Monday, September 11, 2006

But Wait, There's More

Upon further review of my last post, I realize that, caught up on the moment of feeling offended and hurt, I maybe didn’t do the best job explaining myself. The post was pretty whiny and self-centred—“Oh, poor me, I’m over here in a place where people say mean things about my country and it hurts my feelings. Nobody understands me when I’m out of my comfort zone. My life is hard.” I’ve been thinking about this whole American identity thing quite a bit since moving overseas, and I don’t want it to appear that I’m approaching it thinking I’m some kind of victim.
In “social justice speak,” we refer to “target” and “agent” identities—you’re either the target or the agent of oppression. For example, my race and gender are target identities, while my sexuality and socioeconomic status are agent identities. Looking at yourself in these terms is an important step toward figuring out how you can dismantle the oppression. It’s not about labelling your actions or beliefs (being heterosexual doesn’t mean I go around spewing anti-gay epithets), but about looking at how you fit into institutionalized power structures (being heterosexual does give me privileges like being able to legally marry the person I fall in love with). Unfortunately, it can be difficult acknowledging your place in the power structure, especially when it means admitting that you have power or privileges you didn’t earn and don’t necessarily deserve.

I have done a decent amount of looking at my sexuality and socioeconomic status as agent identities, but have never really thought much about my nationality. Being an American definitely places me in “agent” role and definitely gives me power and privileges I would not otherwise have. So in approaching situations where my nationality plays a part—meaning pretty much all situations when travelling abroad—I need to remember to filter my feelings as an individual through the context of the institutionalized oppression I’m a part of. It’s hard not to take it personally when I hear mean things being said about my home (jokingly or not), but it’s too simplistic to assume it has the same implications and effect as if it were to occur the other way around. Even if the attack is directed specifically me, the power imbalance still affects the interaction. It’s the same way that you can’t equate a black person saying “honky” with a white person saying the N-word. Even though I’m a unique and complex individual (or so I like to think), my actions and reactions cannot be separated from the privileges I’m allotted by my nationality, especially in the context of living abroad.

Unfortunately, the power differential makes it that much more difficult for meaningful, honest cultural exchange to take place, especially when nobody will actually name the proverbial elephant who follows me into every room. I know my friends and co-workers are monitoring themselves because on an almost daily basis I’m told, “No offence, but…” or “I know you’re not like this, but…” And I censor myself because I know that saying I’m proud of my country could easily come across as being proud of the oppression inflicted by my country.

So how does meaningful, honest interaction take place? I think that to answer this I need to look at the larger goals of my interactions. It would be easy to say that my hope is to show some Kiwis that not all Americans are gun-toting, Bible-thumping, self-righteous cowboys, or even just that not all Americans support our current government. But changing one person’s impressions of America (or, more realistically, their impressions of one American) does not change America’s role in the oppressive power structure. Dismantling that power structure should be the end goal.

So of course the question now is how to reach this goal and what my role can be in getting there. And at this point I definitely don’t have any answers.

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