Only got ten minutes to save the world...

Between the new baby and the Ph.D., this grad student only has ten minutes a day to philosophize culture. Bear with me as I tell you how to think...

all within a ten-minute writing limit.



We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service (Opportunities) to Atheists

I finally found a way to turn my theory into activism. I emailed government officials and made phone calls and finally found a volunteering outlet perfect for my passion and expertise: Wellspring Living, a facility that offers a safe haven to women and girls who have been victims of sexual exploitation. There's only one problem: I'm not a Christian and so I'm not welcome.

I had a plan. Although I identify primarily as a literary/cultural theorist, I do possess a passion for creative writing (and a Master's degree in the subject, though the value of that is negligible). I concocted this idea where I would run creative writing workshops for the women of Wellspring. I could help them find their voices again, or maybe for the first time. I could perhaps contribute just a bit to the reconstruction of real women, not just the deconstruction of  "Woman". I could convert all this talk into action.   

I guess the fact that the second question on the application was "How has Jesus Christ affected your life?" should have tipped me off that perhaps my application would land in the "undesirables" pile.

Forget the Master's degree. Hell, I forget it myself, a lot of the time. But what about my passion, my expertise, my experience teaching, my intricate Dangerous Minds--esque fantasy of touching lives that are in peril?

Although Wellspring's website does not boldly advertise itself as such, it is a Christian organization. Okay. They have a right to that affiliation.

And although I was a bit shocked at just how Christian the second "Jesus Christ" application question made this organization seem, I remained diplomatic. I replied something along the lines of, "Although I personally have no religious affiliation, I understand that Wellspring is a Christian organization, and I respect and honor this aspect of Wellspring."

Before turning in the application, I spoke on the phone to the head of operations. She was excited about the prospect of my Creative Writing Workshop plan. She pointed out how "healing" it could be for the women. She even intimated that perhaps it could become a regular gig. Michelle Pheiffer, get your leather coat, 'cause you're getting a casting call. 

Yet a week later, I get an email from the same woman informing me that Wellspring has certain "expectations" of its volunteers. They thank me for my honesty, but tell me that because of my lack of Jesus-worship, I am not allowed to work in the house with the women. I can, however, work in their store, raising funds for the organization.

What this not-so-subtly implies is: "We don't want your heathen influence upon our women, but we do welcome you to make us some money."

Fuck that.

Wellspring clearly has a right to be a Christian organization. And I suppose they have a right to reject me.

But picture this: my hypothetical secular organization rejects your service because you're a Christian.

Now we've got a problem, don't we. A legal issue.

No atheists allowed at this lunch counter today, ma'am. We reserve the right to refuse service opportunities to anyone, especially the godless.

<minute ten.>

The Reluctant Orientalist

I'm "white." So if you're "black," can I write about you?

Ever read Memoirs of a Geisha? It's a novel, not really a memoir, written by a middle-aged white American man, through the persona of an elderly Japanese woman. I'm not a postcolonialist by trade, but my dear friend is, so while reading the novel in preparation for my final Ph.D. comp exam, I sent her a note asking, "Is  Memoirs of a Geisha Orientalist?"

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term (and I imagine most anyone outside of my grad student crew must be unfamiliar with this term): Orientalism, in it's original meaning as formulated by Edward Said, refers to the Western representation of Eastern cultures and lives through an inherently prejudiced and eternally Western-paradigm-locked lens. Like I said, however, I'm no postcolonialist (rough definition: someone who often studies this Orientalism stuff), so I bend the term a little. When I wonder, "Is this text Orientalist?," what I'm basically wondering is: does the author of this text offer up a "foreign" culture--"foreign" in terms of race, class, gender; not merely geography--for the edification and/or entertainment of the author's own cultural compatriots, all without having any real understanding or appreciation of the "foreign" culture he or she presents? This lack of true cultural understanding, of course, results in a bent representation of the "foreigner" in ways that are invariably caricaturing and demeaning.  

Full disclosure: I'm a middle-class American woman of some vague European ancestry. So can I write about African American women, or is that gazing? 

If I write about African American women, how can I do so with a depth of understanding and respect of that culture necessary for responsible representation?

No, no, wait--isn't it perhaps Orientalist to gloss "African American women" into a singular culture? I mean, come on, Lil' Kim and Toni Morrison don't have a whole lot in common. At least they probably don't read the same books.

And if they don't read the same books, then is that detail enough to make them culturally separate?

That is to ask: Can Toni Morrison write about Lil' Kim, or is that gazing?

To put it simply: Where do we draw the lines of cultural demarcation? Forget the question about whether its okay to theoretically deconstruct other cultures that are not our own. First of all, we've got to determine where to define our own culture, and this is where the confusion sets in.

I do not want to enact intellectual colonialism. Fair enough. I do not want to deconstruct and offer up for your edification my astute analysis of someone else's world, a world I can never know.
Let's play it safe.

Let's say I only write about my own world. Let's say, then, I only write about "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm I better just write about married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm also an atheist. So I better just write about atheistic married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. Holy crap, where does this end?

If I refuse to write about Black women because I'm not Black, I'm also making a dangerous assumption: that all Black women share something in common. Doesn't that glossing of individuals into one common life based on complexion and genitalia enact some other equally sinister racism and sexism?
As much as I love to write about myself, I don't think I'm going to sell many academic publications centered solely on the exploits of Lindsay B.

Unless, of course, you're buying.

<minute ten.>


Powered by Blogger.