Nov 12, 2013 - Social Studies    No Comments

Alone at the Ball

I’m participating in an intensive series of workshops on race called Beloved Conversations. It’s being hosted by a local Unitarian Universalist church, but it involves members of several other UU and African-American churches as well. The workshops have included large and small group conversations; the building of a series of timelines showing important racial/ethnic events of our city, our congregations, and our personal lives; and other activities.

So I wasn’t surprised when we were asked to line up for a Privilege Walk at Saturday afternoon’s session. In this exercise, people start in a straight line before being asked questions about advantages and disadvantages they’ve had in life, many of which are keyed to social privileges we receive by virtue of our birth. For advantages, participants are required to take one or two steps forward; for disadvantages, one or two steps back.

Different lists are more or less focused on racial privilege, but the one we used Saturday was more inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and disability. As people fan out, patterns become undeniable: mostly white men at the front of the room, followed by men of color, then white women, and women of color at the back of the room. I’m used to being in the back third of the room, where white women from poor families and more advantaged women of color merge.

What I didn’t expect on Saturday was to be dead last, by one or two steps. It was just a function of the questions, not a significant worsening in my circumstances since the last time I did a Privilege Walk. There weren’t many questions about the advantages conferred by formal and cultural education, and the effort to include more forms of dis/advantage meant the hits just kept on coming.

Own stock or a trust fund in your name before age 21? Take a step forward.

Identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender? Take a step backward.

Given a car to drive yourself to high school? Take a step forward.

Have a visible or invisible physical disability? Take a step backward.

One or two paychecks from being broke? Take a step backward.

Told you are handsome or beautiful by complete strangers? Take a step backward.

It’s not that I didn’t take steps forward—I know my privilege. I’ve traveled, I’ve studied, I’ve received gifts from my parents and my race that benefitted me directly. But I felt a sudden, visceral solidarity with the women of color with whom I stood, and I admired their strength in the face of the challenges that put them there too. And as I stood there, looking at the backs of the other participants in these deep, meaningful conversations, I was filled with anger and helplessness at the accumulation of injustices that put me where I am.

It wasn’t even the first time this weekend I’ve felt profoundly alone in a room full of people I know. I attended the TakeAction Minnesota gala celebration Friday night. The three people I’d invited to join me ended up missing the event for a variety of reasons. While I literally couldn’t walk through the crowded social hour without bumping into someone I consider a friend, and I gave out as many hugs as I collected donation envelopes during the fundraising portion of the program, I was seated at a table of strangers, with other strangers at all the proximate tables. I whooped and hollered, stood and clapped, all throughout the program as beloved friends and fellow organizers paraded across the video segments and stage, but I felt it necessary to apologize for my enthusiasm to people who had none of the same connections in the room that I had. We weren’t celebrating the same year, and I felt isolated by my circumstances.

So there I was again, Saturday afternoon. Two members of the group noticed the silent tears streaming down my face, and each came over to hold me as they turned to quiet sobs of frustration and humiliation. Another took a few lateral steps to hold my hand throughout the rest of the discussion. Other participants who’d executed that awkward box step of advantage and disadvantage with me at the back of the room argued that the questions posed didn’t reflect anything beyond socio-economic values for privilege, while those at the front of the room grappled awkwardly with unasked-for entitlement and “luck” that attached to the chance of their birth. And one beloved friend argued that we at the back had an invisible advantage, that we were “all Cinderellas”—we belong at the ball, but we have a deeper reality we can return to, one that gives us a greater appreciation for those occasional invitations to the dance.

This might all come across as another white woman whining about her taste of the unfairness that people of color—especially queer women of color—live with every day. Maybe that’s true. But after the tears dried and the hurt dulled, what was left was an even deeper commitment to tearing down the walls that keep those of us at the back of the room apart. We know more about each others’ struggles, despite the differences of neighborhood and skin color, than we do about what it’s like to be one of the people at the front of the room. We can be present and supportive for one another in ways that are deeply meaningful. We can see to each other’s representation in critical public discussions about our neighborhoods, schools, congregations, and democracy.

We Cinderellas gotta stick together.

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