I opine

Well-Intentioned But Misguided

Posted in education, ethics, gender, politics by jaeminuf on September 7, 2008

When I returned from my first year at Bryn Mawr College, I was a bit of a firebrand. Full of zeal, passionately committed to righting wrongs, to disabusing grossly mistaken notions less enlightened folks held, and so on. (Yes, cringe all you’d like… It’s totally deserved.)

One of the issues of note for me was the politics of naming. Of ensuring that we did not continue to perpetrate violence by denying people their right to self-definition. So, holier than thou I was, thumping on my soapbox (yep, this tendency is obviously not new) that it’s not merely about being politically correct (which to me meant wanting pat, easy answers so that those who were so hung up on being pc would not have to really reflect upon their own complicity in the perpetration of violence) but about putting an end to violence psychically, socioeconomically, culturally, that it was about radical change, and so on.

So, here I was, a zealous eighteen year old telling my very kind thirtysomething neighbor (who was trying to raise her son on her own after a divorce all the whilst trying to pursue a meaningful career that’d utilize the top knotch education she’d received at William and Mary) how horrible it was that people continued to say “indians” to refer to Native Americans, that this name reiterates the violence of Euro-American hegemony. At that moment, my good neighbor tried to get me to step back and question whether I might be shooting myself in the foot by being so aggressively dogmatic in “enlightening” and “raising the consciousness” of my neighbors. And to question whether I was not in my own way doing violence to Native Americans by reducing them to being nothing but dignified victims of Western hegemony, by allowing myself to regard them primarily in terms of their victimization. And to ask myself if every single person who was of indigenous descent would choose to self-identify as Native American, that might it not be that Native American was yet another externally imposed label, one that says more about those other Americans who are not Native? If I remember correctly, I think she tried to tell me that, if anything, it was a more common practice amongst those I was calling Native American to identify themselves by their tribal affiliations.

I didn’t catch it then. In fact, I actually thought she was unenlightened, perhaps even bigoted, and found myself much conflicted that this woman I greatly respected appeared to be telling me that I was too hung up on names.

Well, here I am. Nearly fifteen years later. I still opine. But I hope I have gained a bit more humility through the years and thereby tempered my self-righteous indignation a bit, learned to be respectul especially toward those with whom I disagree passionately, and most importantly developed a more nuanced and self-critical attitude.

That said, recently, I met a sort of a younger me. She was all riled up from having undergone a consciousness raising: an intensive study of racism and sexism in the United States. Like me, she also looked at me askance when I tried to point out that she was being too dogmatic in her views, that she was doing violence to the very people she wanted to protect. She looked at me as if she was shocked to learn that I didn’t realize I was perpetuating women’s oppression by arguing X.

I was curious to see what she thought of this Presidential election. I thought she would have found Palin insulting as well but I was wrong. She was excited. I asked her why she was excited about Palin. I didn’t get a response.

I hope she’s excited not solely because Palin is a woman. I wonder if the younger me would have embraced Palin solely on the basis of her sex rather than find her problematic on the basis of her actual qualifications. Would I have been as insulted as I am now?



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