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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Referential truth doesn’t erase racism

Let’s see if I can write this quickly because I really should get back to the schoolwork that is currently making me feel a little spun in the head…

Background story: a Black student (the only one in her A/P class) was, as I understand it, transferred into a non-A/P, ‘lower’* educational classroom because her teacher found the smell of her hair product unbearable. The school believes this situation to be unacceptable and inappropriate, worthy of investigation, but not, of course, racist. Race, in fact, by their interpretation, was not a factor.

The discussion in comments on this article is interesting to me. Most of the commentors at SLOG disagree with the teacher’s actions, and several mock or raise strong doubts about the claims that race played no role in this decision. Others, however, turn the conversation into a “well-wait-a-minute” about the possible truth value of the teacher’s assertions. Even some of the ones who acknowledge the inappropriateness, and maybe even a racial undertone (it’s always a subconscious undertone), of the teacher’s action, hasten to add that sensitivities to scent really truly can have a serious impact on some people’s ability to function. Scrolling through the first 50-60 comments, this is one of the most significant themes of the conversation is about – asserting the reality of problematic scents, assessing the potential for this particular product to cause such scent-related issues for some people, and debating the likelihood that the teacher personally did or did not experience such a sensitivity to this product. As online commenters are wont to do in stories such as this one, these commenters set themselves up as the court of public opinion and establish the terms by which they would exonerate the teacher – for many, the proof of innocence would depend on documentary proof of scent sensitivities, and ideally, a pre-established arrangement within the workplace, with both administration and students, to avoid scents in the classroom.

The story, then, has become one that centres entirely on the referential truth-value of the teacher’s basic claim. Some of the commenters that do suggest there might be a racial component do so by arguing that when the teacher realized a problem, s/he selected the classroom “Other” as a target without knowing whether this student was the actual cause of the issue. But it’s 20 or 25 comments in before someone even manages to suggest that regardless of whether the teacher has this kind of problem, and regardless of whether it was, in fact, linked to this student’s hair product, these actions were unacceptable and very likely the product of deeply-held racialized assumptions and biases. I’m not going to go in to the long argument, but the basic point is that the facility with which the student was dismissed from the classroom suggests that the educator did not have her interests as primary focus and likely suspected that she didn’t really belong there in the first place. If you think otherwise, you problem solve in such a way that meets everyone’s needs. This is, as they say, not rocket science.

Because I’m starting to go into long, academic-y mode (which I should direct at my academics), I’ll just try to close quickly by noting that this is a common tactic in discussions about race – concentrate on the surface, look at the referentiality of the situation, treat it as an isolated and objectifiable, decontextualized interaction, and erase the discussion of how race (and other kinds of power imbalances) underlies and informs who does and says what. The truth value of the teacher’s scent claims actually have nothing to do with the story, but before we’re going to pay attention to the students’ interpretations of this interaction (if we ever really get to look at that), we’re going to set up solid positivistic criteria for determining whether the teacher is telling The Truth. And somehow, suddenly, yet again, we are Not Talking About Race.

*I’m generally hesitant to accept hierarchical relationships among types of education, which often differentiate between ‘academic’ and ‘applied’ or ‘trades-oriented’ and whatnot, thereby perpetuating a very specific kind of class structure that values certain kinds of skills, abilities and knowledges more than others. For the purposes of the situation at hand, however, being as I don’t fully know the context of such US educational distinctions, I’ll use the term from the article. I can’t help myself with the quotes, though.

Sermons I Can’t Hear Anymore

I’m finally at the point in my history of church attendance that I’m recognizing the patterns of stock sermons and things that get said over and over and over from the pulpit. Certain questions need to be answered (or asked) repeatedly, certain lessons need to be examined again and again, certain issues are the ones that Christians think about (or are supposed to think about) every day and that need to be seen from different perspectives. And thematically, these are usually the kinds of questions that all church leaders have been studying for years in their own lives and centuries in Church life, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to getting something new and fresh every time. And summer, when we’ve got a rector on vacation and a guest preacher who doesn’t necessarily know the congregation all that well, seems to be something of a high point for the kinds of stock sermons that I just can’t stand.

