Thursday, April 21, 2011

We Silence the Privileged

This reflection essay I write in response to my time spent in inter-group dialogue (2.5 hr. long weekly sessions with 9 other students of differing "social identity groups" i.e., race, socio-economic status, religion, etc. for the purpose of "mutual understanding," reconciliation and coalition building for a stronger, united human community). Hoping that it might encourage you, whether you consider yourself privileged, oppressed or bits of both.
We Silence the Privileged
            When my white colleagues kept apologizing for not having “powerful” stories to tell, I sat confused. They minimized their experiences of exclusion, alienation and identity confusion as less relevant, real and gritty. Their self-deprecation caused by the personal guilt of privilege through race made me wonder.
            The School of Social Work encourages its students to be “champions of the oppressed” and to “bring marginalized voices to the fore.” Yet, simultaneously, is it disempowering, denying and guilt-tripping the oppressors? The school teaches that the poor must not be stigmatized or demonized, but aren’t we committing this act of judgment upon the proverbial “white male”?
            As I have continued to sit in my bewilderment I must challenge my assumptions: Do I actually value the utterly tragic stories of the poor and oppressed more than their rich and privileged counterparts?
            Sometimes I thank my lucky stars that I am majoring in social work because I know that the rest of my life will be devoted to knowing “real people”—and by “real people” I mean people who have “gone through a lot”: i.e., the traumatized, suffering oppressed. In my compassion for the poor I realize that I have developed a bias against the powerful, the “oppressors.” I think of them as less than human because I assume that life has been handed to them on a silver platter. I even have that resentment towards the privileged parts of myself: my comfortably middle class suburban life of stability. I consider this part of myself to be illegitimate; I seek to disown it. It is nothing to be proud of; it is rather a source of shame. We downplay our privileged identities because there is no sense of struggle in them. In our privilege we enjoy what we did not earn.
            And I sense that many others hold this bias against their privilege as well. I see it in my white colleagues; the bias is directed against themselves. Yet as they shared their personal stories of pain—of being rejected on the basis of religion, moral values and nonconformity—I can see that their pain is legitimate. Undeniably they have enjoyed much power and convenience on the basis of their race, and yet their complexity shines forth in their experience of simultaneous oppression along other lines. Perhaps they have been shielded from a lot of pain because of their race, but their race has not excluded them from all pain. I cannot pretend that they are not “real people” as they share their loneliness and insecurity. We all carry brokenness within us—even if it may be hidden or suppressed by a façade of privilege.
            Surely, it is a “straw man” to compare suffering and oppressions among individuals. It is also unfair to evaluate people according to the amount of hardships they have endured throughout their lifetime. I must challenge my tendency to discount the life experiences of those who have not “had it rough”—according to my arbitrary standards of who is deserving or non-deserving of “speaking their truth.” I must challenge myself to re-humanize the oppressor. I must remember that the river of pain touches the shores of all lives. I must allow the estuary of these streams to commingle and swirl into one sea. For only in the uniting of our personal pain can we rise together.   

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Some Books I'm Excited About

So with all my social work classes ruining my enjoyment of all types of mainstream TV shows, movies and books (because they represent the "normalized white dominant culture," blah, blah, blah), I've started to explore their "alternative"/indie counterparts. When I look for books, I focus on the last name of the author as well as the gender. Lately I've been favoring female writers of color. It has been so fun to read books written with such different and fresh perspective on reality, life and resilience. They're great because they are semi-autobiographical in nature, so you know they're not bullshitting you--and yet have fiction woven throughout to make everything more poignant/poetic. It's great. And I am only scratching the surface!! Here are a couple of authors I've found so far:

Diana Abu Jaber is a writer in residence at Portland State University and I picked up a copy of her book Crescent because it was on sale at Powell's. After devouring that book in a matter of days (I finished it before we got back to Seattle!), I checked out her other book Arabian Jazz. Although her novels can at times be long-winded, overly descriptive and lacking focus, I really enjoyed them. She is half Jordanian and half Caucasian and explores issues of identity and belonging, immigrant displacement and being "in-between" cultures, managing to effortlessly weave this into greater themes of love and finding meaning in life. So it's not like her books are super "political" and fixated on issues of ethnicity/race. That's what I like about them! Basically, she's great. RECOMMEND!!

Faïza Guène is a French writer, the daughter of Algerian parents and grew up in the housing projects of Paris. I randomly picked her book Some Dream for Fools out of the "choice reads" section of the Federal Way library--her name caught my eye. :) Gosh, I just love books with strong female leads. The book is about a no-nonsense young woman that holds her family together following the death of her mother and the disablement of her father. She looks out for her younger brother, works, falls in love and writes (it's first person from her perspective) in a frank (i.e. lots of expletives--love it!) and insightful way. The book speaks to the universality of the immigrant experience in a Western country. I have her other book Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow on hold and can't wait to read it!

Something else exciting! On Wednesday, April 20th, two Nigerian-born writers will be reading their work at the Seattle Public Library downtown. Sweet! More perspectives. I'm so in need of different perspectives, different ways of seeing the world. Can you believe, this event is a part of "Seattle Reads," "a project designed to foster reading and discussion of works by authors of diverse cultures and ethnicities." Man, sometimes I can't believe how cool it is that public money is used to showcase "atypical" literature. You know, stuff that isn't about bored rich teens being sexually promiscuous..the fluffy, mindless noise to feed the masses. Haha, okay, done with that rant. Pictured her is Uchechi Kalu and she is a poet and activist living in San Francisco. Also reading is E.C. Osondu who published several short stories in a volume called Voice of America. I am also awaiting to receive their books on hold at the library. Cool, huh? After going to hear Tracy Kidder speak at Benaroya Hall I'm sold on the awesomeness factor of going to hear an author read their work and share about why they wrote what they wrote. It makes me feel more connected to the global community, ya know? :) Event info:

So, that's what I've been reading lately. No more wading through the European classics! It's the same dang storyline: the scandal(!)/subsequent "ruining" of a female who dares to defy social norms and have an affair. Whoop de deeeeee. Hahaha..

Friday, April 08, 2011


I'm wading through gray, foggy meaningless right now. This statement is ambiguous, I know.

Bad things I'm encountering: despair, doubt, fear, anxiety, disempowerment

Good things I'm encountering: love, encouragement, truth

Truth that cuts through the clouds that have formed an unseemly halo about my head.

Social work is a hard major and a hard profession. I need to diversify my interests and take up a new hobby or something. Whew.