Archive for the ‘Race & Ethnicity’ Category

18 days.

Friday, February 11th, 2011


Click on CC for English subtitles
The graffiti behind the father and daughter reads "The streets belong to us"

My daughter was seven years old on September 11. For the past decade – i.e. the entirety of her childhood, the only one she'll ever get – she has had to endure taunts and slurs and snickers, or at best pinched "tolerance," about her ethnicity and her religion. She's handled it well and is actually quite articulate in countering the bias. But it's fatiguing, and over time she has distanced herself from her Arab Muslim background. I can't tell you how much this saddens me, but I know she's not alone in this reaction, I know her life needs to be more than an ongoing argument with other people's ignorance, and I've tried to give her space to work out who she is and how she identifies.

She turned seventeen this week, and it's a milestone. For the first time ever, I have seen her beaming, in that I told you guys all along way, whenever some only-sorta-follows-the-news American asks her, "Wait… aren't you Egyptian?"

شكرا يا مصر

Rethinking Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Alternative classroom approaches to teaching Thanksgiving

Race, religion, and Michael Jackson.

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

I'm kind of fascinated with the question of Michael Jackson's funeral, and whether or not it will be Muslim. Jermaine ended his press conference with "may Allah be with you" and now even Andrew Sullivan is posting about it.

Reports that Michael Jackson had converted to Islam created a minor buzz on Muslim blogs last fall, but I didn't hear much about it elsewhere. Part of me was okay with that: the guy had become so weird that I'm not sure he did Islam's image any favors. But most Muslim bloggers who talked about it reported it as a happy event and welcomed him into the fold, under his new name, Mikaeel Jibril. A few other articles came out a week or two later saying it was just a rumor: that Jermaine had converted in the '80s, but Michael never did. Both Yusuf Islam and Dawud Wharnsby Ali, who were supposedly present at said conversion, said it wasn't true. Michael himself neither confirmed nor denied the story, though he certainly must have been aware of it.

We'll never know. But I thought the silence outside of Muslim Blogistan was telling. There are more Black Muslims in the U.S. than there are Arab Muslims, their history here pre-dates immigrant Islam, and most of them are Sunni, not Nation of Islam. But in the media they are presented as exceptions, or at best as avid followers of Louis Farrakhan. The Islam of someone like Dave Chappelle is rarely mentioned, and Michael Jackson was probably likewise considered an outlier, as he was in so many other ways, so reports of his conversion were ignored, doubted, or dismissed as a stunt, despite the otherwise obsessive interest in his personal life. Thus the narrative of who counts as a "real" Muslim remains intact. A Pakistani man who kills his wife does so because the Qur'an told him to, but even during the height of the War On Terror the D.C. sniper — also Muslim — was slotted into the Violent Black Male category. Not a category that's any better, mind you, but evidence of the way both stereotypes are calcified. Black and Middle Eastern men are both dangerous, but for different reasons.

In contrast, there was the case of John Walker Lindh, a devout Muslim by about any standard you care to employ, but he was white, so the media treated him like a mixed-up boy-child from northern California who dabbled in terrorism because he was spoiled by his hippie parents. Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, a Black Muslim convert who killed an army recruiter in Arkansas, was not treated as part of a larger conspiracy until it was discovered that he'd traveled to Yemen, although he was charged with terrorism — unlike Scott Roeder, a white man who engaged in a different politically-motivated murder one day earlier. Roeder was described as mentally ill.

Michael Jackson's funeral won't answer any questions about his relationship with Islam, if there even was one. The need for an autopsy means he couldn't have been buried within 24 hours, and at any rate it's common among American converts to have mixed ceremonies. But the conversation still interests me.

Survey – Korean-American adoptees in Minnesota

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Via anti-racist parent:

Minnesota is home to the largest population of Korean-American adoptees in the country. MPR News wants to know what the 2012 end of international adoptions from South Korea means for these Minnesotans and their communities. Is this a victory? A defeat? Bittersweet? Are you expecting a change in your own community or its identity?

Respond

Open letter to white activists.

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

I find it curious that African-American women are all lazy unwed welfare-cheating baby-making machines and African-American men are all violent drug-abusing absentee fathers RIGHT UNTIL they are standing in the way of gay rights, at which point they become socially conservative homophobes who can't see past their religious family values. If you're going to scapegoat people of color for all the world's problems, at least make your stereotypes consistent, ya know? C'mon.

First of all, as other people have amply demonstrated, Prop 8 was not lost by people of color, despite what Dan Savage and a whole lot of other people think.

Brown People Did Not Pass Prop. 8

Propositioning Privilege: The reality is that white people are not being blamed as a racial group for the loss because of the sense that queer=white and there is no racial investment that would benefit from an argument that pathologized whiteness as inherently homophobic in the way that white privilege benefits from pathologizing blackness this way. This is a great, comprehensive look at how both sides of the Prop 8 campaign were handled.

Racialicious roundtable on Proposition 8

More links at Alas, A Blog

Furthermore, if it weren't for people of color most of the gay marriage bans still would have passed and McCain would have won the election in a landslide.

Even acknowledging this, I don't think it excuses the way No-on-8 campaign was run. I don't live in California, so I can't really speak to this outside of what I've seen on the internet, but I do want to say a few things about white Left movements, including but not limited to white queer movements, and how they (try to, sort of) do alliances with people of color. This has been brewing for me for a while now; it's not a new problem and I know other people reading this have thought about many of these things so forgive me if it comes off as repetitious or preaching to the choir. I think it still needs to be addressed.

1. Think about how you use civil rights imagery. There are parallels there, and they should be drawn, but to compare the passing of Prop 8 with lynching and Jim Crow disrespects Black history. Even the Loving decision, which is the most obvious parallel (and one Mildred Loving herself endorsed) had a profoundly different history than the history of gays and lesbians. Angry Black Woman discusses the background on that decision and how it was frankly not a huge priority during the civil rights era: So I have to wonder why the No on 8 people chose to present this as a parallel of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. To my mind, this helped trivialize their desire to marry, particularly among older blacks who remember when being able to marry white people was the least of their worries.

