Tag Archives: privilege

Do Quakers have Christian privilege?

Last week, Britain Yearly Meeting considered the theme of privilege – you can watch videos from the event, and read the minutes or the epistle. It became apparent that the newer pattern of use for the word privilege – as in white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, straight privilege, middle and upper class privilege, able-bodied privilege, neurotypical privilege, etc. – has caught on in some ways, but it’s easy for people to default back to an older pattern which may also be less emotionally and socially disruptive – as in it’s a privilege to serve, it’s a privilege to be here, it’s an honour and a privilege. When I was thinking about how to unpack this and explore it in a more nuanced way, I found myself thinking about a question we didn’t consider explicitly: do Quakers have Christian privilege, at all or to some extent?

I think the answer to this question is ‘yes and no’, but also that it’s useful to explore why. I’ll start with Christian privilege – what is it, anyway? It’s the ways in which people who are Christian benefit from the structures of societies such as the UK in which Christianity is the majority religion and/or the assumed or historical norm. Sam Killermann put together this list of 30+ examples, including “You can worship freely, without fear of violence or threats” and “Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible”. There are some of these which Quakers clearly have; for a long time now, Quaker worship has been acceptable and free from violence or threats. This is very much a privilege which I think Quakers would want to share with everyone – and yet Jews, Muslims, and others in the UK today do feel this fear and experience both threats and violence against their communities.

On the other hand, the Quaker relationship to Christian holidays is complicated, and specifically Quaker music, films, and so on are not part of mainstream broadcasting. Such things do exist can be found online or at specialist Quaker shops or libraries, but many people – with no internet access, not knowing what to search for, distant from London or Birmingham, and/or short of money – would find it difficult to access them. Some Quakers may include some or all Christian content as reflecting their personal faith, but others find traditional Christian language for God and liturgical practices alien or upsetting. Compared to other privileges Quakers do have, this lack seems relatively minor, but I know that it’s felt by the wave of rejoicing which crosses my social media feeds when a mainstream news source, TV programme, or radio station does mention Quakers. (A recent example: Fleabag.)

I won’t go through all 30 examples, but here are some more:

  • “A bumper sticker supporting your religion won’t likely lead to your car being vandalized.” As a Quaker, I’m sure I have that privilege (I don’t have a car, but I wear a badge which declares that I’m a Quaker and have had nothing but polite, puzzled, and/or positive responses).
  • “Politicians responsible for your governance are probably members of your faith.” Taken as percentages, probably yes: there are more Quaker MPs and MEPs than would be expected if politicians were statistically representative of the population, and fewer than expected of other non-Christian faiths.
  • “You can reasonably assume that anyone you encounter will have a decent understanding of your beliefs.” Not really. Some people have misconceptions, some only know a few basics, and many know nothing about Quakers.
  • “You are never asked to speak on behalf of all the members of your faith.” Debatable… but I use phrases like ‘I can’t speak for all Quakers, but…’ and ‘Quakers don’t all agree, but speaking personally…’ often enough that I think this expectation is sometimes an issue.
  • “Without special effort, your children will have a multitude of friends who share your faith.” It seems to me that Quaker parents often make special efforts, travelling considerable distances or planning family holidays around annual events, to make sure their children can meet other Quaker children.
  • “You can travel to any part of the country and know your religion will be accepted, safe, and you will have access to religious spaces to practice your faith.” I think Quakers do have this privilege (it helps that meeting for worship can be held anywhere). There are a few places in Britain where the nearest Quaker meeting is too far away to attend regularly, but none where I’d expect to feel unsafe as a Quaker.
  • “You can be polite, gentle, or peaceful, and not be considered an “exception” to those practicing your faith.” In bucket loads! A rude or angry Quaker is more likely to be breaking the stereotype (and so that pressure, in turn, means that some find it difficult to express themselves).

It seems like Quakers have more Christian privilege than some, and less than others. These are just some preliminary thoughts and I welcome extensions, additions, and alternative perspectives in the comments. Perhaps it’s a profitable case for Quakers to discuss among ourselves because we are likely to have much of it in common with one another, we can’t learn about the Quaker situation by listening to other people, and the situation of having and not having simultaneously encourages a more nuanced understanding of what is actually going on with privilege in general. In the process we might uncover ways in which we can both be better allies to our interfaith friends, and pose better challenges to dominant structures which may be restricting everyone’s freedom of religion and expression.

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Keeping cradle Quakers by making room to lean in?

Sam Barnett-Cormack blogged recently about the idea of a Quaker Rumspringa. It might work for some people – I don’t want to put anyone off from trying it if it might help!

On the other hand, I tried something like it and only lasted a week or two; for me, it was much more effective to ‘lean in’ to Quakerism. I already had a faith community and I wanted to be a full and active member of it. I didn’t always feel this approach was welcomed, though, by the communities I was trying to join. That might be because I’m a shitty person that nobody wants to have around – and in a way that answer is fine, because it would just be about me and not a structural or widespread problem. Or it might be because people already have a picture that ‘those young things’ (by which they might mean everyone from about fifteen to perhaps forty) shouldn’t really be in a Quaker meeting. I should say here that this does not apply evenly across all Quaker meetings – some have been much better than others about involving me as a young adult and almost all find a way in the end, but not always before my hand hurts from knocking on the door.

