abuse to the spirit of the one who does the excluding as well, because it makes them a lesser person, a less rich and experienced soul.
    “This then is the great historical and human task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves, and thus liberate their oppressors also.” ~Paulo Freire.
    Go liberate.
    paz, ~фablo 8^)>

    1. Thank you, Pablo! There are many good things in here and, maybe more importantly, you made me laugh twice! :)



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