The Other Side of the Divide

September 16, 2008

Zenobia at The Beadshop has a great post up about feminist relationships, in particular her experience as a secretary in a feminist group where a lot of the members were economically privileged, had postgraduate degrees, and their own secretaries.

As I’ve posted about before, I had a pretty negative experience in one of the feminist groups I joined, but in many ways it was the mirror of Zenobia’s.  In this group I was conspicuously well-educated (formally); one of the only members of the group with a postgraduate degree.  I was also one of the only members who identified as middle-class, even though I was flat broke at the time; everyone else in the group identified as working-class.

I want to write a post one day about how a “working-class identity” in a lot of activist groups becomes a way of denying any other form of privilege – “I couldn’t have said something racist, I’m working-class” or “my fear and loathing of transpeople isn’t transphobia, I’m working-class”.

Today though, I want to discuss my experience of privilege within a group, and how to better take responsibility for my privilege in the future.

To a certain extent, my privilege within the group didn’t necessarily do  me a lot of good in terms of group dynamics.  Everyone else in the group adhered to a pretty rigid radical feminist line (one that, weirdly enough despite the working-class identity, wasn’t much interested in doing anything practical to challenge capitalism), and as I didn’t, I usually found myself being ganged up on.

BUT, I also know that my privilege can be intimidating and, to my shame, that sometimes I can use that to defend myself.  I’m wicked smart, and I’m well educated, and I’m very articulate.  I speak better than I write, generally speaking.  And when I’m angry or nervous, I actually get MORE articulate – if I feel backed into a corner, out come the £10 vocabulary words and bibliographic references.  My middle-class, white, English-as-a-first-language upbringing means that I speak in a generic, mid-Atlantic accent – no regional or class-based accents for me!  I sound like the people on Canadian television.  My middle-class upbringing and education means that I have the self-confidence to believe that what I’m saying is important and worth listening to – and the ability to fake that confidence where I don’t have it.    

So, I could actually hold my own when everyone else in the group was against me, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t an incredibly stressful experience.  But I know I appeared to others (based on comments people occasionally made) completely convinced of my own correctness and also of my own superior intelligence.

This leads me to wonder two things.  First, could things have gone better in the group if I’d been more aware of my privilege and done something to counteract it, so I didn’t make others feel stupid, or inferior?  And how do I do this in the future?  It seems really patronising, to me, to suddenly “dumb down” your language, for example.  But clearly, somewhere between talking to everyone like they’re 5, and talking to everyone like they have a PhD, there’s a happy medium.

 Secondly, to what extent did my privilege keep me from hearing valid criticism?  People in the group did tend to use their working-class identity to fend off any accusations of other kinds of privilege, particularly around transphobia and racism.  But, to what extent did I begin to assume that any attempts to call me on my privilege were just attempts to avoid these discussions?  Looking back, I wonder if the frequent references to working-class backgrounds were also an attempt to let me know I was alienating other people with my class privilege, and that consequently people were feeling defensive.  Was I inadvertently constantly reminding people that they were working-class (in comparison to my privileged self)?

I have an extremely biased memory of many of these events of course because even after all these months I’m still pretty angry about the whole experience.  But I do think the time has come for me to be honest with myself and examine the experience in a way that may not be terribly self-flattering.

 P.S.  This was dashed off in about 10  minutes as I was leaving the office, so there may be errors, and I may come back to edit it more.

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