Mar 12, 2006

Puppet From Hell (white activist faux pas)

I'm starting a new job soon which involves more teaching! I'll be working with children in families affected by HIV. So, we had "HIV sensitivity" training yesterday and it was a little more "radical" than I thought (i.e. had a slight anti-oppression focus).

There was seven of us tutors in total, meeting the "diversity" quota ever so nicely. There was this one person who stood out in a way that was, how can I put it, incredibly annoying (and definitely had me on my toes). It was this recently M.A. graduated, "activist" white woman who kept busting out in academic jargon/analysis to remind us all of shit that I personally didn't think mattered (been there done that, not going there again!)
She'd have these two minute rants, to which I would respond, just to challenge her cookie cutter "radical" discourse which in no shape or form related to everyday lives of poor, people of color dealing with HIV and how we, with all of our privileges, fit into the picture as self-reflexively, as self-critically as possible.

We were discussing the issue of disclosure and how some families did not share information with others about the HIV - whether to their own children, to the wider community or to us. So the same chic put up her hand and said something about "non-disclosure as reinforcing the stimga around HIV" and how unfortunate it was that families couldn't come out and share this info with others just to break that cycle of shame and stigma. Ummm, hello? Victimhood narrative much? UGH. Having said that tho, I also thought about immigrant communities of color in the diaspora and the complexities of support systems within our communties (especially when it came to something as stigmatized as HIV). I was so annoyed with this white, activist chic who just didn't seem to get it. Yah yah, theory and action = social change, bla bla bla...get over it and get real.

At one point, the group was discussing the difficulties of home tutoring and getting students to focus while their other siblings were were running around making nose. This chic put up her hand and told us that the best solution to that situation was to engage the other siblings in a fun activity (i.e. puzzles, toys, etc.) to keep them occupied. This would also help make a positive association with our presence in the space for them. Ok, that made sense to me. I dug the idea.

But check it out. She had one experience where she had taken two incredibly large hand puppets of hers (a pig and a cow) to the home of a Muslim Somali family to engage the younger children and build good rapport with them. She had rung the doorbell, puppets in hand, ready to greet the kids. So what happens? The 5 year old opens the door, with the 3 year old by her side. They see the pig and immediately freak out and run away crying! It had not occurred to this woman that pigs were HARAM. Stuffed animals or not, pigs are just not seen to be cute or cuddly by children from most Muslim households. So to cut a long story short, she did not make good rapport with the kids because now they associated her with the pig, which made her haram by default.

I got a good laugh from the story. In fact, I think I was the only one laughing. Her though, she was amused by her own ignorance. She thought it was funny or ironic, because after all (as she had mentioned to me earlier), she had taken all her required "post-colonial" courses. But regardless of how much Said, Spivak and Fanon this woman had read, at the end of the day, she was still the white chic with the Puppet From Hell!

Honestly, I don't know. She meant well, there's no doubt there. Her heart is in it. But that's not enough. Is that unfair of me to say? I mean, she is more of an ally than a right-wing, conservative, fucko. But how much of an ally can someone be if they just don't get it? I don't know.


Blogger brownfemipower said...

you know, this is such a difficult question---cuz I'll tell you what, I have *clearly* made my racist fuck up mistakes. I mean, there is a native american group of women at U of M who, till this day, won't *look* at me, much less talk to me. and they are completly correct to not talk to me or look to me as I said some completly ignorant dumb racist horrible shit to them--the thing is, however, that I meant well, which is where a lot of organizers/activists come from. They mean well, but they just *don't know*. It was their anger that slapped me in the face and woke me the hell up and made me realize, you know, brownfemipower, some times you need to shut your goddamn big ass trap and just learn. So, on the one hand, I think that there needs to be a space for people to make really big fuck ups but still come back to the group keep working together after the mistake is realized. But on the other hand, if people aren't going to even admit to the "mistake" then it becomes more of a case that there kinda isn't much difference between them and an outright enemy.
For example, in the case of the pig lady (hee hee, that's SO funny, BTW)--if she could then admit her mistake, put some effort into some how putting the kids at ease again, then letting them take the lead from there--she might be ok, ya know? but if, as it seems, she is just going to barrell on irregardless, then I see what you mean that she's not much of an ally.
It's a hard position for me cuz i just can't deny (as much as I want to) all the times that I have made some really stupid move (please see your post about the pictures)--so I want to believe the best about people, that if they just *knew* better they'd *do* better--but even I have to admit that there comes a time when somebody isn't being ignorant, they're being an asshole.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

It is complicated. And god knows, I've said some stupid shit and had to heavily reflect. I agree that if the person is willing to work on their shit then great...but sometimes they don't even get what's going on.
there's also this "holier than tho" activist/intellectual thing that REALLY gets on my nerves. It's like "I know about racism, I know about white privilege and so of course I get it," but then through their actions they don't show any of that. And honestly, sometimes, you just don't want to be the one to call them on their shit. It's like, fuck that, it's not my duty to school you. But then again, at times the pressure is on us to say something to interrupt the discourse...and that's draining sometimes, to be confrontational (of course, being careful not to be labelled as "angry") and then having to break all of that down for people who may in the end not get where you're coming from.
Man, do I sound bitter or what today??! ;)

7:01 PM  
Blogger rabfish said...

as bitter as pigmeat-puppet comin' at your kid on a white woman's hand, the hand ringin your doorbell to help you all, my friend. oooh.

I howled when i read that she was trying to create 'positive associations' for the kids and ended up getting associated with haraam pig. she isn't even in the house and she's already got the puppets on. how about being real in the space and getting to know the family first? i guess you don't need to when you're got it all worked out in your head already. it's not just an irony, its a cue that you are failing to pick up about the way you're operating, lady.

haraam by default. what a great title. lol

(i've made mistakes with my own unexamined shit and my own ignorance about the important histories of others (i'm sorry about your story bfp; i've got them of my own too) and they are totally about the learning process; as darkdaughta writes on her site, part of the process is also about personally owning the accompanying embarassment, fighting the impulse to deny it, taking on the challenge to work and learn more, accepting that people might not want to put any or further energy into your process, but knowing you're doing what you need to do for the sake of your own political and personal growth and solidarity work, as it sounds like you're doing, bfp.)

still, knowing the institution and activist culture whence that woman derives her modus operandi, an m.o. that has been like a giant marxist steamroller over race, and when her whole vibe is 'i'm here to teach' and not 'i'm here to listen and learn', i'd get some satisfaction-mileage out of the stumbles, as 'uncharitable' (ha ha) as that may be.

and damn, its's SO funny.

12:22 AM  
Blogger rabfish said...

i keep freakin' laughing at the image

12:25 AM  
Blogger Kalimba said...

Yes. Wow. Even if it had been a culturally sensitive gesture, who did she hope those children would see at the door, a human being or... giant, mutant puppets? Personally, the A&W Root Bear scared the crap out of me as a kid at that age, and that was at a distance.

Great and enlightening commentaries.

Congrats on the gig, PQ.

1:31 PM  

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