A few years ago, when a book about women in the workplace was published under the title “Lean In” (Wikipedia link because this is NOT a book recommendation), I agreed with the many critics who said this didn’t always work and wasn’t good advice, in fact that it encouraged an unjust pattern in which some people have to work harder than others – and I recognised the technique I was using on Quaker meetings. Here are some of the methods I have used to try and gain respect in Quaker meetings:

  • Turning up every week, diligently, with minimal regard for practicality, my health, or the health of other people (e.g. attending while contagious with a cold)
  • Volunteering for anything which can be volunteered for and trying to do it not only well but outstandingly in the hopes of being noticed and trusted in future (including ignoring other people who could do it and irrespective of whether I genuinely felt led to the work)
  • Using educational privilege (which I have in buckets through a combination of brain wiring, class privilege, and luck) to overcome some of the ways I was disparaged as immature (this can be unethical and in any case it only works until it doesn’t: hello anti-intellectualism!)
  • Being stubborn and pushing back (as in: “I’m not a Young Friend, I’m a mung bean” – I grow best under pressure)
  • Shouting into the void and waiting to see if there’s any reply (which is the essence of blogging)
  • A form of respectability politics – trying not to do things ‘young people’ stereotypically do, such as sit on the floor, give computer advice, or be visibly energetic

Some of these come to me naturally – I’d have educational privilege anyway, and I deploy it in other circumstances to try and overcome sexism and (to a lesser extent) biphobia (and, although I try and avoid it, to bolster my white, cis, and other forms of privilege). Some had excellent outcomes – volunteering for whatever was going led me onto a Quaker Quest core team, which supported me in speaking out about my Quakerism, which led to my moment of convincement, or rather realising that I was already convinced enough (that is, it directly addressed the issue Sam is addressing in his blog post). Other things are more difficult – I love the internet and a desire that people stop assuming I use social media all the time is not enough to make me actually decrease my use of social media. More to the point, though, I wish I chose to do these things from love or because I was led or even just wanted to, and not because I felt I had to prove myself because of my age. I was working with a Quaker group recently in which the youngest member chose to sit on the floor. I felt a spike of real anger about that – how dare she let the side down by conforming to stereotype! – before realising how completely that feeling is an artefact of the way I have felt compelled to behave in Quaker groups in order to earn respect. It’s not even that I especially want to sit on the floor. It’s that I know I am more open to being patronised if I do.

I’m not advocating any of these methods. Some of them have appeared to work for me, but people shouldn’t have to ‘lean in’ and make a special effort in order to be counted as a full member of the Quaker community. They require luck as well. (And some of them encourage people to exceptionalise me, focusing on my particular talents or circumstances, rather than seeing the broader problem.) What I would like to see is a shift in the community to make these sorts of things unnecessary.

A while ago I was in a Quaker committee meeting discussing whether changes to some procedures or structures would help young people participate more. Someone pointed out that of twenty-plus people in the room, three or four of us were ‘young adults’, and suggested this meant the current situation was accessible. No, I said, I’ve worked hard and been lucky to get to a place where I can be involved in this way – not everyone can do that and nobody should have to. Now we’re here, let’s make change rather than forcing others through the same maze. So my questions for Quakers are: How do you ensure that adults are trusted to be adults even if they are under 30? How do you make sure that people are given opportunities to take responsibility without feeling that they must perform especially well because they are representing a whole demographic? Generally, how do you make sure you behave in accordance with our principle that everyone is unique, precious, a child of God?

Paddling hard or going with the flow?

This morning I walked to Meeting for Worship through the park. My route takes me next to a stream for much of the way, and at one place I saw a duck. This is a pretty common occurrence, but I noticed this duck because it was in the stream, well out from the sides, but seemed to be still. At first I thought the stream must be shallower than it looked, and the duck standing on the bottom. Then I realised that the duck was puddling upstream at exactly the same speed as the water was flowing downstream, so that it was working hard to stay in one place.

a tarmac path winds through autumn woodland, with trees on both sides

I didn’t manage to photograph the duck, so this is just a picture of a path in the same general area.

I took that image into meeting, where I was contemplating, as I often do, Advices & Queries 28: “undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt”. Sometimes it seems like however many things I stop doing, I’m still just as busy! Of course, that’s because new things start, or existing things expand, and I notice the ‘no’s more than the ‘yes’es especially when it’s a struggle or my decision needs a lot of explaining.

As I settle into my new flat – I’ve been in it for a year, but it still seems new! – and my new city – I’ve been here for two and a half years, but it still seems new! – and my new relationship – less than six months, that genuinely is new 🙂 – I’m finding myself needing more space and unscheduled time, or perhaps being more accepting of my need for space and unscheduled time. When you’re hunting for a job, everyone expects to be able to see your feet paddling as hard as possible, even if – like the duck in the park – you’re only going fast enough to stay still. Stopping, turning round and going with the flow, seems inconceivable.

“A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength,” says another passage in Advices & Queries (41). I find it’s much easier to ‘choose’ a ‘simple’ lifestyle if you already have certain things which are not simple at all, or easy to obtain. I can say no to paid work much more easily when I already have enough paid work to cover my bills, and I can say no to voluntary work much more easily when nobody is demanding to see my CV or asking me what I’m doing to develop my skills or build my professional networks. Is that really a choice, or an expression of the privileges which come with being middle class, white, educated and employed?