Friday, August 5, 2011

Anti-Oppression

So crunch time is upon us, as we get ready for student arrival on August 17. We've designated the past two days (mostly because I was in Bangkok taking the GREs) to completing orientation readings, something that could be accomplished without me in the room. The readings are split up into the four themes of the program: Education, Development and Globalization, Human Rights, and Anti-Oppression. Although I've read most of the readings before, the latter struck me particularly hard this time around. Many of the A.O. readings revolve around race, although some have a gender twist to them as well. Upon reading Bell Hooks and other radical thinkers and writers, who have been the recipients of blatant discrimination, and its greatest critics, I reflect upon my own life. I read about accounts, mostly in the Southern region of the United States, of violent and abusive racism, and feel fortunate that I grew up in an area where this was the exception as opposed to the norm.

[Because most of my critical thinking and social engagement has occurred over the past four years of my life, I am going to focus on Maine, although I know that Long Island, and Southampton, especially, has its fair share of racial injustices often hidden beneath the cloud of wealth with which it is associated. However, since I have not studied or come to know the communities there, like I have in Maine, I am not going to attempt to speak to the oppressive forces that exist there.]

So back at it, feeling fortunate. It is not difficult to find anti-racist allies in Maine, especially at Bowdoin. When hate crimes occur, such as they did this past spring, the campus springs to life in protest and discussion. I feel lucky that equality of races, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, are tenets of my family and my communities, without needing to stretch myself or go against the grain.

However, that blessing has its pitfalls. I don't know how to deal with race. I have spent a large portion of my life in the whitest state in the country. We have ethnic and socio-economic differences, mostly stemming from Irish and Franco immigrants, but it wasn't until recently that Somalian refugees and other groups started to make their home in Maine. When I think about it, I reap the benefits of living in a society tolerant of differences, without actually living amongst them. I have rarely been challenged by the complications of diversity, especially not to the extent that I've been reading about in the A.O. articles, and this I feel is a disservice. I didn't only grow up without racism, I barely grew up with other races, other cultures. We all laugh about how I am the "darkest" person at the theater, once I get tan, since Italian and from NY is as diverse as we get, but what are the consequences of that? For one, an inability to truly overcome the deepest historical, institutional, cultural, and societal oppressive forces. In the socially engaged work that I've done, I've tried to follow all the rules - be collaborative, reciprocal, sustainable, understanding - but I've never been challenged by working in a community in the US where I am strikingly different on the outside, where I can't relate to the problems that people are facing solely on the basis that my skin is white. One of the Hooks pieces that we read talks about white allies and the stigmas that they face working in black communities because they are distrusted immediately. I am in no way prepared for that,  but I think it's an important reconciliation I need to make for myself. How can I preach such a life of tolerance without having truly lived it? I always talk about working within groups that you know, don't try to come in from the outside, don't try to solve problems for communities that you don't know - that I'm not relinquishing, it's more of a stretch to experience, to truly understand what anti-oppression is and how to lead a life dedicated to it. Do I perpetuate or passively ignore oppression by living in my typical white New England town, while allowing myself to feel OK about it because I, myself, don't actively engage in discrimination or violence?

[I was thinking about it, and this is totally premature, but maybe Arizona's the right move. I am scared about leaving family and the northeast, because I'm comfortable in the sameness of the things I love. It's time to see how strong my convictions hold when it's not all liberal and open-minded. It's time to see how I manage to work with communities with whom I share very little common suffering. It's time to learn about oppression and anti-oppression.]

[Please keep in mind that this is all relative, and I'm trying to make a point after reading some very intense articles and theoretical pieces. Let me know if you want any interesting reads, and I'll send them along.]