Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Institutionalized Blindness

I live in Northern Idaho. I love it here, it's beautiful and peaceful.
For me at least.
A few weeks ago, Rachel Dolezlal, an art teacher at the local college (North Idaho Community College) found a noose on here porch. Dolezal is mixed race and a human rights advocate. She is strong and not quite about her work here.
And she has become a target for hate groups. The community response here was typical, people were outraged. Angry that that kind of thing still happens in this area.
And its terrible. And people should be outraged.

But we are missing something. I couldn't put my finger on it for a long time. Everyone is supportive. Everyone is committed to driving hate and racism out of this area. But something felt wrong.

And then I went to the Action Against Hate benefit dinner (through Gonzaga University). It was a great event, and, don't get me wrong, the organization behind it is doing good stuff.

But, it epitomized the problem, in my mind.

Every speaker, every person honored (minus one) was white. There were few colored people in the audience. There were none up on the stage. It was a bunch of well meaning white men(mostly men) talking about all the great work they had done.

And, yes admitting there was a lot more work to be done.

But, the irony was irresistible. And no one talked about it. No one brought it up. Not a single speaker recognized their innate inability to truly feel what someone of color feels.

I'm white. I don't know what it's like to be discriminated against (I'm also a man, so I've got a lot going for me). So, how can I, a white male, really 'get' what it's like to be black? Or native American? Or Asian? Or any of the other of a multitude of marginalized groups?

In my mind that is the problem currently. People are doing wonderful work. People are strongly against racism. Against hate. Discrimination. All of that. But, the institutions, the processes that surround the good work being done, are fundamentally flawed. They are fundamentally discriminatory. And people don't want to, or simply can't reflect on the institutions they are caught up in.

And, like I said, I'm white. So everything I observe, everything I think is colored (bad pun) by this. And quite possibly everything I've said isn't true, possibly I'm full of it and don't know what I'm talking about. Hopefully, however, I have the humility to recognize this and defer to the knowledge and life experience of someone who has actually been discriminated against, who has actually been hated for something as ridiculous as the color of their skin.


Heidi said...

I really like this, Eli.
I was trying to grasp the idea of the fine line between empowerment work by those who are marginalized (and need to be empowered) and by those who are in positions of control (those already empowered people).
For example, the process of women's empowerment in developing countries: men are superior to women in most of these states' current systems. Of course, women must WANT to empower themselves and they must have the knowledge to do so. But, they must also have the means and the access to change what needs to be changed in the system. So, it becomes so much more difficult (I hesitate to say 'impossible') for the position of women to improve in a society where men are not sensitized or supportive the cause. While women don't absolutely need men to oppose the system, peaceful progress toward empowerment comes only when all groups are aware of the situation and need for change. The same goes for minority races and others facing obstacles in today's society.
Of course, there will always be those people and groups who continue to discriminate against marginalized groups (ignorance being the key perpetrator here), but I believe in the good of humanity when it is exposed to education. So, while I definitely agree that there is no way we will ever be able to fully understand what it feels like to be poor, disabled, black, or any other marginalized group, I think our role in empowerment is also very important. This is mainly because we are in the position to potentially influence our fellow members of the majority group (white, middle class, generally prosperous) to bring change through the institutions we (unfortunately) control more than those minority groups. So, I believe that the involvement of members of both the oppressed minority and the majority doing the oppressing is crucial.
I realize that in this specific instance about which you wrote, there should definitely have been more minority involvement. But, our inability to absolutely understand what being a minority means doesn't prevent us from helping the cause.

Fawn said...

This is the most reoccurring and frustrating thing you will find in any white-dominated community. Unfortunetly, it's the steady stream of white-do-gooders that piss me off the most.