“Life in a fishbowl” Thought of the day: To change what things mean, re-describe them.
I’ve been fumbling with this topic for months.
We discussed it briefly as a group during a bonfire at IST. “What is our role in development?”
Sometimes, the daily reminders that I am an outsider cut deeply. Sometimes, it’s easier to acknowledge it is as truth. Regardless of how many months I’ve been here, this isn’t my home, at some point I will leave, and even if I have mastered the art of hand washing my clothes, it doesn’t mean I know what it means to be a Swazi, or understand all there is to know about living in Swaziland. It cuts so deeply because I am a double-outsider to some capacity. Not only was I not born, or raised here, but I can also hear. It hurts sometimes to realize that, no matter how hard I try to understand, I never fully will.
Perspective is an excellent tool, but it’s also extremely limiting. Our opinions regarding something may change, but they will continue to be influenced by the way in which we perceive (to take in entirely) the world, which is nestled in our own personal experiences in how we relate to what goes on around us. You can try to live in someone else’s shoes, but even if you try them on for size and walk along the same path, you will never see through their eyes, feel what they feel, or experience the interactions they share with others in the same way.
So where am I going with this?
Well, there’s this word that tends to send people scurrying away in all directions, like bedbugs fleeing the light. Privilege. And now that I’ve deviously drawn you in, I hope you won’t experience the same inherent reaction.
So we’re all on the same page, here’s a little definition: Privilege: “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people” Now. Before you begin inching slowly away, I would first like to acknowledge several facts.
1. It’s important to also consider the intersectionality of all privileges associated with our social identities
2. Acknowledging your own privilege is not geared at invalidating your lived experiences or feelings
3. Guilt suggests you’ve committed an offense or crime. It’s a natural response, but, Guilt helps no one.
4. A part of being human is being human.
I took an intro to Sociology course in High School. One of my favorite articles I ever read was “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” and I’m sure many of you have also read it. But I thought I’d share a few lines from it before spoiling the surprise (and I’d be happy to e-mail it to anyone who would like to read it). I think it provides the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the power of perspective, assumptions and interpretation.
The ritual of the Nacirema was first brought to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood…Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy, which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a considerable portion of their day is spent on ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which appear as a main concern in the people’s belief. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique… Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic- ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves.
We all write our own ethnographies, whether we mean to or not, that is how our brains process our experiences, and understand the world around us. However, there is an inherent danger in continuously viewing another group of people as constantly, and unstoppably “other”. So, who are the Nacriema? Maybe it’s more obvious to you than it was to me several years ago. “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards. Even objectivity gives way to classifying a group of people in a way that may not be appropriate, or pleasing to how they might perceive themselves. This is very important.
Social Identity theory suggests that our Social Identities are actually comprised of three layers. The first is how you perceive yourself—the inner you, your secrets, hopes, fears. Perhaps your most genuine and authentic self. The second is related to your awareness of how others might perceive you, or how you allow others to see yourself… the hats you choose to wear around the different people you interact with (i.e. your subconscious and conscious decisions that formulate your behavior in public and private settings). Finally, the third layer is how society perceives you (and therefore renders what you are capable of…) in relation to your various human characteristics: male, female, ethnicity, age, etc. The tension lies in how well we are able to balance all of these selves, especially when how you feel about a particular characteristic of yourself doesn’t necessarily match up with the other two layers. I’ve felt relatively at home here since I first moved to site, despite the fact that I was surrounded by over a hundred strangers. I felt comfortable in my own skin, and after a few months more than a label. That, of course was while I was inside my little bubble. Aspects of my identity that I don’t necessarily value or consider important facets of my character were instantly thrown in my face the second I left the school gate. “UMLUNGU! NCELA EMASWEDI! NGILAAAMBILLEEE” squealed hoards of school children as I carried my groceries home… “HEY WHITEY!” three gregarious youth hollered from across the field while I walked apathetically through the bus rank. I wasn’t Bongiwe, I wasn’t Pam, I was none of the Me’s I appreciated. I was the one attribute I am perhaps least proud of. While frustrating, finding ways to defuse the feelings that began to lurch and creep inside of me whenever I was first seen as a color and not a person became my new focus. After all, it’s hard to determine whether something is said with malice, or if rather, it’s a mere reflection on centuries of a truth where the other people with similar outward identities to my own, set a precedence for those gut, perhaps even subconscious reactions.
I think this statement from Peggy McIntosh’s “What Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” really gets at what I’m trying to say…
“To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects”
It’s uncomfortable to talk about the conscious or subconscious reactions we have to people who are different from ourselves, physically, or who choose to go against the grain in terms of social behavior. Regardless, it’s crucial to reflect why it is, you feel uncomfortable. The secret lies in what is most painfully said.
McIntosh continues, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks… Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable…For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to be misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically over empower certain groups.”
Why is “Umlungu” so grating? Perhaps it is because it goes against how I see myself and the work I’m doing here. It might be because I’m not used to have my skin color be acknowledged—led astray by the toxic ideology of colorblindness. What if it’s a reaction to the underlying guilt I have in knowing that when passive, I play a role in the systemized oppression that should so badly be eradicated. This naturally, makes me feel more guilty, because then I feel like I expect myself to be a hero… “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’”…
I had knots in my stomach throughout PST. I have never appreciated the banking theory of education. That’s not how I envisioned my role as a volunteer, yet that’s exactly how training felt… as if the issues we would encounter in our communities were prevalent due to lack of education, and we, somehow, were qualified to guide people in the right direction… Like missionaries singing to a different tune. That being said, I appreciate that Peace Corps strives to, and focuses on capacity building, I’ve seen first hand how effective it can be when done correctly. This means that you’re working with people to enhance the skills, knowledge, ideas, and so on that they already have, honoring their talents. I have been fortunate enough to have an incredible amount of learning opportunities while here… the chance to learn two languages, and be engaged in a community… in projects that I could never have dreamed of, but I’ve also felt guilty that my lack of experience in this field has never been questioned… because it’s so natural that I should be the one leading. That I’m qualified to give advice and recommendations. This is can be dangerous if not checked. Months of reflecting hasn’t brought me any closer to the answers I’ve been seeking, but they have helped me see my experiences in a new light and I think that’s a crucial starting point.
So, here are some reflection questions:
1. How does our cultural worldview influence and inform our perceptions of people from other cultures?
2. How can we be aware of and change our assumptions?
3. How can we benefit from understanding our own cultural worldview and how it affects our relationship with other cultures?
 Scientific descriptions of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.
 Even here, I cringe at acknowledging this part of my experience in Swaziland, while true, it nonetheless paints an image of such a small fraction of what happens in my life here. Mainly, I just want to indicate how it feels, less than criticize the behaviors I encounter. I’ve met so many wonderful people here, that they outshine any negative interactions I have had.