Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A book that changed my views about something

My argument is that history is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and rewritten, always with various silence and elisions, always with shapes imposed and disfigurements tolerated.
----Edward Said

The book that has most profoundly changed my views is Edward Said's Orientalism. I know it's an old chestnut, and it's been shredded and reviewed and critiqued to death. It remains, however, very powerful and meaningful to me.

I read it for the first time my senior year in college. At that time I was young and naive, a middle-class white girl who thought that society should be colorblind. I could be colorblind, or think I was, because I belonged to a protected segment of society. I have been the recipient of privilege based on my skin color and social class.

Said pushed me to see that my beliefs were rooted in fallacies stretching back hundreds, even thousands, of years. Painted broadly, Said's argument is that Western society judges people of different ethnicities and backgrounds against what Western society holds to be important. We cast non-Western, and people of color, as Other, and lesser, compared with dominant white notions of what is right and proper. Although we are now in the Post-Colonial age, many of the cruel prejudices of Colonialism remain sadly with us.

I realized that yes, I am far from colorblind. My whole position of privilege is based in racist ideals. I knew that I was at a disadvantage where it came to white males, but I didn't see until twenty years  ago that even the feminist movement is controlled, in large part, by white concerns.

The blinders came off, and I have been a much better person for it. Said broadened my worldview and made me self-critical in important ways. I have many friends who belong to racial, ethnic, and other minorities in this country, and they have all helped me deepen my understanding of what I have been able to take for granted, and to commit to speaking out to make change.

I am a better friend, thinker, and patient advocate for having thought long and hard about Said's words. I am also an Other, for having been adopted. I stand apart and belong to a minority, albeit a relatively invisible minority, of two million Americans. We are often derided for not being grateful for what society has deemed us worthy to receive, and told in a condescending way that we don't deserve better because we come from "bad stock" who couldn't take care of us. We are "lucky" to have had a chance to live at all. We should be thanking God that we weren't aborted; certainly our first mothers would have preferred that, or the dumpster.

Why do people think it's okay to say any of this to us, as though we are lesser human beings? I can only hope that things will change as more of us speak out.

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