Who is like me? Everyone, and no-one. I am a human being, one of 7.8bn; and unique, so that no-one will ever be the same.
Everyone is like me: we all feel tired, hungry, thirsty. We all need community. We are animals, with animal needs and desires, and physical experiences, and those drawn to Quakers or those who would gain from our fellowship and we would gain from theirs have or are open to spiritual experiences. The spiritual experience, the leading, the light, is the thing which draws Quakers together. It is a particular kind of spiritual experience: my father loved the Eucharist, but though he sat in silent worship twice, perfectly courteously, got nothing from it. I find openness to immediate relationship with God among people who have barely heard of Quakers, in Faerie and in Extinction Rebellion.
As I explore silent worship, including the meeting for business, over eighteen years, I have found more blessing in it. All I should ask for, in another, is the desire for that stillness. If we talk of the stillness, over coffee or in discussion groups or worship sharing, we expose our most vulnerable, real parts, the parts we protect. The inner light is the most real part of me, and the least known. I need a practice of worship to find it. I meet who I am in worship, without the masks that I wear habitually elsewhere even to myself.
I like to be with people who are like me, and I have had the experience of coming home to people like me, being with my kind, first with Mensa around 1990, then with the Sibyls, Christian Spirituality Group for the Transgendered, in the late 1990s, then with Friends in 2001. With Sibyls we had weekends together, and on the Saturday night we would put on our evening gowns and have intense conversations into the small hours over several bottles of wine about how terrifying impossible and unavoidable transition was. With personal growth workshops which rip us open I have found that feeling of togetherness, at the end. I see people experiencing something similar in the live audiences of WPUK videos: what do they have in common?
If finding that everyone is like me, or discussing how Quakers, in seeking the inner light, are like me, means exposing my most vulnerable parts then I may be tempted to find who is like me in more superficial ways. Who has a degree? Who is comfortable moving in professional circles? Among Quakers I have bonded well with other Scots in England, and other queers, though not usually with other trans women. We remind each other of our failure to pass as cis women, and our great hurt. That part of me is too vulnerable, still too hurting, to form a bond with others. I do not like being reminded of it. Audre Lorde said, What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny? I could be one with the normal people, if only I passed! I marched with Pride until I transitioned, then I did not join a Pride parade for eighteen years. And Lorde’s answer, looking at her past, was sometimes herself.
It may be that Quakers are mostly middle class. I visited Meeting for Sufferings in 2015, and ministry on privilege referred to our wealth, individually and in our meeting houses and investments, which I do not have, and I have heard Friends say similar things since though others have said that excludes people who are not middle class. We might be more middle class because a middle class upbringing gives confidence and self-regard, and life might not be a constant struggle, so that middle-class people have more time to be open to the things of the spirit, and with our comfortable lives we can notice the Spirit’s call; though I was born again when my way of life broke down and I was in extremes of pain and need. But most, not all, working class Quakers (whatever that means) I am aware of have come out to me, and told me of their upbringings, but pass as middle class.
If we are mostly middle class, it may be that what we think of as Quaker sensibilities are really middle-class sensibilities, and that these convey subtle signals that those who do not fit are not wanted. Then the working class, or Black, or disabled, people leave of their own accord and we bemoan how we do not have diverse voices and we are aging and shrinking in numbers. Over coffee, rather than bonding with people like me seeking the inner light, I seek out people like me in less threatening, vulnerability-revealing, ways, such as, being able to talk about Art, surely a sign of middle-classness. It is personal- I am talking of what I love, showing my feelings, and so deeper than small-talk, but not as deep as the inner light. It is a thing I am comfortable talking about, feelings I am safe and happy with, that will not be rejected.
So possibly I could tolerate someone who is not like me in these superficial ways, by having a conversation on their home turf. Can I do that without patronising? “I have the benefit office Capacity for Work Assessment next week,” says someone, “and I am terrified”. And we become campaigning good Quakers, with an object of concern whom we can help, if only by expressions of solidarity. How awful! This is what I have done to campaign against Universal Credit! Let me hear your pain or give you a hug and thereby make you feel better.
The University should be a place where status accrues to merit, as diverse as a Quaker meeting, and Sara Ahmed found that the Asian-heritage lesbian was put down in so many ways that she had to resign and forge her own path. There is Impostor Syndrome felt by women and others, and there are the subtle indicators that you are in fact an impostor. Sometimes it is clear. Surely even the educated white straight male will see it, when she explains: at a meeting, the academics are introducing their courses, and someone is chairing, introducing each of them in turn- this is Professor Jones, this is Professor Smith, and when the only female, the only person of colour in the room stands the chair says “This is Sara”. (Living a Feminist Life, 2017, pp126-7.) Diversity work is dragging these moments into visibility, what Professor Ahmed refers to as being a “killjoy”, thwarting people’s expectations and exposing the racism, sexism and queerphobia of their complacency. Sometimes it is only a feeling, a fleeting look of shock on another’s face when someone who is not white comes into the room. How can you convey that to someone invested in believing that the University is diverse, that everything is OK, that they are colour blind and so if you point out a problem you are playing the race card?
Someone said “I was full of respect for your restraint and gentleness” and others found me so obnoxious I must be silenced. Possibly, I think, the problem really is me.
Sometimes it is clear. Look! Look! we say. And sometimes it is not. There are other explanations. It is hard to see when we exclude another. We would not do it if we could see it, we would be too ashamed.
This is what Sara Ahmed has to say (ibid.p146). It is about Universities, which have diversity policies, rather than Quaker meetings which have a Testimony to Equality, so there is our get out, should we choose to accept it: we would surely not be like that.
“We could think of whiteness as a wall. You know that experience: you walk into a room and it is like a sea of whiteness. A sea: a wall of water. It can feel like something that hits you. It is not just that you open the door and see whiteness but that the door feels as if it is slammed in your face, whether or not it is. It is not always that you are not allowed in. You might even be welcomed; after all, you would promise to add diversity to an event. But you would feel uncomfortable. You would stick out like a sore thumb. So you might leave the situation voluntarily, because it would be too uncomfortable to stay. When you leave, you leave whiteness behind you.”
A Friend has told me of having that experience among Quakers. It is an experience I do not have, I am white. I am grateful that whiteness does not alienate me, and wish our whiteness did not alienate anyone.