Privileged blind spots

Walking on my way to work today I saw a sign post for One Billion Rising – the campaign recently created by now famous Eve Ensler (who doesn’t seem to be an all-together unsympathetic woman). The logo struck me as unnecessarily highlighting “a female form” (non-cis women need not apply?) and got me thinking about the campaign and the critiques that M had about it. Then, while reading the gale (and here, and here, and here - do read them all) that has blown up around an announcement by the Harvard College Women Center’s blog post, somehow I came across this article about OBR:

I recently listened to a Congolese woman talk in a speak-easy setting of radical grassroots feminists. She was radiantly and beautifully powerful in her unfiltered anger towards the One Billion Rising movement, as she used the words “insulting” and “neo-colonial”. She used the analogy of past crimes against humanity, asking us if we could imagine people turning up at the scenes of atrocities and taking pictures or filming for the purposes of “telling their story to the rest of the world”. Take it one step further and try to imagine a white, middle class, educated, American women turning up on the scene to tell survivors to ‘rise’ above the violence they have seen and experienced by…wait for it…dancing. “Imagine someone doing that to holocaust survivors”, she said.

Eve Ensler has reportedly spent much time in the DRC in the build-up to Valentines Day. I really wonder under what premise she is there? What goes through her mind? Does she think that her shared experiences of abuse make her a kindred spirit to Congolese women? That her presence will bring about comfort? Change? Does she really have such an inflated sense of ego that she simply must jet set around, visiting One Billion Rising hubs?

Another woman at the same event, an Iranian woman who had demonstrated in the 70′s and seen female comrades beaten, raped, doused in acid, set alight, imprisoned and murdered, also used the word “insulting”. “Who is someone else to come to my country and claim to ‘help’ me by telling me to ‘rise’ above the experiences I have had?!” She went on to recount the numerous occasions when she’d been patronised by white, middle class, educated feminists who assumed that as an Iranian woman she lacked education and had lived a sheltered and oppressed life (only to be left open-mouthed by her exceptional education, theoretical knowledge and sharp gendered analysis). We laughed at the hilarity of the questions she’d been asked (“So do you go everywhere by camel in Iran?”) but reflected soberly at the state of a feminist movement dominated by white academics.

The consensus from those on the ground, providing services to women survivors, was that women of privilege should not preach feminist ideals, particularly where gender and race intersect – and essentially where ‘developed’/'developing’ world’s intersect. The focus for white, western feminists should be on gender equality at home, where there are enough problems for a lifetime of activism. But, if the white saviour complex were to endure, that the best form of action would be to lobby their own governments to stop their patriarchal, neo-colonial influence in so-called ‘developing countries’. For it is western companies that create resource enclaves in oil and mineral rich countries, the profits from which local communities never benefit. And it is western governments that continue to pervade the economic systems of ‘developing countries’ with their development aid laden with conditionality to replicate western models of governance which is often irreconcilable with historical economic, cultural, social and economic patterns. And it is western backed arms traders which cash in on conflict in many ‘developing’ regions, fuelling both sides for financial gain. Not content with its first wave of colonisation, the west continues to insist upon ‘helping’ other countries. Word on the street is that the people don’t want ‘help’; they want to make their own decisions and bring about change free from outside influence.

via Natalie Gyte: Why I Won’t Support One Billion Rising.

What I find specifically interesting about both this article and the HCWC committee are how they highlight the general blind spot for anybody in a position of power (whether it’s being white, middle/upper class, from a western country, man,… – or any intersections thereof) of the potential harm and pain that can be caused when dealing with/interceding/involving oneself with problems/conflicts/issues of people from other groups.

While there certainly is a fair deal of academic writing on the subject, and people more well-versed with both the language and theories in said writing could deliver much better or scathing critiques of the people behind both the Harvard committee and the OBR campaign (again, see articles mentioned above) – I find it personally hard to grasp how this naivety can still exist with people who have hopefully studied this dynamic of power as well as most likely experienced it themselves.

Being a person of just about the most privileged positions available in the world (white, middle-class, educated, male, Swedish), I have found it almost impossible not to shed this naivety and become aware of how my real my privilege is as well as of how easy (and harmful) it is for me to turn a blind eye to it and pretend that my life (and my ability to act, interven or comment) is distinct from it. While I still have certainly not shed it completely, I can claim a certain awareness of it – and that’s purely from experience rather than say any real academic study (of which I believe the Harvard College professors & Eve should have loads). 

In fact (as I think Charles W Mills points out in one of the Youtube lectures I keep on in the background at work), turning a blind eye to the privilege from which my actions, way of interacting with others and ideas for interventions all stem from is in a way an attempt to keep those very power-structures alive – pretending they don’t exist is way more effective (and insidious) than defending them out-right, even when it’s stemming from ignorance rather than intention.

Taking it one step further, thinking of people of privilege in any type of scheme intending to “help” people with less privilege (whether males in women empowerment, rich people in poverty alleviation and of course any intersection thereof – rich, women in the empowerment of poor women) risk not only drowning out their voice and ignoring the work that they’ve already done (the megaphones of the powerful are far louder), but also belittle their wills, desires, ideas or ability to act on their own. As commented here, the will of people of privilege to do “good” or “help” is “[...] A good thing, except for the fact that they[we] tend to believe that their[our] good intentions are sufficient; in-depth knowledge of history, language, politics, and culture is not necessary;“. 

I guess, ideally, everyone of us should work the closest with and to greatest extent for the communities we know the best (I guess our home communities). If not that, we should be humble and accept that any community we intend to work for we’d best listen to, and thereafter only act if we have the understanding that we cannot ever claim to really “understand” what it’s like to live in a world without our own set of privileges nor can we really act outside of that system of privilege.