What I can’t stand about this particular kind of sermoning is mainly that it doesn’t actually challenge anything. Not only does it take on a pretty basic question, but its answer is usually the Obvious Christian Answer. It’s usually the one that Church People want to hear (sarcastically capitalized “Church People” refers, for me, to a specific kind of Christian churchgoer, the kind that fits into the classical meanings of ‘holier-than-thou’ and self-righteousness) because it doesn’t really threaten their understanding of their place in the universe and God’s expectations for them. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and maybe I have nothing to say here that is anything more than ridiculously obvious, but what gets said up there matters in the lives of individuals and emerges in the actions of those individuals when they leave the church. Part of what frustrates me about these kinds of sermons is that it’s impossible for these kinds of answers, with the comforting smugness and the reassuring sense of certainty, not to come from a place of social power and blindness about the nature of that social power. More than blindness, even, outright refusal to accept the nature of that social power and the great, Spiderman-esque responsibility that comes along with it.

I’m starting to feel like the specifics of the sermon that have been running through my head are less important than that general point about how the easy answers relate to power, but I suppose my generalities make little sense without a grounding reference point. In this case, it was a Power of Prayer sermon, with three examples drawn from the preacher’s life of miraculous interventions by God in direct response to prayer and faith. I got an informal version of this sermon as well from a Church Person who just saw a loved one recover from a life-threatening illness and who attributes this person’s recovery directly to all those who were praying for her. And I hate that I feel this uncharitable sense of frustration and focus on that woman’s smugness, because of course she’s grateful to see this recovery. But when she talked about the power of prayer, she explicitly mentioned all the people who didn’t heal from this illness, and spoke with a sense of having a trump card over these others, these poor lost souls who, the implication is, didn’t have prayer on their side. It felt, to me, like she was articulating the “Gotcha” moment of having found an irrefutable argument for her own rightness. When I’ve expressed this frustration to others who know this woman, they’ve pointed out that if she were to examine it, she likely would have to see this flaw, because she’s watched other loved ones not recover with just as much prayer and loving attention, but the connection doesn’t seem to stick.

And that’s the incredibly obvious problem with this particular sermon – what about when the healing doesn’t happen? This is the question that non-Christians or seekers or people who are struggling ask all the time about Christian theology. If we’re going to talk about miraculous healing, responses to prayer and interventions against an unjust, unfair world, without mentioning the continued presence of that injustice, illness and pain, what the hell are we saying to the person listening who is in that kind of pain and for whom no miracles are forthcoming? I obviously have no answers to this question, though I could point to dozens if not hundreds of attempts by people who’ve tried, any one of which makes a better sermon than a simplistic, reductive and omission-filled claim that “prayer works”.

The comforting thing about “prayer works”, and the reason I think it can’t come from anywhere but a position of power, is that is presents and reinforces the illusion of being in control. It’s “The Secret”. It’s the basis of bootstraps theology of “God helps those who help themselves”. It isn’t really about God. The way it’s expressed always feels, to me, like providing us with something that we can do to assert a sense of order over the chaos. And I recognize that overcoming that sense of helplessness in the face of incomprehensible experiences and big, all-encompassing pain matters, but there’s a lot of nuance that has to come into those much, much more complicated questions from a psychological and theological perspective than “Don’t worry, it’s okay – here’s a series of examples from my life where prayer has worked. I asked for something and I got it. Don’t change what you’re doing. Don’t expand your sense of justice. Just believe more. It really is true that God likes our kind better”.

In the old “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” model, these sermons do neither. And even on summer vacation, I’m coming to expect better.

The Radical Notion of Not Winning

Once upon a time, I was an extremely competitive person. I still can be when it comes to games, as I’ve repeatedly demonstrated with my pathological unwillingness to give up on a Rock Band song before someone else does, but for the most part, I’ve actually come to hate competition. I don’t mean sports or games or challenges, really, I mean the competitiveness that seems to characterize everyday interactions with others. I think for a long time that this was one of those flaws I almost tried to cultivate in myself, because obviously, there are plenty of cultural forces that are really pushing competition as a value that is necessary for success. Capitalist individualism pretty much depends on it, and the academic environment is obviously no exception. Since it’s also one of those traits that’s frequently coded as masculine when it’s seen as a positive, powerful thing, I felt justified in embracing it in myself, because it could be used to make a point. And to be clear, whatever ‘natural’ biological drive to become alpha seed-spreader supposedly emerges from the evolution of male psychology has definitely been a major motivating factor in my life, and I do still recognize the need to get away from the gender essentialist bullshit that keeps emphasizing how women don’t really push themselves to compete for the top positions because we’re too busy engaging our biologically rooted nurturing sides to become the CEO/president/provost/whatever. Existing social structures pretty much require competition, and the white patriarchal rules of the game have acted to continue to ensure that certain types of people almost inevitably win and can therefore assume that somehow they are inherently better.

