Yearly Meeting 2019

What is privilege? In the context of inclusion and diversity, privilege is the cultural bias towards white, male and straight people over black, female or queer people; towards particular abilities over other abilities, and towards fitting in to an unjust system. My Friend pointed out that my initial definition, above, missed out intersectionality, where one may have more than one disadvantage: change that to the unprivilege of black, female and/or queer people. And/or other things, too, of course, socio-economic origin has an increasingly chilling effect on some people- but we have difficulty adding other disadvantaged groups when some Friends do not seem to accept this definition of privilege at all.

On class, a Friend pointed out that the Attlee Government’s reforms, allowing so many people to get a good education and be the first in their families to go to University had permitted her (as well as my father) to get a degree and join the middle classes. The Tory government is tearing these opportunities away. Another was distressed by one question about privilege. “Did you have more than fifty books in your home when you grew up?” She had, because her working class parents were leading lights in the Workers’ Educational Association.

This view of privilege is closer to the 1993 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary definition, a right, advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by a person or class of people, than to a looser use which seems closer to “something good which I enjoy”. The right, advantage or immunity is granted by the culture, rather than by law, and it may be invisible to many people, giving Queer studies, Women’s studies and Critical Whiteness or Black studies academics the impetus to bring it out into the open so it may be problematised and deconstructed. Men having more senior positions in scientific and technical careers is a result of our sexist culture rather than differences between men and women. Everyone is the poorer because of this: society loses the benefit of individual women’s gifts.

I feel the Yearly Meeting of Britain Yearly Meeting was a missed opportunity, this year, because of an inability to be clear about what “privilege” is. The Epistle made it completely unclear: The word privilege has been used in two ways this weekend: as a blessing we experience and as the unearned advantages a person can inherit from birth and/or accumulate over time. One Friend referred to having a good brain as a “privilege”, but that is not a right, advantage or immunity: kings, barons and villeins, white and black, will have easier lives if they are highly intelligent, but the kings and the whites will still have an easier life because of privilege however stupid they are.

In documents in advance, the YM programme used the word “privilege” without defining it. The document “preparing for yearly meeting” referred to the toolkit for action, Owning Power and Privilege, which gave a clear introduction.

I am grateful for the first ministry from the floor. My Friend said how she felt great love for the Friends present, and how this was a fraction of the Love of God. I thought of my Friend’s love, and was strengthened by it, sometimes when I saw her in the room. Strengthened and corrected: sometimes I was harsh as the impatience I felt manifested in my words or actions.

When I spoke in the business session, I divided people. A Friend had shared something deeply personal, showing vulnerability. Asked to share something about her privilege, she had said joining a Quaker meeting at the particular time she did was a “privilege”. No, it was a blessing. Joining a Black pentecostalist church might have affirmed and strengthened someone else in a similar way. I stood and stated my understanding of privilege as the source of oppression of BAME people and women. I stated my own privilege. I named class privilege, the ability to appear like an educated, middle-class person; and residual male privilege, having the confidence to speak, and being called. As a trans woman I do not suffer from sexism in exactly the same way, I said, though I also said I do not speak for other trans women.

This split the meeting. A Black man thanked me effusively. My Queer friend said he had heard a lot of positive reactions to what I said. And I was eldered, as I had spoken harshly after a Friend had exposed her vulnerability. She had; but she had set back our work towards Inclusion and Diversity, which requires all of us to be aware of privilege and to subvert it.

On the Sunday, there was an Event on “Ten years of Quaker marriage equality”, when Michael Booth explained the work done in the Society towards lesbian and gay equality from the 1960s, leading to Yearly Meeting in 2009 in York when we agreed marriage was God’s work, and if God made a marriage between two men or two women who were we to gainsay God? So much work had to be done to prepare the way for that Minute. I was not there, but I have been often told how the Spirit brought us together, and our Unity was palpable.

The work has to be done. We have not come to a common understanding of privilege, leave alone a common purpose to subvert it and work for BAME people to have true equality, which might bring as many BAME people into membership as we have LGBT people. Yet, seeing how much work has been done, with a full time Inclusion worker at Friends House for the past year, conferences on Diversity, and that Toolkit, I see the YM as a missed opportunity. Did we not notice the work? Do we still not see our privilege?

