In Church

I need to write the journalistic article I discuss here and two academic articles, and I need to do these things very soon. But it is Sunday and everyone in town but my pagan self is in church confessing, so I will confess, too. I dislike a post to which I will not link and the long comments thread it generated because it is a quite gratuitous attack on a friend of mine who had a very tough life until she was at least 25 if not much longer and who is now expected to say Oh dear, I am privileged! to a puritanical and even inquisitorial crowd.

One of the ways in which I am privileged is that it has always been clear to me that I was. In our modest neighborhood other families washed out sandwich bags to use again the next day and ours did not. At school I was one of the white ones who spoke native English, and I was therefore not ostracized the way some people were. I could afford to give pieces of my lunch away to others living in situations of “food insecurity.” We had to push-start our car until we got a good one when I was seven, but we always had good health insurance. We did not shop at Good Will or even very often at discount stores, and I went to Europe three times before I was eighteen.

On television Black people were being dragged away by police, and I was not; I leafleted Safeway for César Chávez but that was on behalf of the people working the fields, which I was not. And in the parts of Europe where we lived when I was very young, we sat in cafés and ordered espresso. Poverty stricken children with mangled and twisted limbs would ask for the empty sugar packets, in which they considered that there was a taste of sweetness left. Half-starved Portuguese workers hiding under truck floorboards, trying to smuggle themselves out to France, were discovered at the Spanish border and arrested. This scene looked more tenebrous than any I had witnessed in the United States, in part because there was nobody on hand to take pictures.

I am also privileged insofar as I know who my relatives are. I am descended on both sides from Roger Williams and from Tench Tilghman on one. A great great grandfather, exiled from St. Petersburg by the Czar, had a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne and his correspondence with Karl Marx is archived in the Kremlin. A great great grandfather on the other side was a United States Senator from a state of which his father had been Governor. His wife’s father, my great great great grandfather, had a plantation there which has been described in print by Frederick Douglass. Another famous ancestor of mine is Henry Ward Beecher. His sister Harriet wrote another classic text, whose sentimental Christianity we discussed in the living room when I was in middle school. One of my grandmothers graduated from the Pratt Institute and the other from the University of California. Her sister was a Socialist and her brother was a carpenter and a Wobbly. My father still has his hammer and I am going to inherit it.

My grandmother the Pratt Institute graduate married a man directly descended from that slaveowning family. He had a small insurance company which he did not lose even in the Depression. My grandmother the Berkeley graduate, who had grown up on a farm in Montana, married a man whose father had abandoned the family, then  strawberry farmers in Glendale, California. My grandfather, the youngest in the family, left school in ninth grade to work as a lineman for the telephone company. His older brother left MIT where he had been a freshman that year. Their sister graduated high school. She worked all her life and her savings are responsible for my father’s Ph.D. and mine. I have a tenured job and I am a homeowner, and if I look younger than I am it is because I am the product of many generations of privilege.

My house has central air conditioning, which adds to my carbon footprint and contributes to global warming. The system needs new duct work, which I do not have the savings to pay for since I am a professor in a low wage state. Yet I could do it easily with a home equity line of credit. I am not because my parents are giving it to me for Christmas. And out of convenience I am not a tax resister. Even if I were, as long as I continue to contribute to the United States economy, which I do just by buying food, I am responsible for this, which I do not consider to be canceled out by my years of work on things like this. The next time anyone wants to come down on someone because of “privilege” they should come down on someone like me who has never spent a day hungry.


47 thoughts on “In Church

  1. Sounds like a disaffected intellectual, if ever I read one. I’m printing this out for possible use elsewhere than in the blogosphere. Nicely done.

  2. I am not sure what post you are referring to, but I have seen a lot of class issues go on on the internet of late, particularly amongst the academics. For me it is a sign that when people started to disavow Marxism in academe they threw all class analysis out and with the myth of the man. I like to break class down into its many components and the capital they afford so that the complexities you allude to here are easier to grasp than an either-or system that seems to be reigning supreme these days. To me, either-or always works toward hegemony because people both live in fear of being labeled oppressor and therefore do not speak and contribute to understanding or because people can always point to the ways in which they are one and the other to opt out. Both-and refutes these zero sum games every time.

  3. Yes. I was so persecuted as an oppressor for a while that I began to see myself in the light of my oppressors — through their eyes. I thought, “If this is how bad it gets, and I have done nothing wrong, then really there is little wrong with being a fascist or a nazi, or anything like that. So, let me try it for a while and see how it fits.”

