I started my day by reviewing comments I’d made on a facebook friend’s post to see if I’d been contributing to anti-blackness (anti-blackness is a more nuanced term for prejudice against people with dark skin; this term includes concepts of racism and colorism). The discussion was a challenging one; this friend was calling out white Jewish people who attempt to deny their prejudice against black people by saying they’re not white, they’re Jewish. This friend is black and had been hurt by pale-skinned Jewish people in the past.
This kind of conversation has many layers of prejudice that can be in play at any time. As someone involved in “social justice work”, when I come to a conversation, how do I “meet others on equal ground”?
To me, this means I need to be aware of the privileges I bring to any interaction and try to limit the effects of those privileges.
My ethnicity is half Armenian and half European, but I have white privilege, which is why I’ve started openly identifying as white online. My dad’s family’s culture may not always be white American, but in interactions with the public, in general, I am given the benefit of white privilege. So, in conversations with black people, I try to “check” my white privilege. What does this mean? What does “checking your privilege” mean? It means that I do my best to make sure I’m not coming from a place of assumed superiority in interactions. It means I’m willing to listen and let them lead the conversation. It means, in short, doing what I can to reduce the effects of my privilege for this conversation by not claiming the power white people generally have in interactions with black people. It means doing my best to meet them on equal ground while being aware that society has done its best to prevent that ground from being equal.
That’s one example. Another privilege I have is neurotypical privilege. This is something I am still learning about. But in interactions with autistic people, I try to give them the space to control the interaction. Or at least accept that my perception of a social interaction may be vastly different than theirs, and that theirs is no less valid than mine.
This leads me to another aspect of meeting others on equal ground: the acceptance of their truth as real, even if their truth is completely different than my own experiences. On another blog, I wrote about how disabled people are often questioned and doubted about the validity of our experiences as disabled people. About how “I believe you” can be life-changing for us to hear, because we exist in a constant challenge to prove our health conditions are real (particularly those of us with conditions that primarily affect women, such as fibromyalgia).
This need for lived experiences to be believed is not unique to disabled people, however; as this article shows, black people also are routinely doubted and questioned when they share their lived experiences of racism. I believe that any marginalized/oppressed group will have similar experiences; that when a marginalized group tries to explain how their marginalization affects their lives, that people who aren’t part of the group, who have no experiences that match those, will tend to express skepticism.
This is also a way of the non-oppressed group to exert its control. “Oh, racism is over, thus we white people don’t need to change anything or do anything differently because you black people are just exaggerating.” “Oh, your pain can’t be that bad. I’d kill myself if I had to live your life.” “There are gay couples in TV and movies now; what do you mean representation is still a problem?” “Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, so clearly transgender people are now accepted by society.”
Etc. Denying the experiences of an oppressed group can be a method of abuse called gas-lighting.
We need to listen. We need to be sure we’re not contributing to oppression in our interactions with people who are oppressed (and oppressed people, we are not blameless here; just because we’re oppressed in one way doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the oppression of other groups). “Meeting others on equal ground” may not always be possible. We may have internalized prejudices, or they may (yup, oppressed people often end up believing the stereotypes about their group; disabled people can have internal ableism, etc.). We may not be able to fully equalize the ground we’re meeting on; in fact, chances are, in a meeting between an oppressed person and a member of the oppressing group, we won’t be able to reduce the effects of our privilege enough to have it be a fully equal conversation.
But the first step has to be listening. It has to be believing the “other”, whoever that “other” may be, when they tell us about their life experiences that are different than ours. (For example, if a black person is telling a white person about a negative interaction they’ve had with police, that the white person’s positive interactions with the police does not negate the black person’s experiences or mean that they are seeing racism where there isn’t any. It means that they, as a black person, have had a difference experience than the white person has. That experience is no less valid just because that person is black while we are white.)
We need to accept that being aware of differences is not the same thing as being prejudiced. Because those differences matter, and the differences are not what’s bad–it’s the discrimination and oppression that is. And if we aren’t aware of this, we may never have the opportunity to meet someone from a different social group on truly equal ground.
“Meet others on equal ground”. When the ground that society has laid out isn’t equal, how do our interactions support or lessen this inequality? In what ways do we deny the truth of others different than us? In what ways are we supporting and empowering others? In what ways are we failing?
As a Quaker and a Buddhist, today’s slogan is a challenge, and one I know I need to keep working on.