I think for white people the relationship is clear: if it was wrong to discriminate against relationships on the basis of race, it should likewise be wrong to discriminate against relationships on the basis of gender. But sexual 'relationships' between races had been going on for generations; what made Loving historic for a lot of people was that it was finally talking about such relationships in the context of mutual consent and agency for both partners — as opposed to systemic sexual violence against women of color by white men and the lynching of Black men perceived to be pursuing white women. It wasn't so much "yay! we get to marry white people! this is the best day of our lives!" :p Which is related to:

2. Think about how you talk about "sex" and "freedom." White people tend to think of consent as an individual thing. Did she, singular, say yes? They're not usually thinking of the three or four hundred years in which white men raped slaves and live-in domestic workers, or the women and girls today who are caught up in the sex trafficking industry. The right not to have sex was a lot harder to win than the right to have it, and I think a lot of folks (myself included) are skeptical of feminist/queer movements when they treat history as if it's all "our sex lives used to be so repressed and limited but hurray now we're free!" Add to that the number of Black men who've been falsely accused of raping white women, and there's an additional layer of reluctance to sign up for a cause that makes more cops the answer to sexual violence and invests a lot of energy in saving white women from all manner of discomfort while having little to say about the imprisonment of Black men for the most petty of crimes. Reluctance especially when, again, white movements treat sexual violence solely as an individual problem (one man raping one woman) rather than a community problem (one race or nationality being granted total sexual agency under the law and another race or nationality just hoping and praying to stay the hell out of their way).

3. Think about how you talk about Black churches. For many white gays and lesbians, the church is a place of repression and silencing, and one of the first institutions they are ready to abandon when they come into adulthood. But the church has played a different role in black communities — Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and many many other civil rights leaders tied their work to religious tradition. Black churches have been a powerful source of progressive organizing in communities of color, as well as a source of emotional and financial support for people who are struggling. I'm not saying there isn't more work to be done there, and I'm not saying religion played no role in getting people to support Prop 8. But to speak of African-American religiosity as if it's the same thing as your white neighbor's homophobic Bible-thumpin' Leviticus-quoting Rapture-believing denim-jumper-wearing young-earth anti-science women-get-back-in-the-kitchen 700 Club brand of Christianity is to shit on the people who brought you school desegregation and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black churches are potential allies, and indeed many religious leaders have already come out in favor of LGBT rights, but those alliances aren't going to get very far if white Leftists keep talking about them as if they are forces of institutionalized oppression when in reality their role in American history has been precisely the opposite.

4. Think about how you talk about your neighborhood. I'm not going to go into the whole history of gentrification except to note that it goes beyond where any one person decides to locate. It's about how you treat and speak about your community. Would the elderly want to live in your neighborhood? Not would they be welcome but would they actually want to? Would they have things to do? What about families with small children who are not part of your particular subculture or political community? Would you send your own kids to the local schools?

I know white Leftists and/or LGBT folks live all over the map and these issues aren't germane to everybody, but "building community" seems to be something we value and devote a lot of time to without thinking about the impact it has and the message it sends to people outside "our" (actually quite insular) community. I've seen this come up a LOT, not just around Prop 8 but in general when the possibility of POC/queer alliances comes up.

5. Think about how you talk about other people's neighborhoods. I saw a fair bit of No-on-8 people talking about their reluctance to canvass in "bad" areas. I am going to go out on a limb and guess these were pretty much all communities of color. As far as I can tell, the Yes-on-8 people weren't complaining about this. Now to some extent that's apples and oranges because queer and transgender people have different concerns about safety than straight people (even Mormons) do when they're walking around in unfamiliar territory, but those concerns apply in white neighborhoods as much or more so and I didn't hear anyone saying "I can't doorknock in the suburbs or they'll kill me." I know when I hear someone say they won't go into certain parts of the city, even someone else's city, I feel like a wall just went up between us — even if I'd previously seen this person as a friend or ally — because that's the kind of neighborhood I live in. And I'm white. So think about how that comes across. As others have said repeatedly in the past few days, the No campaign didn't ask for those votes, so it is disingenuous to express shock after the fact.

6. Queerness does not negate whiteness. Neither does communism, anarchism, or any other brand of radical politics. This one was hard for me when I was younger, because the force of what for the sake of brevity I'll call Mainstream SocietyTM was so strong that I saw all people who were any brand of "other" as natural allies. To an extent, there's value in that world view. In 1991 I went to a large demonstration in Chicago that was organized by CISPES, ACT UP, and the anti-war movement; the point was to solidify connections between groups that might otherwise seem disparate and single issue, to reject divide-and-conquer strategies of the Right, and to make sure our activist work was attentive to the interrelatedness of different forms of oppression.

But "interrelatedness" != "same as," and at some point I had to confront how my work on Issue X didn't give me an automatic pass on Issues Y and Z. Nor did it undermine the institutionalized benefits I'd received from growing up in a white family in a country where race matters very deeply. Over time I also realized how what I thought of as my "alternative" status was actually alienating to many people of color: that in many ways my flagrant disregard of Mainstream SocietyTM was the ultimate sign of white privilege. I could go around carrying a placard with my hair dyed three colors and clothes covered in safety pins, but if an African American woman my same age walked out of the house with so much as a rip on her sleeve or a scuff on her shoe she risked being pegged as a charity case and borderline illiterate. That was difficult for me to work out, because the way I presented myself wasn't just a fashion thing — it was a rejection of mainstream beauty standards for women and traditional notions of gender. Appearance and self-presentation were politicized for me. I'm not saying we should all go around in pantsuits and business casual and try to be as safe and non-threatening as possible when talking about politics (don't read me that way), nor am I saying there aren't people of color who are also concerned about how these issues intersect (don't read me that way either), but when I looked at this whole thing from the perspective of people who were already, inherently, considered suspect and outsiders, it made the issue much more complicated for me. I used to be all "get out there! mix shit up!" end of story. But when you can put on a suit and tie and put your daughter in her Girl Scout uniform and go to church to pray to Jesus and still lose your child in a directed attack because of who you are, it makes me a lot less critical of people who might be reserved about pushing the envelope, especially if they're expected to do it in solidarity with people who've never shown much solidarity with them. Which brings me to:

