I am completely obsessed with this post by Chally and the comments on it over on Feministe. Entitled “Dear USians on the Internet,” here’s the money shot:
USian racial dynamics do not translate anywhere else on the planet. Hence their being called USian racial dynamics. No one else has the precise history you do, that unique racial make-up, those particular constructions of what those identities mean – things that ought to be respected. Likewise, this stuff works differently in other countries because your experiences don’t magically melt over into and obliterate ours. Do not, do not, ever try erase or modify our experiences of racism, Indigenous experiences in particular, by framing my country’s appalling racist history in USian terms. Have some respect for the stuff other people have to deal with every day, some basic consideration of where we’ve been. That means sometimes people are going to be uncomfortable with the use of terms that are benign or even positive to you, like ‘person of colour’ (because it’s often considered a term particular to the USian context, because it indicates a sense of alliance that isn’t universal, stuff like that). Sometimes you are going to be uncomfortable with such non-white-shaped cultural aspects in other countries. It is not cool to force your ideas about race and racism on us and in doing so alter and damage our cultures, our strategies of resistance, so that you’re more comfortable. I seriously don’t know how you stomach doing that.
Obviously, the post is a rant, and to that extent I can see some people getting upset about tone. In fact, I’m having, as I type this, second thoughts about posting it here, because while I bet a lot of you will understand, my experience as a non-American living in America makes me wary of even bringing up this subject, let alone introducing it in strong language. So let’s not talk about tone.
Let’s talk, instead, about the epistemological consequences of power. Because I think you can see how one could reframe the above passage to be about gender, race, or sexual preference, or just about any of the axes along which people form associations and identity. Because I think you know already that the fact is that categories of knowledge are not neutral, but are constructed for and taught to us by the powerful. I think you know that sometimes, when you’re raised thinking and speaking a particular way to people who share some quality with you, that when you have the power even your very way of speaking can become exclusionary to someone from another background.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the issue Chally raises, both because I am in all likelihood going to be (somewhat unwillingly) back in Canada six months from now, and because I am wondering if that’s basically going to cut me out of internet feminist discourse – and also the kind of magazines and writing I adore – for good. See, while I’m here, I often feel like I’m “fronting” as an American – while I’m told I have an immediately identifiable accent (!%!&?!), most of the time I’m able to talk as if the society of primary concern to me were America, and I talk about American culture, within the constraints of American timeframes. Living in America has been an adventure in what some might call “passing” for me – I’ve never lived in such a dominant culture before. And it feels – and I know how ridiculous this sounds – like giving up a privilege when I go.
Small things nonetheless keep me aware of how I’m Not From Here. Awhile back when I was putting together a writing sample for what now will likely be a slew of unsuccessful MFA apps (the 1% odds make it hard for me to take personally) I had someone comment on them. About one he said: if you’re going to set this in Canada, you’d best be up front about it, people should be made aware it isn’t the U.S. And since then I’ve been nursing this nagging feeling that maybe I can’t make it here, anyway.
Que pensez-vous, commentariat? Particularly non-Americans…