Thursday, February 14, 2013

Privilege and Protests: A Reflection

I am unsure whether to post this, as it likely reeks considerably of privilege. But this blog is a place for my thoughts and voice - so I post with the caveat that I realize that I am on unceded land; I am middle class; I am white, educated, stably housed. At the same time, I am still a survivor. I post tonight as a mix of all of these parts of myself and my experiences.

I went to the Women's Memorial March today in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. For those who aren't familiar with it, the DTES is known as "Canada's Poorest Postal Code" and is quite a dangerous place for women, yet also a vibrant community with a completely different style from the rest of the city. It's more than just rough around the edges; for those of us who are used to a more privileged life, it's uncomfortable. As one woman, Betsey Turtle Bruyere, says in her video, "Be uncomfortable. But listen. Learn. No apologies here."

This was my first time participating in this march, and I had been expecting something more similar to the Take Back the Night marches I'd participated in in Toronto and London. The Toronto march takes place in a different low-income community each year, so that women from across the city have a chance to reclaim their streets. London's march is more centralized and less grassroots in its feel, and has more conflict between the "women's bodies not for sale" and the "sex workers' rights" chants. Toronto's march is overwhelmingly in favour of sex workers' rights, as was today's march in Vancouver.

I hung towards the back of the march with some friends. Partly this was unintentional as it was just where we happened to be when people started marching; however, I didn't feel it would be appropriate for me to rush to the front of the march and lead chants the way I would in another setting. I live outside this community, and I have a level of safety that the women who organized the march do not have. We are marching to honour women who have gone missing, and who have been murdered. Even though I am a survivor of violence as well, my experiences are starkly different from those of Vancouver's missing women. I don't mean in terms of the violence we experienced, as I don't believe in a hierarchy of whose experience is more horrifying. But there is a key difference in that I did survive. I am here. I have privilege through that. Privilege over those who did not survive what happened to them, and yet, I don't have the privilege of having not had to survive. Perhaps that is a right, not a privilege. But I digress.

After my friends left the march to go to various other commitments they had, I started to get a bit emotional; without friends to distract me, the realities behind the march sunk in. It was cold and gloomy, and I began to hurt a bit; I can't quite describe it. I had a card in my pocket that a woman gave me earlier in the march: 

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along." You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
At this point women were singing a First Nations drum song; I know little about this music and don't honestly know if it would have been appropriate for me to join the singing, as a white person, so I kept silent. At the same time, the card in my pocket made me feel like I belonged, to some extent. Not as part of the DTES community, but to an acknowledgement of women's survival. This is getting very sappy, but that's how I felt it at the moment. I don't belong in that circle of women, but they were willing to let people in from the outside without asking questions, and to give us cards to affirm our ability to survive as well. Would there be the same crossover at events regarding violence against women outside the Downtown East Side? The card for me was a grounding object for the last part of my time there, and one that I needed very much; it's something I will hold on to. I don't know the woman who was distributing those cards, but I wish I could thank her for giving those affirmations to those of us who wanted them.

I think about privilege a fair bit, in both my academic work and my day-to-day life. It's something that troubles me, as I have a lot of privilege on many levels. In the circles that I move in, the more marginalized parts of my identity aren't even particularly marginal. So privilege is always an undercurrent. It rarely hits me quite the way it did today, however.

After feeling uncomfortable (not to mention that I was getting cold and hungry!) for about 15 minutes after my friends left, I decided to head off even though the march was still going on.  As I do every so often when I'm feeling a bit emotionally unsteady, I headed for the nearest wool shop to admire yarn. This particular one was warm and colourful, and had the added benefit of a friendly cat. I got to chatting with the owner, since I really felt that I needed some human connection to stay stable. Turned out that I didn't get what I needed there...this particular woman was quite opposed to such a march happening. It was slowing down the buses in front of her store, and besides, if women didn't want to get murdered, they shouldn't be out on the streets like that, should they? I asked her further what her thoughts were on the area; after all, the people in the DTES have been there for a lot longer than her shop has. Those people are bad for business. They have markets - of used goods, you know, not the sort of thing my customers would buy. My customers don't feel comfortable walking through the area when they have their market. She spoke to me with the assumption that she'd found a sympathetic ear to her grievances. I was to stunned to respond, and left the shop without buying anything.

I don't share the views of this shopkeeper, of course. But I do have the same privileges she has. At the end of the march, I could find some sort of solace - however tenuous - in a local shop, and not have my presence in the area questioned or policed. I could go get coffee and soup to warm myself up. I could go home in the evening and navel-gaze on my blog in a safe space.

Women - united - we'll never be divided they chant at many marches. But is this true? The One Billion Rising campaign has many detractors among feminists - see, for example, Natalie Gyte at the Huffington Post and the multitude of comments on her post. There are problems with One Billion Rising, I'll concede that. But at the same time, what else do we have? It has momentum. The Women's Memorial March is publicized on the One Billion Rising webpage (notably, the publicity does not seem to run in the other direction, and I'd be interested in knowing what politics there are behind this). Yes, One Billion Rising is run by people with privilege, and that's problematic. But at the same time, is it fair to say which survivors can and cannot organize? Gyte criticizes the premise of healing by dancing - and yet, for many people, there is significant power in dancing. For me, there is so much power in dancing that I have trouble doing so. She criticizes the idea of "rising" - but if we don't rise, will we sink? Or stagnate? To me, "rise" in this context does not mean to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, but rather, to refuse to be silenced.

When they say to rise, I think of Maya Angelou:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Even when we protest, we are divided. Even for the privileged, it hurts. I want us all to rise together, to survive together - but I cannot fathom how.

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