7. Acknowledge your debt. This goes back to #1 and #3 above. If you're going to present your issue (I'm thinking of Prop 8, but other stuff, too) as the outgrowth of the civil rights movement, then it seems smart to learn more about that movement and to get to know people who were involved in it. Civil rights weren't gifts from enlightened white people, nor were they just part of the natural progression of history. They were earned with blood. Don't be casual about that. Don't bring it up only in the context of how it relates to your issue(s). And if you are going to ask for people to support your issue on principle, not because it benefits them but because It's Just The Right Thing To Do, you might work harder to support their issues on principle, too. By "support" I don't mean "agree with it in my mind"; I mean get out there and ask where you can be of service. In the case of California, there were at least two ballot measures that directly affected minority communities. I saw very few white activists write about these, especially compared to the number of straight POC I saw writing about Prop 8. ladyjax writes more about this: When white people roll up on Black folks about being oppressors, there's some truth to it but that gets lost when people start to remember: 'Hmm, that rally for (immigration rights, education, housing, etc. etc.). I didn't see you there.' … Sometimes the fight isn't always about what you want but about reciprocation.

8. Stop assuming African-American support. Everything I'm saying here could fall under the umbrella of "don't take people of color for granted," but I wanted to say something specifically about what seems to be a common assumption — that African Americans, even more than other minorities and definitely more than white people, "should just understand" what gays and lesbians are going through "because it happened to them, too." First of all, as I (and many others) said above, the parallels between the two movements are not nearly as clear as they've been made out to be. Second, to make this an issue of understanding or the lack thereof, rather than resentment at being ignored and trivialized or pushed out of one's own neighborhood, isn't helpful. But most of all, it misses the mother of all points, which is that Prop 8, like most everything that sucks, is overwhelmingly about white money and white power. Even if they voted yes in higher percentages, African Americans are not more guilty than whites, who funded this thing and got it done. Black homophobia isn't especially galling because of their history in this country. White homophobia is especially galling because white conservatives have the resources and, my god, the energy to make defeating LGBT rights such a priority.

9. Stop assuming African-American NON-support. The flip side to the white liberal saying "there's no point in asking for African-American support because we know we already have it" is the white Leftist saying "there's no point in asking for African-American support because we know we'll never get it." Either because of beliefs about Black homophobia or (more charitably) beliefs about Black communities having more pressing priorities, it's still a reluctance to form alliances. Over and over again, at least in blogs, I've been seeing black and brown women saying "no one approached us" or "we weren't asked to help." These are women who voted no anyway (if they're Californian, or from one of the other states that had a ballot measure of this kind), but while doing so some have bitterly pointed out it's another sign that people of color are being treated as silent foot soldiers in a movement while white organizers take over the leadership.

10. Finally, there are queer people of color! I almost didn't include this because it seems too obvious to mention, but I don't want the fact that I am addressing a white audience right now to be taken as a sign that I'm ignoring queer POC or that I'm painting the queer movement as exclusively white. That's been another huge issue in this debate. (See Pam's House Blend post about the treatment of Black gay activists after Prop 8 passed, The N-bomb is dropped on black passersby at Prop 8 protests and ask yourself with friends like these….?) I have much more to say about this, especially as it relates to the treatment of Islam by gay and lesbian activists because that's where most of my attention goes anymore, but really it merits its own post.

What I will say is that I've read some excellent stuff lately (offline) about building alliances between queer communities and immigrants/people of color, and/or about addressing racism in queer organizing, and as much as I like it it still needles me that so much of it assumes an audience of white gays and lesbians, exclusively. Never straight people of color, and, well, the existence of LGBT people of color would ruin the whole argument so they're just left out altogether. The assumption seems to be that white people can be educated about race but queer POC come from backgrounds so hopelessly homophobic that their only choice is to try to assimilate into a white queer community (who will try to be "more sensitive" but will ultimately still control and define the community's agenda).

But when the argument is always framed that way — "I know y'all are good on gay and lesbian issues, but now let's talk about race" — well, just who are you talking to there? I did it myself above, without thinking about it, by linking to the CISPES web site (in case someone doesn't know what that is) but not bothering to link to ACT UP (because I assume anyone reading me has heard of that). That's what I'm talking about. So if you're trying to build alliances but are always assuming that your audience is already politicized around queer stuff but isn't politicized around race issues, you are implicitly communicating your exclusion of people for whom it works the other way around, or who have been prioritizing both things long before they ever stumbled across whatever you're on about at this moment. But again, a post in itself. This one's long enough.

Arab, Muslim, terrorist, whatever.

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

Pop quiz time!

The antonym of "Arab" is:

a) decent
b) family man
c) citizen
d) all of the above.

If you, like John McCain, answered "d," pat yourself on the back. You've just earned yourself some praise from unexpected corners — including much of the liberal blogosphere — for finally reining in the vitriol of your most rabid supporters. In this case? By agreeing with a woman in your audience that the word "Arab" is a slur. She pins the word on Obama; McCain says that's just not nice.

What's notable here is that McCain, like everyone in his audience, knew immediately where she was going with this. He knew that to "respect" Obama in this case meant to defend him from the (supposedly heinous) charge of being Arab, and he did this not by saying "actually his father's family is Luo, from Kenya…" but by calling Obama a decent family man, a moniker he apparently believes no Arab could claim.

Ana Marie Cox of Wonkette, who was present at the event in question, reports that the woman, Gayle Quinnell, said "Arab terrorist," which would render McCain's comment more defensible. But in the video there is no indication that Quinnell said "terrorist." She just said "Arab." Some have wondered if the word "terrorist" was inaudible. This might be true, but Quinnell keeps speaking after she says the word "Arab," before McCain reclaims the mike.

I am guessing Cox simply misremembered the exchange: that the words "Arab" and "terrorist" are so thoroughly linked by now that to make the former an adjective of the latter has become second nature.

Open letter.

Monday, April 7th, 2008

On Prisons, Borders, Safety, and Privilege: An Open Letter to White Feminists

Two movie reviews.

Monday, February 19th, 2007

1. I finally saw Out of Africa, 22 years after it came out. In the past, this was one of the few movies guaranteed to put me to sleep. I've tried to watch it at least three times and could never stay awake. This time I soldiered on because it came on tv, coincidentally, just as I was finishing the book.

