Diplomacy 101

1 Apr

First, allow me to submit for review the blog post concerning the issue I’m about to discuss:

http://blogs.westword.com/latestword/2012/03/du_native_student_alliance_greek_cowboys_and_indians_party.php

Second, allow me to state my bias up front: the girl on the far left of that photograph is the daughter of the woman my father has been dating for 10 years. I’ve known her since she was 9. She’s a member of my family. Just so that’s out there.

Third, allow me to state an additional bias that’s causing me no small measure of cognitive dissonance: I am predominantly Native American on my mother’s side. My great-aunt has successfully traced our ancestry back to the Trail of Tears, and my great-grandmother was one quarter Cherokee. It’s been pretty diluted by the time it has reached me, but the women on that side of the family all have native features (by that I mean, not heavily European features), such as dark eyes and high cheekbones, so it’s in there somewhere.

So, a fraternity and a sorority had a party. As these things often are, it was themed, and the theme was quasi-Western: “Cowboys and Indians.” Not the most culturally sensitive thing in the world, but then again, underage binge drinking isn’t exactly something to boast about and yet it’s often given a pass in the Greek setting.

The advisor of the Native American Student Alliance at the University of Denver demanded, and received, an apology for the publication of photos from this party on Facebook. The Greek organizations involved were contrite. They admitted that racism played no factor in their choice of theme, and that they were merely ignorant of the notion that someone could take offense to the “indian” costumes. Let’s consider a moment the demographics that Greek students often come from: white, upper-middle-class. Used to homogeny in their choice of friends and in their classmates. Saturated with white privilege. And this doesn’t make them bad human beings, or somehow deserving of all the flak they’re getting. It just makes them…privileged.

White privilege is a difficult issue to tackle for even a self-aware white person, let alone someone who has never given thought to the idea that their skin color has automatically bestowed on them certain social advantages. And if you are an academic or an intellectual who actively LOOKS for issues of white privilege in research (which I do), it can be extremely frustrating to see this stuff simmering underneath the surface of public discourse knowing that 95% of the population is unaware of the concept.

However, it is certainly possible to be hyper-vigilant in the observation of issues of privilege, such as the case I mentioned above. The NSA advisor received the apology he requested, and it wasn’t good enough for him. No, he’d like to institute “sensitivity training” and make everyone involved FEEL REALLY, REALLY BAD about the whole thing.

If you are a member of a group which is benefitted by an oppressive power structure, you get all kinds of advantages which it probably never even occurs to you that you get. There are several such power structures in our society: sex (men over women), race (whites over non-whites), sexuality (heterosexuals over non-heterosexuals), and class (the wealthy over the rest). Having privilege does not mean that your life is automatically peachy keen or that you are evil scum; it simply means that there are advantages you get which some people do not.

Privilege is the consequence of living in a systematic power structure and being top dog. And these things are undeniable. I’m not being overly politically correct by pointing this out – these are embedded structures that play a part in nearly every facet of our lives. And if you doubt me, ask Trayvon Martin’s parents how they feel about the structure of white privilege.

However, privilege is NOT guilt. If you are in possession of a privilege, it is not something you did; it’s something that was done on your behalf. When people say that you have privilege, they are not saying that you should feel bad about it (and in fact the concept of “white guilt” is generally loathed by anti-racist intellectuals and activists, as it should be). If you choose to be willfully blind to it, or you defend it, however, that’s another issue entirely. But it doesn’t apply in this situation, in my humble observation.

It is one thing to hold people accountable when they cross a line. It is another thing entirely to demand that, as penance, everyone be forced to think JUST LIKE YOU about the issue, and if they don’t then they are terrible people who don’t deserve to live. Some kids had a party and didn’t do themselves any favors by reinforcing some really dated stereotypes, and they apologized for it. The case should be closed there. That party and its cultural missteps aren’t the be-all end-all of who they are as human beings.

Instead, the NSA advisor (who writes for the Denver Post and CLEARLY has an agenda of some sort) feels it is his duty to make an example of these students by forcing them to respect other cultures in a manner that he approves. I’ll say that again – FORCING. Rather than accepting the apology and encouraging self-reflection on the part of the students, he wants to control exactly what they think about Native Americans. Since when has trying to control what people think EVER been a good strategy? This gentleman wants to inflict guilt, not awareness.

Incidents like these are why people (typically conservatives who are fully invested in the idea of white American exceptionalism) complain about “political correctness run amok.” None of us are without biases and prejudices – NONE of us. Hell, I used to dislike lesbians until I met two incredibly amazing beautiful people who happened to identify that way. I had a concrete reason for disliking lesbians – too many highly negative experiences with aggressive women trying to “turn” me – and I had to confront, acknowledge, and release this prejudice of mine on my own. No one forced this on me. I simply hadn’t been exposed to a woman who identified as gay who wasn’t interested in trying to rudely bull (no pun intended) their way into my pants.

Did this prejudice make me a bad person? No, just a sheltered one in that regard. I had a specific negative experience with a subset of the population that made me want to avoid that group. When I began to have positive experiences with that same subset, my opinion of the group changed. That is how you breed tolerance – by acknowledging that we are only as noble as our life experiences. Maturing means willingly adapting what you think to fit your experiences, not clinging rigidly to personal dogma in spite of being shown “another way.”

I’m trying to point out that cultural, social, and gender norms/identifications are self-imposed and imposed by society at large. And they can be taken away just as easily as they are imposed. AWARENESS of our tendency to stereotype, to judge, and to blame the “Other” for not thinking like we do is the most important weapon we have in the fight for equality. Awareness. Not forced guilt masquerading as “sensitivity.” By forcing people to think in a certain way about certain groups of people, all we are doing is reinforcing the “Otherness” that already exists. Does it serve anyone’s best interest to require someone to acknowledge how different someone is?

Acknowledge that white people live with a distinct advantage over the rest of society. Be aware of that – it’s real and its effects have been having devastating consequences for centuries. Acknowledge that the people who have historically been “Othered” are understandably pissed about what has happened to them. The problem with discussing these issues is not the topic – it’s the audience. Knee-jerk reactions from both camps keep us in perpetual “us” and “them” stasis.

Again, the NSA advisor here may mean well, and he may feel that he is defending his culture from continued stereotyping, but he is still insisting on inflicting guilt on these students. That is counter-productive and will do more damage long-term than simply encouraging self-reflection and a little cultural awareness next time around.

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2 Responses to “Diplomacy 101”

  1. Greg April 2, 2012 at 1:28 am #

    “95% of the population is unaware of the concept.” <– That phrase is a product of that same privilege. I think it's true of white people in suburbia.

    ~Greg

    • gusology April 2, 2012 at 9:27 am #

      Did you even read what I wrote?

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