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On Showing Solidarity Without Flaunting Privilege

On tumblr today, we’re talking about the non-Muslim girl who put on a headscarf and went to the mall to experience what it is like to be visibly Muslim in the United States.

 She writes:

This experiment gave me a huge wake up call.  It lasted for only a few hours, so I can’t even begin to imagine how much prejudice Muslim girls go through every day. 

Her experience has been deconstructed, ranging from critiques that her "sociological experiment" was microaggressive and invalidating of real experiences, to defenses that she was simply trying to understand by walking in someone else’s shoes for a day.

There’s also critique that there is important meaning behind wearing the hijab, and that the purpose of the hijab is not to use it “to find out what it’s like to experience Islamophobia for a day.” 

Another underlying argument is simply wondering why someone who is non-Muslim and did it for a day is getting so much praise, while people who are Muslim and wear hijab daily are not acknowledged for the discrimination they face and are often told they are exaggerating and overreacting when they share their experiences.

I think we can all agree that this woman considers herself to be and is trying to be an ally.  And that to want to be an ally is a good thing.  

Although they are not equivalent experiences, the first thing I thought of when I read these posts whats this:

In which two opposite-sex celebrity couples have spoken out in solidarity of marriage equality.  If same-sex couples can’t get married, we won’t  get married, either.

This is something I used to believe, too, and something I’ve seen espoused by friends as well.   And how could a couple with straight privilege/passing-straight/heteronormative privilege making a statement like this be considered a bad thing?    We were all showing solidarity for gay/same-sex couples—or so we thought.  We declared this proudly, as allies voluntarily sacrificing our rights in the name of social justice.

Here’s the deal with voluntarily shedding your privilege to stand in solidarity with those who face oppression, though—is it even actually possible?    

Because when I said, “I won’t get married until gay couples can get married, too.” I experienced the loss of my rights on a completely voluntary  level.     To face something self-imposed is not the same as to face something imposed on you by society.  

My friends in “same-sex” relationships were up against systemic discrimination.  I was just exercising a choice not to get married— a choice that hetero”normative” couples have that couples in “same-sex” relationships simply don’t have.  I wasn’t “learning what it was like” to experience marriage discrimination at all.  I glommed onto an injustice that was not happening to me and tried to make it all about me and how valiant of an ally I was.

When I said, “I’ve chosen not to get married until you can,” to demonstrate solidarity, what I was really doing was reminding people that they can’t get married, and that unlike me, they don’t have a choice in that.   They didn’t have the straight privilege to choose to not get married.   It didn’t matter that I was trying to “show solidarity.”  My self imposed boycott, my ‘newfound’ understanding of not being able to get married before marriage equality—all of those experiences did nothing for them or for the fight for marriage equality.  

Did it build character?  Not really.  And every time I said it, I was simply reinforcing that the inequality existed, magnifying the privilege I had without choosing to acknowledge it.

It also reminded me of a project that my high school did to teach students about homelessness.  

My high school was in an affluent suburb in Orange County.   Every year, a class would be selected to participate in a special project:  For a week, students would reenact what it was like to be homeless.  Their parents were instructed not to give them lunch money.  They were asked to sleep in their parents cars instead of in their bedroom.  They had to turn in their cell phones and not use the computer or video game consoles.   After all of this self-deprivation, they would journal about their experience and what it was like for them to be “homeless” and to “live in poverty.”

This program was designed to be life changing for students, to show them what it was like to be poor. It did educate and change the perspective of some of the rich kids.  But an unintentional side effect was that it also hurt and offended the students who were actually experiencing homelessness and being from low income families.  Wealthy students were praised for voluntarily sacrificing their cell phones and CD players and GameBoys.   But experiencing poverty is not voluntary—so were these wealthy students truly understanding what it was like?  Did the students from lower income families really feel that their peers were showing them solidarity?  


There are ways to demonstrate solidarity without declaring that you are voluntarily and temporarily shedding your privilege to stand next to people who experience oppression.     Even voluntarily opting out of privilege is in itself a function of privilege.  And those declarations can be hurtful—because they magnify the injustice of not having a choice.

Maybe there isn’t a way to “understand what it is like” unless you’ve been there, and part of being a good ally is just understanding that.

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