The book was published in 1937 and is as racist and colonialist as one would expect. There is much talk of the Natives, and their charming Native habits, etc. What it wasn't, though, was sexist, and watching the movie I was up in arms at little things I wouldn't even have noticed had I not read the book (for the first time) and watched the movie (for the first time) both in the same week.

I am not one of those people who needs a perfect match between the book and the screenplay, and even if I were, Out of Africa wouldn't be one of the darlings I felt obligated to protect. I also realize that a movie is dependent on dialogue in a way a book is not, and having Meryl Streep sitting alone in her kitchen saying "I am observing something about the Maasai…" just wouldn't work.

BUT, the way they chose to handle this was to turn the movie into a romance between Streep and Robert Redford, and put the author's words into his mouth. That's right, he explaaains Kenya to her, in his rugged, been-there-done-that way, and she, the sheltered woman, nods sagely at his wisdom, with just enough intelligence (this being Streep, not Paris Hilton) for the viewer to think, "my, what a good, almost-equal partner she makes! he's so independent, but she's smart enough to appreciate him! what a well-matched couple!" — when in reality the things he's explaaaining, about Gikuyu history and big game hunting, are taken almost verbatim from the book, i.e. stolen from the female narrator. Those should have been Streep's lines, with Redford, if he had to be there at all, being the one to do all the intent listening, all the thoughtful nodding.

Moreover! Because they made it into a romance above all else, the movie was actually more racist than the book was, even though it was made 50 years later. Because they'd turned Streep into a woman who primarily pined for her man, alone out on the sweeping African hills (how poetic!), the myriad relationships Isak Dinesen had with Kenyans were written out. It's true she did have this lover who would come and stay with her every now and then, and I'm sure that was hot and everything, but most of her energy was spent trying to make her farm work and on interacting with people who weren't out on safari ten months a year. Although her relationships with Kenyans were deeply problematic in a colonial context, at least those relationships _existed_, and took up a good portion of her attention and thus a good portion of her ink.

In the movie, however, she's got a couple of African servants or something, whatever — cut to a shot of her on her porch! wind in her hair! wishing her white boyfriend would come home and kiss her on the mouth. Both of them are portrayed as outsiders among the other colonials, which was true in the memoir as well, but making Redford the leading man (as opposed to occasional visitor) forces whatever knowledge he's acquired of the culture and the landscape to be packaged as evidence of his rugged independence, rather than evidence of things he's learned from the Kenyans, and because Streep's the girl and can't out-independent him, her relationships are even more superficial. There's no room for African characters in that set-up, at least none with any background, history, complexity, or expertise in anything that would outshine Redford. So they mostly plant coffee and sweep floors and do things in large mobs.

2. I also saw World Trade Center. From the trailer, I thought it would be a sappy sentimental ode to cops and firefighters, and how surprising would that be, because that's not anything I've heard before in relation to 9/11. Instead it was a disaster movie about some heavy stuff that fell on these two guys.

Link o' the day:

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

How to Suppress Discussions of Racism

This is great, not only as it applies to racism but as it applies to the whole endeavor of cultural criticism and the politics of representation.

Ranty, circa 1989.

Sunday, June 18th, 2006

In "The stupid things people say to prove they are comfortable with race," The Happy Feminist addresses one of my pet peeves — that of a white person hearing about another white person (including historical, long-dead white people) slighting a person of color and responding with something like "As a white person, I apologize for that person's stupidity," or "Things like this make me really embarrassed to be white."

I understand it's done with the best of intentions, but it's always jarring. Mainly because it whips the focus off the incident in question and straight onto the white person's need to be praised for not wearing a sheet on their head. Online these comments can be ignored, but in real life the person of color is usually expected to find a socially gracious way of assuring the white person that it's fine, I know it's not YOU, some people are just assholes, whatever, because to express anything that looks like shock or outrage might make the white person standing next to them feel implicated, and god forbid we can't have that.

It also assumes some automatic affinity between All White People Everywhere, or at least the white person's assumption that people of color believe this is true. I'm not talking about the fact that all white people benefit from race-based privilege. I'm saying that when you say you're sorry as a white person, as opposed to sympathizing generally, you're giving yourself permission to deny and dismiss the other person's reaction because after all, you speak for All White People Everywhere, and it's up to you to decide what people of color are and are not allowed to be upset about. Now that you've apologized for everything from a single racist slur to the entire history of European colonialism, we should put the past behind us and get on with the peace and love. I understand the need to recognize the ways in which one's own experiences influence one's view of the world, and to that end bringing up one's own race is appropriate in lots of other conversations, but mentioning it in the context of someone else's pain feels less like "I am recognizing my privilege" and more like "I'll always be white and usually that's super great. Sorry it sucks for you. Now let's move on."

See also when men's first reaction to hearing about something like rape or sexual harassment is to remind women that "not all men are like that." The man thinks he's saying "I don't condone what that other man did," which is a noble (though I'd hope obvious) gesture, but what I hear is "get over your anger, get back with the program, don't let this one isolated incident lead you to start questioning sexism to the point where I have to suffer in any way." Alternate translation: "That guy's a dick. Fuck/flatter/serve/flirt with me instead."

I know I'm not saying anything new here, but what year is this? and I'm still seeing versions of these comments come up in blogs over and over again. I think many men would be surprised to learn how OFTEN women hear this, and how quickly those relationships ("the good ones," right?) turn manipulative and even violent when the man perceives the woman as not making enough of an effort to "put her anger behind her," or at least to only and always mention it in the context of that one specific incident. And the truth is most women DON'T see all men as evil predators, but it's also rather exhausting to remind individual men "I was raped – I know you didn't do it – and I had bruising on my thighs – I know you didn't put them there – so I went to the hospital – I know you would have been great, just perfect, had you been there for me – and they did an exam – yes I remember you went to that 'Men Stopping Rape' conference that one time, that's fabulous " –you can see how this isn't really the way a person would normally tell a story about trauma, right? How it inserts an additional burden into what is already a trying experience?

And heaven forbid the woman/person of color DOES start to talk, even a little bit, about the ways in which sexism or racism in general contributed to their experience, because now the conversation is going to have to be all about why their listener is The Exception and how he's been dicked around by life too you know.

