by Guest Contributor Catherine Traywick, originally published at Hyphen
My last column, about the ethical differences between charity and solidarity, was a heavy-handed critique of NYT Magazine’s “Saving the World’s Women” issue. Good criticism, however, ought always be tempered by practical suggestions for improvement. So, for this week, I’ve distilled the opinions of other critics, suggestions of notable theorists, and my own rich reserve of activist foibles into 3 simple (albeit wordy) tips for doing solidarity work the right way.
Tip #1: Realize that, no matter how much you know, you actually don’t know shit.
When Americans set out to work transnationally, we have a tendency to assume that our education, or experience, or even underprivileged upbringing makes us both “insiders” into other people’s struggles as well as qualified to tell them how to address it. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that a poli sci major, a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, and/or a stint as the president (and incidentally only member) of your local Amnesty International Chapter makes you qualified to be anything more than an asshole just shy of completing an undergraduate degree.
Third World activists, as well as scholars studying transnational activism, have long decried the Western tendency to speak for, over, and about people of the Third World under the seemingly benign mantle of “global sisterhood” or “global citizenship” or some other similar ideal that blurs the ethnocentrism of their efforts. The first UN Women’s Conference in 1975 is a well-known example of this conflict: many Third World participants took issue with the feminist manifesto drawn up by white American feminist Gloria Steinem, which had been touted as a common framework for action, but was crafted without input from Third World activists.