    So, this is what is wrong with oppressing other people as oppressors. You make them see the world as a pretty ugly place, in which they have few options. You push them into being how it is you imagine them to be. How they would never have become unless you pushed them there in the first place.

  4. Graz, CS. Elsewhere: I’ll sign this with my real name! Disaffected intellectuals R us!

    Profbw, it’s a post which has 144 comments already, and counting! And it seems to me that class is the taboo subject in the U.S., the way the way race was until recently in Brazil. Class is really complicated, and we have it in the U.S., and it is not just about money, it has many components, and these are really worth looking at.

    Either/or working towards hegemony, both/and refuting zero sum games, YES.

    Scratchy – Indeed, it is never a good idea to project into people.

  5. And – I suppose I should be patient with people like those on that thread because they are Just Discovering certain things … I should let them have at it. And would except that they decided to go after someone who would never do such a thing to them.

  6. I tried it and failed. Perhaps I just didn’t do it very well. But I think the key is that they were in Abuse Mode and one cannot speak to that.

  7. No, you cannot. As I said before, the best thing I ever found to do, to combat people in abuse mode is to give them who they thought I was. You can animate their own projections, and that at least gives you some social position to occupy for a while (one that you know is scary to them), whilst you think of what to do.

    Best advice I could give your friend? Tell her to adopt aristocratic pretensions. Go to an extreme and enjoy the buzz.

  8. Abuse mode, yes. I can feel better about myself because I can trash-talk someone else. But the root of that particular post was actually poor reading skills. Some people are too literal-minded. And a few of those folks are just plain mean.

  9. Poor reading skills, yes, one should be generous, but a large part of me wants to say, “we expect complete literacy of all our professors!” The poor reading skills in my view were wilfully indulged in so that the bashing could go on.

  10. The poor reading skills thing fits into my paradigm that there is always (or almost always) a power play going on when the onus for better communication is put more heavily on one of the parties than on the other one.

    The most entertaining way I have found to counteract this tendency is to play the same game with my assailants.

  11. Eureka, yes: “there is always (or almost always) a power play going on when the onus for better communication is put more heavily on one of the parties than on the other one.”

    I just read this book, Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, by French psychoanalyst Marie-France Hirigoyen, which makes this point heavily.

    The thing about playing the same game is (in my experience) it is usually exhausting, you keep on being bait for them. Or if you win, they get really mad and it is still exhausting. Better to just walk away – *if* of course you see in time what is going on (this sometimes being the problem I have, not seeing it, believing they are actually in pain or actually sincere in some other way).

  12. Haha! Yeah, it is better to walk away. But if you play the same game sincerely — by which I mean, rationally — then it will often become clear to you that the other person is suffering from either poor self-expression skills, poor analytical skills, and so on. So, what I’m saying is that it shouldn’t become an emotional battle of the wits, but just one where the other person realises that there is a certain standard for good communication, and that you will not respond unless they meet it.

    But, at other times, it is perfectly okay just to have fun with such trollish people.

  13. Melissa – this was all inspired by a blog argument – you don’t want to know. Thanks for your visit! The info in this post is all true, but it’s about me the author of the blog. The official narrator of the blog is a sculpted skull on a stela at Copán.

    Scratchy – yes but my main error is to think they are *only* suffering from poor skills. Very often they are not, they are just looking for something to cut. Then any form of engagement just encourages them. Meet the standard for good communication, they will only do this I find in work situations, where communicating and getting things done is required. Or in comments on one’s *own* blog, or more generally, when one is on one’s own turf.

  14. Yeah– if they are just looking for something to cut then best leave them alone. But as you can see, the logic of demanding good communication has already worked for you. You say, if they are not on my turf, they can be left alone. And this is eminently rational. So leave them alone unless they are determined to communicate with you.

  15. Yes. Although I did do an experiment on this blog – namely, check to see whether they had just misunderstood something, or whether I could successfully speak up for someone. And no.

    What I learned: people in general are not sophisticated about narrative voice or metaphor. Nor does idealism mean they are good with abstraction.

    (Note to self so I can understand this tomorrow: their methods of argumentation reminded me of my X, the abusive one – say anything, particularly anything half logical or half informed, just to exhaust the ‘enemy’ – and it is a battle, not a conversation. As per the Hirigoyen book: the goal is to erode the other not to talk to them.)

  16. Yeah, I have had that problem before. Narrative voice has been a problem — and you can virtually distinguish the left from the right on this, about whether they understand that there is such a thing as narrative voice. So, I have said to many people, “You know I had to kind of semi-hypnotise myself, to regress, in order to write my autobiography!’ — but although I say this to people, those of the right find it hard to understand, because they don’t see that there can be more than one “self”.

