The Hundred and First Sheep

[…]A solidarity that doesn’t take into account the role of the oppressor in these events is the kind of one sided, privileged noise that continues to perpetuate the problem. There seems to be no acknowledgement from feminist organizations of the fact that there is a power imbalance, that an immigrant woman from a former French colony is significantly more vulnerable and more likely to be attacked, that she lacks the privileges that native French women get to enjoy and that, in France, women like her are constantly subjected to racial slurs and attacks (included from their very own government, who displays a shameful Islamophobic and patriarchal stance towards the bodies of Muslim women).

Instead, we are told by these protesting feminists that “We are all chambermaids”! This erasure diminishes the plight of colonized women and, in its naive effort to appear egalitarian, in fact, it excises the lived realities of chambermaids; of women who do not, actually, have the privilege of being part of the dominant culture. If we are all chambermaids, we are all identical. We all enjoy the same freedoms, our struggles are not intersected by varying degrees and types of oppressions. And in case this needs clarifying: there is nothing further from the truth[…]

Flavia Dzodan, at Tiger Beatdown, writing on the French supporters of woman who DSK may have raped.

Flavia goes on to say, emphatically, that a top down solidarity is no solidarity at all. Top down solidarities, see, are focused less on solidity than on homogeneity, less on listening than on silencing. Top down solidarities aren’t about peace; they’re about the absence of audible conflict.

Top down solidarities, in other words, are inherently violent. Top down solidarities replicate hierarchy under the cover of justice.

This, for me, is reminiscent of conversations about identification. How many times have you heard the phrase “I identify with the poor?” This phrase signals the (not poor) speaker’s spiritual meekness, and is often ornamented with vivid, yet humble, descriptions of the speaker’s deliberate sacrifices in the pursuit of solidarity. The speaker, for instance, may have chosen to work at Walmart, leaving their college degree off their resume when applying to stock shelves. Perhaps the speaker moved to Camden, NJ, to start an intentional community in a violent neighborhood, or refuses to buy [insert consumer good of choice] as matter of stewardship.

None of these decisions are inherently bad. Where would we be without Barbara Ehrenreich writing books like Nickel and Dimed? Camden needs some missionaries, no doubt, and many consumer goods ought to be left dusty on the shelves.

Our speaker, however, for all their good intentions, can’t choose to live in poverty. Poverty isn’t not having money in your pocket; it’s not having options in your pocket. It’s being stuck in place. Our fair speaker’s voluntary choice to take a low wage job in order to ‘experience poverty’ speaks not to the speaker’s poverty, but to the speaker’s wealth, simply because it was a choice at all.

Now, obviously, my speaker is a bit of a strawperson. I’ve tried to describe my strawperson fairly, respecting its desire to do the right thing, but straw it remains. But, this is why Jesus didn’t say “blessed are the poor, and also the poor-pretenders.” The problem isn’t the lifestyle choices made by well-meaning liberals, but rather the pretension that motivates and justifies those choices.

It is good for relatively privileged feminists to use their privileged position to say that sexual violence against one woman is violence against women as a class, that no women are free until all women are free. It is unquestionably good to recognize that social privilege does not insulate women from the effects of living in a rape culture. It is not good, on the other hand, for relatively privileged feminists to pretend that all oppressions are the same. “All women are women” is a tautology that bears repeating in some circumstances. “All women are chambermaids” is just a lie, not a restatement of “all women are women.” Chambermaids gain nothing when more privileged women erase them by claiming to experience the same kind of oppression.

Victim blaming often takes the form of accusing women of being the wrong sort of woman: a woman with the attributes of another oppressed class. Perhaps the woman was of the wrong color, or spoke with the wrong accent. Perhaps she did not speak the correct language at all. Perhaps she did not dress like women of the dominant class, or did not worship the right deity in the right way. Perhaps she had the wrong immigration status; perhaps she only looked like someone whose immigration status ought to be questioned. Whatever the reason, she’s just not a good enough woman to worry about. Whatever happened to her was her own fault, scream the context and the subtext.

These layers of oppression need to be addressed, not hidden under a homogeneous banner. Run a Google search, if you want, on God’s identification with the poor. You’ll get all kinds of Bible-laced resources on how God wants Christians to treat the poor, most of them tonedeafly written as though “Christian” and “poor” are nonoverlapping categories. For all our class-privileged chatter about identifying with the poor, though, we forget that Jesus didn’t stand in solidarity with poor Galilean peasants. Jesus, rather, was a poor Galilean peasant.

Jesus didn’t identify with oppression. Jesus incarnated it.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that relatively privileged French women need to convert to Islam and get jobs as chambermaids. Pulling an Ehrenreich might not be a bad thing, but no amount of playacting will give colonizers the experience of being colonized. Broadly speaking, we don’t get the option of incarnating other people’s oppression, which is good because we wouldn’t have the courage for it anyhow.

We do, however, have the option of gentleness. We have the option to grow in tenderness towards one another. We can consider our own privileges, and from that thoughtful spot, we can be more considerate of people who do not have those privileges.

Kathy is right: using your power on behalf of the one, rather than the ninety-nine, will result in the ninety-nine making you uncomfortable. The ninety-nine are accustomed to having the attention due to a hundred, and take it personally when they receive less than they feel is their due.

We aren’t Jesus, though; we’re also sheep. Which is to say: there are a hundred and one sheep in this story, and generally speaking, the hundred-and-first sheep is more naturally allied with the ninety-nine in the pen than with the one who is lost. It is good for the hundred-and-first sheep to search for the hundredth, but this does not place them in the same position.

The hundredth sheep doesn’t need the hundred-and-first sheep to identify with her predicament. The hundredth sheep doesn’t need the hundred-and-first sheep to turn back to the pen and claim to be lost as well.

Gentle reader, the hundredth sheep needs a friend. The ninety-nine are much harder on the hundredth sheep than you could ever imagine. Can you just sit with her awhile?

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About Dhouda

"And what shall I say, fragile vessel that I am? I shall turn to others as a friend." Dhouda's Manual, AD 841
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