What the Different Owe to the Normal

Blogger Shiva made a thought-provoking comment in a discussion on Bird of Paradox:

it seems to basically say “oppressed/marginalised people can be treated as property” (to be “borrowed”, something must be “owned”), and simultaneously that an explanation of difference is something that the “normal” have a right to demand at will from the “different” (a term commonly used in the autistic liberation movement is “self-narrating zoo exhibit”).

Thanks to Questioning Transphobia for drawing my attention to this discussion. Go over to Bird of Paradox for the original context, or Questioning Transphobia for additional ruminations from a specifically trans angle.

I find the phrase “self-narrating zoo exhibit” both powerful and useful. Many of us who have, shall we say, non-mainstream identities, whether identities as queer, trans, Muslim, disabled, Native, Jewish any combo thereof and etc, know exactly what this phrase means.

We know what it feels like for others with some sort of privilege we lack to expect, nay demand explanations for our very personhood, or our right to membership in humanity.

When I worked with the refugee community, I fielded a lot of requests from grad students who wanted to interview refugees for their theses. Their plan:

1. The refugee service agency gives them the private contact information of their clients.
2. They set up interviews with these clients to compel them to relive some of the most horrific moments of their lives.
3. Grad student success! They write up a compelling, moving theses, get published, and land an amazing position at a prestigious university.

What’s missing here? Oh yeah, the fact that refugees are PEOPLE, not exhibits to be researched. Not only that, but the recently-arrived refugees who my agency worked with were in incredibly vulnerable situations. New to the country, little or no English ability, few financial resources, survivors of unimaginable trauma, often suffering from PTSD or other mental health issues. Did the grad students really think we’d just give out their contact info and let them milk refugees for all the juicy details of how they watched their fathers die, their mothers get raped, their houses burned?

What were the refugees supposed to get out of this little exchange? Oh, nothing. The students never even gave a second thought about that, they just assumed the refugees would be honored to get attention from them. The students never considered volunteering, developing real relationships and trust, donations of any kind. It was to be a one-way transaction for them, and the understaffed, underfunded service agency was to facilitate it, and the refugees themselves were TO LIKE IT, GODDAMN IT!

America was giving them shelter, so the refugees should be expected to explain themselves. Again. And again. And by themselves, we all know that we mean: the juicy violent horrible stuff, not their personalities and their likes and dislikes.

Whew, sorry, the anger is coming back. Well, belately I now know what I would have said to those annoying grad students. Refugees are not your self-narrating zoo exhibits, bitches! So shove your thesis where the sun don’t shine!

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2 thoughts on “What the Different Owe to the Normal

  1. My first understanding of what you’re talking about happened back in another lifetime; as a teenager on one of those “mission trips” to Mexico.
    We stayed in a small, destitute town outside of Tampico. One day the group leaders decided we should see what REAL poverty was like, so we took a drive through a nearby town that was in even worse shape.
    As our white, recent-model van full of white Americans rolled slowly through this town, I had never seen people without doors or glass in their windows. Eyes peered out of shadows at us thinking I don’t know what. I will always wonder.
    THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT ANIMALS, and this IS NOT A ZOO!! All I could do was grit my teeth and write in my notebook. No one else understood why I was so angry; surely by driving through to look we were expressing our compassion for these people, right?
    That was the beginning of the end of my experiment with Christianity, and the first time I made the connection between how my lifestyle and theirs were intimately tied together.
    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, my friend the Czech.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I feel you on the drive-by. I know that in defense of the grad students wanting to interview refugees or a church group driving through a Mexican slum, people would say that these are important lessons for the privileged to learn in order to foster compassion and a desire to ‘do good’ in whatever sense.

    This thought, though well-intentioned, still puts the lives and experiences of the privileged group above the underprivileged. You know, as in “Sure, the slum-dwellers have to undergo the additional indignity and degradation of being human zoo exhibits, but the well-off Americans are learning from it! Here’s an idea: why don’t we spend the money instead to send the slum-dwellers on a tour of wealthy American neighborhoods. I wonder what kinds of lessons they would bring home from a little reverse cultural tourism?

    Oh, are we not supposed to let the proles realize how greatly they are taken advantage of? Well excuuuuse me.

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