I’m joking around with the women and girls in my host family. My host sister is pretending to be a guy by deepening her voice, so I pretend to be one too, and then ask for her hand in marriage. She’s confused – why would I ask her to get married, if we’re both men? Okay—maybe my subconscious intentionally brought me to this “teaching moment” but there’s no turning back now. “Oh yea,” I say casually, “in the U.S., women can marry women and men can marry men – it’s normal!”
And okay, I didn’t have the vocabulary or captive audience to discuss heteronormative structures and the complex challenges of not being straight in the U.S. so I had to glide over this reality. Anyway, my whole host family starts giving me quizzical looks and asks to see pictures, so I pull up a buzzfeed listicle of cute gay weddings. “Normal!” I continue. “I have tons of friends who have a girlfriend or boyfriend of the same sex.” I then show them a photo of a recent gay Muslim couple who got married, to really drive the point home that there are gay people of every race, religion, creed.
They tell me, “we don’t have that here in Morocco.” And of course I reply, “well, I’m sure that there are people who like the same sex, but I know it’s not accepted or allowed to get married here.” That’s when my host mom jumps in with the obvious: according to Islamic law, romantic relationships and marriage should only be between a man and a woman. I counter with, “well, I believe that everyone looks at their own religion differently! Like some Muslims dress differently according to their understanding of the faith, or how some of you pray all five times per day, while others don’t. Everyone has the freedom to decide how to follow their religion.”
And then my host family decided to become LGTBQ activists! Just kidding. We all went to bed. I’m just using this pretty dead-end anecdote to open the subject of ignorance, which, according to Father Google, is simply a “lack of knowledge or information.”
I think that everyone has to be at least a little ignorant, if we’re using the word literally. Unless you’re the Internet, it’s pretty hard to have all the knowledge or information on everything. But the knowledge or information we do have—from our environments, friends, conversations, and readings—shapes our perceptions. My host family is perfect – but because of many different factors, their understanding of sexual orientation is ignorant; it lacks information.
I’ve become very into sharing my own perceptions lately, in Morocco and with friends and family back home. But whether it’s feminism, religious freedom, education, or nationalism, I find it difficult to walk the line between promoting what I perceive to be “right” or “true,” and sounding preachy, self-righteous, and even condescending—particularly in the context of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. Across the Atlantic, my friend was struggling with the same conundrum—the day after the lauded Women’s March.
See, my friend and I are both straight, white, cis-gender women, and while we both are feminists, we understand that our privileges have made this whole “being a woman” thing a whole lot easier. In fact, not being constantly aware of the crucial differences that nationality, race, sex, orientation, ability, and class make in the cross cutting issues that women face results in a feminist agenda that is just as white and marginalizing as other patriarchal structures. When our feminism isn’t completely rooted in this intersectionality, the following things happen:
Like me, my friend did not want to be preachy, self-righteous, and condescending to her friends; especially given how good it felt to celebrate unity and empowerment the day after inauguration. On the other hand, she saw the ignorance of many white people in her community, who, like Jennifer Willis in the article “Women’s March on Washington Opens Contentious Dialogues About Race” don’t understand why we should not constantly be checking our privilege. In fact, many people in my own (privileged) circle ask me why I seem to talk about privilege so much in the first place.
So, on many levels, my friend and I share the question of--how do we share our valid perspectives in the face of ignorance, without being preachy/condescending?
One possible way: in addition to checking our privilege, we can check our ignorance.
Just as visitors and immigrants enrich and broaden U.S. national discourse, it’s okay for me to have conversations around gender, inclusion, or sexual education here in Morocco. But as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I must share my perceptions with the understanding and attitude that as an outsider, I am much more ignorant about this community, Morocco in general, peoples’ experiences, values, and perceptions, and basically everything here. By the time I leave, I will not even be close to finished learning.
At the same time, my friend is better positioned than I to talk critically about race within her own community to white friends who are less aware about the centrality of race and intersectionality to any conversation on women’s rights in the U.S. While she does not have personal experience with the injustices she is describing, she can still make a difference in her community through her active allyship. Just like people say we can have the biggest impact in our own communities, I think we also have the biggest right—nay, duty—to criticize our own communities.
The catch-22 is that developing opinions that are critical of your own community usually requires getting outside of that community first, and continually afterwards. I became aware of privilege only because of friends that didn’t share my privilege. I started recognizing that supporting Palestinian freedom and being Jewish are not mutually exclusive, only after spending time with people who are more critical of Israeli policy. I became aware of national identity's exclusivity once I traveled and met more people from other countries.
Reducing your ignorance doesn’t just come with education level or young adulthood – because there are plenty of young, college-educated people in the U.S. who have managed to stay even more ignorant than me. Ignorance also can’t go away by writing and sharing single articles on twitter/facebook, since these are limited by language, internet access, dissension filters, short attention spans, and saturation from everything else online.
Instead, the slow process of becoming a little less ignorant comes from living among diversity. It’s having uncomfortable conversations, consistently reading different viewpoints, and most of all, forming relationships that confront and surpass the process of overcoming that ignorance to begin with.
I think if ignorance were less of a taboo word, it wouldn’t have taken me this long to realize just how much learning I have to do. Checking our ignorance is the first step towards learning to listen, without neglecting that desire to express the valuable information and knowledge we’ve gained elsewhere. After all, genuine solidarity among women in the U.S., between Peace Corps Volunteers and host communities, and within progressive movements, will not come at the expense of critical thought, but rather, because of it.