Surprised by ignorance

Following a couple of back-links, I found myself reading this post that Chally wrote a few months ago at Feministe, and delving into the comment thread. And like many of the commenters, I’m finding myself surprised at my own surprise at the defensive ignorance of the privileged. Overall, I think the balance tips towards people who are supportive of Chally’s point – either because they are non-Usian, or because they manage to wrap their brains around what she’s trying to say by drawing on past experiences with non-USians or by extrapolating from privilege-based parallels.

Of those who disagree, then, it’s the vehemence of their voices that I find so surprising. It’s disappointing, but maybe not shocking, to see the prevalence of the ‘tone argument’ being used against a young non-white woman. So what I find more specifically surprising is the inability and/or outright unwillingness of USian commenters to consider the meaning of what she was trying to say. The sighing and frustration about the ‘ugly American’ stereotype they believe she is invoking, and their refusal to see beyond their own personal individual attempts to prove that they’re not like that. The invocation of US-internal cultural and experiential differences as though that were in any way relevant to chally’s point, but raised as though they absolutely obliterate her perspective here.

The thing is, the more I think about it, the more relevant her point feels, especially as it pertains to discussions of race. The example that comes to my mind is the extent to which, here in Canada, racialized experiences are imagined to mirror those in the US, only with a smaller Black population and an indirect history with slavery. My roommate, who is from Arizona, can’t quite wrap her head around why “African Canadians” is not really a preferred term for Black Canadians. As I understand it, this is at least partially because a significant proportion of Black people in this country have their recent personal and familial experience in the Caribbean, and “African Canadian” elides their relationship to those cultures and places, and that personal history. That’s not all there is to it, and that’s not the only group of Black Canadians, and of course it doesn’t even begin to cover the context of race relations in Canada, but the example is intended mainly to offer a differentiation from the US context. But US-centrism suggests that the way “African American” came to serve as an appropriate term for a particular population in their country should easily translate across the border. Just substitute in Canadian for American, and you’re good. The same lexical process is assumed to apply to “Native Canadians”, when the preference here is more likely to be First Nations, or Aboriginal, or Indigenous, depending somewhat on the context. It’s as though Canada is believed to be entirely interchangeable with the US (“America” in these lexical examples, which, as Chally points out, is a term with its own problems).

This isn’t about the American educational system and its failure to teach about other political structures, or other histories. It isn’t even about the ubiquity of US media in some places and the non-presence of media from elsewhere within the US, though those are all, to some extent, factors in the creation of this kind of privilege. It’s about a refusal to listen to what people say about their own experiences of racism, racialization and colonialism. It’s a desire to simplify and make non-US experiences fit in to a US-box, and the result is the erasure of other boxes. This isn’t a request for US-residents to remember the capitals of some other countries, or to learn the specific political and cultural histories that have shaped the current relationships within other countries. It’s a basic suggestion that it’s worthwhile to remember that those contexts are different, even and perhaps especially those who appear pretty similar on the surface.

That is, as they say, not rocket science, especially for social justice activists who purport to believe in the value of decentering dominant voices and recognizing the dangers of universalistic assumptions.

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3 thoughts on “Surprised by ignorance

  1. Damn. Well, had it not started out with a useless comment, it might have gone a bit better. Everything she’s saying is either something I know about and totally agree with, or something I didn’t know but am not too surprised to learn (I have NO idea what to use for terminology when discussing “people of color,” and specifically have trouble with “African American” because we have Caribbean blacks here, too, and sometimes I’m talking about black people worldwide who are certainly not Americans).

    I’m starting to wonder how helpful it’s been that I love a lot of British and Canadian TV. Just watching it is enough to teach me not how very different and similar those countries are to the US in various ways. Also, the British seem to think if you go to the US, you get off the plane and are immediately mugged and, after dinner, serial killed. Since we really ARE taught in public school that the US is the best country evah and everyone wishes they could move here, it’s eye-opening to see foreign fictional characters reacting to “high crime rates” in the US.

  2. purtek says:

    First of all, HI! I’ve been meaning to email you for like a billion years, but you know the drill…

    Anyway, it’s funny, I was actually thinking a lot about you, and about Hathor, when I was reading the post and writing this entry, because you just don’t seem to do it so much. Maybe it’s the love of British/Canadian TV, maybe it’s a really broad conceptualization of privilege, I don’t know.

    But yeah, like you say, the right-out-of-the-gate ignorance really could have shifted the whole tone of the conversation, and it’s really really unfortunate, because I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had, for reals…it’s not even a matter of appropriate terminology, it’s a matter of how we arrive at those decisions, and who gets to make authoritative statements about the process.

  3. […] Purtek recently pointed me to this article by Chally on Feministing in which she talks about a tendency people from the US have to universalize their experience of life on Earth. The comment thread started off on a concern troll note and pretty much went downhill from there until it was closed down. I just wanted to say: […]

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