November 4, 2009

Pride and privilege

God is wanting to teach me about the dangers of pride and the downside of privilege.

I'm a slow learner.

I know this because I am getting lessons about pride and privilege nearly every day it seems, from different people, over and over and over again. So it must be important and I need to pay closer attention.

Most recently the lesson came to light as I was reading the proceedings from a recent conference at Guilford College on a "new kind of Quaker" and the Emergent and Convergent movements that are influencing modern American Friends.

I found myself getting angry that Friends--Friends that I don't know personally--were talking about Convergent Quakers. That's when I realized I had unknowingly "bestowed" upon myself and a handful of others the "privilege" and the "right" to talk about Convergent Friends.


My ego and pride had become overinvested in my (very ephemeral) place in the online conversation.

I needed to change my thinking about all of this: Many Friends all over the world have begun learning about Convergent Friends, and of course this isn't a new phenomenon at all. It's just a new word.

It took reading about this conference to burst my ballooning ego, and I'm the first to say I needed that particular balloon popped (again). If there is Truth and Life enough in what is going on to help Quakers reclaim and live into our vibrant faith tradition, then that is enough, and that fruit is of the Spirit, not of any single person's efforts or own good thinking.

It's painful to look in the mirror--but it also makes for good blogging fodder.


I am thinking once more about being meek and staying low.

Oh, how frequently my pride and vanity get in the way!

So many times I do think I have really good ideas or I do think I know how to navigate through conflict and tense moments or I do think I know how to help convey Quakerism in meaningful ways to new attenders.

One of the dangers of this sort of pride, though, is that if I believe that I'm "so good," that often goes along with a deep and unspoken belief that so many others. . . aren't.

If in fact these are gifts that I carry--creativity, bridge-building, guidance--they are gifts from the Spirit and not of my own making. And these gifts aren't exclusively given only to me.

I will bow and be simple,
I will bow and be free
I will bow and be humble
Yea bow like the willow tree.

I will bow this is the token,
I will wear the easy yoke,
I will bow and be broken,
Yea I'll fall upon the rock.
Thinking that I am really good at a task can make me too quick to act when someone else may have an equally valuable--or even greater!--skill to offer or an important perspective to add. So many times I am reminded that we each have different gifts, different perspectives--and all are needed!

In my humanness, though, my pride often makes me blind and deaf to the gifts that others bring or that others may be developing, and I end up trampling on my comrades rather than "lifting them up."

Pride too can make me think I know what's best, and I become quick to discount or dismiss the opinions and ideas that others wish to contribute.

And then God steps in, or sends a messenger, to remind me...

Most recently, we hired Pete (not his real name) in the neighborhood for some fall yard clean-up. The leaves were many and were still somewhat wet from the recent rain. More rain was called for overnight, just before our morning pick-up for yard waste. I was glad that Pete was available and he filled up three-and-a-half of those extra-large paper sacks with the leaves from just our front yard.

In fact, Pete had filled the bags so full that there was no extra bag to fold over to keep out the upcoming rain.

I began to say something to him, like "Could you leave a bit of room at the top so the bag could be folded over...?" and he replied, "It'll be fine." A few days later, Pete told me he wouldn't do any more work for me, that I was too nit-picky.


I am wondering if there were other interactions that Pete and I have had in recent years that led to his perception that I was nit-picky, but the main thing is, my ego was bruised. My pride was hurt and I wanted to get angry at Pete for... for calling me names....?

I had thought I had been treating Pete well and with respect, but his comment to me has forced me to look at myself through his eyes. Am I too nit-picky? Do I insist too frequently that things be done my way?

Am I too prideful in thinking I have the right to interject what I think about any given situation?


Privilege pairs with pride for that reason, I think. Because I have privilege, I have access to any number of things--or at least I assume I do--and I internalize the message lived out by others of privilege:
    The world at large and its institutions revolve around, and keep in power, those with privilege.
Privilege extends a number of assumed "rights" to those who have it and prevents access to those same rights to those who don't have "enough" privilege or the "right kind" of privilege.

The right to speak my mind--not only to interject my point of view but also to impose my worldview unwittingly onto others--without fear of retaliation, ridicule, harassment, or violence is among the rights that I seem to abuse the most.

When I stay awake to that abuse--entitling myself to have more power than I do, to take advantage of the access to more power than others have, to give myself more decision-making opportunities than others have--I am humbled.
    I will bow and be broken Yea I fall upon the rock.
But staying awake, remembering that privilege begets privilege, is very hard in a society that whispers into my unconscious,
    "There's nothing wrong, there's nothing wrong. You don't have to give anything up. Just help others to get a little bit more." You don't have to change because there's nothing wrong, nothing wrong..."
My worldview is formed by the unearned privileges with which I grew up, namely being white, being born into wealth, and being raised in an area that had families that looked and acted a lot like my own family.

I have to work hard to remember that racial privilege and social class privilege can only exist where there is racism and classism.