Not to imply these conversations are inherently impossible. The question is, are you focused on the pain and frustration this person is feeling? Or is your main concern the PR damage that misogynists inflict on men as a group, or the damage that overt racists inflict on white people as a group? The second reaction is understandable, but it indicates you have greater loyalty to your demographic than you do to the person in front of you, and expecting that person to stop and help you through YOUR pain at being associated with something you didn't do is (literally) insult to injury.

More on that other stuff.

Thursday, August 14th, 2003

My friend Dave posted this entry about Rachel Corrie on a BBS I used to be on. I thought the responses were interesting, especially Bob's argument that there can be no such thing as using privilege strategically (I don't agree, but I'm willing to discuss it) and Kali's bit re: "a Leftist life is not as highly valued by the U.S. Administration as, say, a Christian evangelical's."

Reposting:

Aug 6, 2003 21:13 from Bob
I really reject this idea that Corrie "gave her life" or even risked it. The
reaction from her companions was utter shock. I don't think that leftists went
to Spain and were shocked when Franco's troops tried to kill them. The whole
point of the privilege, and asserting it, was that it was supposed to
innoculate them against any actual mortal danger. The whole mission was to
stand there between the IDF and Palestinians because they were sure that the
IDF would not harm Western foreigners.

I also think that this is a very significant difference between what the left
was and what the left is. There is a narcissism about, and an idealism (in the
philosophical sense, not the moral sense), and they are corrosive.

"Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound
authoritative without conveying any authoritative information." (Christopher
Lasch) What is important is appearance, because appearance is what is regarded
as reality. As a metaphysical speculation this is good fun. As a basis for
political acts it is reckless.
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Aug 6, 2003 23:35 from Fleep
I don't know that I agree with that, Bob. Beyond the sense of invulnerability
that most young people have (what? I can't be killed! I'm only 21!), I don't
doubt for a minute that the people you're talking about felt mortal danger.
How could you not, with bullets whizzing and death all around you?

Perhaps there was shock at a blatant act against them, but I can't believe that
the risk was unreal to them.
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Aug 7, 2003 0:49 from Thufir
Even green soldiers get shocked the first time a platoon buddy of theirs gets
it in the chest. I'm not buying this argument that being shocked implies they
hadn't evaluated their odds.
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Aug 7, 2003 6:53 from Dawdle
One of the links in the original was this:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,916299,00.html

Those are Rachel Corrie's letters home from between 2/7 and 2/28/03. I think
she pretty clearly realized the danger she was in. You can see a very apparent
shift in the way she sees that danger coming closer in just the course of those
3 weeks.
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Aug 7, 2003 10:58 from Bob
Dawdle> I don't see anything to tell me that she feared for her life in those
letters – quite the opposite.

"You just can't imagine it unless you see it – and even then you are always
well aware that your experience of it is not at all the reality: what with the
difficulties the Israeli army would face if they shot an unarmed US citizen,
and with the fact that I have money to buy water when the army destroys wells,
and the fact, of course, that I have the option of leaving."

Her recognition of her "white privilege" is also explicit.

"We could probably make it through [an IDF checkpoint] if we made serious use
of our international white person privilege, but that would also mean some risk
of arrest and deportation, even though none of us has done anything illegal."

Fleep> The whole point of their being there was to be invulnerable. Their
whole mission to Palestine was based on their inviolability. If they were
there to be shot and get run over, what is the point? That (Thufir) is why the
ISM people who spoke just after the incident were so shocked, not out of some
sudden realization that the danger is real. One member put it in very clear
terms:

"[IDF soldiers] "have shot over our heads, and shot near our feet–they have
fired tear gas at us. But we thought we had an understanding. We didn.t think
they would kill us." (Michael Shaik of the ISM)

(Her letters also show the frustration with the situation that leads to
flirtation with not-so-nonviolent reactions.)

I also think that the dynamic changed in March, both in the ISM and the IDF.
Tom Hurndall, who was shot in the head, seems to have recognized the danger,
and wrote that "it is on the decision of any one Israeli soldier or settler
that my life depends." He was shot in clearly dangerous circumstances – heroic
circumstances. His killing is also a far clearer case of IDF misbehaviour (the
total absence of his name from pro-Israel sources is telling evidence). Of
course, he was not the first one killed, so he is not as famous.
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Aug 7, 2003 11:31 from Doktor Nil
I think Laura addressed all of Bob's interesting points in the original essay
that started this conversation, better than I could. So I won't try. I think
they are already answered by the original essay, and I don't see anything in
Bob's posts explaining why Laura's points are incorrect or mistaken, frankly.
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Aug 7, 2003 11:57 from Dawdle
And Bob did exactly what I feared he would do. It was easy enough to recognize
a couple of choice quotes that I figured might be posted here. I think anyone
who reads the full thing should have a clear sense that her life was in danger
and that she was well aware of that fact. She pretty well stated that fact. The
fact that she was also aware of her privilege doesn't negate that. She didn't
call it "international white immunity from danger".
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Aug 7, 2003 16:31 from Thufir
Sounds to me more like they were trying to talk themselves into bravery, as
opposed to thinking that their White Privilege would be their stalwart shield.
When you are a stranger in a strange land with a war going on, I think it
natural to try and convince yourselves that the combatants aren't shooting at
you specifically. Doing this convincing and rationalizing is not the same as
believing yourself invincible or not in danger.
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Aug 7, 2003 17:57 from Kali
Partially agreeing with Laura's essay, I really like her point about
privilege as "a series of dynamic, lived experiences, ones that result from
social relations specific to time and culture."

However, I wonder if, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian horror, national
identity occupies as crucial a role as race – Or that race and nation are
entwined in such a way that another read of the ISM/Rachel Corrie is as
probable, one that focuses as much on the naturalizing of "citizenship" as on
the making immutable of white privilege.

I know she addressed nationality briefly, but the whole goyim concept is such
a nicely rabidly nationalist one that I was moved to gush a little…

Perhaps until recently, there was enough fear/respect/trepidation in the
Israeli government about the harming of foreign nationals that they avoided
it. Of course that it was white people from Northern nations wouldn't hurt…

But I want to put the argument out there that it's as much an issue of how
the United States government feels its nationals should act in other
countries, and/or the American public's perception of Americans in other
places, and that there has been a shift in attitude about what the fate of
especially leftist Americans should be outside the country – And perhaps that
is another thing Israel is responding to.

