‘The Spirit made clear that the bridge between climate and discrimination was structural privilege.’
I am writing this five days before Yearly Meeting begins. The last few weeks have involved meetings with the clerking team, phone calls with members of Agenda Committee, writing introductions, reading epistles and testimonies, and worrying about draft minutes and emails – so many emails! You’d think that by this stage I might find it easy to articulate the core of the matters that are being laid before us. And yet, I struggle. The matter is tricky, and I am not a prophetic Quaker. I rely on people around me to grasp the core of what we are hearing when we discern the will of God. When I clerk Agenda Committee my role is to listen, catch hold of ministry, draw it into a minute, and hold it up to ask ‘Is this what you heard, too?’
And what we have heard since October, when we began discerning the agenda, is that climate emergency and inclusion are more connected than I once thought.
I expect that all of us are broadly on board with the idea that climate change, as well as discrimination and exclusion among humans, are Bad Things, about which We Should Do Something. But these two Bad Things, certainly for me, existed on different planes. Climate change was external, a hard physical fact resulting from burning fossil fuels. Diversity and inclusion – or rather, discrimination and exclusion – were internal, about how humans were socialised not to see each other as fundamentally equal. I believed that both issues were problems but, aside from them both being problems, there wasn’t much that connected them.
When Agenda Committee began its discernment, it was obvious that these issues were, and still are, something Friends have to confront. We have Yearly Meeting minutes that acknowledge this, and ask us to take action. This year, the Spirit made clear in our discernment that the bridge between these problems was structural privilege.
Structural privilege is a concept that needs some unpacking. It is the system by which I, as a white person in a white-majority country, can feel fundamentally at ease when a non-white person might not. It allows me, as a heterosexual person, to choose, if I wish, to remain oblivious to the hatred that can be directed at gay people. It allows me, as someone living in the global north, to fool myself into believing that climate change isn’t really happening yet, because it isn’t really happening yet to people who look like me (although, of course, it is).
As I see it, the connection between climate emergency (and it is euphemistic to call it anything but that) and diversity and inclusion is that the privileged few, both socially and globally, can choose not to engage in these issues because to them (to us), they may not seem like problems. But the disprivileged have no choice but to live the reality of that, at all times. Our privilege holds us back from seeing each human as equal, and as connected. If we can recognise our privilege and find ways to dismantle or counteract it, perhaps this allows us to find a route to taking action in greater unity.
Siobhan is first assistant clerk of Yearly Meeting 2019.
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