Cultural context must be taken into account when discussing oppression
Before Spring Break, many students wrote about campus activism, showing just how pertinent this issue is. However, I worry about the way that Addie Browne’s article, in particular, framed activism.
For example, Browne separates cultural appropriation and offensive language from “fundamental social problems.” She writes that Bowdoin creates activists “who are setting out to eliminate one offensive word and action at a time.” I think that she is trying, perhaps, to argue that simply getting someone not to say “faggot” is different from getting them to truly understand why it is offensive.
Some forms of activism on campus do merely police language and behavior without radically challenging our attitudes and ideologies. But Browne seems to believe that concern over language and behavior is inherently bad activism. She calls it the “ultimately superficial goal of becoming politically correct.”
For me, those words and actions that even Browne deems offensive are a fundamental part of larger systems of oppression. There can seem like a distinct distance between Bowdoin and the violence against minorities that we read about in the news.
I certainly agree that we should be more active against this violence. However, the attitudes and ideologies that motivate or excuse offensive language and behavior operate within, and partially reproduce, the systems of oppression that take a much more forceful form elsewhere. For example, disregard for Native American cultures is part of a historical and ongoing privileging of non-Natives and cultural appropriation is a product of the colonial project of eliminating Native personhood. The scale of discriminations might differ, but they all share the same genealogy.
I also wish to challenge Browne’s framing of reservations. She writes that stopping someone from appropriating Native American cultures “[does] little to help those who remain disadvantaged by the debilitating environment of reservations.” This description of reservations, offered in the name of social justice, proves that being an activist requires self-reflexivity.
If Browne wants to use the plight of Native Americans to further her own arguments about political correctness, then she needs to consider what it means to construct their experiences as a plight. What does it imply to say that reservations, the home of peoples of multiple cultures and histories, are “debilitating environments” that necessitate a white intervention?
Portland Press Herald reporter Colin Woodward recently wrote a series on the Passamaquoddy, a tribe in Maine. He wrote that, “an economic, political and cultural renaissance is underway throughout Indian Country in the United States.” According to Woodward, this renaissance, empirically evident in statistics of income, life expectancy, and employment rate increases, results from the “greatly increased control Indians have over their own affairs.”
Native Americans have long maintained their agency through complex acts of resistance to, and negotiation with imperialist institutions. Now, through a measure of autonomy that has come from decades of indigenous activism, they are fashioning their own future. When we portray Native Americans as passive victims, “disadvantaged by the debilitating environment of reservations,” we not only once again ignore their personhood, but we also distance ourselves from our responsibility within the systems of oppression that work against them.
Fighting for social justice involves collaboration with those people we are trying to help. It involves listening to them and asking them what they want, and how they want us to act as their allies. It involves respecting them as people. It involves educating ourselves and our peers about the systems of oppression that still operate on and off our campus.
Lane Sturtevant is a member of the Class of 2015.
Conforming to the gender binary restricts everybody
We are writing to claim responsibility for the bathroom signs around campus yesterday. Hopefully you all noticed them. As a group project for the Anthropology of Social Movements course taught by Professor Melissa Rosario, we chose to confront the restrictions of the gender binary in an effort designed to start a campus-wide conversation about gender. It was meant to be unexpected. It was meant to get you thinking.
There are groups on campus dedicated to educating students about the spectrums of gender, sex and sexuality. But these messages do not reach everyone on campus. This is in part because the participants in these conversations are self-selecting. For many students it may never occur to them to seek out conversations about gender. Maybe your gender identity fits in with the binary options that society gives us. Maybe you have been privileged enough to have never felt excluded because of your gender expression. Many might see these issues as primarily concerning trans and gender non-conforming people. However, we believe that the gender binary restricts everyone.
There seems to be a growing dialogue at Bowdoin about how our social codes of masculinity and femininity limit our range of self-expression and use of space. Last year an anonymous first-year student wrote in the Orient about the dubious “pretty test” for girls at the doors of male-dominated off-campus houses. In a recent conversation started by the op-ed entitled, “Why we need a Men’s Resource Center,” two male students recognized how men have felt alienated when it comes to discussing issues of masculinity. Both of these articles raised the sometimes tacit, and sometimes explicit ways in which we enforce gender standards within ourselves and among each other every day. They illustrate how every person’s gender identity is held hostage by society’s norms.
By papering doors across campus with bathroom signs yesterday, we hope that everyone was confronted with the fact that gender affects us all in almost every aspect of our lives. We want everyone to recognize their stake in the struggle for society to accept a more diverse range of gender expressions.
Trans and gender non-conforming people showcase the potential for greater freedom of expression beyond traditional maleness and femaleness. In our society, however, these groups have been systemically marginalized for daring to challenge the norms. The lengths to which many people will go to enforce the gender binary has resulted in bullying, harassment and violence towards those who are perceived as its transgressors. In the case of gendered public bathrooms, we see not marginalization, but rather a lack of recognition of their legitimate identities. On campus, for instance, students living in many dorms cannot find gender-neutral bathrooms in their buildings.
Gender issues are everyone’s concern, and there are only gains to be made by engaging in dialogue with one another. Whether or not you came to the discussion last night, we hope this action will inspire you to have a conversation with a friend, a professor, a coach, a family member. Engage with people who do not share your gender identity. Women, ask a man how he experiences expectations of masculinity. Men, ask a woman how her gender influences the way she is treated on campus. Everyone, do not be afraid to ask people what their preferred gender pronouns are and what gender means to them specifically. Think about what gender means to you and ask yourself, when does gender limit you? When does it empower you? As Bowdoin students, we want to challenge ourselves to creatively undo gender oppression on our campus and in our lives.