Engaging With Privilege: A Personal Journey
It is, always, part of privilege that we who have it cannot see it.
Posted December 4, 2014
Last week, when I sat down to write in response to the situation in Ferguson, I ended up writing much about my own journey of learning about how to engage the topic of race; I wrote more about that than directly about Ferguson. The difference between that first draft and the piece that finally got posted was dramatic. It was made up of feedback from Dave, my editor and supporter, that initially knocked me out completely in its depth and intensity. This was the point at which I turned to Uma and Ya-Ping for support, as well as my colleague and friend Roxy Manning. After about ten rounds of back and forth with some combination or another of all four of them, the piece that is now on the website came into final form.
As much as I like the result, I was left with all that was cut out of the original piece. Although I wholeheartedly agree about taking it out from that piece, I still want to share it. This is what this piece is. If nothing else, for anyone who is like me, I have always had the experience that understanding a process in addition to seeing the results deepens my understanding and increases the chances of integration and personal application. Also, because I want to spell out what I learned as part of my own continuing learning, and in the hopes of supporting others' learning about the very complex questions involved in these topics. Lastly, because I want it known that this learning process is neither easy nor comfortable. The two days of feedback were, at times, excruciating and nonetheless I am in awe, I am grateful, and I found immense beauty and depth along the way.
If you want to cut to the chase, there is guilt-less skipping you can do... straight to the section called Talking about Race with Love. That's where you will find the concrete lessons I have derived, especially about how a group that's engaged in conversations about privilege without signing on to having them, can do so with love. What's before is detailed, and probably of interest only to those specifically committed to engaging with these topics through the lens of the practice of Nonviolent Communication - a focus on human needs, on empathic understanding, and on solutions that work for all.
My own learning about and engagement with the topic was intertwined with my sister Inbal's more active engagement as a diversity trainer for years, when still in her 20s. I owe much of my commitment to doing what I can to transform the landscape of race conversations to our many conversations over the years, starting in the late 80s. As we both became deeply immersed in studying, teaching, and writing about Nonviolent Communication (NVC), it was only natural for us that we would want to bring together these two areas of focus.
In 2001 we formed the original BayNVC Diversity Project, along with Jeyanthy Siva and Nancy Kahn: that was two Israeli sisters, a Sri Lankan woman, and a Black Jewish woman. We put together a series of workshops we named "Connecting across Differences" and later "Engaging Our Differences." We also started bringing these topics to the BayNVC Leadership Program, from its inception in 2002. In 2004, we committed to having a truly diverse group of participants in the 2005 cohort of the program. Nancy Kahn, in particular, left no stone unturned and supported that dream in materializing. This was also the year in which we had a children's program, which made it possible for people to come with their children. That was also the time when Inbal and I started putting on paper our own understanding about power, aiming to create a frame for understanding power, privilege, and relationships across differences from an NVC perspective rooted in an understanding of human needs that allows us to see everyone's full humanity; a commitment to solutions that truly work for everyone; and a path for transcending shaming and punitive responses to injustice. As much excitement as I continue to have about this framework, I know it's hopelessly abstract, at the level of theory and definitions, not at the level of knowing what action to take when. Not even clarity about how to invite others into this frame. Still, it was a major step forward that allowed us to experiment even more systematically.
The conversations we had that year - about power and privilege; about race dynamics; and about the prospect of including children in adult events - were intense. So much was coming forward, that we wanted to take time to digest before our next steps.
In part we wanted this time because of not being fully satisfied with those experiments. I didn't sense that we managed to actually do it: to get people to see, own, and engage with their privilege effectively. Part of what makes these conversations so difficult is that what makes privilege invisible is that the power relationships are not direct - most white people don't have direct and personal authority to directly determine the fate of most people of color, even if collectively they remain in power. In addition, people confuse privilege with attitude, believing, somehow, that if they believe in equality between the races it means that they have "canceled" their privilege as white people, unable to see the deep structures - both material and normative - that keep their privilege intact regardless.
Then Inbal was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, and both of our attention was shifted dramatically, though the topic remained dear to us, and Inbal's last "work"-related meeting, in the spring, only months before her death, was with the current configuration of the Diversity Project team (consisting of four people of color and two white people): Alicia Garcia, Nancy Kahn, Roxy Manning, Kristin Masters, Edmundo Norte, and Marina Smerling. We were still talking about what theoretical frames are most conducive to bringing together the work of decades of experimentation with critical race theory and the NVC frame, all the while aiming to stay in full connection with the present moment and our relationships with each other. This group has been continuing the ongoing effort to identify and name the integrated framework we have been working to create, in our various ways, over the years. The conversations in the Leadership Program continue every year, also contributing to the inquiry. Nothing is as yet "done."