The imbalance in victories is an obvious problem, but the frequently observed ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ phenomenon that characterizes the white feminist movement (and blogosphere) point to a quieter, deeper problem. It’s one thing to work towards changing the rules in order to create some kind of ‘level playing field’ that offers equal opportunity for victory, and another thing entirely to suggest that the game is stupid. The thing is, the game is everywhere. When I was applying for PhD programs, I applied to three different schools, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t get in anywhere and wanted to be on the safe side. I was convinced for a long time that two of the three were basically fallback options, and that if I were accepted at my top choice, I wouldn’t even think about the other two. When I ended up getting accepted at all three, a few things happened to change my thinking, one of which was a recognition of the atmosphere in the department I would be entering into. It became really clear to me that the originally-favoured school (the one that’s actually pretty well known around here as a lefty-type school with a decent social justice focus) encourages students to see each other as competition that needs to be taken out and defeated, because this will encourage each of them to do the best work they possibly can as they try to prove their inherent superiority to others. Honestly, while I recognize that getting myself into academia at this level and hypothetically assuming that a career in the university might be my long-term path implies the acceptance of a certain degree of fighting for positions and research money and name recognition as simply ‘the way things are’, I think both my sanity and the quality of work I can do will be vastly improved by avoiding that as much as possible. Another reason I’ve felt so fortunate in the program I’ve been in now has been that this battle just doesn’t happen, and we’re encouraged to see other students as people we can collaborate with and learn from rather than as barriers to our own success. I’m hopeful about the department I have chosen for next year, but this is another of those ‘not rocket science’ points that frequently makes people respond with verbal ‘oh you’re one of those idealists’ eyerolls and ‘yes dear’ pats on the head.

It’s not just in the area of personal career paths and life trajectories and actual individual ‘high stakes’ patterns that I’m finding myself moving away from competition. I was out the other night and ended up chatting with this guy I don’t know very well, but run into every so often, and we got to talking about activism, social justice, what’s wrong with the world in general and what can be done about it – you know, just the basics. We had essentially zero common ground in our thinking and attitudes, but I had all this time to kill before my night shift, so I kept talking anyway. Now, conversations like that used to frustrate the hell out of me – sometimes I enjoyed that competitive rush from the ‘debate’ or the challenge of convincing someone, but more often, I just found myself feeling heated and angry. And what frustrated me most wasn’t the sense of being right or being wrong or learning or teaching – it was the feeling that one of us was going to win and one of us was going to lose, because it wasn’t really about conversing or exchanging or discussing, it was about competing. I could justify it with high-minded excuses about the need to change minds, but so much of it was wrapped up in pride, and frankly, it didn’t really work anyway. It was during this particular conversation the other night that I realized how strange it feels to watch someone else engaging in a competition that I’m not even having.

I hate this idea that all human interaction can be reduced to competition, that in every encounter there must be a winner and a loser. It depresses me that collaboration and cooperation are so frequently seen as childish idealism and actually require some degree of imagination to employ. It’s not a matter of losing, it’s a matter of recognizing that it’s not actually a fight until we make it one, and as we make it one, we’re imposing so much destruction onto the relationship in question.

Waking Up

After having directed all of my brain energy into my end-of-term papers, I feel like I should have something to say about something here, but I seem to have lost track of all those random things I said I would write about, at some abstract future point and never bothered noting.

First of all, though, general thanks to the Creative Revolution types for the existence of the Canadian F-Word blog awards, and particular thanks to Mr. matttbastard for nominating me even if I never say much at all, let alone anything of relevance. There be lots of good readings over there, anyway.

The one thing I do recall from the list of thoughts I couldn’t get around to blogging was this YouTube clip from the apologetics organization “Answers in Genesis” that, although a couple of years old, was actually new to me. That thing seriously freaked me out – it’s just incredibly jarring and cold, which I assume is pretty much the point. And really, of all the possible things wrong with it, I honestly think that’s the biggest one. It’s trying to advocate for Christianity by instilling fear in them, which is nothing new, but instead of the old kind of wrath-of-God fear, what we have here plays on something a lot of people fear very genuinely – isolation, abandonment, their own unworthiness and irrelevance to others.

