Okay, I know many of you are opening up this blog and thinking, "You can't give up your feelings for Lent! Jesus did not die for your sins you so you could make fun of such an important season!" Lent is a magical time where we are called to give up various creature comforts, or...bad habits. We use this period as a way to reflect on how we can be less distracted from our spiritual journey. Some of us may give up alcohol, chocolate even sex to be closer to what we see as our very spiritual best. As someone invested in creating space for all kinds of marginalized communities, I'd say my feelings are most often what gets in the way of my path to both spiritual wellness and community accountability.
Just take a moment and think about the last time you sat in on a multiculturalism training, or anti-oppression talk. Do you remember if anyone cried? Did someone need a hug? Did folks get all awkward and not speak to each other afterwards? Did you spend a lot of time feeling defensive about your own part in all this? Yeah, that can happen a lot. Mostly, I find that when you get a group of folks together to talk about power and privilege, we waste a lot of time talking about our feelings and barely scratch the surface of structural and institutionalized oppression. Why is talking about your feelings a waste of time? Well, let's look at it this way, if we're talking about the oppression faced by young people that have no access to food, and then we spend an equal amount of time listening to folks who feel guilty about being born with access to food, did we really do all we could to address the actual urgent needs? Did those kids get fed, or did we just unload a bunch of emotional garbage that clogged up the pathways to productivity?
Privilege is a powerful drug. It lets us ignore the harm we cause to others by our indifference, and wants to multiply with our desire to self-preserve. (And as a queer person talking to you about Lent, rest assured that is not the multiplying Genesis was talking about!) One way that we allow our privileges to perpetuate themselves is acting as if the discussion of a privileged identity is somehow just as important as the urgency of solving a major problem around access. Is it important to dissect these things? Of course, but I can't spend all day deconstructing whiteness if my goal was to uplift and redirect institutionalized oppression hitting people of color. Many times, our feelings just don't matter and get in the way of us planning for real physical work.
A few months back, while I was giving a workshop on LGBTQIA identities and safety, someone brought up the George Zimmerman trial. In the midst of our discussion, a white participant spoke up and said they didn't understand why we'd be talking about Trayvon Martin when clearly it had nothing to do with LGBTQIA people. When that person was checked by a colleague who very much related to that experience as a queer person of color who is policed in many spaces, the response was not to say, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I wasn't seeing the broader picture," it was for that first person to break down in tears over being confronted about their privilege. A conversation that ended up being very fruitful regarding the intersections of sexuality/gender/race/etc. had been temporarily derailed because one person couldn't see past their own privilege and the urgency of oppressive violence in the lives of people around them that are impacted by that privilege.
More recently, I was working with a group of other performers of color when someone added their definition of racism into the conversation. When others shared their different definitions of racism, one person took it upon themselves to not only tell the group how they should be defining racism, but also declared that they as an individual had no privilege. This was coming from a college educated, heterosexual, middle class, able bodied person in the U.S., and yet, while they could see that white folks had privilege, and men had privilege, as a woman of color, clearly she could have no privilege. Can a person with that kind of block be an ally to working class communities? Or to the LGBTQIA community? Not in any meaningful way. The desire to distance ourselves from the feelings our privilege brings up can only serve to shut down a conversation and a game plan.
In both of these instances, folks coming from marginalized groups in one or two areas of their lives, failed to understand how they could also be supporting the oppression of others. That is because we live in a world where institutionalized oppression wants to be sneaky. It wants us to believe that there can only be victims and perpetrators and not that we are often trading off on those roles in very complicated ways. As a trans person of color, I refuse to participate in that game any longer. I refuse to ignore my class privilege. I refuse to ignore my able bodied privilege. I refuse to ignore that I have had access to a college education in a time when minimum wage rarely means a livable wage. I want to spend less time focused on my own feelings and more time on hatching solutions.
In order to keep others accountable for oppression that impacts me directly, I must not play aloof to the pain I cause others. This year for Lent, I will listen with intent to the experiences of marginalized communities, I will take a back seat in instances where my worldview is the dominant voice and I will work hard to keep my own ego out of the way when it attempts to sabotage efforts to create equity. I am choosing to sit in a place of discomfort and accept that yes, my Lenten practices are not just about me sacrificing on behalf of myself, but about building a better me that is a responsible and thoughtful leader to my community.