Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Spinning Tops

Yesterday I enjoyed a day off from field and had the apartment to myself for about 5 hours. I caught up on all of my classwork and wrote my response paper for the first week. Our response papers are a reflection of the week's readings, integrated with our two classes for the week and with our experience in the field. I'd like to share my first paragraph of my first response paper here:

I like to think of my life and emerging social work career prior to arriving in India, visiting Durbar, and starting this course in international social work as “BC”: Before Calcutta.  Previously, my Western lens provided me with what I regarded as perfectly “normal” thoughts about sex work. Although in recent years I have embraced the sex positive movement, I am ashamed to admit that I did not extend the idea to sex work. Before beginning this journey, a small part of me may have still thought of sex work as an individual’s last resort or a profession that those involved were ashamed of and disliked. After our Durbar orientation, doing the readings for the first two classes, and enjoying lectures, my mind has exploded with new information and a new lens with which to view sex work as a legitimate profession. If anything has resonated with me during these first two weeks, it has been the mantra: “sex work is real work” and the idea that often times, an assumption is made that all sex work is exploitative when it reality, it is not. I have learned an important lesson: do not enter into a situation with any preconceived notions or assumptions. Unionizing around sex work is not to improve conditions for individuals working in an unfortunate profession. Sex Work unionization is about legitimizing a profession that the vast majority of workers feel passionate about, enjoy doing, and do not need rescuing from. 

This week class and the readings focused heavily on International Social Work and it's foundation, current practices, etc. I'm learning very quickly how much bias I have, with my Western, middle class, white lens. I'm beginning to question everything about myself and my belief systems. 

I wrote a few weeks ago on the blog about the poverty in India, and a part of me wishes I could take back those words and rewrite them. I won't, because this blog serves as a place for my growth and reflection, and those words were true for me at that time. I came here with an idea of "poverty" and an idea about myself. But much of it was based around assumptions that I've grown up with about "poverty" and "developing countries". What exactly is a developing country? It's an interesting question to think about. We consider ourselves to be a developed country, an industrial power... yet the US is a relatively new country, when compared to countries that have been established (though perhaps under colonial rule at times) for many centuries. Our country is only 300 some odd years old. I read a news article recently about how political corruption is holding India back from becoming a more "developed nation"... but don't we experience similar corruption in the capitalist US? 

In class last night we talked about universalities and the dangers of assuming "universal ideals/morals". Is anything universal? Is anything applicable in every single situation? Probably not. Each situation must be carefully investigated and considered. What we believe to be progress in one instance may be oppressive in another instance. The example that TJ gave in class is Roe v. Wade. As a liberal feminist, I had always considered Roe v. Wade to be progressive and positive for women in the US. However, what I didn't know was that there are a group of women who suffered, and who still are suffering, because of Roe v. Wade. Black women in the south had better access to abortions pre RvW than they do post. Now, more southern black women have less access to safe abortions, have to travel further, and die more often from complications than they did pre-RvW. There is always another side. With every good comes bad, in one form or another. 

It all depends on the context. What is murder? Is state sanctioned death murder? What makes the electric chair not a form of murder? (My own personal beliefs on the Death Penalty aside...)

One sentence uttered by TJ last night was enough to make my heart turn to ice. "Whenever we come at it from a 'oh those poor things', we're coming at it from a position of power and privilege". 

Is that how I came to India? Is that what I thought of sex workers, here and in the US? Is that how I thought of the "sidewalk sleepers"? I don't know that I ever would have used the term "poor things", but in that how I thought/think? I have been making assumptions for my entire life, based off of movies, media, my education, etc. about poverty, without ever interacting with impoverished peoples in an international context. In the US, we are bombarded by images and stories and a general knowledge/assumption that those who live in "3rd world countries" are so much worse off than we are. But who decided that? We ourselves? Why did I not think first about the strengths? The ability of people here to be resourceful and smart? They are the ones who are living this reality. How can I make any assumptions about them at all?

