Purtek recently pointed me to this article by Chally on Feministe in which she talks about a tendency people from the US have to universalize their experience of life on Earth. The comment thread started off on a concern troll note and pretty much went downhill from there until it was closed down. I just wanted to say:
Thank you, Chally. You’re right.
I’m aware that as someone born in the US who’s never lived elsewhere, I have this problem. I do work on it. I learn when facts cross my path, and I take heed of what people tell me, and I hunt down the stuff I realize I need more info on. But the key word is realize: there’s so much stuff I don’t realize I don’t know. My privilege makes me look like a fool, and I hate that.
- I was taught in public school – taught, not told in passing – that the U.S. was the most bestest country evah and everyone from other countries wishes they could live here. I felt so sorry for the rest of the world until someone straightened me out on that.
- While U.S. culture is hard to avoid in most of the world, we USians have to go out of our way to, say, see a British TV show. I’m not making excuses, but if the US hands you 30 new TV shows every fall on a platter and you don’t even know what stations, if any, are running anything British, where would you even get the idea to go looking for their stuff?
- Race terminology. I feel so ignorant on this (check out the thread where I discover that white doesn’t equal “Caucasian” – yet again, the US government has lied to me). The African Americans I know prefer the term “African American” over “black.” But of course, it’s a not-unproblematic term: some black Americans identify as Caribbean in origin. And then there’s “Native American”. Russell Means and others have argued a preference for “Indian.” I like the Canadian term “First Nations.” But again, I’m a white woman, so it shouldn’t be up to me. And I haven’t found a better term for “everyone who’s not white” than “people who aren’t white” or “non-white people” and those both sound negative (like white is something they’re missing) whereas “people of color” sounds more positive. I actually hadn’t realized until I read Chally’s post that “people of color” could evoke a sense of unity among ethnic groups that do not particularly view themselves as allies to one another. But now that I think about it: duh! It’s a very binary view of humanity, that either you’re white, or you’re Other. Of course, I’m usually talking critically about people who actually do see the world that way, or at least behave like they do. Still. The terms are a mess, and it’s all compounded by the connotations certain terms have inherited from bigoted usage.
- Race history. I realize no two countries have an identical race politics history, so when I talk about race, I do intend for people from outside the US to be able to understand. The problem is, it’s so familiar to me I can’t recall when I didn’t understand at least the nuances and feelings of race politics in my country, because that’s how you start picking it up in childhood. I don’t think this is a US-specific problem, actually – it would be a challenge to come to understand race politics in any country you’ve never lived in. The problem is more when we assume your race politics issues are the same ones we have. I try to remember not to do that, but I probably do assume a number of things that aren’t in order.
I never thought Chally was saying we suck – even the people who actually do this stuff are, for the most part, just lacking awareness, and I strongly suspect she assumes that.
Nothing I’ve said here is intended as an excuse – not at all. If your government’s making it comfortable for you to be ignorant, it’s up to you to overcome that as best you can (and it’s not like we have no resources for this – hello, internet!). We need to work on that, and that means the USian commenters who deflected Chally’s thread from good, valid points about a problem with US culture to the unlikely possibility that Chally actually thinks all USians are just exactly like this were beating a straw man because they wilted at the thought that what she was saying was absolutely true. Which it was.