26 September 2009

Unpacking the knapsack can be so satisfying when your baggage weighs a ton.

Something I've noticed recently in reading posts about privilege is that there are people who don't want to examine what they think or why they think it. Well, that's something I've known for a while; I've just seen it a lot recently.

It's something I don't really understand; because unpacking the invisible knapsack is something I actually enjoy. It doesn't make me uncomfortable to spot my internalised sexism or racism, it makes me excited. I don't know when I begun doing it consciously, because it was a long time ago; and it wasn't something I came to after reading about it on the internet, it was something that grew out of my own experiences. I only heard about the knapsack a month or so ago, but I've been familiar with its contents for most of my life.

Although on the surface I look like I fit very well into the privileged class, it's not something I ever felt until I was older. When I was young I was alienated, ostracised and othered by the people I grew up with. I grew up in a hetero-normative, misogynistic, colonially British, Catholic community, but I didn't fit neatly into any of these categories. My early experience set me up to question the things I was told. When told "we won the war" I questioned the notions of us and them, because I was both us and them, with ancestors fighting on both sides of that war. I have never been able to see attempts at othering people as anything but Orwellian because of that. I was taught that God loved everyone, and then when I grew old enough was taught that God hates gays; but since I was queer I questioned that and found it both bigoted and hypocritical.

My church, my family and my culture did not nurture this questioning spirit, and did not support me in crucial ways, ultimately making me feel bad about who I was. To reclaim my sense of self-worth, I had to challenge where I had internalised these detrimental closed-minded attitudes. I found that the more I weeded out prejudice and assumptions from my own mind, and the more I questioned what I had been taught, the better I felt about myself, and my beliefs became well-thought out and carefully chosen rather than just parroting what I was fed by my culture. The process makes me feel strong and free and valuable, capable of thinking for myself.

In the beginning it's easy, because the shit lies close to the surface. But as the years go on it becomes harder and harder, because the prejudices which are left are so ingrained, so part of the fabric of your world that you can't even see them. You don't pick up on them so often, but that is when you need to be especially vigilant. Because no matter how open-minded you are, no matter how progressive, you never completely get rid of them.

I found one of these a few months ago. Growing up Catholic, the gender divisions in the Church were one of the main reasons I felt left out. Excluding women from having an active and meaningful role in the church is something I am against. I don't see any good reason why women can't be priests.

A few months ago I was visiting a friend and he mentioned that the minister of his church is a woman. The next day I was at his mother's house (his father had just died). A woman came over to ask if his mother was OK and did she need a ride to the funeral. I could tell this woman was religious; she had that serene glow and she had a whopping great gold crucifix around her neck. Clearly she was a nun, but her manner was so familiar I began to wonder if she wasn't also a relative. When she left, my friend turned to me and said, "so you've met our minister". I was floored; although he had told me only the night before that his minister was a woman, my internalised Catholic told me that the only thing a religious woman could be was a nun.

It doesn't bother me that I thought this; it would have bothered me no less if someone else had pointed it out rather than noticing it myself. Because although I internalised that reality to the point where I perpetuated it without thinking, I know it was something I picked up from outside and not what I really believe. I was excited to spot it because it was such an insidious piece of sexism, and the kind that had made me feel alienated from Christianity all along. Having identified it, you can be damn sure I won't let it happen again.

I guess it's the same for me with any kind of prejudice or stereotype. I know I occasionally find some piece of it in my thoughts, but I don't get defensive about it. I celebrate the fact that it is no longer an unconscious thing, because it gives me the opportunity to examine it and see if I really believe it or have just be taught to.

I find it easy to acknowledge how bigoted and discriminatory my society is, because it discriminated against me. I find it easy to acknowledge how much I internalised all that shit, because that internalisation detrimentally affected me. I find it easy to see the benefit in making sure I don't perpetuate that shit on other people, because I benefited from ceasing to perpetuate it on myself.

And I don't really understand why it's so hard for anyone else.

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