This semester I’ve been going to meetings for a club associated with our Black Student Union, and it’s been eye-opening in so many ways. As someone who’s personally committed to understanding and deconstructing my own privilege, it’s important that I learn to shut my mouth sometimes and just listen. One of the most important things I can do for myself is develop meaningful relationships with people who are different from me. But in trying to coerce others into the new territory of intergroup dialogue, I recall for myself what made that initial first step seem so intimidating.
The first time I came out to a meeting, I was accidentally the first to arrive. I let myself into the empty classroom and sat with my head straight down, staring at my phone, playing it off all nonchalant and cool. Then the first person walked in and paused for a minute, smiling politely but a little bemused.
“Hey…um…are you in here for a class?”
“No, I’m here for club meeting.”
” Oh, are you friends with someone on the E-board?”
“…No. I’ve been meaning to come for a while and finally found the time.”
He smiled again, in what I hoped (oops) was a secretly pleased sort of way. I guess they weren’t accustomed to random white girls showing up to BMAD. Not that I deserve special recognition for bothering to care about other people’s experiences; all that says is I satisfy a basic level of human decency. I had checked the week before though to make sure it was alright that I come, to which they had just laughed good-naturedly. Knowing that they are an educational organization, I now liken it to my own Feminists United meetings – how thrilled would I be if a male ally asked if he could come! Often when I’m alone, I find my only standard for comparison is wondering how I would feel (oops?) if a male ally acted in a similar fashion towards me or my movement.
LESSON ONE. When I’m not sure if I’m overstepping the boundaries, I ask.
For example, my sophomore year I asked if I could attend a discussion for what turned out to be a confidential LGBT support group – I was told ‘no’. At first I felt excluded and hurt – didn’t they recognize I was just trying to learn? Didn’t they appreciate what a great ALLY I was? In all my privileged self-righteousness, I couldn’t understand why no one was tripping over each other to welcome me with open arms. It took a lesson about safe spaces to understand the problem with me elbowing my way in, just because I felt entitled to be taught. It was inherently contradictory, actually; I just wish I’d been accorded the opportunity to understand why at the time. Again, I’m not entitled to a justification either. There are plenty of other avenues through which I can learn, and should attempt to before even purporting to accept an invitation into a safe (much less a minority) space. And sometimes, just being there with all my unknown privilege-baggage could interfere with the dialogue.
Hopefully I will be able to share here, through successive posts, my personal process of unpacking privilege and unlearning entitlement. It’s a lifelong journey that requires constant self-reflection, constructive and generous input from people I trust, and continuous learning about what I ought to be learning, may not be realizing I need to learn, and how to find out what I’m not realizing that I need to learn. Just to start, this website helped me A LOT. But I will share with you other ways I screw up, backpedal, hold back, and occasionally do something right. And I always welcome feedback from YOU about how I am doing. 🙂 So here goes nothing…