Interfaith Abroad, Part 2: Privilege, Context, and Coming Home

Read Part I here.

Travel gives you space to see new things, and learn to appreciate all the familiar things you take for granted. Travel grants the traveler a suspension of their own reality, a liminal place between the normalcy of home and the foreignness of the community into which one wades. In this liminal space the traveler can see the truths, often hidden behind routine or in the familiarity of the every day. During my most recent trip to India, I was confronted with the circles of privilege that I unconsciously move through.

In India I moved through circles of privilege and oppression quickly. I am privileged because I am white and American. But I am oppressed because I am a woman. I have a shorter security lines to wait through at the airport, but I am stalked and harassed by strange men on the streets.

some of our unrelenting fans
some of our unrelenting fans

 So much of the discussion of privilege seems to state that privilege is static. But like all aspects of identity, it is fluid. In India I felt the acute sense of oppression – of non-freedom. Over the course of my month in India, this happened again and again – men snapping pictures of me and my white female companions without asking (or ignoring our requests to stop, to the point a local guide had to forcefully intervene). It felt objectifying, as if by virtue of my foreignness I was reduced to merely a thing that could be consumed in photographic form. At one point, when a bus that my students and I were on stopped for gas, a young woman climbed aboard, looked at us for about 90 seconds, then got off. We were told later that she’d never seen a white woman before and wanted to look at us. I felt like a zoo animal. 

I moved through circles of privilege – white and American, but also a woman. A westerner, but also a Christian in a predominantly Hindu country (of minority religious communities, Christians are well-thought-of, so there’s a privilege there too). I wasn’t prepared to be confronted by my multiple identities in such a stark way, but travel has a way of shaking you up and making you pay attention. Travel forces you to reckon with what is too often taken for granted; in my case, the way my race and gender affect my interreligious work.

We can’t divorce our racial, ethnic, and gender identities from our religious convictions. My identity as a Presbyterian pastor is informed by my identities as a white, middle-class American woman. I can’t inhabit my religion in any other way. But, interreligious works seems to exist in a vacuum where other identities don’t seem to exist. We don’t talk about the intersection between racial or ethnic identity and its effects on how an individual participates in her or his religious tradition. But we must, there is too much at stake not to.

On my campus we have a program called Perspectives which includes a series of workshops on identity, privilege, and social justice. There are different workshops that focus on specific interests – like gender, sexuality, or issues of structural discrimination. But, what is emerging through collaboration is the added acknowledgement of the ways religious identity plays into these other issues. We are developing a workshop on religious diversity, and creating pieces that can be added to existing workshops. 2015-07-21 06.24.38

While I think travel and the exposure to other communities and cultures is an excellent (and essential) way of helping individuals see their world and their own identities with fresh eyes, it is a privileged experience. University classrooms are the natural place to begin these essential discussion about identity. How can we new leaders bring our intersectional identities to the table? How can we re-frame the conversation to make room for the broader perspective that intersectional identities give us? How do we talk about privilege and power, remembering that individuals move through circles of privilege and oppression depending upon the context?

India didn’t teach me to notice my multiple identities, or my privilege. But, India did shake me up and make me pay attention to the moments of freedom and non-freedom that I experience on a daily basis. India brought intersectionality to the forefront of my mind. And, India gave me the space to notice what I take for granted and begin asking the question that I hope lead to better conversations and dialogue.

Images courtesy of the author.

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