Sunday, 8 July 2018

Identity matters

Earlier this week, I read a report by London Times writer Melanie Phillips, who shared that although marginalized groups protest being placed on the outskirts of society, such groups are also often very exclusive, creating safe spaces which are limited to people with a specific identity, such as 'trans' groups, racial groups or feminist groups. Such groups may exclude people of other identity.

Melanie Phillips made the argument that although safe spaces are good, inclusion means that all people should be invited to the party.  She acknowledged that 'race' is a social construct, and spoke of an anti-racism where all people are included, sharing that we are a part of a single human race. And that this human race should include all people if we are to be truly equal, and exist as a single humanity.

That we are a human race is undeniable, and as feminists have previously stated, the true goal is not to reverse power hierarchies, but to create a world where feminism does not need to exist. This world would be all inclusive, social hierarchies will have broken down, and there would be one race, the human race.  However, at present, this world does not exist.

In reality, out groups face discrimination on a continual basis. Sometimes this discrimination is subtle and sometimes it is blatant.  Structural injustices, humiliations, rebuttals and anxieties plague marginalized groups on a daily basis.   These everyday experiences are often invisible to those who do not live with and therefore share the experiences, and as a result, the experiences are often denied.  Reading blogs, articles, comments and web forums show that one of the greatest frustration marginalized groups have is what David Theo Goldberg calls the burden of 'race' (which can be substituted for any other identity).  This burden means the need to prove that injustices do actually exist, and are not simply produced by the over active imagination of the person who suffers.  (This great post by Rumbi gives a personal description of the burden of race and the self doubt this produces).

As an enthusiastic social justice researcher, I have often faced rebuttals when it comes to my own work.  When researching xenophobia during 2008, I was chatting about my findings and was told that perhaps the students 'did not understand' what was happening (blatant discrimination) and were blowing their experiences out of proportion. My masters thesis was motivated by a woman sharing pain during a diversity workshop only to be told that perhaps she was ignored in shopping centres (by group members she had developed emotional connections with) because she 'hadn't made much of an impression'.  The lack of empathy in that statement was completely staggering.

My new research focuses on home, the ecology and the importance of history. Even here I am told that although indigenous spirituality has been ignored, it's okay because there is really a new belief system (western) which can embrace everybody, and many marginalized people like it.  Getting myself so upset over an easily solved problem (such as the eradication of indigenous belief systems) is clearly just my overwrought response to the past.  Silly me.

I am privileged, have lived a middle class lifestyle, and I can be reduced to tears of frustration at times by (hopefully) well meaning people with a heavy dose of denialism.  I am a researcher. I have the privileged choice of abandoning my work in a fit of helpless frustration and finding an easier line of work.  My work is essentially my choice, and my university research has been funded.  In other words, I get something back for my work which is personally rewarding.  And I am motivated by the need for social transformation.

If I didn't, if I was using my thoughts, ideas and insights simply to try to make life more bearable, and I was facing this level of resistance, I would want to give up.  I would want to riot, weep, hang my head, and spend time with people who really, truly, do understand what you are going through.  Such people would have faced similar identity threats. They would not see me as imaginative, irrelevant or overwrought. They would not see me as simply dismissing alternate possibilities for everyone to be happy due to a complete lack of imagination on my own behalf.  They would really, truly see.  I've needed to rely on both my mentor and research group in the past for support and reassurance.  And I am privileged.

Should out groups be inclusive in creating safe spaces?  Not if the burden of race falls upon marginalized groups to prove their experiences are real.  As long as there is one race, but the injustices of the past allow divisions to remain, these inequalities need to be acknowledged.  And if they can only be acknowledged by those who understand, then so be it.  This isn't exclusion.  It isn't a lack of diversity.  It isn't re-creating ghettos where out-groups huddle together in isolation.  It is an acknowledgement of the need for diversity!  An acknowledgement that diverse human experiences exist even if these experiences are not acknowledged by the mainstream.  And they are the acknowledgement of a need for social transformation, because in our current society, 'norms' often don't benefit the minority. Sharing negative experiences takes away individual shame and focuses attention on a need for social change.  It is a move towards true (rather than symbolic) inclusion.

