Equality does not imply a society without diversity. But to accept the world as inherently unequal to any degree, and one which will never change---this perpetuates the same problems. It is easy to make assumptions based on privilege, but I understand enough with listening and self-reflection to know that I do not understand those different from me in totality. I never will. Still, points of commonality between us do exist.
As a Quaker, I am called to seek the Divine within every person, and no pejorative distinction ought to be drawn between any person for any reason. This is often referred to as a spiritual discipline for a reason. Discipline implies continual exertion and constant effort. Much like with any other difficult endeavor, some have worked longer and have progressed farther, but no one's journey is any greater or lesser than that of another. I am more concerned with those who have begun the process, not where this journey ranks in the eyes of others.
Making blanket assumptions for any reason have been the surest way to bruised feelings and anger. I am well aware that confronting problems of inequality such as race, gender, and class without examining their systemic roots only speaks to half of the equation. Talking only about person-to-person discrimination and not the insidious, deeply enmeshed bigotry that most of us do not even recognize we exhibit will not accomplish a long sought goal. It is true that we must commit ourselves to the hard work necessary, even when it produces discomfort and even a touch of guilt. This we know well. Unfortunately, we can let our own soapbox issue blind us to the Truth of others. Knowing our audience by listening and observing is crucial.
At a worship sharing group this morning at Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Annual Gathering, a Friend responded to my earlier vocal ministry by assuming that I was not aware of this dynamic. While it is true that many well-meaning liberals and Quakers are entirely unaware of what she stated, I have to say I took some offense to what she said. Her ministry was phrased in such a way that entirely invalidated what I and other Friends had to say. We had, you see, been instructed to speak to a query, one which asked us to identify, in our interpretation, what in particular regarding the Testimony of Equality we found most pertinent to our own experience.
I noted that my interpretation of Equality sought to find points of commonality between seemingly different people: those separated by gender, race, sexual orientation, class, and economic opportunity, among others. By contrast, the Friend's message seemed to note that it was presumptuous for me to speak what I did, implying that I didn't really understand the complexities. To her, none of these distinctions I noted above really mattered a bit. To her, Equality meant that God's love applied to everyone but almost seemed to posit that there would always be inequality within humanity. It should be also noted that she believed that privilege would always crop up and there was no way that it could be set aside. Anyone who states that positive change is an impossibility tends to upset me, since I do not have such a sour view of the work that I do.
I am very aware of privilege through my own Feminist work and it seems to me that presuming ignorance is just as toxic as directly displaying prejudicial conduct. If we examine the meaning of the word "prejudice", it may be helpful to break it neatly in two. Pre-judge. Being prejudicial means I am judging you before I really know you. Or, it means that I am judging you specifically so that I don't have to know you.
Feeling misunderstood for any reason makes it easy to be touchy, but when we fail to know how to identify allies from our presumed enemies, we have created a brand new issue and another roadblock to greater understanding. Progressives are guilty of this all the time, and Friends are often frequent offenders for the same reason. So it would seem then that being discerning goes far beyond listening for the leading of the Spirit. Discernment may be its own discipline. We may pride ourselves for seeking tolerance and acceptance within marginalized groups, but when we inadvertently marginalize ourselves, then irony and tragedy are found in copious quantity.
Someone I admire quite a bit has this quote as her e-mail signature. "Engrave this on your heart. There isn't anyone you couldn't love if you knew their story." But to know their story, we must first listen without prejudice.