Answering the question, “What can we do about privilege?”
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“Where do we go from here?”

My friend posted this excellent, approachable primer on privilege and intersectionality on her Facebook page recently. One of her friends responded by saying, “Can I ask an honest question - where do we go from here?”

My friend didn’t answer the question. I’m guessing she felt tired and frustrated when she read it.

Variations on this question—“where do we go from here?”—are an extremely common response to discussions about privilege. They are so natural and knee-jerk that, to me, they suggest a global, psychological pattern, like tiny identical spores flowing from overwhelmed minds. In privilege discussions, they are the verbal equivalent of wrinkling your nose instinctively at a strange smell.

I didn’t feel irritated when I saw the question. I was just struck, suddenly, by how many times I’d read it before. And I found myself wanting to provide answers that might address the real psychological mechanism deploying this meme.

“Where do we go from here?”

The answers that come to mind are:

“Nowhere—at first.”

And: “Eventually to places that are difficult for us to fathom, given the world we currently live in.”

And: “Towards allowing the truth to change your mind and heart.”

And: “Towards wherever your awakened conscience and more informed worldview lead you.”

 

What drives the question

Now, the answers I listed aren’t simple, step-by-step instructions for addressing the legacy of privilege and “making things right.” Anybody who really confronts the realities of history understands that the path forward can’t be found through quick fixes or concise to-do lists. Are the questioners hoping for answers along these lines? They won’t be gratified. Still, their desire for a simple, immediate way forward is perfectly understandable and definitely predictable. Alarmed people often want to know what exactly they can do about things, right now.

But what if the questioners aren’t sincerely hoping for digestible action steps? Does their question come from a place of avoidance and deflection? If the answer is what they suspect it might be—that “nothing can be done”—they can lay the problem aside as unsolvable and therefore irrelevant.

Whether the question is motivated by a naïve desire for instruction or a cynical attempt at avoidance, I believe there is a deeper, more elemental force at work. What unites both categories of questioners is an emotional response. 

What feelings does facing the profoundly ugly forms of privilege—like discovering a corpse in the basement—arouse? Horror, guilt, fear, denial, helplessness?

In 2016, researchers at the University of Southern California published their findings on the rigidity of belief in Nature. They conducted MRI scans of 40 people to observe how challenges to their beliefs impacted brain activity. Their findings were two-fold:

  1. Political beliefs are more inflexible than other types of belief
  2. The subjects who were more resistant to changing their beliefs, even in the face of clear evidence, had relatively higher levels of activity in their insular cortex and amygdala

The amygdala, of course, is one of the regions of the brain that regulates emotions, including perceptions of threat. This research suggests that avoiding challenges to our paradigms—especially political ones—is a function of our ingrained fear management systems.

Terror

Personally, with my western mind, I think the notion that I am not in total control of my socioeconomic destiny is terrifying. Part of that loss of control extends to facing a brutal history driving contemporary injustice that I can’t retroactively change. This history utterly defines the world as I know it, including the bundle of privileges and disadvantages that constitutes my very socio-political being. This terrible history has created me. Horrifying. 

So I believe the terror of the challenged paradigm is what really drives the question, “where do we go from here?” Whether that terror manifests as naiveté or cynicism, fear is what we’re talking about.

Answers

So…where do we go from here? Whether it’s a good, fair, or rationally composed question doesn’t matter. It will continue to be asked, because the truth of historical privilege shatters deep paradigms.

I circle back to the answers I found myself wanting to give my friend’s friend:

“Nowhere—at first.”

And: “Eventually to places that are difficult for us to fathom, given the world we currently live in.”

And: “Towards allowing the truth to change your mind and heart.”

And: “Towards wherever your awakened conscience and more informed worldview lead you.”

This is what I believe: if we can sit with the fear that the truth of privilege arouses in us, we will eventually find pathways forward. But this may take time.

How profoundly do paradigm shifts impact human history? How reforming and disruptive was the revelation of a heliocentric universe or the evolution of the species? Understanding the mechanics of privilege is no less revolutionary.

When such deep paradigms go about rearranging our collective sense of what’s real, true, or possible, they take their time. They have to flow slowly through the congestion of fearful minds, like water through dense bedrock. But once that occurs, what is the outcome? Generally: a proliferation of new possibilities. Specifically, in the case of privilege, we could see:

An increase in compassion for self and others.

And: A general acceptance that control over our own destinies is not absolute; a proposition that leads to an inestimable number of social changes.

And: Creativity for driving new socio-political systems that reflect a more nuanced understanding of justice.

But all of that lies on the other side of fear. So to my friend of a friend, and questioners everywhere, I want to say that I believe the answers to the question, “where do we go from here?” might be:

“Feel your fear. Don’t try to avoid it.”

And: “Have faith that you and everybody else will better understand what to do once your fear passes, as fear always does, given enough time and space.”

And: “Nowhere. Don’t try to be anywhere other than here, sitting with this startling information and exploring how it could change you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consent is for awards shows too
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Today I performed at the Fraser Valley Music Awards, which were part of AbbyFest, a celebration of diversity in Abbotsford. I won an award for best Experimental Artist. And I had an experience the likes of which I’ve had many, many times over in my life. But today, I viewed this experience differently than I would have in the past.

