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Thursday, June 10, 2010

American Privilege, On and Off the Internet

I know, I know. What a ginormous topic to take on in my first ever post! I've been thinking about blogging for quite a few months now, and wondering what would make a good first post. But this particular issue has not only motivated me into action (through fury), but also nicely covers a lot of the topics I like to think, talk, and write about.

A couple days ago, s. e. smith, a guest blogger at Feministe, posted a wonderful piece on the topic of American exceptionalism in blogging. The gist of it is that American bloggers tend to assume that their readership is largely American also, and so they don't explain their references to American politics, legislation, obscure historical facts, etc. They will post videos from Hulu (as frustrated Rest of the World Internet Users know, an video hosting site only available in the US) and report on events in the Rest of the World only insofar as they might impact the US.

Now, Feministe is an American website. It has never pretended to be otherwise. It's got this nifty ".us" tag which I actually don't think I had ever seen before. Granted, no one actually SAYS anywhere that it's an American blog, and there are no American flags or pictures of Uncle Sam or anything like that on the home page (although I think the little girl with the gun may be a comment on the US?). But that nice little ".us" tag at least lets me know that the bloggers are going to be American feminists concerned primarily with American women's issues.

Not so Feministing. Feministing is, as far as I can tell, one of the most widely-known (and read) feminist blogs ever. It has a ".com" tag which often, but not exclusively, refers to American-based websites. Nowhere on the site's main page, iconography or "About" section is there any reference to Americans or the US. It took about two days after I started reading the blog to realize that, rather than the international blog I had originally thought it was, it's actually pretty US-centric. Like, really, really US-centric. Like arguably more US-centric than the "fyi we are Americans!" Feministe.

Anyway, the reason Feministing enters into this discussion is that today I found a post in Feministing Community by inallsincerity, a community member from Sweden. S/he makes the point that

Feministing is not in the U.S. It is on the internet. The internet is accessed and enjoyed by people living all over the world. Feministing.com has a global "fan base" if you will. It is an international community. 

I personally thought this was a very good point, and aimed more at commenters than the actual bloggers. More or less predictably, it sparked outrage in the comments. Rest of the World commenters generally agreed with inallsincerity that yes, Feministing and especially its commenters demonstrate a certain amount of American privilege.

The American commenters, however, immediately went on the defensive. There were a couple of different arguments:

1) Feministing is an American site for American feminists. Readers have to be prepared for American-only and US-centric content.

If this is true, then the fact that the US is never mentioned in Feministing's mission statements etc. is another example of American privilege, almost to the point of blindness. Since I don't think Feministing editors are that blind, I'm assuming they intended to reach a more or less international audience, even though they themselves seem to be all based in the US. American websites dedicated to American issues and intended for Americans should have to make that very openly clear. Feminist blogs and sites attached to other countries mention it in the site name or on the front page.

2) American privilege doesn't exist/is a fallacy/is a stereotype/is an unfair concept.

Okay... now why are Americans allowed to say that American privilege doesn't exist when men aren't allowed to say that male privilege doesn't exist and white people aren't allowed to say that white privilege doesn't exist?

OF COURSE AMERICAN PRIVILEGE EXISTS. This makes me so angry that I will go on about it at length later.

3) Yes, American privilege exists, but not here at Feministing. It just seems that way because of demographics. Most of our readers are American.

This may be true, I don't know. I don't know if Feministing keeps stats on that kind of thing. But that doesn't mean that American privilege doesn't exist. Maybe it was disgust/disinterest in a US-centric community that pushed the Rest of the World away.

So. I'm Canadian. As a Canadian, especially one who lives very close to the American border and works in the tourist industry, I confront American privilege just about every day. The very name "American" is an example of US privilege. As the Arrogant Worms sing in "I am Not American,"

How could two whole continents
Lose their name to one constituent?
Where were we when the US went
And took the word American away?

(fyi, the song is supposed to be funny, not serious. This is the same band whose song "Canada is Really Big" includes the line "It isn't what you do with it, it's the size that counts.")

As a student of Canadian history, I can tell you right now that Canadians have been aware of American privilege at least since that whole Manifest Destiny thing in the mid-nineteenth century, if not earlier. (The fact that they kept on saying it was their God-given right to own our land and add it to their Great Holy Awesome White Protestant American Empire might have been a tip-off.)

But American privilege isn't just confined to real life. It happens on the interwebs too, as the blog posts I mentioned earlier demonstrate. From spellcheckers that assume the "u" I wrote in "colour" was accidental, to websites like Hulu, the interwebs are not kind to English-speakers outside the US. Even take just web domains. ".gov" is the US government, as if there is no other government in the world. (The Canadian government's domain is ".gc.ca" for Government of Canada, Canada. The Canada is there TWICE.) ".edu" is an American educational institution. ".com" is usually an American business and ".org" an American organization. Elsewhere, all of these sites would have just the location code domain name (in Canada, ".ca").

Sometimes these things are just merely annoying, like not being able to watch a video accompanying a blog post because it's from Hulu, or having to Wikipedia Title IX, the Ninth Amendment, or "Roe v. Wade". At other times, it can be offensive. Recently, a Canadian feminist issue made it onto Jezebel. However, many of the commenters misunderstood the story (the issue was about providing access to family planning in third-world countries as part of the maternal health initiative, but the Jezebel article made it sound like the federal government was refusing to fund abortions for Canadian women). Half the comments were along the lines of "Hey guys, remember that song 'Blame Canada'?" or "Oh, Canadians." There was some definite condescension and patronizing going on, but I doubt the people who wrote those comments were aware that Canadians would read them (possibly they thought we're all anti-birth control right-wing nut bags? In case you were wondering, government-funded universal healthcare covers abortion in most, if not all, provinces).

The reason that the commenters said those things is that they were ignorant of the fact that Canadians would be reading their comments, and might be offended by them. They were also ignorant of the issue in general. Ignorance is the key theme here, and in the response to the Feministing Community post, if you couldn't tell by the way I keep italicizing it. Of course, most people are ignorant of their own privilege until it is pointed out to them--more than that, until they change their way of thinking.

What infuriated me most about that particular discussion was the fact that non-Americans were saying, "You are privileged and oppressing us," and Americans were saying, "We are not privileged and you are not oppressed for reasons X, Y, and Z." Considering that it is a feminist, anti-racist blog, I assume that all participants had at least some knowledge of how privilege and oppression work, and probably some experience of being privileged themselves. They must have had the experience of telling some Other that he was privileged, and heard his denial. How could they not realize that the same thing was happening there? The group that is accused of being privileged doesn't get to decide whether or not their actions are oppressing another group or groups. If they did, they would decide that they weren't, things were good, and we would be stuck with the status quo forever.

At the very least, this dialogue has now opened up, and I'm grateful to s.e. smith for the reasonable, well-thought out piece from an American perspective. Hopefully more people will start thinking and writing on the topic!


Here is a pirate duckie:

This pirate duckie is a member of Barrett's Privateers, cruising the seas for American gold and smashing American privilege! Yay Pirate Duckie! I hope you're the one who survives at the end!

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