Obviously, I think that is absolutely the opposite of the point of the gospel, which is that you matter to God, whether you think you do or not – and if you’re not so comfortable believing in God, I frankly don’t see much wrong with an evangelical Christian message that’s based primarily on ‘you matter’. Not “you will matter if you meet the following criteria, make the following promises and accept the following beliefs”. Not “we will accept your unacceptable self if you change in certain prescribed ways and appreciate that we will be policing your meeting of said conditions near constantly”.

This is, as usual, not rocket science. There is no ‘if’ here, and I absolutely cannot imagine anyone responding to this ad with the sincere desire to walk into a church and expect to find a place where they would be welcomed and embraced. While I’m not sure I fully believe the saying that ‘where there is faith, there is no fear’, I would certainly figure that any kind of ‘faith’ growing out of this particular brand of fear would be brittle, defensive and incredibly strained. I think there are a lot of reasons to find this ad offensive (and believe me, I do), but I can’t help but also notice that it’s likely to be extraordinarily ineffective, and that actually makes me sad.

Kidnappings

In starting to research a paper this morning, I just came across the news about four MSF workers who’ve been abducted in Darfur (some of the articles say three, some say four – there are some conflicting reports about whether both of the Sudanese guards who were with the foreign staff members were released immediately or whether one of them continued to be held). One of them is a young Canadian nurse, originally from PEI, named Laura Archer.

There’s a lot of contextual information that’s really important to understand in order to get a full sense of the situation, including the fact that the Sudanese government has very recently issued an expulsion order for MSF personnel working in Darfur. The government’s order, in turn, comes on the heels of the International Criminal Court’s decision to indict the Sudanese president. MSF maintains a strict policy of non-involvement with judicial and political events/organizations, but reiterating that fact has not cancelled the expulsion.

This is the context of these kidnappings. All remaining MSF staff are now being pulled from Darfur. The MSF workers’ descriptions of how devastating it is to be leaving are fucking gut-wrenching, and those are just the words of aid workers.

And you know what really destroys my faith in humanity? The CBC story. Here’s the one on the kidnappings, and here’s the profile of Laura Archer, the Canadian and therefore the one for whom we are supposed to have greatest sympathy. In sincerity, it does seem like she’s an incredibly strong, passionate and compassionate human being, but I cannot let go of frustration at the fact that despite the fact that she was working with an organization called Doctors Without Borders, we are expected to see her as a Canadian first and foremost, acting on the basis of Canadian values and driven by Canadian virtue. I make that observation above and beyond the concern generated about white Canadian individuals that we can’t ever seem to muster for black Africans themselves. You don’t get a lot of CBC profiles offering us the life histories of individuals living in the camps that Laura Archer worked in. You don’t get a full human picture of that humanitarian crisis, becaus you don’t get a full human story about the full humans living in it. You get a bunch of statistics and numbers and racial/ethnic identities, never names and never stories.

Honestly, that feels like the basic not-rocket-science to me. Before diving in to the cesspool that is the comment section on those CBC pieces, I would just add the observation that the other individuals (Italian, French and Sudanese) who were kidnapped along with this woman were men (actually, I’m not sure about the Sudanese guard, because I’ve only ever seen reference to “Sudanese guards”, but I’m making the possibly erroneous assumption that they were male. I won’t speculate as to why I haven’t seen their names, because there could be a lot of reasons). From the CBC commentariat, it ultimately seems less important that Laura Archer is Canadian and more relevant that she’s a kind, innocent, pretty, blonde woman who’s being held captive by savage beasts. I’m blissfully unaware of how to create a perma-link directly to specific comments on CBC articles, but the most recent two comments when I opened the article were “Of course she is beautiful, she from PEI” [sic] and “Hello nurse” (that latter from a user named “toetag”). This sexualization shit makes me want to vomit, but I think I feel even worse when people who are apparently putting slightly more thought into the question who noted that the motive for the kidnapping could clearly be discerned from the woman’s picture. While I don’t deny that the risk of specifically sexualized violence that Archer faces is relevant and different than the fears faced by the men with her, there is just so much wrong with that comment. Several people gave that comment in particular a thumbs down/disagree, but a few others did the opposite, and I think it points to so many layers of misunderstanding about rape as a weapon of war, not to mention its complete ignorance of – and, it seems to me (since all of this information is readily available with a few clicks), apathy about – all of the contextual details surrounding this specific kidnapping, right down to the basic fact that she was not the only person taken.