Of course working against privilege means a change in our relations with everyone, which is far greater than the change needed to accept gay marriage. Gay marriage is a matter of belief, and only of identity in the sense that someone might have a sense of being a bible-respecting Christian meaning “being uncomfortable with homosexuality”. You can still be a bible-respecting Christian and accept equal marriage. Working against privilege involves seeing the advantages you have from being white, educated, apparently higher on the class hierarchy, and/or male etc, and working to reduce the disadvantages of others. How may everyone be heard and included, and treated as equal?

The Minute we produced on Inclusion was beautiful, but I have an acid phrase for it: there was more Unity in the minute than in the Ministry. Not all of us understood our privilege. Some spoke about gifts rather than privilege, and confused the issue. I stood to offer an alteration, and was not called. Had my suggestion been accepted, the minute would have to be redrafted, to say that some say privilege is oppression, but others say other things.

9 thoughts on “Yearly Meeting 2019

  1. I have come to really dislike that word, privilege, over this weekend. I think I will make a vow not to use it. Instead I will talk about fortunate/unfortunate, advantage/disadvantage, lucky/unlucky, blessed, honoured, discriminated against, etc etc as fits the specific situation.
    I also think I will seek to discover my grandson’s feelings about climate breakdown, would he like to do something, can I be his active supporter? What would he have me do? What initiative is available to me directly?

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    • Welcome, Erica. Thank you for commenting.

      I like it. We should understand it better. As a Friend- I think a Black woman- said, though you are unconscious of it, you are still responsible. The word confronts us with our sin. We should expiate it.

      Climate breakdown is a huge thing. It is a generational justice matter. It was good to hear Extinction Rebellion with their drums outside Euston Station: but I don’t think we were clear what to do about that, either.

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  2. The unfortunate thing about privilege is that those who have it rarely realise the importance of it, because for them it simply “is” and has never had to be fought for. At least it formed a part of your discussions, perhaps someone left more aware than they were before the day started.

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    • It was a weekend, from 7pm on Friday to 4pm on Monday. Lots of us were aware. Lots of us understand. A few of us are BAME, and understand, a few of us are queer and understand, some women understand it for themselves. A woman said in the session this morning, a girl had told her “I don’t want to be a woman when I grow up. I want to be a person.” That shows understanding. That’s the issue in a nutshell: what does society enforce on some people, limiting them?

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      • The girl definitely showed understanding, as I’m sure did the others you mentioned – but your list of those showing understanding does not include any of those who would normally be listed as among the most privileged sections of our society. It can be uncomfortable to admit that you have privilege by simply existing in a certain time and place – especially when you do not feel particularly privileged. As long as society holds on to tribalistic in or out, them and us values there will be limits imposed.

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  3. Is it a privilege to be able to take things for granted? Sometimes I think so; and I do yearn for the quiet life. Yet, like a Buddhist friend of mine who first became aware that recounting his life’s misfortunes made him the envy of his Buddhist friends – for to have misfortune is be given opportunities for that most sought after thing, spiritual growth – I sometimes wonder what we miss of the world, when we see it through eyes made bland by entitlement.

    Truth must lie somewhere in the middle. That we all are privileged – to be born into our lives, into this world – and that we are not objects to be pitied but to be celebrated, and that people should have the opportunities for the highest expression of which they are capable. I see the benefits of the word ‘privilege’ and it two edged meanings, for all that it has been hijacked by politics and demonised in the language of advocacy.

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    • I love your words that people are to be celebrated, but must distinguish privilege from gift. Wealthy people may be called by God. A gifted child brought up with supportive love and understanding, and given a good education, may hear their inner light and do great work. Gifts of intelligence, wisdom, discernment, energy, drive may be in the black disabled lesbian. White privilege and male privilege are societal.

      It is a privilege to know you, and that is a standard use of the word; but that is a blessing, or luck, not the “right, advantage or immunity” of the precise meaning of the word, from centuries ago, which has been adopted in the phrase white privilege.

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