    The inability to understand metaphor is more of a problem. I think that people under stress lose the capacity to use this part of their minds, and consequently take everything literally.

  17. I don’t know anything about the post that you’re not linking to or about the blog disagreement that seems to be happening, but I enjoyed this thoughtful post anyway.

  18. Gracias, Undine!

    Scratchy – that’s interesting, people of the *right* do not realize there can be more than one “self.” [That would really shock some commentators in the thread in question.]

    Stress and the loss of capacity to understand metaphor – that’s interesting. I think it’s also a lack of openness to the speech of the Other.

  19. I am sad not to be able to link to the original post to see what you are discussing, but I of course enjoyed your post here.

    I had to go away for awhile from this blog and ProfBWoman because the conversations about race and privilege proved too much to bear during my work in the Gulf Coast. (I am on partial hiatus while I study for my qualifying exams!) I was living so much of the on-line dialogues: whether I am privileged because of my skin color and how much so and where does that leave me in terms of x-racial, x-class, x-cultural justice work. Am I always, by default, in the role of the oppressor, etc. etc. (Ok, perhaps I am transferring a bit onto those past conversations but that is sort of my point! 🙂 )

    I just finished this book Working-Class White by sociologist Monica McDermott that provides a good example of when white skin does not confer privileged status, due in part to our racist social structure that indicates that it should. (She was living in a white working class community in Atlanta where the presence of white’s in this neighborhood within a predominantly black and lower-income area, vs. on the affluent/white other side(s) of town, ended up stigmatizing these white residents precisely because of their skin color. I.e., why weren’t they well-off and living elsewhere, as whites are supposed to?)

    I’m not entirely following the thread here b/w you and Scratchy but my response to the accusations and inferences from strangers based on my perceived group membership due to skin/region/academic status is first one of bewilderment, occasionally challenge, but quite often retreat. Which seems self-defeating. I am working on pre-emption or just disclosing more personal history in an effort to acknowledge the murky waters of multicultural coalition-building, but I’m honestly not very good at remembering to make the time for all of this preventative brush clearing.

    Where does it end, is the problem I repeatedly come back to. I had this pretty heated argument with a Creole woman about race v. gender v. class where I felt like it degenerated so quickly into who was higher on the suffering hierarchy. Yuck.

    (Esp. since we all know white men are the problem! Ok, was that joke inappropriate??) 🙂

  20. The McDermott book sounds really relevant to all of this, for more reasons than I can go into at the moment!

    The dialogue with Scratchy here is cryptic on this point since she isn’t in (to my knowledge) on that blog argument and we are discussing meanness in more general terms.

    Side note: I do not know why I do not feel guilt over being part of several oppressor classes; perhaps it is because of having been aware of it so long, and because I know it does not mean I am a “bad person” – i.e. I do not take it personally.

  21. Yes — Identity politics these days is the refuge of the opportunistic and the simplistic. It still underwhelms me to this day how even the most basic elements of human curiosity are regularly discarded in the name of identity politics. If I am seen as a privileged white person in this system of others then obviously those who do see my that way need to get over themselves. To ask me to take personally their narrow little forms of bigotry and plans to get ahead by expressing the attitudes they think are stamped with a seal of approval is to much to ask of one in my position. First these people would have to make my acquaintance and actually try to get to know me before I would be willing to listen to them at all.

  22. slight rewrite:

    “To ask me to take personally their narrow little forms of bigotry (and buy into their plans to get ahead by expressing the attitudes they think are stamped with a seal of approval) is too much to ask of one in my position. First these people would have to make my acquantaince and actually try to get to know me before I would be willing to listen to them at all.”

  23. Z – You’re right, I couldn’t find the background.

    But I don’t have to read it to opine about the voices that we use on our blogs, do I?

    I think that our blogging personas exist on a continuum of our real selves. For some authors the two can almost overlap. For others, they are distinct. This can be true for the blog content as a whole, or for individual posts. Neither way is better. They are simply differing styles.

    Personally, my blogging persona is a representation of my authentic self, but it is only one representation.

  24. Hi Melissa – well you could Google it if you really want to but I don’t want to bring trolls over here from that thread (assuming they would be that interested – but on can never be too careful).

    Continuum, I agree. And one can also have many selves. In this blog I get to speak as a professor in my field, but free myself from speaking as a professor at my particular institution … I get to speak of myself as a professional, but not in the way I have to when I write grants and so forth … I get to speak as an intellectual and not a more narrowly specialized professor, which is my role at work. So it isn’t really the working me who speaks here, but rather the person I am nights and weekends, when I am at home.

