Dictating How People Show Up

I’m republishing things I have written elsewhere in the past to archive them here. I think of them as tales from the vault. This is one of them.

I recently observed something that suddenly made me understand something I have struggled to understand for years: That people who want more diversity to happen in their groups also want to dictate how the diverse people act, and would put limits on those people.

Who the hell do they think they are to do that? And then I realized that for older folks especially, that is how they have observed change, and then they assume all people in that group should act that way.

A thing I see *a lot* – especially in people and groups that have seen themselves as historically progressive, that fought early battles for inclusion of people previously excluded – is how they point to the non-combativeness of the first person from that group they included and then expect that will be the way all people from that group will behave.

Example: I have had a personal conversation with a famous minister who personally knew William Stringfellow. For you who do not know, Stringfellow was an Episcopal layman who was incredibly influential in the 1960’s, and was a major influence on Walter Wink. Stringfellow was also gay, and lived with his partner.

This famous minister held Stringfellow (who was not officially out, but it was known to his friends) as the model for how gay people should act. I.E. They should leave all of their sexual identity in the closet.

Because Stringfellow had to (and let’s be honest: chose to) act straight in order to get published and to have a lecture career, because he chose to diminish himself in order to overcome prejudice that would have otherwise silenced him, that is seen by people who knew him as the model for how Queer people should act.

Or the woman minister I know in my denomination, who was the first woman minister in her regional body, who is praised by her contemporaries as “knowing how to not be confrontational” and “knowing how to meet the group where they were”. They praise this as if it is the model for how a woman minister should be, rather than acknowledging that this woman had to diminish herself in order to be seen as non-threatening, OR recognizing that this particular woman had the choice, personality, and support structure that allowed her to do this.

Some people who are members of oppressed peoples have the desire, giftedness, support structure, and mental health to purposefully choose to diminish themselves in order to advance the group they represent. Bless those people. But that doesn’t mean it should be normative for us in the dominant culture to expect that, nor does it obligate them to perform in ways that do not threaten our dominance.

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The P Word

They had just opened the four-lane divided highway between my hometown and the county seat, some 15 miles away. They had been working on it all my life, and now it was wide open, and I had just gotten my driver’s license.

In those days, I drove a 1972 Ford Torino with a 302 V8, a 4-barrel carburetor, and a speedometer that went to 120, even if that was largely aspirational. The wide, straight lanes were irresistible to me and others, and it quickly became the place where races happened. Which is how it came to be that I was doing 85 miles an hour when the blue lights showed in my rearview mirror, and my heart was now in my throat as the Highway patrolman was walking toward my car.

He looked at my license and then looked at me.

“Are you Hugh Hollowell’s boy?”

This is one of the downfalls of having a dad who everyone knew.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I should give you a ticket. But at the speed you were going, it would be expensive. I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. But I am going to call your Daddy and tell him about this.”

I gulped.

“If it’s all the same to you, sir, I would just as soon have the ticket, and Daddy not know anything about this.”

He howled, he laughed so hard.

“I bet you would. OK, consider this a warning. It’s lucky for you I know your daddy. Get out of here, but for crying out loud, son, slow down.”

With both hands on the steering wheel, I drove home at 45 miles an hour, aggressively using my turn signal.

* * *

Because of all the struggles around the water system here and the utter unpredictability of when they will get it straightened out, I bit the bullet and bought an under-sink reverse osmosis water filtration system.

It cost around $200, all told, and it took a rather lazy 2 hours to install. I needed a drill, a ¼-inch drill bit, a Crescent wrench, a pair of Channel Lock pliers, and a Phillips-head screwdriver, all of which I already had. I’m pretty sure a plumber would have charged around $300 to put it in, plus parts, and if you had bought it from a door-to-door sales company, it would have probably been around $1800.

I was telling someone about it and my decision to do it, and they said, “You’re lucky you know how to do that.” Well, in the first place – I didn’t. I mean, I had never installed a reverse osmosis machine before. But the instructions were understandable, and I took my time and worked through them.

But It wasn’t that I was lucky – it’s that I was privileged.

Privilege is a polarizing word these days. But it needn’t be. It just means you have access to something someone else doesn’t have.

Like, with the water filter. It was simple for me to install and I could afford to do it and had the time to do it. None of those things are guaranteed to be true for someone else. If I worked at Dollar Tree, I probably wouldn’t have a spare $200 lying around. I used simple tools, but if I had to buy them for this task, it would have added substantially to the cost. I had the 2 hours to spend doing it. I had a father who taught me to be confident with tools and handwork.

But it doesn’t stop there. I’m a homeowner, so I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to install the water filter. I know how to read and have good reading comprehension skills. I have internet access and a credit card. I have no physical impairments that would prevent my doing it.

And every one of those things is a point of privilege. I carry many other points of privilege as well. For example, I’m a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, well-read, Christian male born in the United States of America. In the world I live in, every single one of those points gives me access to things other people don’t have. And I didn’t ask for any of them.

Other people that Highway Patrolman pulled over that day did not have access to having a father that worked in EMS. I wasn’t smarter than those people, more affluent than those people, or have an easier life than those people. I just had access to an advantage they did not. And because of that, I did not suffer a penalty they would have. Or, put another way, my relationships gave me privileges (like freedom from the consequence of my actions) they did not have.

In the same way, my privilege buys me freedom from uncertainty around the quality of my water that some of my neighbors do not have. It doesn’t mean anything except that I have access to things they do not, through no fault of my own or theirs.

Since most privileges we have were not asked for, I see nothing to be ashamed of for having them. I’m not ashamed I’m white, not ashamed I grew up with a father who taught me to use tools, not ashamed I’m male. It was not my doing that I should have any of these advantages, yet I have them all the same. It is much like having won the lottery without having bought a ticket.

But if you are fortunate enough to have more than others – more food, more advantages, more skill – it’s incumbent on you to use that for the benefit of those who don’t.

So I am not ashamed I am priviliged. I’m just ashamed of all the times I didn’t use those privileges to benefit folks who don’t have them.