Allow me to put this handy screenshot from a conversation with my friend in context. When I perform, I wear white face paint. I feel more comfortable that way. And as you can see, my weirdo appearance seemed to make more than one older gentleman feel like unsolicited physical contact and a gently condescending remark was the thing to do.

I didn’t feel “distressed”, “violated”, or “put down” when this happened. My Left Brain shrugged and said, “Yup, that’s an older man for ya.” And then, suddenly, my Right Brain, which has been soaking up #metoo posts and think pieces about Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein for weeks on end, said, “You know what? I absolutely HATE being touched by strangers, and I know this wouldn’t have happened to a dude.”

This isn’t a post to complain. I actually want to express gratitude.

I’m GRATEFUL that in this time of nauseating cultural expectoration, men are not the only ones receiving an education. Equally, I’m being sensitized, instructed, and enlightened. I’m learning to see things differently. I’m learning to see MYSELF differently.

For most of my life, I’ve been the queen of brushing things off. Things need to get gnarly before I will “make a big deal” of them. My bottomless capacity for never making a fuss is part of what kept me entrenched in psychologically and emotionally abusive situations in the past. I always bought into the idea of myself as a “tough lady” and an entire system of predation and dehumanization was happy to leverage that.

A dumb-ass joke and a dumb-ass shoulder squeeze are among the more innocuous and survivable acts of gender-based disrespect I’ve experienced in my life. Believe me. But today, I allowed myself to actually register that disrespect and FEEL offended.

I’m grateful for that feeling. I need that feeling. I’m going to rely on that feeling from now on. It’s the only thing that’s going to fuel timely confrontation in the future. Next time, instead of the deer-in-the-headlights, dopey, fake-smiling passivity my numbness has always engendered in me, I want to respond by asserting my boundaries. I want to feel offended rather than numb and say, “Don’t touch me unless you have my consent.”

I also want to say thank you to the organizers of the FVMAs and Abbyfest. I was grateful to be part of the proceedings. The rudeness of a few participants doesn’t detract from what you’re doing.

Men, don’t be afraid to let your hearts wake up during this time of investigation and accountability. Women, trans folk, POC, marginalized people everywhere, don’t be afraid to let your hearts wake up during this time of investigation and accountability. How we FEEL—when we are disrespected or abused by others, or when we realize that we have disrespected or abused others—could be a life-saving, revolutionary force. Numbness never did shit for me. It won’t do shit for any of you either.

xo

Union

Hey…today Racoon Moon Records is releasing “Union” a 6-song EP I made (with glorious arrangement input and production from Simon Bridgefoot). Stream or download for free if ya like (just put $0 as the “price you name” on Bandcamp).

I’ll be honest. It feels weeeeeird to publicly share this music. I wrote these songs 4 years ago and I’m currently recording music through my Residency thing with Abbotsford Arts Council that I (naturally) feel more connected to. Plus, sharing “art” feels weird. Plus, sharing much of anything online feels weird (to me).

BUT…I am genuinely quite happy and proud that I finished and released these songs. I really love the time capsule they represent. When I wrote them, I was a freshly-minted divorcee who had just quit her very adult and involving job with no plans for future employment. I was just wrapping up a few years of intense, personality-mutating misery (and thank G-d my previous personality didn’t survive the voyage). I was a gleefully happy woman and I wrote a bunch of vaguely dance-y songs in a month just because I had the time and space to do it.

When I hear these songs, I think about: feeling happy to be angry; feeling happy to be crying; feeling happy to be up all nite; feeling happy to be weird; feeling happy to be uncertain about my future (or anybody’s future on this exponentially transforming planet); feeling happy to think about cyborgs; feeling happy to have crushes; feeling happy to invent stories and play characters; feeling happy to get older; feeling happy to be decidedly immature; feeling happy to have dodged several bullets; feeling happy to be riddled with holes.

I might never feel like a “legit musician”, but I can say that expressing myself through music has helped bring me legit, enduring, multi-faceted HAPPINESS. I’m grateful to share music-making with other people, and investigate with them what it means to use art as a mental health and community-building tool. I’d say, at this stage of the game, it wouldn’t hurt for each of us to keep a few extra tools of this nature on hand. So cheers to you while you find yours and thanks sincerely to all of you who encouraged me to find mine.

 

Kristin van Vloten
I Am A Molehill

I am a molehill
humble terrestrial teat
a home for the blind
an afternoon’s work

But you have made a mountain of me
So now climb to the top
and dip your head into the soapy fog
so you can begin to grieve what the ascent reveals:
All that can be seen
and all that can never be discovered
not from any vantage point on earth—

and certainly not from this place
standing on the soul of your lover
a meager pile of soil
an unflinching black cavity
through which living creatures
have fled in fear

Kristin van Vloten
At Twilight

Twilight soaks colour from the land
Like a dirty sponge pressing down
it empties the fields, the fenceposts, 
the sky, the pebbles in the path 

I can see the future
I can see the Enemy before I must engage Him 

Across the field
a walker and his dog
slink darkly through grasses nearly void of green
moving like pupils in a gaze that follows me
My dog strains the leash
pointing his black muzzle like
the gloved finger of an accuser

Kristin van Vloten