Wednesday, March 02, 2005

RE: Moe, liberalism, self-defined positionality

To Mr. Moe's credit, he was trying to bare the situation of white privilege by exposing his own privilege in a white supremacist Mississippi society. In the process of doing so, he 1) equated northern "liberalism" with antiracism and did his own with soutern "conservatism", 2) was more eloquent and outspoken than the other two speakers, and 3) failed to provide a critical analysis of what his own experience of privilege meant. (his stories were provided as self-explanatory tales of a racism/antiracism divide).

In her keynote speach, Joy James indicated that people liken to dissociate themselves from structures of power just in order to present themselves as the "good people". She says:

once you locate racism in the south, it’s very easy for whites in the north to just sit and blame everything to the southerners. they don’t have to do anything, they “become antiracist” for the sole fact of not being located in the south. (James, Democracy and Captivity. )

This process of assigning all blame upon "a small minority" (or a majority, for that matter), that is "part of us but a different faction" has been going on for quite a while. During Lincoln's times, it's northerners blaming "racist" southerners to let those slaves work in northern factories; then it's "liberals" blaming "conservatives" of racism so that they can get black votes (the entire "south" voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1963); then it's "democrats" blaming "republicans"; then it's "progressives" blaming "liberals/democrats"; when well-meaning white american volunteers go abroad and get criticized by the natives, they take offense and claim that they are "just trying to help, unlike the U.S. government". Thus I disagree with this statement:

I think though it goes well to illustrate the "white liberal" Biko (and Malcolm X) said had to stop speaking for blacks. Moe's intentions were good, but misplaced;

It's a continuous process of passing on the blame to another group that is not my own, and trying to dissociate myself from "them". As a Jamaican student got offended last year when I criticized all international students claiming that we all were "elites", I'll stick to talking about myself here and try not to generalize, but sometimes I can't help it.

When Ricardo Levins Morales ( ) and Vijay Prashad said during Diversity Weekend that "your identity is shaped by your politics", I don't think they were trying to say "your [racial] identity is shaped by you voting green", or that it's all OK once you align yourself with a certain political thought. I think there is a pervasive atmosphere at Macalester of trying to claim all that is good for myself based on a few disperse thoughts I hold in my head, and that I can never become part of an oppressive system because I hold those thoughts disregarding praxis and/or my own social upbringing.

In that context, I think Alex Flores's observation that "I got to asking a classmate if (s)he had any grandparents, and they responded no.", that is, imagining my persona as a free floating spirit in a historicosocial void, is opportune and points to a problematic issue. Heck, even nazis had good intentions, they were trying to "make the world a better place", weren't they?

The goal of passing on the blame seems to be an effort to gain some sort of moral standing against those whose political ideas I don't support. Thus, if I support policies X and Y, and I want to make the point that the person I debate regarding those policies is wrong because they are morally (or politically?) flawed against my own ideas, I just need to chunk policies X and Y together with antiracism and give a name to the package: it can be called "liberalism", "progressivism" or whatever. Then, it will follow, I am taking a moral stand in terms of race, something very courageous of me as a white person, and I win the argument.

When I think of my own positionality as a non-resident alien, male, upper class korean student from a third world country, I think of my grandmother's privileged social position in Pyungyang during the japanese imperial occupation of the peninsula, my grandfather's education in a "high school" (a rarity in the early 20th century) and posterior chances at tertiary education in Tokyo, his involvement with the southern korean navy during the north-south war and his contacts with the U.S. army (described in the popular imagination as essentialistically white and only supplementarily colored - PRs and blacks), of the arable lands that grandparents on my father's side held in the Chonra province (where their graves are now located), of the secondary tertiary degrees both of my parents were able to acquire partly out of their own effort and partly through the support of the prosperous protestant churches in southern korea that aligned themselves with the large corporations that arose under dictator Park's sponsorship in the 70's, of my mother's contested positionality in the "feminist" but "upper class" Ewha university, of the financial surplus women sex workers produced under national encouragement (History of Women's Human Rights Movements in South Korea, summary), of the Vietnamese blood that stains the rise of southern korean manufacturing industry, of the large scale expansion of korean textile factories to Latin America in the 90's (in particular Mexico) and their contribution to the undocumented immigration phenomenon, of the various "tutors" my family could afford me based on the $20,000 dollar annual income (which is a large sum in the third world) that the church provided my parents based on said structures of exploitation abroad, the fact that my high school was more expensive ($1,800/year) than the chilean college ($1,500) at which we striked for adequate student loan policies, and the patriarchal domination that afforded me more opportunities than the average southern korean daughters born in the 80's. I think all of these structures are closely intertwined in a global process of capitalistic accumulation that engages in an agonizing exploitation of those in the periphery, at the marginal benefit of those at the center.

I think however, it is a mistake to assume that because I am aware of the multiple dimensions of oppression that surround my own comfort, I am somehow at a more moral standing than those who enjoy the benefits without being aware of their inner workings. Indeed, I only understand the historical processes that shape border-crossing elite students because I am in a privileged position, and can afford to study in the heart of the empire. I am not less part of the problem, but I am more so. As I have argued elsewhere, I can choose to highlight selective portions of my life in order to engage higher orders of oppression and give voice over those whom I take privileges, but this strategic weapon should not mislead me into thinking that I am somehow taking a moral (and not tactical) stance.

Therefore, I am skeptical as to the extent that the following statement regarding Mr. Moe's supposedly uninformed criticism applies to my(or your)self.

I think also the suggestions as to what we should study bear on the assumptions that we, being of a younger generation, simply don't or can't understand what the civil rights movement in the united states was.

Where Gordon's observation that the white liberal (and the word "liberal" could really be any other tag), "entails the rejection of whiteness as an economic commodity". (Gordon, Intro to Biko, p.3) Rather, the following statement from Ivan Illich resonates truer to me.

There exists the argument that some returned volunteers have gained insight into the damage they have done to others - and thus become more mature people. Yet it is less frequently stated that most of them are ridiculously proud of their "summer sacrifices."(Illich, "To Hell with Good Intentions" )

That said, I'm off to my work-study where I "help" latino organizers working with latino workers.