Few things press my buttons faster or harder than experiencing white male privilege in action. After 64 years on this planet I am done.
To give an example of what I mean let me take to you to the side of pool with me yesterday where I was teaching a deep water running class. It was 7:00am. I was halfway through my regular class and things were going well.
Enter white male privilege stage right.
I had seen this person around before. A doctor, late forties, distinguished looking. “Can you turn your music down” he said, “I came here for a quiet swim and it’s disturbing me.” The old me would have scuttled off, turned the sound down, and propitiated my way into a thousand apologies. But I am not the old me anymore and this was my turf. Plus he had interrupted me halfway through my class without thought or respect for what I was doing or the 23 people who had paid to be there.
“No” I said, “I am teaching a class and the participants at the far end of the pool can’t hear me.” “Well I can hear you and I want to swim in peace” he bellowed, moving into full rage at the word ‘no.’ “Who do you work for?” “Who is your supervisor?” Before stomping off to report me to someone.
The implication behind those words irked me. At its heart was a threat and an assumption. The threat was punishment that I had not jumped to appease his needs and an assumption of who I was as a person based on the fact that I was standing at the side of pool in a uniform. Someone incapable of making an informed decision or standing my truth. Someone who hadn’t owned businesses or might even be more degreed than him. Someone whose space was up for occupation and ownership. A mere employee rather than a multifaceted individual who has lived many lives and who possesses multiple knowledges. Someone who could be threatened with the boss.
As a South African who grew up under the Apartheid regime I am particularly susceptible to this type of bullying. I understand the shadow play and the language of power very well. It was used to intimidate and cow black people into submission on a daily basis, as in “if you don’t do what I say I will call the police.” It was used to intimidate women who stood up to male power as in “No-one likes you because you’ve got an attitude problem.” The voice of my ex-husband still echoes in my ears.
The power play behind language is designed to keep us under the yoke. To doubt ourselves and our truth. To consider ourselves unworthy and hold ourselves back. To play small rather than risk the ire of the boss. The fact that we still don’t get it sends me in paroxysms.
I wish I could tell you I handled it well. I wish I could tell you that rage didn’t flare through my body and incinerate my cells. It did. But I had a class to finish and for the next 20 minutes I had to keep a lid on it. During the cool down however, I burst into tears. I wasn’t hurt or scared. I was enraged and this kept me a mess for the rest of the day.
It was not that I was asked to turn the music down, I have asked people to do that myself. What annoyed me was the assumption that his needs should be met instantly, regardless of the needs of the 23 people in my class or the fact that he had interrupted a scheduled event to demand it. What annoyed me was his breath-taking, unexamined sense of entitlement.
It was amazing how so miniscule an event had the power to cloud my day. I’m not proud of that.
After I left work I was listless. I was supposed to go to gym but I didn’t. I was supposed to go to yoga afterwards but I didn’t do that either. In short I punished myself for his behaviour. Instead of doing something uplifting, I spent my time slouched on the couch scrolling Facebook on my phone.
But then there other words and different languages. Maybe I was meant to spend an afternoon on the couch in order to watch a video that profoundly resonated and might even have changed me.
I am not a Christian but the message Rachel offers is universal. If you want to change the world you have to start with yourself. Only when you live in light can you light the way for others. The world will always be full of people who vex us. People, regardless of race, gender or class, who think they are better and deserve more than us. People who bully and scream and demand their needs be attended to first are as old as time itself. What has to change is how we respond to it. Rage keeps us captive to the situation. If you look around the world today clearly rage is not working for us.
I came away from the video really want to understand and change that part of myself that reacts badly to these types of situations. In doing so, I understood something else too. We are all connected. Everyone has a story. Not every story resonates with with every single person which is why we need multiple stories. You never know when someone random can teach you something. Rachel, for instance, is a Christian. I am not. Normally I would not have watched a Christian testimony. I stumbled onto her video because I was following the trail of sport. I wanted to understand who she was because of her marriage to the Captain of the South African rugby team. I was not expecting profundity. But there it was. Everyone holds a key that might unlock something in someone else.
So even though we know this, how do we implement it? What daily steps can we take to live in light? Well it takes conscious commitment. It is not easy to love those who do you wrong or yell in your face. But as I discovered, dwelling on darkness affects not only you, but the people around you. For each person that falls into shadow there is one less who moves into the light. And the world needs light.
Moving forward my strategy will be one I learned @myhealthyoga. It’s called “bless and flick”. If you imagine the bully you’re facing, or the challenging situation you’re in as a light switch, bless the darkness, flick the switch and move on. You’ve better things to do.