But the worst, for me, and by far the largest proportion of problematic comments, are the ones that are asking why we’re not sending in a military response to rescue Laura Archer. “Our boys” can do this. We can – and must – send in strong white men to save this pristine, victimized white woman from her savage kidnappers (presumably African, presumably black). Again, I don’t want to sound cynical about the woman herself – not only are there obvious reasons to respect her work, her quotes make her sound like someone who does the work from a place of genuine and deep compassion – but I hate the way the story and responses are constructing her to be the perfect victim. There are comments on the overall “Darfur kidnappings” story in particular that disagree with this construction, but only in so far as her/their decision to go to such a scary, dangerous, God-forsaken place means that they should have expected such things to happen. She shouldn’t have been walking around alone in that dark alley country.

I really could go on and on about this one, but I’ll wrap up with a quote that I’m glad the CBC decided to include, from Laura Archer herself, which covers a lot of the point in far fewer words than I ever use. In discussing her first trip with MSF, in Central Africa, she noted:

The experience was humbling. I knew that, unlike my locally hired co-workers, I could leave. I was constantly aware of the fact that I had a safe home to return to.

Obviously, I hope she does return to that home. But I also hope that her African co-workers get that same safety and a home to return to (or go to for the first time).

Sex and Drugs

This has probably been said somewhere already in the course of this recent discussion about new anti-sex work legislation in Britain, but I lack the time that would be required to ensure that I’m not repeating something.

Right off the top in that thread, one of the commenters who supports the new legislation brings up drug addiction with the following point:

It is recognised that violence, experience of abuse, poverty and drugs are at the root of street prostitution in Glasgow.  Women are involved in prostitution because of their need to fund drug use and because they have no other viable means of earning the amount of money which they require, through legitimate pursuits….Now, these issues don’t speak of autonomy or of exercising agency, they speak of abject poverty and disadvantage where other concerns aside, 95% of prostituted women in Glasgow are addicted to heroin.

She goes on to discuss the need for a complex, interconnected system of outreach and support for the multivariate social and economic issues that lead some women into dangerous sex work due to lack of (real or perceived) genuine alternatives. I should assume it’s obvious that I’m all for that.

But try as I might, in any of the comments that bring up poverty and drug abuse, I can’t see any argument that explains to me how this new legislation criminalizing the purchasers of sex work in certain contexts (if I understand the legalities correctly) will provide new options for these women. It seems only logical to suggest that it’s actually going to take options away, and anyone who has any understanding of drug addiction and desperation can immediately recognize that if you take one option away, there’s always another one that’s even less safe, even more soul-destroying, and even less profitable that you will become willing to stoop to if that’s what it takes.

I don’t understand why people think that legislation is really going to find ways to protect these women. Selling drugs is currently illegal, but drug addicts still find a way to buy them. You can victimize the purchaser/demonize the dealer in this situation just as you victimize the seller/demonize the purchaser in the sex work equation, if you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that “outside the law” is familiar territory for people you’re already describing as addicted to heroin. Making one more part of their transaction illegal isn’t really that scary. Many of the comments supporting this legislation seem to take a tone that suggests that criminalizing the purchase of sex will somehow result in sex work becoming less “socially acceptable” and that this decrease in acceptability will make people understand the plight of trafficked, poverty stricken, desperate, drug addicted women. Given the way people view drug addicts now – as criminals, as somehow fundamentally different from good, law-abiding, citizens like ourselves – I can’t imagine how that’s going to happen, exactly.

I’ve written before about the way drug addiction is deployed as a rhetorical strategy in these conversations. In sincerity, I think some of the women writing in support of this new legislation are demonstrating more real compassion and understanding than I alluded to in that earlier post. Still, I can’t help but feel that there’s something hollow in these statements, not least because it feels like they really miss the point about what addiction means, let alone about how the social relationships around it tend to work. I know these are women who are working/have worked with substance misuse and addiction, and I don’t question their concern…but I feel like there’s a fundamental link missing in the thought process, and if the real point is to help alleviate this kind of problem, a knee-jerk support for anything placing limits on sex work is a huge blind spot, imo.