Monday, August 12, 2013

What Majority Culture People Need To Ask When Involved in Social Justice Activism

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan
For those of us from the majority culture that are involved in issues of social justice, it is important that we examine our motivations for why we seek to advocate for the marginalized and oppressed. Without even realizing it, we can possibly do the right things for the wrong reasons.

Over on the Ethnic Space blog, Daniel Fan offers three questions for us to consider in our social justice involvement. He says this:
"Justice is a potentially simple concept, but the transition from theory to practice can be extremely complicated and fraught with danger. It is entirely possible to enact injustice or oppression while attempting to do justice
Here are three simple questions you can ask in order to quickly analyze any social justice pitch:
  • Whose story is being told?
  • Who is telling the story?
  • If they are different people or parties, why is one telling the other’s story? 
The first question is used to determine the propriety of story. We are narratives: humanity was spoken into existence. There is no more innate resource to us than our own stories. 
The second question is employed to determine the identity of the story teller. Who is getting the most airtime? Who’s doing the talking? Whose voice are we hearing most of the time? Is the narrative autobiographical or someone interpreting the story for the audience? 
I ask the final question because this is where imperialism, theft, co-option, paternalism, and condescension tend to be revealed. “Being a voice for the voiceless” is a common theme within the American social justice meta-narrative. But as Brittany Ouchida succinctly summarizes: “The oppressed do not need voice; they need an audience.” No one is inherently voiceless, but the first act of oppressions like colonialism is usually to silence their subjects. 
Speaking for someone, particularly without their permission, frequently and easily becomes its own form of oppression. There are laws that protect against the misuse of a famous person’s image or likeness for commercial endorsement. Unfortunately, the impoverished rarely have the monetary resources to sue for life-rights-&-likeness violations in US courts.  Use Johnny Depp’s face to sell your lemonade? Get sued. Use an “anonymous” third-world toddler’s face to pimp your charity? Get funded. All people are made in Creator’s image. To put our image before and over someone else’s is equal parts blasphemy and idolatry. 
It’s true that we in the West have the technology and infrastructure to project messages to the rest of the world. But do we have to be that message at the same time? Power can be and often is accumulated. It can be, but is rarely given away. Does it really take a white man to travel to Africa to voice an African’s story? Why can’t the people of Africa tell their own stories? We can be camera operators and post-production, but do we have to be screenwriter, star and director as well? And whose narrative does it become when the camera spends most of its time on the white man who is making the film?"
As a white man seeking to make a positive difference in the lives of those on the margins of our world, Fan's questions are a sobering and needed reminder for me.

You can read the rest of his challenging post here.

1 comment:

Patrice Holmes said...

Wow powerful Scott! Thx for sharing and staying relavant and sensitive to these issues of race!