Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What is reality?

My friend recently asked this question on her blog.  It pertained to someone saying "No wonder you have such a hard time going back to reality" and the ensuing discussion of whether certain experiences were real or not real.  She asked for feedback regarding her experience and the conversation.  Because I am often wont to jump right in on a question, I decided to just wait and see what others said first.  Today, while working on research on my next proposal, I ran across something that struck a chord of resonance with me.  

The topic of the research is social justice, and how one promotes it.  Several articles in the literature review addressed the topic of white privilege.  One article (Jeffery, 2005) concluded that it was difficult--if not impossible--to practice anti-racist social work from the social work professional pedagogy, in that whiteness is the basis of the profession.  In other words, the profession was developed and borne out of the white liberal perspective of promoting justice and caring for the Other--the marginalized.  So, anything we do recreates that--no matter how enlightened we become, we are still using our 'dominance' (our view of how to be with and treat others) as the pedagogy of the profession.  One author argued 'the reality is that the white classroom teacher can "perform" the multicultural tricks while never having to critique her positionality as a beneficiary' of the system (McIntyre, 1997, p. 13).  I found my thoughts returning to that throughout the day as I worked on the literature review for the proposal.  I began to think of my own situation--actually from my first memories as a person as well as my social work education in the southwest, and now the southeast, and in my work in South Africa.

I feel about South Africa pretty much the way my friend does about Belize.  But, I began to question my own reality about it.  It is always hard in one sense for me to come back to the "reality" of the US when I have spent time in South Africa.  In a way, it is the same as when it used to be hard for me to return to Texas after time in New York City.  I recall the time my friend and I discussed how likely it was that we romanticized NYC; it was easy to do given that we were always staying in mid-town Manhattan in a nice hotel, with sufficient money.  It was one thing in that environment to take the A train to Harlem for the day, or take the train to Brooklyn for Sunday morning church services.  It would be quite another to live in the Bronx or Brooklyn or Harlem and deal with crime, violence and poverty on a daily basis--especially as a poor or working class person.

South Africa is that way as well.  It is one thing to go stay--even for weeks at a time--with my US income which goes much farther there and work in the townships and informal communities when I can drive back to my flat at night and have a nice dinner with my friends.  While it is reality for me, and I am happy there--and no doubt doing important work and contributing to others, it is not reality in the sense of I live there and grapple with the daily struggles of a country where over 70% of the population does not have basic needs, and where in the face of that reality, even people who do have basic needs struggle.

Several years ago when I was due my sabbatical, I wanted to go to New York City.  I said I knew I needed to take the next step, and that what I wanted to do was make arrangements with an ordinary family living in Brooklyn to stay in their home.  I asked my pastor/social worker friend who works in Harlem and pastors a church in Brooklyn if he could help me make such an arrangement.  I was willing to pay "rent" and to contribute as a member of the household, but I wanted to actually live the life--walk the walk--of ordinary people doing the daily struggle for social justice.  Lucius did not answer in a timely manner, and by then, I had traveled to and fallen in love with South Africa and spent my sabbatical there instead.  I have a friend in South Africa who says that "next trip" I must stay with her--in a township...in a house without running water.  I think that I could stay for a night or two, but that I am so accustomed to having my own bathroom and my own bed that it would be so hard to give those up and live in a small place with 4 adults and about 8 children--no shower, no tap water, although they at least have a flush toilet.  Many more do not, and still use the 'bucket' system--little more than an outhouse in the front yard; the only advantage is sanitation trucks pick up the used buckets and leave a clean one.

So, when I think about what is reality in this setting, I wonder how much of our belief it is reality is based on our privileged situation in how we view those other settings.  I don't mean that to be critical of my friend, or myself, or our experiences.  But, the reality seems to be to me that when we are in those other places--whether it is South Africa or Belize or St. Paul Island, we are there from a privileged standpoint in terms of housing, food, health care, transportation, and how we choose to work or spend our free time.  We are not there as marginalized people--or even well-off people, who still have to deal with the actuality of living in that environment.  Most people of means who go to South Africa, or Belize, or even St. Paul Island are going for an escape: to be a tourist in some of the most beautiful places in the world.  Even those of us who go to work for social justice or in solidarity and support of marginalized peoples in those area are still somewhat of a "tourist" in not giving up our own lives elsewhere.

I don't have an answer to my friend's question: what is reality?  I just know that after spending an entire day of researching the construct of promoting social justice that I have far more questions than I started out with, and far less certainty in our ability to create it.  There is a saying--I don't recall who from--about something to the effect of if you are here to save me, don't.  But if your liberation is bound up in mine, work with me.  The more I attempt to understand how the colonization of our minds has occurred like some slight of hand, the more I understand how deep is my lack of understanding.


Gigi said...

Oh, this reminds me of so many of our conversations and the struggle to acknowledge our own place in the big picture. It made me think about my trip to Chiapas with P4P and the very difficult confrontation that came up amongst the group about whether it was "okay" for us to stay in a hotel when we "should" be sleeping out in the weather like the people we were working with. Yes, we went there with all good intentions and yet we could leave at any point and not have to struggle through the daily life. I was reading a column in the NYT the other day, written by Bono of U2, in which he was discussing aid to other countries, etc. I thought it was a well written column and I admire his spirit and desire to make changes in the world. Yes, he is a rich celebrity but at least he is trying to use his celebrity for the good. Some of the comments were just downright mean, though, telling him he didn't know what he was talking about and that people don't want his kind of "help" and so on. It just made me think that there really is a lot of resentment toward white people thinking they know what is needed and that, again, we don't go to the community and enter humbly but we throw our money and our so-called expertise around while ignoring those who live in the day to day circumstances. I am speaking in generalities, obviously, and I know that there are many of us who try not to be arrogant but as we have discussed many times, we are already one-up (or more) simply by the facts of our birth. I don't know the answer, either!! Hell, we didn't even like the potty at the Peace Farm, much less having to live like that every day. :) I know I am spoiled and I know I am much more middle class than I ever like to admit, and yet I still want to do good in the world. Hopefully there is a way to do that sensitively and thoughtfully.

Suzassippi said...

I had forgotten Peace Farm and Chiapas--thanks for the reminder. I remember my dismay when we got to Peace Farm and I saw the indoor compost toilet! And the looks on the students' faces! And I wanted nothing more than to go check in to the Holiday Inn. Then I thought of all the people in the world who raised families in circumstances worse than that, and knew I could deal with it for two nights by drawing on that empathy and awareness.

One of the articles was "So What Are White People Supposed to Do?" and it was very helpful as it laid out different strategies, while recognizing that many white people have indeed sacrificed and honestly stood with others in the struggle for social justice. The answer is not in shame at being white, nor being a race traitor--that is no more helpful than to be ashamed of being a person of color or try to "assimilate" and deny one's identity.

Thank you for adding to the substance of this issue. I am looking forward to the research project in which we will be interviewing people in Mississippi about this issue--and eventually move beyond the state as we attempt to discover.