  25. Scratchy – there is something about [vulgar] identity politics that reminds me of Reeducation: if you have X characteristic then you must also have Y and Z beliefs. I’ll think about this more – it’s late.

  26. I haven’t seen the nonvulgar identity politics much in Australia. Aboriginal issues are by and large dealt with through another framework. In Australia, identity politics is the white person’s trope — they use their knowledge of it to defend themselves against a charge of colonialism. They say, “Oh, no, it is not us! We are FOR the equality of every person, no matter what colour. It is others — the colonials of yesteryear, the fundamentalist islamics (though not the christians) and just, just, other people who are to blame. “

  27. Wow – that’s quite a twist those white Australians have made! The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is sort of good on IP:

    … which shows how difficult & complex it has all become. As we know, what is seen as “universal” truth may be only the “truth” of white male modernity (etc.); everyone has a class/race/gender position and thus speaks from that experience and situation. So far, so good.

    But a problem in vulgar IP is that everyone is expected to have certain interests and blind spots based on what are in fact very few categories. Each category is supposed to have its attitudes, so that means only a few mindsets are available, and there is no individuality. That is of course not the intention of the more substantive IP.

    And something I have noticed about what I’m calling “vulgar” IP advocates in the U.S. is that they are often only interested in Americans. They have learned to be ‘sensitive’ to American ‘minorities’ but confront them with anything or anyone foreign or non-western and their disdain for the Other really starts to show. This may just be my experience.

  28. Each category is supposed to have its attitudes, so that means only a few mindsets are available, and there is no individuality.

    Yes, and with this, individuality has been successfully demonised. Why is this I wonder. I remember reading once some cynical white male claiming there was no individuality that there were only non-conformists becoming conformists through their non-conformity. This is true to an extent, however, believing that as being the end of individuality is what demonises actual individuality. Because how could a true individual have become a product of a non-conforming conformity? An individual could not. In other words, a new group was formed using the label individual, that’s all. In the meantime, true individuals and individuals pursing individuality are being suffocated and are commanded to fit into a specific category or risk abuse.

  29. “Why is this I wonder.”

    Because individuals are harder to predict and control.

    [And no, by this I do not mean that individuals are exempt from responsibility for racism, etc.]

  30. I think that it is a result of the spread of Modernist ‘optimism’ — there is the assumption that everything is innately recognisable and understandable without much effort. I don’t need to talk to you to find out what you are like, I just need to look at you, or hear what your label is, and I already know.

  31. Yeah I don’t think Aboriginal rights politics can be termed “identity politics”. The reason that “identity politics” sounds a false note when applied to Aboriginals is that its conceptual baggage is rather bourgeois and idealist. I have been reflected of late how much bourgeois politics is based upon raising form over content. It’s not what something is but what it seems to be that matters. We learn to look to the image of something to determine its value to us. It’s substance may be something very different from its image, for all we know.

    And so “Aboriginal identity” sounds like “Aboriginal image” to me. What a basis for fighting for your rights! I don’t think that this has been the strategy for Aboriginal activists here. They tend to talk more about their experiences of oppression — the actual substance of their situation.

    I think this is much firmer political ground to stand on.

  32. I think that it is a result of the spread of Modernist ‘optimism’ — there is the assumption that everything is innately recognisable and understandable without much effort. I don’t need to talk to you to find out what you are like, I just need to look at you, or hear what your label is, and I already know.

    This stance cheats a person out of the experience of life, which is why I dare to condescend my pity. It is almost as if there are mass misanthropes at the helm. If something is immediately recognisable and understandable then what is the point of living, what is the point of sensing (hearing)? If you have heard one, you have heard them all, if you have seen one, you have seen them all. The beauty, the magic, the mystery of life is all gone, hence, nothing to encourage humans to move on, to enjoy the beginning to the end. When asked on one’s death bed, “Was life good for you?” the answer will be “Asi asi, seen one seen them all.”

    The contemporary: “Let me plop down here and play the same video game that I play every single day of my life.”

  33. That stance does cheat a person out of their experience of life, but insofar as it has become the implicit epistemology of Modernist organisational structures — parliaments, schools, hospitals, churches, etc — children are these days brought up with it, and do not know that they are being cheated.

  34. This is of course why Reeducation, my experience of formulaic-ness, as I keep discovering, was so depressing. One was not supposed to have a life of one’s own, but choose one of the shelf to paint by numbers at best!

