Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Politics of Education · Writing

Writerly Angst and Grappling with My Privilege

I’ve been unable to write much lately. Part of that is because of my depression and anxiety issues. Part of it is grad school burn out. Part of it is doubting the usefulness of my life’s pursuit. Part of it just comes from being overwhelmed with teacherly duties. And, part of it stems from the feeling that I am an outsider, a white woman in the business of representing and saving all my red, black, and brown fellow humans.

As a woman, an atheist, and a person without an excess financial means, I often feel marginalized. I am a minority in some senses. But, I could put on the right clothes and at least one of my marginalized positions (my economic status) would be hidden. I don’t have to be open about my status as an atheist and my religious upbringing means I can quote the Bible and fake a prayer. The fact that I’m a woman can’t really be hidden, so that’s a marginalized position I always have to inhabit. Still, though, as a white woman who can talk the talk of Christianity, the situations where I can’t put on the show of belonging will be few and far between. As long as I cover my tattoos, I am unmarked. So I’m not going to pretend that I can fully appreciate or understand the positions and experiences of people of color, people who identify somewhere on the spectrum of sexuality and gender that is not hetero-normative, people whose worth and humanity and right to live as the unmarked live, goes questioned every day.

I’m not going to pretend I understand that. Because, even though I’ve experienced discrimination, harassment, and violence, it’s been on a different scale. Like I said, I can choose to go unmarked.

So when I sit down to write about John Steinbeck’s use of Native Americans in The Grapes of Wrath or Mary Austin’s primitivism in her ethnographic work in New Mexico in the 1920s, or the Chickasaw Nation’s ability to maintain their status as a sovereign nation, I am hesitant because I am concerned about the power of my voice. I don’t want my voice to drown out others.

Some of my work has already been misread, because my word choice wasn’t precise enough. There are no lasting consequences, since it hasn’t been published, but once it is? That worries me.

I dislike, intensely, the idea of silencing voices. Even voices I disagree with. Because once someone is silenced, the discussion stops, and the discussion is essential for any kind of progress and change.

Harold Bloom wrote about the anxiety of influence that writers feel, when they think about their forbears. I feel that anxiety, and it is indeed an anxiety about doing the same things my forbears did. But I’m not worried that I won’t be able to surpass them, because, frankly, that’s a narcissistic concern. I do worry, though, that I won’t break free of their habit of silencing voices, and that I will further the perpetuation of oppression and the dominance of white supremacist, hetero-normative, patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist colonialism. (Wow, is that a mouth full).

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