If the need for social change could be listened to, heard and accepted by the mainstream, then we could state the need for inclusive groups.  We could state that this would bring change, and there is a need for one race, the human race.  But this very often doesn't happen.

We can be idealistic and call for a common humanity.  It is worthwhile to do this.  But we also need to acknowledge the pains of marginalized people. We need to acknowledge the need to earn the trust of people who face discrimination instead of demand it.  Then, and only then, can we work towards social transformation as one group, where we are interested in the well being of all.  Until we acknowledge the pain, the demand for inclusion is a defensive means of playing tit - for -tat.  And it is simply another in-group entitlement.

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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Women's voices, Harvey Weinstein and sexual assualt

I've been reading the New Yorker, and Annabella Sciorra's story of shame and upset at what Harvey Weinstein had allegedly done to her.  What stood out for me was the shame that she felt, and her horrible reluctance to tell her story because others would 'know' what she had experienced.

It brought back the terrible memory of sitting in a lecture, and having a professor explain to us that when women are sexually assaulted, their strongest emotion is not fear or rage, but shame.  Shame wasn't the only emotion Annabella Sciorra expressed.  She shared her fear as well.  And hers was a fear so strong that she was unable to tell her story.  Initially, she denied being Weinstein's 'type'.

For me, it is these two factors - the fear of speaking out about rape or sexual assault due to shame, and the fear of speaking out because of, well because of sheer terror, that are at the heart of this story.  The terror of feeling physically vulnerable and unsafe is a cruel dynamic that puts a woman at the mercy of a predator.  The shame she experiences is an equally social dynamic.

In a fit of helpless frustration, I saw a woman speak out earlier this week about 'Hollywood', as though the women who were being assaulted had this happen purely because they were in a strange place, an out of this world place, where fantasy is made, and all women are sexy or glamorous.  This made it seem as though sexual assault only happens to women who make a living dressing their best, putting on make up and styling themselves to look their best (and possibly their sexiest).

This, I think, is one of the reasons women might feel ashamed about rape or sexual assault.  It is those social myths which point out that a woman has been sexually assaulted because she is somehow extra - ordinary.  She was a Hollywood type, for example, and perhaps her clothes were too sexy, or her hair too glamorous.  Perhaps she was dancing, or drinking, her skirt was too short, or she was so desperate for a job that she ended up in an uncomfortable situation.  In other words, perhaps if this woman did something 'wrong', and she is to blame for what has happened to her, normal women, everyday women, will be safe.

Putting the blame on a woman for sexual assault, whether the focus is on her clothing, her occupation, her hairstyle or her posture, blames a woman for her assault.  Likewise, if we see a woman as guilty because 'she shouldn't have been out at night', or 'she should have watched her drink', we place the blame on a woman for her assault.

Rape or sexual assault is dehumanizing, and it robs a woman of her voice, her physical boundaries and her feeling of safety.  After suffering such a terrible crime, a woman would feel ashamed, and she would feel ashamed because her humanity was robbed from her.  She becomes afraid to speak about because to share this feeling of degradation means going back into this terrible space.  Sexual assault is a violation.  A woman would not want to share it because sharing means having to recall it.

But what if a woman knew that no matter how hard it would be to share, her story would be treated with empathy or compassion?  What if her story was accepted and treated with empathy, and she knew that nobody would ask her about the length of her skirt or the height of her heels.  Where she was, how many drinks she'd had, or the career she'd chosen to do, wouldn't come into the picture.  Instead, she would share knowing that her voice would make her powerful.  What then?

It's a hard question to answer, because women do not generally share stories of sexual assault under these circumstances.  They do not assume that the automatic response would be empathy.  Brene Brown shares that empathy helps when it comes to shame, because it provides us with an antidote.  We don't have to share an exact situation or circumstance.  We don't only have to relate because we have shared  this experience too.  We relate because we are human.  And when we do, we take away some of the stigma or shame.  We do this to give a woman her humanity back.

