Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Sotto voce

It has literally been a quiet month for me. In January, I had a flare up of tendinitis (like carpal tunnel, but the other side of the wrist). This meant I was unable to type without a brace for 2 weeks. It made work more difficult but not unmanageable. I talked on the phone often and kept my emails succinct. It is amazing how picky I become with my words when I'm forced to peck them out letter by letter. I thought about my writing discipline (or recently, lack thereof) a lot during that time period. Being forced to stillness, I appreciated how writing helps me organize my thoughts. I swore I'd get back on the horse as soon as I was pain-free.

Then I caught pneumonia. Not being familiar with winter and its ailments, I went ahead and did a community dialogue event, despite the fact that I had no voice and was running a fever. I don't share my job duties with anyone so there was no one to cover for me. Luckily, at these events, I work really hard on set-up and then let my boss and our community partners do the heavy lifting, so speaking wasn't absolutely required. It was, however, a giant pain in the ass.

I think about how, as an undergraduate and then well into grad school, I would state that the point of anthropology was to "give voice to the voiceless." A tad on the White Savior Complex, I realize now. My current work is forcing me to confront my imperialist notions of lending my voice to the downtrodden. It is uncomfortable at times. I like to think this last year has been a lot about learning to take a backseat while others speak.

I thought I had become pretty good at it, at least as far as the community dialogues have been going. After the last event, when it was painful to even utter a sentence, I had a corporeal reminder of how much I still talk in spaces that are devoted to people who have been marginalized by institutions. I was constantly worried about how others would take my silence (even though nothing was about me). I wanted to explain everything, from why I couldn't talk to how I thought the room should be set up to how the camera should be run. I don't think of myself as a naturally verbose person. It was a shock to realize how much speaking I do.

It was also incredibly frustrating. I couldn't ask for clarification on things that I didn't quite get. I couldn't talk out my thoughts into coherence. Regular readers may have noticed that this is often how I use this blog. It was hard to do my job without being able to communicate. It made me think of the ways in which challenges to communication directly impact people's ways of being in the world, whether that be as non-native speakers, non-literate people, or people with physical conditions that require non-traditional methods of communication. I'm not equating my week of painful silence with these experiences but it did force me to re-think the role of voice.

I think anthropology does have a role in making space for people from different lifeways to be heard by those in power. We should not presume, however, that the people we work with are voiceless. As anthropologists, as academics, as professionals, as Westerners (if you identify in any of those categories), we have privilege. I'm not always sure what to do with that, though. Do we act as cultural brokers, translators, activists?

I side-stepped these questions when I chose to work in the kinky community. The people I worked with generally looked a lot like me, were usually as educated (if not more) than I was, had higher incomes, and were almost all native English speakers and US citizens. I didn't have a lot of power to share with them. I wasn't discovering the atom by talking about stigma or ritual or gender. In bits and pieces, it was all already there. In some ways, my work with them adds academic legitimacy to their lifestyle as a subject worthy of study, but for most of the people I worked with, that amounts to a hill of beans.

So now, I'm in Cleveland. I work with amazing people who suffer the effects of racism, classism, and regional inequity. They are more than this. My struggle is to learn how to share my expertise and labor in a way that advances their goals without taking over the conversation. My body (my favorite learning tool) has spent the last month teaching me to shut up. Now, with the return of my hands and my voice, I will be more mindful of how I deploy my intellectual voice. The goal is more writing at home, less speaking in community, and always singing along while driving.