Privilege Revisited

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

[caption id="attachment_580" align="aligncenter" width="367" caption="Sorry about the typo. It's not my image."][/caption]  

Last night, while Skyping with the boyfriend, he burst out laughing at a photo I’d put on my facebook (above), and then revealed to me that he’d never actually heard the term “Feminazi” before.

 

“Really? Never?”

 

“Never.”

 

I was a little surprised, but as C tends not to be all that involved with the feminist movement, it doesn’t particularly shock me that he’s managed to make it 26 years without ever hearing “feminazi.” Certainly, if he’d had heard it, it wouldn’t be a term directed at him.

 

I tweeted shortly after that conversation:

 

 

And I’ve been spending most of the day thinking about this concept. For me, “feminazi” is something that’s always been there – I can’t even recall the first time I heard it as a term. That’s how common it is to me. I think I’ve only been actually called it once or twice, but I’ve witnessed it leveled at fellow feminists multiple times (to the point where I did an entire series a few months ago on the idea of “feminazi”).

 

It occurs to me that even for two people who are incredibly similar in political, theological, and relational views, we still have had incredibly different life experiences. Not only does the revelation of “I’ve never heard ‘feminazi’ before” cause me to realign how I approach feminism with him, but it causes me to remember my own privilege when having similar conversations.

 

Growing up in South Dakota, I have no concept of what it’s like to be a minority. I just don’t. I got a small taste of it while living in Japan, but even then, I was massively blinded by my own privilege and my own (albeit unconscious) expectation that because I am American, foreigners would listen to me and be willing to help me out. Even after that, I realize – pretty much every time I talk with friends whose work is specifically with minorities – that I still have no idea what that experience is like.

 

I can do two things with this knowledge: I can either chalk it up to individual experience and still argue for political positions and stances that treat every single person as though they are exactly the same.

 

Or...

 

I can consciously try to shift my views. I can remember that by being a white woman, I have a very different life experience than those of my friends who are black women. And different doesn’t mean bad. It means that there are some things that have been handed to me or doors that have opened that may not have for minorities.

 

And I also cannot co-opt this experience. This is a big mistake that the privileged make in trying to rectify the gap that privilege naturally creates – we take over the struggles of minorities and try to make them our own, when these experiences are not ours to own. I know I’ve used the term “give voice to the voiceless” before, but it strikes me, the more I think about it, as an inadequate and even, at times, offensive stance.

 

The “voiceless” are not actually without voice.

 

We are just without ears to hear the tale they are telling.

 

My job, as a person of privilege, is to listen and to understand. If they want amplification, then I will help them find a way to do that. But ultimately, “help” itself is inadequate. The assumption, even, that my stepping in wouldn’t just royally screw things up, is a wrong one to make.

 

I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot this past week, not just in terms of trying to explain to my boyfriend why feminism is so important (he’s already a feminist in all the things that count, for the record, even if he doesn’t recognize it), but in mulling over popular culture.

 

This past week saw the release of Machine Gun Preacher, a Hollywood block buster about Sam Childers, a born again Christian who heard about the conflict in the Sudan and decided to go over and kick some ass.

 

No, really.

 

The reports that have subsequently followed paint a gruesome picture – a white man with an AK-47 shooting people to “rescue” children, only to put them in an orphanage that, by many reports, is almost as bad as the conditions they were rescued from. One common thread through all the stories about Childers? That he’s a hard man to deal with and it’s pretty much his way or the highway.

 

What I see in Childers’ story is a man whose view of himself and the world is cultivated by the “white savior” in culture – the idea that rich, well-off white person, goes to Africa to help the little brown babies and will do good! But what is actually left, when said white person inevitably thinks they know better than the natives, is often worse than before.

 

Essentially: it is a hard road to navigate, but the first and foremost thing in any social justice approach needs to be peace, patience, grace, and mercy. Understand things before you dive in to “help.” You may just learn something worth knowing.