Have you ever been in a position at work where you are working your tail off and all you hear is criticism from those around you? As explained by a sympathetic friend to me once, “it’s like the idea of a moving target. If everyone else is sitting around doing nothing, you running by gives everyone something to talk about.”
I’m not saying there’s a direct correlation here, but I was surprised by the intensity and vitriol in the conversation surrounding Robin Wiszowaty and her book My Maasai Life in a disucssion on Sociological Images. Wiszowaty left her US privileged life and was adopted by a village family in Kenya, where she lived for a year or so, wrote a book about the experience and now is on the speaking circuit.
The criticism has to do with a sense that she has romanticized the culture and avoided acknowledging the real hardships of the country (that the privileged framework of her travel allowed) and thereby ultimately did a disservice to the local culture and its people.
For a full disclaimer regarding my willingness to state an opinion about that of which I know not, I never heard of Robin Wiszowaty until my fried updated her Facebook page yesterday with a link to the discussion on Sociological Images (and suggested that it might make good fodder for Intercultural Talk.)
That said, here goes. The power of being a multiculturalist is the hypersensitivity to multiple perspectives. You begin to imagine how your words will be received or interpreted by others.
On the good side, it’s accepting that your orientation is not the norm but an option, and using that lens to frame thinking before you speak…thinking through the implications and power of your words.
One the flip side, if there’s a fear of always offending or belying your own privilege with your words and actions you can become paralyzed into inaction.
Immersing yourself in another culture is a fantastic first step of becoming attuned to your own biases, particularly if you are of the majority culture. It’s the idea of being “the other”…moving yourself into a situation that allows you to see yourself through the eyes of others.
What’s wrong this time? Maybe a naivety—it’s true that you probably need a certain degree of privilege to make the choices Robin is talking about. And, no matter how long you live in another culture (or even your own) I’m always wary of anyone who tries to describe “a people” as being a certain way.
My friend frames it this way:
YES, step out of our individual lives to a greater world community… but how do we white folks do this in a way that results in the greatest good, and acknowledges that access to opportunity is not equal to all peoples. How do we affect the world AT HOME? We don’t have to travel although there is much to LEARN FROM THESE WORLDS AWAY. How do we explore cultures different from our own without limiting the richness of these cultures by romanticizing? Turn up the sensitivity of your vision to see and share the complexity , not “the simple life” as it fits it into a box of your limited perception.
But I say you have to start by acting. Robin’s language and depth of understanding hopefully will evolve overtime. At a bare minimum, her actions have inspired the discussion and that alone brings value.
What do you think?
Thanks to Ingrid of Earthly Sites for the link.