When it comes to men, unpacking the social myths we tell about rape is important.  We can no longer just quietly mutter that 'boys will be boys' and leave it at that.  There is a need to give the majority of men their humanity back too.  Depicting men as base creatures who simply cannot help themselves if put in the same room as a 'Hollywood' type is unfair.  It lowers the standards, and says that men should be forgiven for being wild beings who are quite simply out of control.  It silences the voices of feminist men, men who would work towards changing gender related norms or beliefs, and men who would remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation. We need to see men who rape as predators so that we can see it for what it really and truly is - a despicable act carried out by a man who abuses his power.

If Annabella Sciorra believed that there was a system which would protect her, and a culture which would empathize deeply with her experience, would she have felt as scared to come forward?  Where are the gaps which prevent women from speaking?  And why do we find fault with women who do speak out?

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Sunday, 22 October 2017

Cultural appropriation and the need for social justice.

I read a very interesting article on cultural appropriation the other day, by writer Andrea Smith.  Smith spoke to all those women who were once indians, or to New Age spiritualists, who were promoting indigenous values and possibly even using them to run businesses, without actually looking at the social injustices which still exist because of colonialism, and colonialist practices.

I love Andrea Smith's work.  Her article on 'the problem with privilege' (which can be found online) addresses the need to work for systemic change, rather than placing people on a new and uncomfortable hierarchy.  She speaks about how social injustice is about power imbalance, and focusing on individual privileges, and even on awareness of what privilege brings, is sometimes not enough if it doesn't mean working towards systemic justice.

Sytemic justice is the focus of all Andrea Smith's work.  She focuses on how the past has shaped the present, with all of the messiness and discomfort this brings.  And she tries to raise consciousness. In her work on cultural appropriation, Smith appeals to all feminists who 'used to be Indians' (or who Identify with Indian belief systems) and asks them to reflect on what it means to be a western woman first and foremost.

Much western history has a focus on land as sacred.  Pagan beliefs shape western history.  And in mythology, Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into this clay figure.  No wonder then that huma, or soil, and humanity, have the same routes.  Even science, the religion of the modern era, will share that the human body is simply a set of minerals.  We are earthly beings, and western history does contain stories or myths which acknowledge this. 

Within the western world, it is unclear why people separated off from nature.  Some writers look at how farming or agriculture separated people from land.  David Abram looks at how the printed word took the imagination away from place based knowledge and onto the page.  Some look at the spread of capitalism, or the colonialist scramble for new worlds, which caused displacement, and a loss of traditions. 

Andrea Smith argues that with western history rich with myth, there is no need to take on Native American customs such as sweat lodges or spiritual quests.  In fact, this might actually take away the opportunity for a Native American person to have either a business or a voice.  It might also misrepresent traditions, silencing them in the way that colonialist values once did.

However, if western women strongly identify with native values, then they might work towards upholding those values by working towards justice for Native American communities, looking at the past, the messes and the struggles, and finding a way to work towards a deeper sense of humanity. 

This working towards social justice is the opposite of cultural appropriation.  Although the images or practices of 'others' may be inspiring, and may even enrich our lives, Andrea Smith argues that there is no reason to leave it there.  A sweatlodge or ceremony is just an introduction.  Learning the value of alternate beliefs doesn't mean this is enough.  Instead, it is a stepping stone to truly valuing others.  Social justice is a response - able may of expressing this.

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Monday, 17 April 2017

Light in the Dark...and Lines in the Sand

This past week, I've been looking at Gloria Anzaldua's book Light in the Dark which explores the role of imagination and empathy in creating social transformation. She focuses on that part of us which exists between worlds, between the world of dominant culture and our own imaginations, and between the world of the ordinary and the spiritual.

This book speaks of the chaos which sometimes shakes up our worldview when we start to look at the world from a holistic perspective. And she explores the struggles and confusions this brings to our lives.  As we search continually for the parts missing in dominant perspectives of the world, this sometimes means that our worldview constantly changes and evolves.  Exploring new knowledge or alternate perspectives can place us on a continuum between hope and despair.  But Gloria Anzaldua speaks of the traditional healer or shaman, who knew that in order to offer healing to his/her community, s/he needed to go through a process of being dismembered or torn apart.  When s/he is able to pull the pieces together again to create a new reality, s/he has something to offer.