    On actual experiences of oppression – that is of course what IP is supposed to be about, *not* about image. But it seems that the middle classes, whites, and who knows who else have morphed it with what I’d call soft multiculturalism … so in idealist fashion, you can rant for or against your stereotyped position, but that’s about it.

    But I *think* contemporary indigenous movements really are based on [*serious*] identity politics: one rises up as a group with an identity, albeit not as a socioconomic class….

  35. Yeah, well I am not able to speak from the American experience of identity politics. And, if I am not mistaken, America is where identity politics was born. Still, the notion of “rising up” produces some alarm bells in my mind. I think that in the early era of identity politics the point was not to “rise up” but to oppose the system as it was. Thus the black panthers adopted muslim identities and so on. But “rising up” means something else to me. Isn’t it what Frantz Fanon criticised in a way — the obligation to rise up by marrying white women, etc.?

    And what to do if your soul is not yet born in a particular culture — as mine wasn’t; as Marechera’s wasn’t. How is it possible to entertain the notion of ‘rising up’ then?

    This is seriously one of the problems that I have when I consider teaching as a profession in the west. What do I have to give to the younger generation of a people for whom I do not exist yet? And I sufficiently enough “in being” in relation to them, to be able to bestow anything of meaning? It seems unlikely that I am — and my earlier attempts at teaching in the West back up this view of mine.

    Yet, if I see African children, I know — or at least suspect — that I have enough “being” stored up in relation to them that I would be able to teach them. (In more prosaic terms what I am referring to here is a matter of wavelength.)

    So, it is all very well to talk about identity and about being able to rise in the system on the basis of one’s identity — but authenticity in may cases demands that one opts out rather than rises. If one’s is not yet born yet, only difficulties arise when one seeks to rise. I sincerely do not know how to rise in this culture.

  36. I’m actually thinking more of Latin American movements based on identities … as in, I want full citizenship rights *despite* the fact that my first language is not Spanish, it is an indigenous one, and *despite* the fact that I have not adopted and do not wish to adopt 100% western ways!

    That’s not about rising in the system, it’s about changing it and changing definitions of citizen and nation.

  37. Yeah, I see. Well that is very good and nice.

    As I say, I’m a white person and I’m very far from having full citizen rights. In fact every time I depart from a very narrow script about how white women are supposed to be, I am very heavily penalised for it. So it goes.

  38. Ah yes, this happens to me too, but then I do not have the life of Domitila Barrios (for example)
    – although one is not supposed to compare oppressions.

    I will say I wish I had figured out how gender oppression works earlier on. I mean, I studied it, but I did not learn to recognize it when it was happening to me.

  39. And P.S. Melissa – what I would love to say on that thread elsewhere, but which would just be more fuel for the fire, and which was already said before I even saw the thread is that having a blog voice which does not reveal one’s entire identity is not tantamount to saying that one is raceless, colorless, and bodiless in real life, or that one is an advocate of [racist] “colorblindness.” It is *such* a reach and the whole discussion was so poorly informed and so mean (although various people used it as a forum in which to strut their knowledge).

  40. Thank you, Heart! 🙂 But I am a wicked exploiter.

    And one of the things people actually *said* in that discussion thread was that while one should always be aware of one’s privilege relative to other Americans, asking Americans to consider their privilege relative to people living in poorer countries was to ask too much. *Beyond belief.*

    And / but: The colorblind thesis, like the racism is over thesis, is a way of saying, “no, you cannot name your problem or define it as it is!” This is really maddening and I can see why it could make people spit fire if they just thought they heard a hint of it.

    I say this as a person who spit more fire than I should have in the ceramics studio the other day because of feeling cornered / negated.

  41. And anyone (and here I do some stereotyping of my own, or some cultural investigation): was the post in question and its comments thread just some sort of provincial New Yorkism? A lot of the people involved seem to be on Long Island.

    My relative from Westchester seemed to want to be the first Jew we met, and my co-worker from Long Island seemed to want to be, or to be sure she was, the first lesbian and the first Latina we met.

    It was difficult to satisfy either of them because we were all quite old by the time we met each, and we, or most of us, are from the city and already knew all kinds of people.

    I always thought these two were just odd, but now that whole thread was sort of the same: wanting to make a few really basic points about difference, and convinced that most people would not have heard them before.

    So now I wonder, is this a Long Island / Westchester phenomenon? Or is it, as I believe Scratchy888 would say, just a phenomenon of the world that I appear to have been too innocent to pick up on until now?

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