Yes, I believe a Leftist life is not as highly valued by the U.S.
Administration as, say, a Christian evangelical's life is. Please try to
prove me wrong. I don't have the background or expertise to pinpoint when it
seemed to have gotten worse, but I can illustrate my perceptions briefly.

For example, for Gulf War II, the folks of "Voices in the Wilderness" who
went over as human shields, were savagely vilified on the radio, on network
TV, etc. because we were supposed to perceive them as aides to Saddam (for
some reason). Unless I'm misremembering, the level of outcry against
American human shields in Iraq was a lot less loud (or less visible) for the
first Gulf War.

We (in the collective "we") don't seem to care as much about protecting the
rights of U.S. citizens protesting on U.S. soil. Perhaps that goes double for
people trying to lend their support, in a more internationalist way, to
conflicts around the world.

What does Laura think??
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Aug 7, 2003 20:29 from Cpk
No, you're not off base at all. In Gulf War I, most protestors were simply
ignored–with perhaps the occasional grumble at their temerity. Attacks
against leftist have taken on a whole new level of shrill demonization. And
it's not been a gradual thing, either–it's really ramped up since 9/11, as if
the right-wing suddenly realized that this was its big chance to rid itself of
the Left forever. A|\||\| <0u1173rr has explicitly said as much. [Godless Pinko Commie Leftists> msg #2850 (6 remaining)] Read cmd -> Next

Aug 7, 2003 20:31 from Cpk
[and, by the way, I don't think Ann Coulter is loonier than the rest of the
right. Sadly, she is solidly within the mainstream of right-wing politics,
though other right-wingers have had to move some distance to catch up with
her.]
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Aug 8, 2003 4:20 from Dawdle
I think Coulter is slightly loonier than the rest of the right, but that's more
based on the fact that I think she's actually insane rather than on her
politics. Politically, I don't think she's that much further to the right than
your average neo-con. I think 80% of the outrageous stuff she says (liberals
are traitors, McCarthy was unnecessarily demonized, etc) are things that most
conservatives believe, but won't say.
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Aug 8, 2003 10:15 from Bob
Dawdle> I can only read what is actually there on the page. I am assuming that
these letters (which were never intended for publication) are frank and honest
and don't need much interpretation.

Thufir> (broken record time) The ISM's entire mission was predicated on their
firm belief that the combattants would not – could not – shoot at them.This is
what makes it a "human _shield_" thing, and not a "human target" thing.

DN> I agree with most of the essay, but I think it does not go far enough.

If Corrie is a hero to you, so be it. A rehash of the incident is not
interesting. We can all read the various accounts.

What I was actually hoping to get at was the "air of authenticity" as ascendant
over "authenticity" (that is, appearances over truth), and how that has
affected the left (which I try to remember is supposed to be about dismantling
arbitrary power in favour of something more rational).

Using the ISM as an example, you can see that the program that they use depends
upon not only the belief in the immutability and universality of one's own
hierarchies, but the maintenance of those beliefs. I do not think that there
is "a place for recognizing unmerited advantages in order to … use them
strategically on behalf of those without such advantages". Doing that cannot
but reinforce those unfair advantages.
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Aug 8, 2003 14:06 from Doktor Nil
I'm not sure the ISM ever used the phrase 'human shield.' If they did, I think
it's a stupid phrase too (although maybe you don't). I think the mission of
the ISM is, at its base, simply predicated on the idea that sympathetic foreign
nationals willing to take a risk can be of help _somehow_ to the struggle for
Palestinian rights, by being in Israel/Palestine. Their _strategy_, at least
for a while, was indeed predicated on the idea that these foreign nationals
would be _less_ likely to be shot at by Israeli troops, and that if they were
shot (at) it would get significant publicity, of a helpful sort.

Less likely does not mean impossible. Now that it's obvious that ISM folks are
in fact _quite_ likely to be shot at (and sometimes shot), if perhaps still not
as likely as a Palestinian (especially one doing similar work), perhaps the ISM
strategy ought to change. That's something for the ISM to decide, succesfully
or not. That doesn't mean that their _mission_ needs to change. The fact that
the ISM still exists, and still has no trouble getting members/volunteers (it
does have trouble getting htese people into Israel or Palestine), seems to
indicate that their mission is _not_ predicated upon some kind of
invulnerability. Becuase it is now quite obvious that they enjoy no such
invulnerability. Yet they continue.

We've had the discussion before about "recognizing unmerited advantages in
order to use them strategically (for godo)." I know we disagree. I don't
entirely understand your position. Do I understand correctly taht you suggest
the only ethical behavior is in fact to ignore something that you really know
to exist, to pretend it does not exist, or to refuse to take account of it in
planning your strategy? I think that if you want to struggle to win, you need
to take a cold hard look at what _actually is_ and plan strategies accordingly.
You don't do anyone any favors by intentionally deceiving yourself or
pretending the world is other than it is. Now, true, some strategies are to be
judged unethical, and avoided. You apparently believe the ISM's strategy(ies)
to be unethical, although I honestly still do not understand why. What I hear
you saying is not that their strategies are unethical because of the actions
undertaken, but that they are unethical if they were formed with an awareness
of the the way the world actually is; that no strategy is ethical unless it
completley ignores real world 'unmerited advantages.'
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Aug 9, 2003 12:53 from Bob
Let's get away from the ISM for a minute.

Using a corrupt system to produce good results can be admirable. But that is
not to say that doing so does not perpetuate a context in which a broader
justice cannot result.

The film "Blaze" has an excellent scene (fictionalized, possibly apocryphal)
where Huey Long recieves a visit from a black civil rights organization that
tells him that there are qualified physicians and nurses who go without work
because they are black. So, Long decides pay a surprise visit a state hospital
with this gaggle of lawyers in tow. The administrator of the hospital gives a
tour, but Long demands to see the colored wards. Upon visiting the colored
wards he feigns shock – "Do you mean to tell me that we have these fine white
doctors and nurses waiting hand and foot on colored folk?" And he orders the
administrator to hire some black doctors and nurses to replace them.