Where there is oppression, there is privilege. Where there is disenfranchisement, there is entitlement.

And because I am a person of privilege, I must resist the tendency to become defensive when I am pointed to as acting entitled or as being part of the systemic, societal oppression.

This particular sentence from Peggy McIntosh's essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack haunts me, as I continue to become aware of my deeply embedded classism as well as continued racism:
Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in women's studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, "having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?"
The phrase "what will I do to lessen or end it?" has a resonance in me the way I imagine Samuel Bownas' inward cry--"...Lord, what shall I do to help it?"--was called forth in response to the minister who chided him.

These are deep and difficult issues, tangled in my subconscious and in my heart. More and more these days, I work to untangle them.

Here's a piece from my journal, when I was taking a hard look at my unearned privilege as a white, well-educated, owning class American:
Privilege puts ME at the center.

MY needs.
MY wants.
MY preferences.
MY communication style.
MY comfort.
MY lifestyle.
MY feelings.
MY worldview.
MY advancement.

But my "needs" aren't necessarily needs at all.

And as I let go of any individual privilege, I go against the unspoken American Middle Class Norm--to be better, to have more, to keep more, to expect more, to be given more.

Once I have a privilege--earned or unearned--it's hard to choose to let it go for the sake of standing in solidarity with my brothers and sisters who have less.
The Light pierces my heart and reveals to me my ego's tight grasp on pride and privilege.

Ahh, break me Lord, if you must. But I pray it be gentle and that I be willing to yield, to bow like the willow tree.



Anonymous said...

This is a lovely post. Something I struggle with (again and again) too.

A little anecdote - not lovely like yours, a little seedy: The first time I really came face to face with my privileged self was about 20 years ago. I was heading back to my apartment very late, waiting for the bus, when a police officer stopped and asked if I would like a ride. I was very grateful. When he dropped me off he asked if he could see me again, or something like that - basically, he wasn't just interested in driving me home. It was weird and awkward, and I hopped out of his car and ran inside.

When I told my roommate what had happened, he said "You're surprised that he wanted something from you because you're white. You just thought you just deserved a ride home. If you were a black or hispanic woman, you would have known enough to be suspicious of him."

It was such an odd and unpleasant experience, and it still haunts me. I thought of myself as being pretty liberal and with it, but there I was, just another middle class white girl using my white privilege, unconsciously, because I could.

And you know what? I sleep pretty well these days, because with all the economic and social turmoil around us, I have a white middle class safety net (my extended family), and whatever happens I'm not going to live on the street or lose my children or go bankrupt from a health scare. So while I care about health reform and peace and the economy, it's not really real, the stakes aren't really there, because it's not in my lap.

At my church we've been working on raising money for a Catholic organization that feeds and educates children in Haiti. I'm horrified by what I've learned there - people are so desperate that they serve their children cookies made of dirt. But the horror wears off, the impression fades, and I have to keep reminding myself when I'm about to make a purchase, or when I think about a project my husband and I are thinking of doing to give us a little more living space, or when I'm making cookies for my kids - in Haiti they're eating dirt.

I'm not eating dirt because I'm white and I was born here. No merit on my part. They're eating dirt, I'm not. Now what?

Sorry for the ramble. Thank you for this blog.

- Steph

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Very fine essay, Liz. Humility is indeed one of the key ingredients of the path we are walking!

Liz Opp said...

Steph -

Thanks for sharing a bit of your own story. Sounds like your roommate knew something firsthand about racism and privilege...?

And I hear you about the difficulty to be emotionally involved in issues like economic justice when you and I aren't being impacted directly--at least, not yet. What's been helping me these days has been reading books and articles about social class and having LOTS of conversation with my partner who grew up working class.

But it rests with me to educate myself, no one else.

For resources, I recommend you take a look at what Jeanne has listed on the left-hand side of her blog about Quakers and social class. I also encourage you to look at the website Class Matters. Lots of good stuff.

Marshall -

Thanks for the comment. As I said, this was not an easy piece for me to write, but I felt it was time to tackle the topic as best I could and trust that more understanding and more Truth will be shown me over time.


Anonymous said...

Liz, thank you for the links, yet again. You're a great resource.

As for my roommate in the above story, he is gay. So he certainly knows a lot about marginalization.

Liz Opp said...

My apologies to readers and to Jeanne! The link to her blog, Quakers and Social Class, is here, not what I have above!

Thanks to the fFriend who pointed out the incorrect link to me!


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Liz: I have similar ego-driven mutterings most days, grin! It is always necessary to relearn that we are being used and that our authority comes not from our brilliant vocabulary but from our submission to the Spirit. There would be no Convergent Friends movement, indeed no Friends at all, if not for the others past and present who share our convictions and if not for God who has brought this into our lives.