I realize these are jumbled thoughts and questions... I can't formulate a better post right now because I'm still working it all out in my head. This morning I woke up and laid in bed thinking about class last night. I feel silly and privileged and fraudulent. And very, very white. I don't even know what that means to me anymore.


Today I go back out into the field. Sandra, my research partner, and I will have a chance to spend the day with a peer educator who goes to the brothels to visit the sex workers. I am really looking forward to this hands-on experience and it will be great for our research. But something just feels off today. Remember those cheap, plastic spinning tops we played with as kids? And how if you started with a bad spin-off from your finger and thumb, the top went into an unbalanced, crooked spin that was off-kilter. That's what I feel like right now.  TJ always says that the best learning is done when you feel uncomfortable, and I'm going to have to just embrace that today and tomorrow and for however long I feel like this. 

In the meantime, please read this unrelated, but interesting article: Americans Can't Even Stomach An Apology for Slavery, Let Alone Reparations.

Also, I've had a request from a few people to write more about the babus and their role in the lives of sex workers. I'd love to elaborate on that, and on my research project (as I keep promising to do). I'll make that my top priority for my next post. 

Until then-

PS. Today marks 3 weeks since I've arrived in Calcutta. I have 25 days left. I don't want to leave and I don't want this to end. 


Anna said...

One thing that kept coming to mind while reading your (fantastic/thought-provoking) post was the "disaster porn" we're supplied with in the US. Often our pictures of "less developed" countries are pictures of starving children, no electricity, dirty water, etc. While those things DO exist in the world and should not be forgotten, they shouldn't form our understanding of other nations, or reinforce privileged comparisons about our own so-called "development." We don't see the ubiquity of cell phones, or pop culture, or the collective aid efforts we so often ignore in our own communities. As you (and TJ) said, "for every good there is a bad." However, our portrayal and acknowledgement of ONLY the bad in so many situations is not the "good" response we imagine it to be.

In studying anthropology, and now social work, the question of how to face that dilemma is difficult and uncomfortable to answer. Maybe I'll never answer it for myself. Anthropology, I suspect, would strongly benefit from more frequently turning that gaze inward and questioning the Orientalist and voyeuristic impulses that founded the discipline. However, I'm much newer to social work, and the best I can do for now is to do what I can to embrace my discomfort, question my Western framework, and eliminate any corresponding notions of universality. Maybe in two weeks that will also seem naive and questionable, but all of us are putting this learning process on display. Just not to the same degree as you!

JustJude said...

We will have to sit on the beach when you get back and have a conversation about this. I made many observations while in Guatemala that I would like to share with you and compare with your experience. One thing is for sure, everyone looks at everything through the lens that has been created from their past experiences and education (formal and otherwise). In Guatemala, I saw many people that could have been the poster "children" for the non-profits that charge $30 a month to house and clothe a person in this 3rd world country. Those people had very little material wealth; hardly had what we would consider the necessities to satisfy the basic needs in life (shelter, food, etc.). But from my (unfortunately limited) observations, they also appeared healthy and happy. Their interactions with their neighbors and even strangers gave me the impression that they had a sense of community and they appeared genuinely happy (and maybe blessed?) to have exactly what they did have. I had to question if they really need my $30? Or is that $30 what is used (by well-intentioned people) to somehow attempt to "help" them to move closer to what we consider a normal standard of living (because it makes us feel like we have helped)? In reality, while well-intentioned, this attempt to help unfortunately could be destroying the culture and people they are caring for. Just some thoughts.. we'll talk. Love you!! Mom

livieland said...

Other countries that participated and benefited from the slave trade like Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua have discussed reparations, but I don't think there is any country that has issued them. Honestly, I don't think it will happen. 150 years has added 150 layers of complexity to the topic, and any type of national consensus on the issue seems impossible to reach in our modern society. However, I do think it is interesting to see some of the lawsuits that are drawn against individual entities that benefited from slavery (Brown University for example).

Anonymous said...

Wait, did you study Anthro in undergrad? How did I not know this! I studied Anthro, too. Haven't thought about Orientalism in sooo long! Lovely post - really got me thinking. - Susanne