Monday, March 29, 2010

Privilege & Pain Avoidance

Our daughter Yunhee was adopted from Korea as an infant, joining a white American mother, father and older brother, who was born into our family. (One of our oft repeated family jokes is the story of her middle school classmate who asked me, "Does Yunhee know she's adopted?")

Race was an often daily topic in our family. I'd had fifteen years of anti-racism education by the time Yunhee came home, not to mention growing up in Korea as a highly visible person of racial difference, so I was certainly comfortable addressing the topic. But I remember on so many occasions, when Yunhee expressed intense emotion about the subject (often as the result of a comment by a classmate), and even as I might be giving her my full, sympathetic attention, I was aware of a little voice in my head asking, "Can it really be that bad?"

Of course, as Yunhee's mother, I had many tangled emotions and longings as I witnessed her distress. I didn't want my child to hurt - ever, for any reason. I wanted her to learn appropriate social customs, which include containing and channeling the expression of emotion in consideration of others. But that little voice was a result of my own conditioning as a white American: racially, I have had it easy.

Without my having done anything but be born with this color of skin, I have automatically (and usually unconsciously) been granted a measure of status, advantage and influence. I have grown up surrounded by social structures, media, interactions and institutions which reinforce the centrality of my racial identity, so much so that I don't even notice them. I have never endured a steady barrage of negation about my race. In general, the experience of being white in the U.S. is comfortable, unchallenged, affirmed and taken for granted. It's no wonder that I don't notice it, and no wonder if I can't imagine what it would be like to be a person of color in this society.

Privilege plays out in many concrete ways, some explored here, but it's also pervasive as a state of mind. This diminishing of the experiences of people of color, as expressed by them, is one of its more insidious aspects. There are so many versions of this avoidance:
"Why are you playing the race card?"
"I understand your concerns, but I have a hard time hearing you when you're so angry."
"I know there are some problems, but we elected Barack Obama!"

In other words, "Please reframe that so that I can stay comfortable."

Because it can be really tricky trying to see my own invisible patterns, I find it useful to borrow some awareness from other aspects of my life. I can get a clue about privilege in thinking of my experience as a self-employed artist.

I'm often made aware of the fact that people with salaried positions, benefits and health insurance don't seem to be able to imagine what it's like to live without these. (I'm fortunate to currently have health insurance through my husband's job, but have gone for years without it when we were both self-employed.) I notice that salaried people frequently make requests for unremunerated services or time that show that they're completely unaware of what it's like not to have a steady income. For instance, teachers' conferences expect presenters to pay for the privilege of attending, assuming, I guess, the support of a school district to cover registration and travel. Most writers and illustrators don't have the extra resources for this, unless they have other jobs as well. The feeling I often have is that salaried people can't even imagine what the questions are that those of us who are self-employed have to ask all the time.

(This is not to suggest that self-employed people are the targets of anything, but merely to point out an example of privilege in the oblivion of people who are salaried about the lives of people who are not.)

Once I've identified that part of my avoidance around race, particularly my discomfort in listening to people of color express their feelings about being mistreated, is a privilege I no longer want to participate in, I've made a start.

The next part is a human one. Open my heart, and let it break.

And keep listening.


Mama C said...

I think the comparison helps. I am trying to think about say, assumptions two parent family's can make that single parent household's can't as another way in for me. But even then I see how as a way in, it so pales by comparison. I love everything you are unpacking here, and what a carefully laid out step by step resource your blog is. Thank you.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

I'm reaching for anything I can find that helps me get my brain around something that's so often invisible to those who carry it. I welcome other comparisons.

All in order to, as you say, Mama C, "find a way in."

Thanks to both of you for your comments; even though I would do it anyway as an exercise, it's very useful to know someone reads these occasionally!