He's used segregation and gutter racism to achieve a noble goal – he, in 1950's
Louisiana, has put black physicians to work, and for the state. But he didn't
do a hell of a lot to get rid of segregation – he actually reinfoced it by the
appeal to its principles.
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Aug 10, 2003 9:07 from Slit
That's an excellent analogy and I agree with your larger point. Where it breaks
down for me is that I can't equate the employment of physicians with teh
emergency situation that is Gaza.

I realize this is a slippery slope and everyone has to decide for themselves
where they're willing to draw the line. Personally I hate sorority girl charity
and Save the Children because they do nothing to undermine structural problems.
But I don't put Rachel Corrie in that category. The fact that Palestinians
_requested_ Americans perform that role, in their capacity as citizens from the
country funding the occuaption, goes a long way with me, as does the fact that
this was a quote-unquote policy that worked for more than a dozen years. It
was one of the better examples of _coalition_ activism I've seen, actually, its
miscalculations notwithstanding.
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Race, Rachel Corrie, Dinesh D'Souza, and cultural appropriation.

Wednesday, August 6th, 2003

I very much liked this entry about Rachel Corrie. Almost immediately after her murder people were saying her case was "only getting attention because she was American," which would have bordered on a useful analysis if 1) her case really did get a lot of attention (it didn't), 2) the Palestinian conflict had been some secret unheard-of issue until SHE was killed in it (it wasn't), 3) Palestinian activists had by and large been annoyed that she was hogging the spotlight (they most emphatically were not), and/or 4) she'd been some random tourist gunned down by accident (in which case her citizenship really would serve as the ONLY newsworthy aspect of the story).

It's #3 that interests me most, because I've been thinking about cultural appropriation lately, and wondering when, exactly, "solidarity" crosses the line into "co-opting someone else's movement," and, alternatively, when the fear of co-opting someone else's movement becomes a convenient excuse for NIMBY politicking and a general lack of engagement with systems of oppression that don't impact one personally. The more I try to look at this from an outsider's perspective (European & Arab, because that's what I know best) the more the fact that this is even the concern (obsession?) that it is in the United States is — I want to say "cool" but I'll leave it with "interesting." Because in Europe I have found this xenophobic thing going on wherein "oh dear, am I overly interested in the Zapatistas?" probably just doesn't arise as a pressing issue, and Arabs, in my experience, have been far more likely to interpret a lacklustre commitment to, say, the Palestinian cause as evidence of lack of interest at best and complicity with The Man at worst, rather than as "respectful distance." I've tried to explain the cultural appropriation fear to Middle Eastern friends who haven't lived in the U.S. and I swear, they think I'm making it up and ask me if I'm Jewish. Of course this doesn't apply to everybody everywhere and that view certainly has problems of its own, but it's at least indicative of the the fact that "I'm afraid of speaking for you" is not a dominant concern with everyone on the globe.

But this has emerged as big issue within American leftish groups, and I've been thinking about why that is. For one thing there's the problem of cheap and crude materialism, e.g. Elvis, or people who think Madonna invented 'vogue' as a verb. (I'd argue that Eminem doesn't fall into that category, but that's a diatribe for a different day.) Then there's the irritation that you feel when you waste time and energy defending something only to have it go mainstream in 10 years, e.g. someone gets fired for wearing dreadlocks but later they show up in Cosmo on white girls – how trendy! – or you're a lesbian who lost your kids over being out, and now that they're grown up and you missed out on raising them you see that it's hip to be queer, especially temporarily, rockthefuckon, you-go-grrrl etc. Even if you intellectually know that the problem isn't, technically, with the people who are embracing whatever it is you suffered for, but rather with those who made you suffer in the first place, it's hard to be gracious about someone else's superficial commitment to something you were totally dicked over for Back In The Day. And then there's also — and I think this is the crux of it — the fact that embracing the aesthetics of queer/black/Hopi is not the same thing as fighting the oppression of those communities, and can in fact go hand in hand with oppressing them. It's why the phrase "I have lots of black friends!" is so irritating — because no one ever says that unless they're arguing something racist and claiming to do it ON BEHALF OF African-Americans. In the specific case of the Middle East, "learning" about "the Arabs" was often done with the explicit intent of collecting information for the British.

But even Edward Said, who literally wrote the book on this, has argued like a broken record for the need to solidify connections with the Western (specifically American) Left. Reading his stuff in the Egyptian press is almost funny because he's constantly introducing the idea that there really is a non-imperialist contingent of Americans who are receptive to the idea of Palestinian autonomy, to the notion that Muslims != terrorists, to the idea that the U.S. military is overbloated and does more harm than good — presumably to an audience who doesn't hear much of this. He's as aware as anyone of the fact that American aid to Israel is the great enabler of the occupation, and when he's not writing for the Egyptian press he's writing for the Americans in an attempt to convince them of such. All that effort does not sit well with the notion that he believes members of Group X are inherently, by virtue of their citizenship or ethnicity incapable of studying or advancing the cause of Group Y, and in fact he's criticized those who've read him that way.

Which brings me back to Rachel Corrie, and the attack on her motives. First there was the "why would someone be so naive?" argument. I can almost dismiss that because it comes from those who were never invested in the Palestinian cause in the first place; when they say "why would she be so naive?" what they usually mean is "why would a perfectly good WHITE AMERICAN (i.e. a person who matters) give her life for some dumb shit overseas (i.e. for people who don't matter)? She deserved what she got." Calling her naive allows her detractors to retain some air of authenticity, i.e. "no, really, I would do that, if I thought it would help" without actually engaging the issue or investing any personal commitment to its outcome. This is not to say that anyone with a sufficient commitment to Palestine should and would have gone off and joined the International Solidarity Movement specifically, but rather that people who have a longstanding interest in human rights and who can understand her motives are not, by and large, the same people spewing the "dumb bitch" argument.

But I take more seriously the charge of a sort of racism in her actions, that she was "relying" on her "white privilege" to "save her" and that this is some kind of zero-sum game where mourning her necessitates not-mourning Palestinians who've died under similar (or harsher) circumstances.