This book also focuses a great deal on empathy, and the ability to see the perspectives of 'the other' in order to work towards change.  How interesting that my second book this week gave a lived example of how to this.

Lines in the Sand is by A.A. Gill, who writes with a great deal of sensitivity about the experiences of refugees, explaining that although he has tried not to be the good samaritan, once you stop and see the human face of 'the refugee', then it is impossible to ever turn away.  The book is a collection of articles which explore what it means to be displaced with such kindness and compassion that I found it hard to stop reading.

One of the articles which resonated most deeply though was the experience of going out to eat in a shelter for people who have no homes.  A.A. Gill speaks of the different cities we inhabit, depending on the lives we are able to live, and the opportunities open to us.  He introduced us to his own life, and the lives of those who have lost homes, families or opportunities, and the struggles many members of his (and any) city have from day to day.  There is the woman from West Africa who is in London without family or people.  She lost her job and her home.  Tears trickle down her face as she eats.

There is the Baptist Minister who no longer has a congregation.  He thanks God for chicken and rice.  Gill says:

"Now I don't know a damn about the mysterious ways of God, but I suppose it's no coincidence that at the heart of all religion there is food.  The sharing of food.  The act of feeding someone is the most basic transubstantiation.  To make them whole, and well, to feed their future, and the hope for the better tomorrow... "

He ends his article by explaining that we don't actually exist in different cities, that we still eat alongside people who are homeless, who are cleaners, who are abused, trafficked or kicked out.  We just choose to dis-remember.  He shares that 'others', including the volunteers who try to make a difference need our help.  Not a lot.  Just a little.  We all have something to offer.

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Monday, 9 January 2017

This Changes Everything

I read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein in 2014, and it was one of the first times I was able to make the connection between climate change, 'development' and marginalised groups of people.  I began to learn more about how the exploitation of earth was linked to the exploitation of 'other' people, the desecration of cultural belief systems, and future life.

Naomi Klein has always been able to connect the patterns behind our surface beliefs or values, and link them to a deeper social and environmental reality.  From a discussion on scientific solutions to climate change, to creating consciousness around the lingering impacts of colonialism and industry, she is able to take climate change out of abstract numbers or external fears, and bring it into an awareness of our everyday lives.  She also exposes the myth behind big business efforts to work towards a more sustainable future.

One of the most troubling aspects of the book linked to the losses we don't notice.  Although This Changes Everything focuses on oil spills, and the loss of life not yet born, I've since become aware of those ways we're unaware of the plants, animals or life which is unknown to us, but which is dying out.  The loss of life which happens everyday sometimes goes unnoticed.

My focus was originally critical social theory, and so my concern was often that environmental concerns ignored the voices of poor or marginalised people, who face struggles.  Until I read Ecofeminism, which focuses on those ways we put life on a hierarchy, and that the hierarchies themselves create a society where racism, speciesism, sexism or other forms of marginalisation can occur.  Ecofeminism asks us to question those philosophies which make up our everyday thinking, and all that is considered normal, so that we can search for different options.

Exploitation of earth has often been linked to hierarchal living.  In some communities, some animals are given more rights than marginalised people, and this is why focus on sustainability can become, in itself, a conversation of dominance.  It's why it is important to include the voices of all beings, so that we can work towards a different future.  But I'm starting to believe that we can only do this if we are able to feel a deeper sense of connectedness to the world around us.

Over time, I've learned that consumerism isn't an abstract concept.  It's about creating a sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction within some, to the detriment of others.  In some ways, it is also about putting those who can afford to buy or dispose of 'goods' regularly into the centre, so that poverty or harm to the environment or other beings becomes forgotten.  

Spending time in a world where there is a focus on life, relationship, connection and a deep awareness of place would increase our awareness of other ways of being.  It might also bring us to a space of healing - for both ourselves and those beings who exist alongside us.

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