That said, there is something a little weird about those official proceedings. The internet etiquette is to include a "hattip" (or "HT") to the source of a link you're sharing. It's an acknowledgment that the collecting of information and the building of online networks doesn't just happen by itself. I have a great concern that some of the most embedded institutional Friends (like some of those at the conference) are all but invisible online. Maybe they should jump into more blog conversations & start posting events to QuakerQuaker. At the very least, I would like to see the Convergent Friends ethos of sharing the credit and being free with the links carry over in these new settings.

Diane said...


This is a fabulous post (and Steph, your anecdote about the ride was perfect).

I was taken in by the post immediately because for a long time I have been prideful about being Emergent--or more precisely Emerging-- BEFORE Convergent and have seen Convergents as the interlopers! As in, who are they???, and how can they as if they discovered emerging?... and yes, it is prideful!

But beyond that, which is such a minor point really, this was such a rich meditation, and I most appreciated the consciousness of class privilege. I liked this: "The right to speak my mind--not only to interject my point of view but also to impose my worldview unwittingly onto others--without fear of retaliation, ridicule, harassment, or violence is among the rights that I seem to abuse the most." If we could all realize this, how much more we would listen and not judge!

Classism has been coming up for more often lately, and not just in Quaker circles, and I think not by accident. Resisting classism, especially as Quakers tend to be a privileged group, may be a way to unite Quakers.

Thanks for this post.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Martin -

What link are you suggesting that the proceedings should have included?

I'm conflicted about the degree of online visibility to afford to "embedded institutional Friends." On the one hand, these long-time Friends and educators most likely have a long and broad perspective that many of us "free-roaming," less institutionalize Friends don't have. It would be wonderful to have their experience reflected in the blogosphere, much like Brent Bill has been offering.

I recall that for a while, Friends' pastor Scott Wagoner was maintaining a blog, and also that every now and then, even Lloyd Lee Wilson would offer a comment.

On the other hand, I also think it's important that more established members of the Religious Society of Friends give space for less established Friends to find their voice and grow into whatever gifts and ministry may have been Given to them. Not to mention that some of the early Quaker bloggers have taken up new things--families and careers included--that reduce their (READ: our) visibility and presence online...

Diane -

Thanks for your honesty and being forthright in sharing your experience. Yes, the way that you've written about it, I have a new understanding about how Convergent Friends may have been viewed as "taking too much of the credit" for having come into its own as Emergent.

I'm continuing to learn and re-learn that despite our best intentions, it's the IMPACT of our actions that either harm or heal.

For example, when the word "Convergent" was tossed out there as a trial balloon a few years ago, it was done so with the explanation, reference, and acknowledgment that there was something about the Emergent church movement that seemed to be pulling us along, too.

But that doesn't take away the sting (or pride) you felt at the time when you first came across some Quakers talking about the Emergent church.

Thanks, too, for reflecting on the classism that seems to be becoming more... recognizable?... among Friends and elsewhere in the larger society.

We have a lot of work to do still.


Robin M. said...

Hi Liz,

I keep reading this and starting to comment and then I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to say and I give up and say nothing. But I want to at least say that this speaks to me in several ways and I will try to write a more serious comment on Wednesday.

See? Even my apology for not writing is too long.


Robin M. said...

I feel like I should start with an acknowledgement that I am not a stranger to failings of pride and privilege either.

But what I really wanted to respond to, and I will probably write a whole blog post about it, so as not to write a book in this little box, was the odd feeling of reading someone else writing about convergent Friends. I have had that over and over again, and tried very hard to remember what you said very early on, no one person gets to name/define this movement/conversation. This conversation didn't start on the Internet - it started in the hearts and minds of Friends all over the place. The internet just made it easier to find other people who were having the same leading. And over the last couple of years, the phrase convergent Friends has come to mean different things to different people, and people project onto it what they want, both positive and negative.

About the report from the conference in North Carolina, I can say that I have met several of the organizers and attenders, some before and some after the event. My journey been enriched by their understanding of convergence. Maybe I don't feel the lack of acknowledgement as deeply because they did credit me and my writing in the paper. One thing that Max Carter points out in the Foreward is that the Proceedings were written up in parts by several different students, with a "varying amount of comprehension."

Last, I think it is really interesting to see that every branch of Friends not only has people who are currently interested in convergence but also models to draw from in their history.

Liz Opp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz Opp said...

Robin -

I'm so glad you could take time to write your thoughts out more fully...

Thanks for the reminders about how we are all a part of this movement/conversation and that it will change as we do.

I'm also helped in knowing that some of the organizers and attenders at the conference are in fact "clued in," which I had assumed was the case: I just wish something was stated more transparently within the proceedings, kind of like when one blogger links to someone else's post that inspired them to write...

In addition, I sometimes think about the things that were shared about Convergent Friends but were NOT included in the proceedings... It's the power and presence of the printed word, though, that seems to endure in our current society.

And yes, the models from Quaker history that Max Carter writes about [in this pdf file] sound like interesting Friends to study, especially when it comes to connecting with young adult Friends and reaching across the branches.