Based on all these experiences, I've been profoundly unsettled about the challenges surrounding conversations about race and privilege, as well as immensely grateful for every bit of clarity and connection that came along the way. One piece of clarity that emerged for me over the years was how different it is to support people in learning about privilege, structural differences, and related topics when they never signed up for such learning. That was, and continues to be, what holds the most appeal to me in terms of moving the big project forward, because I don't see a way to transform race relations when the only people engaged in the conversation are those who are already choosing to do so. Still, for some years I went into paralysis and did, essentially, nothing. Obviously, my ability to do nothing about it is clearly an expression of my own privilege, and I was painfully aware of that, even while not finding a way to make a different choice. It was a combination of having seen so much pain, anguish, and even active resistance in so many conversations about race, in and out of NVC circles, without seeing much new ground happening; not having Inbal's companionship for the "heretical" conversations about race, privilege, and social transformation we were previously having with each other; and having so much of my active available energy go into supporting her all these years.
Then, in May of 2013, I got a big and loving push from Caroline Blackwell. She attended a training of trainers that I co-led with Jeff Brown and Francois Beausoleil in Ohio. She challenged us, in her courageous and loving way, to take the topic seriously by stepping forward, as the only Black woman in the entire group, and leading an evening on the topic of race divisions. It's because of deep conversations with her and a few others following that act that I finally found a way to re-engage. Even while "doing nothing" for years, I had continued to wrestle internally to know how to bring up the topic, how to handle it, what to do, when people were there for other reasons.
After connecting with Caroline, I found the frame, and it fits right in with my overall goals in my teaching. Simply put, none of us, whether white or any other race or ethnicity, can reach full power and step into any kind of leadership without learning how to lead across racial divides. If I want to support people in taking on the system and norms within which we live, it is imperative for me to figure out how to do this task well. I became fully re-committed to bringing conversations about privilege into teaching about "other" topics, especially about leadership. I now see these "involuntary conversations about race" - the ones that no one signed up for intentionally - as the arena within which I want to contribute. Initially, my question was: how can involuntary conversations about race and privilege - those that happen between people who are not coming together to learn about privilege - happen productively, without leaving people depleted and discouraged?
Shortly thereafter I had my first opportunity. While planning a daylong on leadership, my co-trainer expressed concern about my initial design that included the topic of social power (the kind of power that we have by virtue of being members of specific social groups: whites in relation to people of color, men in relation to women, heterosexual people in relation to LGBT, and so on). While affirming a deep interest in the topic, he was reluctant to include it in a day that was only about basics of leadership. Buttressed by my renewed commitment, I knew enough to say that it can only appear beyond basic for a person with white privilege. For anyone without that privilege, it's the daily experience. I felt strengthened by Caroline's presence in my heart, able to be firm and reassuring at the same time. We concluded that I would be the one leading that particular segment. For a one-day, for the number of people in the room and the small number of people of color, and based on the feedback we received, I was pleased. I felt ready to take on a bigger challenge - bringing these conversations to the Leveraging Your Influence retreats in the East Coast.
Talking about Race with Love
And so it was that last April I took it upon myself to design some way of bringing up the topic at the Leveraging Your Influence retreat. My ambition was very large, way beyond my capacity, I now know, given that the level of stress and challenge in my life was growing because of having progressively more involvement with my sister's life, and caring for her during her illness, both materially and emotionally.
Enter Uma Lo, member of the design team for the retreat, and Ya-Ping Douglas, participant at the retreat, and a veteran of much research and learning in this area. They noticed the flaws in my design, and persisted and persisted in staying with it over the course of many more months during which my availability was diminishing rapidly as my sister took her final journey and in the deep anguish of the months since. I am honored to know they consider me a friend despite the great difficulties that they had to go through for all of us to break through to a place of deep partnership in cracking this nut.
Rather than getting into what fell apart last April that Uma and Ya-Ping and I worked so hard to come to alignment about, I want to focus on what I have learned as a result of it and of our more recent attempt to bring these conversations to the Leveraging Your Influence retreats.
I want to start with a caveat, a serious one. Some people might not even be up for writing at the stage that I, we, are. We haven't actually "figured it all out." We only learned some deep and useful lessons, and are ready to continue on the grand path. Indeed, I am almost tempted to wait. And I am choosing to write anyway because it's only privilege that makes it possible for me to wait until it's perfect, and I want to take on the potential comments, criticism, even ridicule (that's my little self speaking) that might come my way by exposing an incomplete recipe. Just the possibility that there might be something here that would help some people, anywhere, is enough for me to be willing.
The lessons boil down to three. The questions that remain are many.
Not Business as Usual
My own personal biggest lesson was so simple that I am still astonished that I never saw it before. Astonished, and sadly not surprised, because it is, always, part of privilege that we who have it cannot see it.
What I wasn't seeing is that the very structure of having a particular topic, and teaching it in particular ways, reinforces the existing patterns of privilege. Within that structure, those whose experiences fit gain more. Those who are challenged to be in a setting that is mostly white, where their ongoing challenges are rendered invisible and named obsolete, have such a high bar to cross to be able to bring their experiences to the foreground, to make their struggle visible, to become central, to belong, to contribute, to be acknowledged and respected. Phew, even writing this I get heartsick.
What's the alternative? How to honor the variety of topics that I want to cover during a workshop or retreat and still make it possible for privilege to continually be exposed, named, challenged, engaged with, transformed? How to make it clear to people that a certain workshop or retreat is designed to be a place where such conversations are welcomed, always, regardless of topic, without turning off those who have never looked at their privilege and may not be ready to do so?
