Fleeing the room

It’s interesting to see what happens when I talk about privilege at work. Not just with the people I’m talking to, but the other people in the room. Their reaction can be easily summarized: the darker their skin, the faster they leave the room. Women are usually next, unless they’re the ones bringing the argument up (for example, today’s assertion that Oprah “blames the white man”). This leaves me as the one arguing equal rights, arguing against racism, arguing against privilege.

I’m not entirely comfortable with this. It feels like I’m usurping a role, fighting a fight that isn’t mine. Do women, minorities, and people inhabiting the lower class (social and economic) really WANT me to be picking these fights? And yet, I know I’ve got the privilege to burn… and they don’t. I think I know why they don’t take part in these conversations, why they avoid any discussion about the forces that have directly affected them in their lives. Privately, they’ll agree with me, and say they support what I’m doing… but it’s still hard to shake the feeling when they leave the room.

I hope and try I come off as a teaspooner, but I’m never entirely sure.

It’s also puzzling how people will see – clearly – one form of privilege but actively deny others. Today, I had conversations about class, gender, and racial privilege with people at work. Usually, they’d accept any one of the three… but deny the other two (even when one of those other two worked against them). For example, they’d gladly admit that racism was real, but sexism and classism weren’t valid. “Those are completely different,” they’d say, or claim that they were historical forces that weren’t relevant now. “I didn’t live when people acted like that,” they said, not realizing that it was their privilege that hid modern examples from them.

Once, while trying to reduce things back to principles (“So, while we disagree on how bad things are, we both agree that people get oppressed for their gender or race”), I was actually interrupted for the other person to restate their original talking point.

“I thought we were about to agree,” I said, “but you interrupted to restate your original position. That’s not really cool.”

Naming the behavior stopped them for a moment, but the agreement was as forced as Sarah Palin’s non-agreement with Joe Biden on gay marriage.

Ah, well. I’m mostly venting, but any tactics and techniques you might have that help bring awareness of the systemic effects would be greatly appreciated.

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