PVV – the privilege to “know” what’s problematic

I read something on Facebook today that kinda irked me… It kinda irked me so much that I broke one of my most sacred rules and engaged (briefly)… And then that engagement irked me such that I went on some vague (and vaguely esoteric) Twitter rant.

But arghhh, there was no catharsis in any of it!! Thus, now you all get to be regaled #LUCKY

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Earlier today, I read this statement:

“I don’t understand why people get so upset about hair. If cut, it will grown back. If it is too long – it can be cut. Hair is given so much power in our society.” (sic)

 

The statement was accompanied by a link to this post on Color Lines: “Jada on Willow’s Hair Cut: ‘Girls Have the Right to Own Themselves’”

The Color Lines piece includes statements from Jada Pinkett Smitth and Will Smith, both responding to critiques about their willingness to allow their daughter Willow to cut and style her hair in whatever manner she feels fit. The parents say things like:

Jada: “…The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It’s also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be…” (sic, here)

Will: “…If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world… She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that is hers…” (sic, here)

 

Awesome – 100% agree, fantastic parenting (as if I am qualified to assess parenting, which I wholly am NOT), and very meaningful self-reflection from Jada. Love, love, love. So why was I irked?

Put simply, I was irked by the privilege and judgement embedded in the “I don’t understand why people get so upset…” comment I read. So I went to Twitter and got all philosophical (tweets bolded, expanded thoughts immediately following):

 

“here’s the thing: there are problematic things in the world… deep-seated, long standing, class-driven problematic, and unequal things…”

Though I was being intentionally general and vague in my tweet, I was referring specifically to the series of socially constructed meanings associated with black women’s hair – pretty problematic and definitely seem to put race, class, gender, and ethnicity-centered pressures on women (among other things).

This statement stands in general, though – in my view, there are A LOT of problematic things in the world. This issue of hair is but one of bazillions.

 

“some people are privileged enough (wealth, education, social class, etc) to see/identify said problematic things…”

So I think something is a problematic issue – in addition to many other things, is there not some measure of privilege that precludes my understanding of said thing as problematic? Education, social class, the free time to sit around and reflect upon these sorts of issues? Did I not, at some point, benefit from education and/or training and/or opportunities that facilitated and/or allowed me to see wider structural issues at play as related to, say, Willow Smith and people saying what she should and should not do with her hair?

This is not to say that such privileges are prerequisites for identifying and understanding any number of problematic issues, but pretending like privilege isn’t a factor in many such instances minimizes significant dimensions of social inequality that shape our perspectives on a multitude of “problematic” things.

Put simply: social class and privilege partially shape the way we see things, including what we regard as problematic.

 

“(this assumes that what’s being called problematic actually is… but assessments of problematic-ness are themselves problematic)”

Just an aside, but it’s important to acknowledge the subjectivity of the concept “problematic.” The idea that something is “problematic” in the first place is a human creation; it varies over time and from person to person.

So, for example, though I maintain that the things I think are problematic are most definitely 100% so… you know, because I think them… it is shortsighted to assume there is any sort of objective dimension associated with identifying problematic-ness overall.

 

“but when a person privileged enough to identify said problematic things judges others who may not see said dimensions thusly…”

“…well, isn’t that kinda judgey and thus problematic as well?”

hmmm… “judging is judgey,” eh? Don’t judge my tweet rant!! ;)

 

“in other words, assuming some objectively problematic status (??), just bc X doesn’t see the problematic dimensions of Y and I do…” 

“that doesn’t make it ok for me to judge them (X), right? (me being the dummy variable in this conundrum)”

(pictured: Twitter rant at @DrChauntelle, 11/26/12)

The answer to the question “that doesn’t make it ok for me to judge them (X), right?” is no – no it does not. Here’s the thing:

As I read it, embedded in the statement – “I don’t understand why people get so upset about hair” – is a classist, judgey, and (in my view) very problematic sentiment.

“I don’t understand why people get so upset about hair.” I don’t understand why people don’t get it… It’s just hair… I don’t get why YOU (whoever you are) don’t see the hugely significant, wider social issues at play, the things that work to systematically rob a young person of her autonomy and voice, the things that plague humans with anxiety and insecurities… Why can’t you people see it the correct way, my way, the way that knows it’s problematic!!??

Whooosh!!

I don’t disagree AT ALL with the notion that there is a hugely problematic series of socially constructed meanings at play in this specific example (Willow) of this specific issue (hair, specifically black women’s hair) – there are. What I do disagree with though is passing judgement on those who don’t also see it that way, in what’s ultimately My Way (the problematizing way and the way of the person who made the irksome statement, others’ ways too).

If we shut down, get flippant, or just “don’t understand” when people aren’t up to speed with what we think is problematic, we both jettison a potential teaching moment and get all cavalier about our privilege. I know that I had to learn why issues surrounding the politics of black women’s hair are loaded and problematic. I also had to learn about structural inequality and how to consider mass media in a critical manner, about why farming en mass is kinda gross and why the most important speech to protect is unpopular, etc etc. And whatever it is that you believe… well, you had to learn that too.

Maybe the people who “don’t get it” haven’t had the opportunity to learn something – maybe they just haven’t yet had the privilege? When we get all judgey about what people don’t know or how people think at this moment, we miss an opportunity to contribute to the wider conversation. We miss an opportunity to share a measure of our privileged knowledge. And, if nothing else, we miss an opportunity to facilitate others’ informed, authentic, but ultimately (ideally) autonomous lived experiences.

 

I discussed this issue, but in terms of a different example, at length with Anna Devia during our PVV interview – it was a great conversation wherein we talked about exclusions as they sometimes manifest in the sex positive and queer communities… have a listen here.

(pictured: Jada and Willow – adorable!! here)

Further (added 11/27/12), though I am certainly not trying to blast them AT ALL, the Smith family’s position also needs to be looked at through a lens of privilege (social class, celebrity, etc etc). They have a lot of it. And though this in no way negates the veracity of this specific point that they’re making – at least, not in my eyes it doesn’t – the privileged dimensions of their positionality is important. This is worth considering and engaging, as well.

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