Like I said, not many answers. I only know what we did and how it affected us - me, Uma, Ya-Ping, and the other participants.
We made an agreement, a simple and radical agreement, that explicitly invited anyone, at any time, to raise any incident in which they saw or experienced something that seemed like a reinforcement of existing privilege in society.
I assess the result to be massive learning for most of us, growing willingness on the part of Uma and Ya-Ping, the only women of color at the retreat, to engage and participate and continue to work with me on future design, and a sense of deepening community within the group. It came from knowing that we could open up these topics and not lose each other.
There was also cost, because some of the topics initially designed for the retreat were only partially covered, and some of the people, especially those who came great distances, even across oceans, to take part in this program, were dissatisfied with the loss.
I hope to be able to come back in the future, after gathering more of these agreements and experiences, and shed more light on how to attend to the multiple needs.
The Power of Being a Jewish Immigrant
One other thing that became dramatically clear to me, more so than ever, is how much my position as an immigrant serves to make my leadership in this area easier. While I definitely have white privilege, the basic access to resources that a visibly white skin provides, I don't have access to belonging within US white culture. In part, this is because I am a Jew, which limits that club membership considerably (see an old and still fresh article by Paul Kivel on the topic: I'm not White, I'm Jewish. But I'm White).
In part, it's because I came to this country as an adult, and I wasn't raised with the categories of thinking, perception, and sensibility that white people are. It's much easier for me to notice privilege, because I am not of it even though I have it. This makes me, and all other white immigrants to this country, strong candidates for taking leadership in this area. This is how I can use my dual privilege - access to resources as a white person, and the outside privilege of not being from here - to contribute.
This, then, is the context from which I emerged, ready, despite fear inside me, to take on writing in response to Ferguson. I still fell on my face, several times, and it was, as I said, with much support from Uma and Ya-Ping in particular, that I was able to find frames for articulating my thoughts about privilege. One of the core mistakes I made at the previous retreat in April was that I was so deeply focused on finding ways to speak about race without creating defensiveness in white people (an aim which I believe was indeed accomplished!), that I didn't dedicate sufficient energy to thinking about what it would be like for people of color to be in the room, and didn't connect with them directly to check or offer alternatives.
With the new agreement that we came up with at the last retreat, I have so much more confidence that we can proceed in a way that has a chance of working for everyone even while not being comfortable for anyone. This is as good a moment to acknowledge Victor Lewis as any. Over the years of knowing each other, starting in 1989, we've had any number of exciting and uplifting conversations about the topic. Victor is the one who taught me that there is no way to attend to this topic without discomfort for everyone, whites as well as people of color. This is a conversation that can only proceed if all of us are challenged.
Where Love Fits in
Part of the great difficulty that I have had, for decades now, with the way I have seen this topic being addressed, all too often, is that I don't find sufficient love there. I didn't and don't want to replicate these models. I've wanted, instead, to find ways of bringing clarity and openness to this topic, support learning, dialogue, deep exploration, and transformation, both structural and personal. I have seen the absence of love block communication, make learning less likely, and alienate way too many people. I have seen white people who call themselves allies of people of color, and who appear to me to be carrying loads of shame and guilt, a "have to" energy about their activism. I've wanted to find ways of getting those of us with privilege to recognize and own it without defensiveness or shame, because defensiveness and shame are not fertile soil for learning and transformation. What I so want to see is a tender kind of love that allows us to see and understand the humanity and heart of those of us who may continue to take action without awareness of privilege or choice about it. This is the only path forward I personally trust to reliably support us in becoming loving stewards of the resources given to us by the history of racism.
This is one of the reasons why I am so happy about what happened with the agreement we made at the retreat. One of the key things that made it possible to benefit so much from this agreement to surface the issues was that almost all of us present committed to meeting all of it with love for all. This was a foolproof agreement. Each of us agreed to aim to bring things up with love. Also, if someone brought something up without sufficient love, then whoever would bring that to their attention would do it with love. And if they didn't, then the person who noticed that would speak about it with love. Or the next one. Or the next one. We had enough trust that enough of us wanted the love present to embark on this with confidence of not shaming anyone. I think this was the magic, the glue, the lubricator. This is why I feel elated about the experiment and so eager and curious to see how we can improve it.
Love, truth, and courage are the building blocks of nonviolence as I understand it. If I want a truly and deeply nonviolent response to social divisions in our midst, I know that love must be an integral part of it; truth and courage alone will not suffice.
For this reason, I end with a quote from friend and author Aurora Levins Morales. As a child, she was tortured by adults in Puerto Rico, and, being a politicized girl, found a way not to hate them, so as not to become like them. Here are her words, from her deeply moving and rich book Medicine Stories:
Either we are committed to making a world in which all people are of value, everyone redeemable, or we surrender to the idea that some of us are truly better and more deserving of life than others, and once we open the door to that possibility, we cannot control it. ... If we agree to accept limits on who is included in humanity, then we will become more and more like those we oppose.