Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How am I to Learn? Entering New Spaces and Unpacking Privilege

When Sept 11 happened one the things that I quickly realized is that I was basically ignorant about Middle Eastern culture, history, and the role that religion played in the conflicts that are continuously erupting.  Before that terrible day I thought that because  so much had already gone on, that it would be to cumbersome for me to wade in and educate myself about the relevant issues.  Sept 11 changed my purposeful ignorance. As much as I felt sorrow for the innocent that had died that day, I quickly realized that Muslim North Americans would quickly become a  group which would be virulently targeted.  As a body of colour who has been subject to discrimination and racism, I realized that it was my duty to learn about the issues and not hate, or be intolerant.

Slowly and with much trepidation I made my way to my local library.  I had no idea where to begin my search, but I was determined not to live in ignorance any longer. Today I am still not as informed as I would like to be about the issues, but I am educated enough not to believe the mendacious one sided commentary that regularly passes as news.  I learned about the Palestinians and discovered that yes indeed their concerns were legitimate.  I learned about the land disputes and unpacked my pre conceived ideas about Islam.  Most importantly I learned not to see the Middle East as one homogenous land mass.  Each culture has a distinct identity and history.

From there, I branched out and read the writings of feminist Middle Eastern Scholars.  I learned that viewing all Muslim women as victims was my western bias.  I began to understand that accepting the agency of women means accepting that not all women are going to make the same choices that I do.  Those choices do not need to be apologized for, they simply need to be accepted and validated as part of the human experience.

The reason I am sharing this with you is because of a post I came across at the Bilerico Project, wherein a blogger questioned how he was to learn, if he did not ask questions of the  trans community. Presuming that you have the right to question is a privileged position.  It is not the job of a marginalized body to educate you on their life's experience.  It is not their job to inform you of the issues, facts and data that you have purposefully chosen not to explore because you previously found it irrelevant.  Of course the whine that follows that statement is, "but how am I to learn ?"

It is privilege to play the role of the helpless ignorant, when we live in the information age.  Library cards are free and  with one simple visit, a world of knowledge is instantly available.  There are documentaries, seminars and college/university classes dedicated to a myriad of subjects.  The only thing impeding your knowledge is you.  Problematize the existential situation; make the familiar strange and you will see that by truly listening as though you had never heard anything about the issue, you will learn thousands  of details.  Some will be so heartbreakingly rich in detail that you will wonder how it is that previously you had been blind to such beauty, or such evil. 

I constantly tell Destruction, my 7 year old, that life is not about the accumulation of commodities, it is about the accumulation of experiences and personal growth.  When you immediately cut yourself off from others due to privilege, laziness or ignorance not only only are you reaffirming our biased social hierarchy, you are forestalling the opportunity to grow as a person.  Life's tapestry is so beautiful, if only we could all learn to see with the eyes of a babe; and remove ourselves from the equation.


mzbitca said...

I really enjoyed this post Renee. It's such a simple solution, educate yourself, but so many people just don't get it at all. If you are on a blog that deals in issues you are not familiar with, dont jump in and start commenting willy nilly, read through posts, look at what people say in comments it's not hard but with privilege comes impatience and the belief that what you say is important and necessary and if someone gets upset they'll "get over it"

White Trash Academic said...

Although I do feel like I do this on my own, sometimes I am suprised by how ignorant I am on this. My ex partner was Persian and I remember how angry he was about the Sally Field movie "Not Without My Daughter." I had seen that film when I was younger but did not really make the connection with the stereotypes of Persians (including rarely bathing, sending children to detonate land mines, etc.).

What was really disturbing to us both was that this film is sometimes shown in high school/college student classrooms and not in the "let's deconstruct these stereotypes" kind of way.

I do my part with my students. For example, last week they kept referring to "Muslim" when they were meant "Arab-American," not realizing that there is more than 1 religion in the Middle East. But they also assume that everyone in the Middle East is Arab, a point of contention for my ex-partner.

But, I am not so arrogant to think that there are things I still am not aware of and must learn about (on my own), as evidenced by by lack of perception of the stereotypes in that film.

dollyspeaks said...

There's always so much to learn and privileges to unpack, we just have to take things one step at a time. I really need to educate myself more on the Middle East. I'm kind of inspired to go research now. Thanks, Renee! :)

Eibhear said...

I take your point, but I feel I must add that, although I studied The Great Depression extensively, I never really understood it until I asked someone who had ACTUALLY lived through it what it was like. Books are, indeed, excellent, but nothing beats people's personal experiences!

whatsername said...


I can't say that I have never done the same, marked something as irrelevant and therefore not educated about it. But once I realized where that came from I started breaking myself of the habit of asking people to explain themselves and just looked the damned info up myself. I can't tell you how much it drives me absolutely mad when I see so many people doing it now... I mean for gods sakes just Google or Wikipedia it!

jadelyns-shadow said...

I love that you focus on educating *oneself*, rather than expecting other people to do it for you. I still catch myself doing this occasionally, out of habit - the other day, reading a comment thread on Shakesville, I almost jumped in and asked somebody to explain a term they'd used. Then I gently thwacked myself upside the head and reminded myself that hey, I'm already on the internet, idjit, go google it.

But for me, that response came not from an understanding of my privelege-at-work in presuming that I could demand explanation/education from people like that, rather it just came from having my ass handed to me a few times when I tried it with the wrong - or perhaps, right - people. So I wanted to thank you, Renee, for pointing out the privelege inherent in this issue. I would not have thought it through to that point, otherwise.