My problem with this is that Rachel Corrie was an activist who by her own admission was well aware that she could be killed for actions, that if she wasn't it would be because the Israelis were too afraid of media attention in the West and not because they Loved Her Personally, that this was a racist policy, and, most importantly, that, under the circumstances, Palestinians were using Israeli racism strategically by aligning themselves with her organization. That last bit is where I think there's no great honor in dismissing her murder because of her nationality. Her death got more attention in the West than that of most individual Palestinians' did, but it didn't get a lot, and obviously Israel guaged that reaction and realized that mowing over American and European activists would save more trouble than it created; this has been a blow to the Palestinian movement. I remember back in the late 80's and early 90's the presence of even one non-Arab American or European with a video camera was enough to stop the bulldozers. Does that make their presence the be-all and end-all of the movement, i.e. "thank god! you saved us!"? Of course not, but a collective movement is by definition collective and there was definitely a role here for so-called outsiders. Palestinians knew this and to some extent relied on it. Rachel Corrie's death and the corresponding lack of outrage surrounding it eroded that role, which is where, in strictly concrete terms, the battle cry that "we only know her name because she's an American, *eyeroll*" has done absolutely nothing to help the Palestinian cause.

There is, however, the need to divorce concrete privilege from psychological privilege. I'm struggling for language on this one, but I've become increasingly bothered by the 'existential snobbery' (term coined by my husband when I was going on about this :)) that comes with declarations of 'white privilege.' It's one thing to acknowledge the ways privilege, racial or otherwise, permeates one's existence; to recognize that the fact that you don't burn crosses on people's lawns doesn't mean you weren't raised with racist stereotypes, that you didn't absorb these messages subconsciously, and that you didn't benefit from other people's racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or imperialistic conquests) even if you didn't actively solicit such benefits.

But there comes a point when recognizing this privilege leads to its own form of racism (or sexism, or heterosexism, or imperialism); when one believes one's "privilege" is so entrenched as to be immutable, and, most arrogantly, the corresponding belief that one's own hierarchies are shared by everyone on the planet.

That first link above addresses this with regard to Zionism. "In the eyes of Zionists, you are not Americans or Britons or Australians. In the last analysis, you are goyim." Whether Zionists believe they are "above" or "below" goyim is almost beside the point. What matters is that it's a great example of a group operating under a different system of categorization, and it sheds light on the myriad limitations of wow-am-I-ever-privileged as an organizing principle, much less as a psychological framework. While there is a place for recognizing unmerited advantages in order to renounce them or use them strategically on behalf of those without such advantages, there's also the danger of repeating the "I'm privileged!" mantra enough in hopes of making it true. (And here I have a vision of a Sensitive New Age Guy putting down a book of Freud's and apologizing to his wife for his oh-so-powerful-penis, to which she answers, uh, don't worry about it, you ain't all that.)

It's the immutable part that bothers me. This idea that privilege is a 'state of being' rather than a series of dynamic, lived experiences, ones that result from social relations specific to time and culture. The problem with announcing one's privilege as a static state — together with a fear of appropriation — is that it fixes a system of categorization that leaves no space for oppressed/non-privileged groups to be seen as authentically talented, objectively powerful, "winners" with or without a level playing field. I remember being told as a child that I was a good artist "for my age" and being so offended by the qualifier — I'm good period, dammit! You're the one who can't draw a stick figure without screwing it up.

It's within this framework that, when the overt racist argues against "dwelling" on slavery, the multiculturalist argues in favor of studying it "so that African-Americans will feel included in the curriculum" rather than arguing that the study of slavery and those who defied it is integral to the macro-study of war, economics, and power relations, topics that are at the heart of, say, the study of the Roman Empire. Making "African-Americans feel included in the curriculum" is a nice goal, I guess, but not when it comes with the implicit assumption that the history of people of color is only useful as a niche subject for people who swing that way when in fact it is a fundamental part of American history.

On a global scale, Islamic civilization was the center of the world for hundreds of years, and I can't get past the role this fact played on September 11. On the one hand I'm opposed to any world view that gives primacy to whoever was on top at any given period, as though those with the power did and therefore should control the universe, but on the other hand I can see where Muslims, particularly those in the Middle East, take particular offense to the view that a country like the U.S. — which has only achieved global dominance in the last 60 years — has the audacity to go flitting around the world doling out advice. And in that context it really doesn't matter if it's someone from USAID telling you you need to initiate a structural adjustment program in order to qualify for a loan or if it's a lefty college student saying "I apologize for all my privilege! Man, am I ever a dick!": it's still some asshole who thinks they're all that giving YOU, the civilization who invented agriculture, who translated the Greeks for the Chinese and vice versa, who initiated the Renaissance in Europe and essentially saved civilization as we know it, advice on how to live.

So while I like and agree with the strategic use of concrete privilege initiated by Rachel Corrie and her cohorts — it was a policy that worked for over a decade, after all — the way the left speaks about privilege generally makes me uncomfortable.

Conservatives like Dinesh D'Souza are capturing this sentiment and selling it in an ahistorical framework, ala "There! We've got Oprah! Racism's over! Everybody go home now!" This is appealing to rich white guys for all the obvious reasons, but there's also a contingent of historically oppressed groups who are the political equivalent of me back in elementary school saying my drawings were good period, sick of white people (or men, or the American War Machine, whatever) approaching them as though they are quaint museum artifacts rather than communities with expertise to be shared. As one friend told me recently, "In order not to be a steoretypical, consumerist New Ager, I didn't proactively try to learn about other cultures." I went through the same thing with all things Native American, to the point where what I'm left with veered way past "respect" and straight into "ignorance." After all, if I'm not going to the source looking for information about this part of American history (and, for that matter, this part of American present), then what I'm left with is whatever I crap I get from FOX News. 😛 Yet it shouldn't be either/or.

Several of the (male) authors in this book I keep talking about, _Progressive Muslims_, say that their ideology was informed by feminist scholarship, to the extent that it turned them around on seemingly unrelated-to-women issues in Qur'anic interpretation. This is 2003. When I was in school my male professors were "sensitive to" feminist critiques. And that was nice; it was better than the only alternative back then (early 90s), which was to make jokes about Hairy-Legged Bra-Burners (and here I'd use one of those little 'TM' symbols if I knew how to make them), but "informed by" and "influenced by" are so much better than "sensitive to." Trouble is, you can't be authentically "influenced by" if you're not willing to admit that the tradition you've inherited — the one you label your "privilege" — might not be all it's cracked up to be.