After posting my recent post, I received a comment that completely surprised me, in which I was challenged about what I thought was the opposite of what I said. Given what was written in the comment, I believe it was a person of color writing it. Given my overall commitments, including the ones I wrote about in that piece, it was vitally important for me to take the comment seriously as important feedback. This meant focusing on what I may have done to contribute to the misunderstanding rather than on trying to explain myself.
In reflecting, and in further conversation with a colleague, it didn’t take much to recognize what it might have been. What I discovered is three things I didn’t say rather than specific things that I said. Because of these omissions, my piece ended up vulnerable to being interpreted through the lens of shifting blame to the marginalized. The purpose of this piece is to make explicit what was left unsaid before.
Naming the Audience
The first was a very major slip; something I intended to add to the piece and was still thinking about where to add it most effectively, and then I forgot to close that loop and sent it off for publication without it. I am deeply chagrined about this slip, and want to correct it now.
It’s the failure to name the audience.
Although I am aware that people everywhere in the world read my blog, in many positions in the social hierarchy of the world, sometimes it is vitally important to name who the specific audience is. In this case, my audience was any of us when we are in the position of privilege. This is who I was writing it for: those of us who are more likely to be prone to dismiss what others are saying; to take offense instead of listening for the feedback; to focus on how it’s said rather than the content of it; to assume that we know what’s true, regardless; to be so uncomfortable when our privilege is pointed out to us that we would look for any possible way to deflect attention from that to any other aspect of what’s going on, most notably our own experience of discomfort with what was said.
I have been there. I have done that.
My version, when it happened, was always about trying to explain to the person giving me feedback about the innocence of my intentions. I wish I could say that I am sure it will never happen again. I am not. I do believe it’s happening less frequently. And I see it more often, whether it’s me doing it, or others doing it when they are in positions of privilege, either relative to me or to others.
Without naming the audience, I can totally see that this piece could put some burden on those reading it to whom this has happened so many times. I want to express my regret for not having spoken clearly that the piece is aimed primarily at elucidating some of what we do when we are in positions of privilege.
How Privilege Blocks Feedback
This leads me to the second thing I didn’t say that could easily contribute to misunderstanding.
In describing the phenomenon I was focusing on, I was being very specific about instances in which the feedback is given in ways that can be harder to hear. This is because, when we are in positions of privilege, I want us to be able to stay focused on the content of the feedback even when it’s not skillfully presented. That’s the task I want to call us to, always.
It is all too easy to focus attention on how something is said. And, there are indeed times when feedback is presented in such ways. And I still want us to make the unilateral, unconditional commitment to always take in what is said as feedback, regardless.
Because, the reality is that even when the person without the specific privilege we have is speaking with the utmost care and clarity, there are still so many obstacles to taking in their feedback.
This is the piece I didn’t say in the post: regardless of how feedback is presented, there is something about being in a position of privilege that makes it really hard to focus on what’s being said. I wanted the focus of this piece to be clearly on what we do when we are in positions of privilege, not on what we do or not when we are in a position without privilege. I don’t see it as my job to educate people without my specific privileges about how to speak to me; I see it as my job to hear them. Period.
On my list of things to write about is a closer look at what feeds these dynamics; what makes it so hard for us, when we are in positions of privilege, to hear and maintain focus on the topic rather than on our innocence or the other person’s inadequacy. For now, one small piece I can say is that privilege very often comes with a weight of guilt and/or shame that are not dealt with, and that take our attention. The discomfort of those feelings is so strong, that shifting attention to anything else is a relief. I want to consciously embrace this discomfort whenever I have any awareness that something akin to it is going on. I wrote the piece to invite readers to join me in that, whenever they find themselves in a position of privilege.
Varieties of Inner Resources
As you may have noticed, I am not dividing people into “the privileged” and everyone else. While there are, indeed, some small group of people who are in positions of extreme privilege along almost any dimension known to humanity, most of us are in crisscrossing positions: privileged in some dimensions and not in others. As far as I know, none of us are immune to the emotional, moral, and spiritual challenges that privilege brings with it, regardless of how much we may be lacking privilege in other dimensions. I hope that enough of us can finally take it in that the issue is privilege, not this or that individual or this or that specific group, in terms of its innate characteristics.
Still, there are some dimensions of privilege that affect people in particularly harsh ways and create conditions that are extraordinarily challenging on a daily basis, even sometimes minute-by-minute. As much as I am in certain positions of lack of privilege – female, Jewish, immigrant, heretic-of-sorts – I have some very basic needs met with astonishing ease. I want water? I reach for the faucet. I want food? I can go to a store, or to the most amazing farmers’ market I shop at weekly. I’ve had access to education, to healthcare, to some basic respect in society.
There is no way that I could ever come to understand what it’s like to not have these. I did visit places that are living in conditions of such hardship that I lose all my words: in Ghana, in Mexico, and in India. And there are extreme conditions that people live in which are fully embedded within the fabric of US or Western Europe and are made invisible. Homeless is one. Being targeted by police is another. Being completely and totally and perpetually discounted is yet another.
I want to maintain the humility of remembering that I totally don’t know what those experience are like. I can only try as much as I can to imagine it. Sometimes I manage, and manage well, and get feedback from people that they feel “gotten”. This gives me more energy to continue, to take risks, and to be willing to face the responses I receive when I don’t manage as well.
In this case: the way I wrote about the way that hardship and lack of resources make it hard to have the capacity to engage in certain kinds of inner work made invisible the dignity, beauty, strength, and love that are prevalent in communities of struggle, because they are indispensable for basic survival, not to mention for being able to nurture a family and community to maybe manage to go one step forward towards a rich and meaningful life.
Again, because of the narrow focus of the conversation that got me started on writing that piece, I failed to see and name the large context of resilience and capacity that people in marginalized groups preserve despite all odds.
I imagine that by now you can see how what I didn’t say resulted in the effect the piece had. Regardless of my intention, and regardless of the fact that so many people did get what the piece was about, it had a painful effect on some others (some that I know about as well as likely others who didn’t speak) who saw in it a familiar theme of making the marginalized be “the problem”. I can only hope that this present addendum provides some modicum of acknowledgment. I want to thank those who brought my attention to this effect for opening my eyes to yet another layer of the pain of separation.