Wednesday, April 05, 2006

but I'm not oppressed...

So I’ve been thinking a lot about inequality, as one does in grad school.  And I can whine all I like about sexism.  I’ve felt the expectations that I act, interact, and perform in certain ways.  I’ve had experiences where men have said rude things about my ability, or I felt like I was considered less qualified than someone else because I’m a young woman.  But really, in the long run, I have things pretty good.  I’m white, heterosexual, educated, protestant, upper middle class (well, my parents are, I’m in grad school…).  So I’m left with this question: what do you do when you are on the other side of the injustice?  What am I to do as a young, relatively powerless, but clearly not as powerless as some people, intellectual?

I can’t speak for these underrepresented groups.  That’s condescending.  Not to mention that I have no expertise in what they want or need, or how to change things in a way that would make them happier.  But I don’t see doing nothing as an option.  I’m not in a position where I can really help the downtrodden move up in society, even on the individual level (at least not yet).  So, what DO we do?

I think one thing is to listen.  To stop talking all the time, but to ask good questions and to listen to people who don’t always get listened to.  Perhaps it is our job to find the smart voices and amplify them.  But I really think that people in powerful positions, or positions of privilege, never go wrong with listening more.  So I guess my next job is to figure out what exactly it is that I should be listening for.  But I think Barbara Ehrenreich has one good idea.  I think politics is another way – to pay attention to whose interests politicians are acting in, and vote for further justice.  Any ideas, oh faithful readers?


kristen said...

I don't think you're powerless at all. I think that as people w/out a lot of resources we should do simple things....listen is one, for sure. But so is responsible consumerism. So is being educated. So is being openminded. So is volunteering.

I don't know (maybe this is what I say to help myself sleep at night) but I think that when strong, smart, capable people decide to go into education, we are already taking a HUGE step in helping some of the massive problems in our society.

Our empowerment doesn't come through donating lots of money or legally fighting against injustices. Instead, it comes from knowledge and using that knowledge in any productive way.

At the point that you know you can't speak *for* an oppressed group is a great first step :).

Anonymous said...

If you want to help out do this. When a Latino, Asian, or Afircan-American moves next to you--don't sell your house. If you don't sell your house you can say your understanding.

A Realtor from California

jimmy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jimmy said...

I don't think 90% of this blog's readers can afford a house, realtor, particularly in California... I know I can't, that's for darn sure...

Seriously, though, this subject is disturbing to me, a white middle-class-lifestyle heterosexual male with academic ambitions - and it should be. I mean, if we accept the contentions that (a) the voices of historically-oppressed people being enloudened* is not just a worthy goal but a mandate for a just society, and (b) in many ways the academic world is a zero-sum game, with already far too few resources distributed among many worthy people - then we have to accept the very real conclusion that people like me, historical oppressors, are going to have less of a voice. While that may be a great concept in abstraction, the reality is that it has real consequences for concrete people, including me - if/when I do get a voice in academia, I'll have to accept that I'm doing that at the expense of a voice that perhaps needs to be heard more than my own. As the quintessential 1st century Palestinian would say, this is hard teaching; who can follow it?

I'm not coming at this from a position of the white man's burden or the anti-affirmative action crowd, because those are ridiculous knee-jerk responses to the perception of disempowerment; I'm coming at this more from a position of "survivor's guilt." As in, how can I accept a position, how can I accept a voice, knowing that simply by virtue of the fact that my voice is a white hetero male voice, it is another voice contributing to, rather than subverting, the oppressive hegemony of the white hetero male? How, if we accept (as Bethany has, in my opinion rightly, posited) that we who are part of the group of historical oppressors cannot speak for the oppressed, could I in good conscience speak, if that means I am taking up the space and the time and the resources that could be used to further give voice to the oppressed?

I don't have the answers. I'm still not even sure of the questions. But this is indeed hard teaching.

* "Enloudened" is a perfectly cromulent word.

bethany said...

Jimmy, I think 90% may be understating it a bit.

Sonya said...

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That's a huge chunk of it, I think. Show a person love and true respect, and they're going to do amazing things.

One beef I have about education: I went to school, not really knowing how exactly the minorities were minorities. I learned all about their lack of privileges, etc. Basically, it combined the dispriveleged into groups to make the problems more identifiable and the discussion thereof more smooth. I really did learn a lot of fascinating aspects about it all.
HOWEVER - now, I find myself wanting to sympathize with these groups, and find they are not groups at all! Every person in these groups face different circumstances. Not all black people have a lack of resources or networks. Not all homeless people became homeless for the same reason. People in poverty will not get out of poverty in one uniform solution.

I find the more I talk about the problem, the more I become the problem. I want people to be aware of injustice, but this leads me to stereotype to explain, and that makes me feel and act like a racist or at the very least an ignorant fool.

I don't know where I'm going with this. I guess I share your frustrations with the subject, and struggle to figure out how to react. In the end, I think respect is key in whatever we do. Empathizing is good when the situation presents itself, but when we go out of our way to empathize or fix things, I wonder if we are no longer empathizing, but stating there is a problem with a certain group or individual.

In the end, how can you show someone respect and equality when the playing field isn't level?

(Please pardon any disconnectedness in the above - it is well past the time I should have gone to bed. We can talk more about this later if you want.