Tuesday, September 25, 2007


From the Archives

(April 2005) I’ve been thinking about impressions today. Attended a board meeting last night in which we discussed diversity issues.

The minister from a local Imani fellowship told our mostly dyke board that her partner, a gregarious and oustpoken young woman, felt unwelcomed at our social events because she was black in a sea of mostly white faces. A wealthy, high-femme lesbian once said that she felt unwelcomed because some butchies kept staring at her make-up and nails and she knew everyone just assumed she was made of money. The young pierced grrls said that the predominantly middle-age dykes among them made them feel self-conscious and they were convinced that they would never be taken seriously in the mix.

Some straight women never returned because there were just too many lesbians for comfort. (Hey, welcome to the opportunity to surf our everyday experience in the world.) And some working-class women never returned because this mostly professional group sometimes plans outings that include out-of-town excursions or treks to plays or concerts.

I suspect that we fail to adequately welcome new people because, first and foremost, we are the primary social outlet for grrls who wanna have fun and who mostly already know each other. We let our hair down amongst our familiars and act in a manner that maintains this space where we can be ourselves.

This does not always accommodate everyone else’s comfort zones, however.

I wonder if members consider diversifying important ... and, if they do, if they are willing to do the work required to change these perceptions of comfort. We’ll have to do some exploration before we can actually open our arms a little wider.

An ethnographer on the board talked about a conversation she had with an African-American colleague. This ethnographer was stunned to hear that her colleague believes that she had to prove herself to her white cohort and faculty by out-performing everyone else just so that she will appear as equal in their eyes. This never even occurred to the white ethnographer.

That got me thinking.

I almost always assume that non-southerners who comment on my southern accent are making assumptions about my intelligence and perceived family inbreeding. (And could a West Virginia joke be far behind?) But does this really enter into their consciousness or am I just so used to this bias that I assume it whether or not it actually exists?

I spend most of my time with people who grew up in middle- or upper-class households and am extremely self-conscious of the fact that I am Other to them. They talk about their childhood memories of fancy vacations and semesters in Europe and summer lifeguarding jobs down at the country club and the private educations they received, and I can't help but recall the wrong-side-of-the-tracks public-school education I received that seemed designed to churn out millworkers with enough basic skills to fill out a timesheet or keep a bowling score.

If I didn't come from a family of voracious readers and didn't have a father who was curious enough to learn on his own and share his unconventional insights with me, then I would probably be a millworker right now.

I’m not, but do feel uncomfortable in professional settings in which everyone else seems to be speaking a common (except to me) language and assuming that their experiences are universal.

My professional pals who grew up working class describe similar experiences.

We glance over at each other in the same places when people participate in a larger discussion that is particularly classist or exclusive, while the speakers and common conversants go merrily along, seemingly unaware of their privilege that’s on display.

One thing I noticed in our board meeting that I don’t think anyone else noticed is that our president asked the Imani pastor to read her group’s mission statement aloud in front of the group. She didn’t warn her in advance and the minister was uncomfortable doing this. She joked and said I didn’t know I’d have to read all these big words to y’all tonight.

Meanwhile, because I’m an artist, these meanderings morphed into me thinking about these experiences visually, which made me think about impressionism.

Those soft pastel Monet posters aren’t really my style and some of them are garden-club suburban by today’s standards. But we forget that impressionism was radical, that the impressionists insisted on alternative ways of experiencing the world and documenting what they saw—said THIS is how light falls, THIS is how color is broken up; THIS is how the fugitive moment presents itself—to am establishment and public that responded with outrage ('cause everyone knows that leaves are solid green, right?).

Challenging people to see the world in a new way is, well, a challenge. Yet there’s always a reason to open our arms a little wider, to stretch our experiences out into a wider world that includes more than what we already know.

I'm thinking about this wider world in impressionistic term todays.

This change can grant our eyes new privilege and offers us the opportunity to concentrate aspects of our experience that were previously perceived as too disorderly, too freakish, too seemingly accidental in a manner that creates something beautiful that can cause us to see the world in an entirely new way.

How profound is that?

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