Friday, October 3, 2014


Dismantling personal privilege is like reaching the front of the line, but stepping out to move to the back or leave the line entirely. You do this because you realize that there’s a whole slew of folks at the back of the line who will never make it to the front because of the restrictions that define the line. You realize the queue, regardless of its superficial democracy, is inevitably unjust and based on inequality and hierarchy.

What good does it do, one could argue, to leave the line when you were so close to getting your turn, taking that power, and directing it toward whatever you choose?

But you leave the line because you cannot stomach it, cannot bear to be part of a system so manipulative and oppressive. Whatever power and privilege you would accrue would be tainted with complicity, and the price your soul would pay for that would be too high.

Or—at the risk of employing a highly charged racial trope—dismantling personal privilege is like being at the front of the bus because that’s where you have been placed, based on education, class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, etc. You start feeling uncomfortable as you realize this. You walk to the back of the bus, and see that there’s a whole different culture based on a different set of values back here. One that is based more on cooperation than competition, more about creativity than productivity, more about the community than the individual.

For me, leaving Milwaukee, my home of 25 years, and more so, leaving the middle class lifestyle, was a decision to leave the front of the line, front of the bus, and willfully move to the back. Even as I experienced the severe disadvantages of being a woman of color in a heteropatriarchal white supremacy, I still enjoyed many benefits based on class and education. Living in the same city for so long as an artist/activist/teacher, I enjoyed abundant social, cultural, artistic, and political capital, and while I was married, economic capital as well. Because of my various networks, I could get around the city even with my eyes closed and hands tied.

Moving to Detroit was like moving to the back of the bus, while coming to realize, in true Detroit style, there’s a party back there! And it’s a much more exciting party than what’s happening in the stodgy, privileged, front of the bus. That is, what’s happening on Field Street—Field Street Neighborhood Association, the new community garden, New Work Field Street Collective, a prospective women’s collective, the Boggs Center—is much more interesting than anything Downtown or “Midtown.” I don’t have the comfort of my extensive Milwaukee connections, but I am gradually earning trust and developing abiding friendships. I moved to Detroit to be a learner more than a teacher, to embrace vulnerability, and learn how to live more sustainably and interdependently.

Moving to Korea is yet another step in dismantling personal privilege. Even more than in Detroit, I am truly nobody here, Bob Dylan’s “a complete unknown.” To the casual observer in this sprawling, crowded metropolis, I’m a confusing, androgynous mess. I look Korean, but why do I dress in such ratty clothes? No make-up, no bra, and so rude to have all that messy undyed white hair. What’s with those weird glasses, and oh my God, is that a tattoo? Either I get a cold shoulder, or sometimes, outright looks of disapproval.

What’s more, when I open my mouth to speak my broken Korean, I confirm my outsider status. If I was white and young and pert, I would be forgiven, and college students would approach me to practice their English. But a 50-something American ajumma? WTF? No one seeks me out, and it’s been difficult to make friends.

Indulge me in one more analogy: dismantling personal privilege is like learning to do a yoga asana not from your strength, but from your weakness. That is, instead of relying on the muscles that are always over-performing, to learn how to hold a pose from the underemployed, less conscious places in the body. For instance, in Tadasana, mountain pose, can you release the grip of the strong gastrocnemius (calf) muscles, and instead learn to employ the deeper soleus muscles that lie under the prominent gastrocs? Can you use yoga to awaken the unconscious, less intelligent parts of the body, rather than simply reinforce established movement patterns?

If I wanted to, I could spend every single day in Seoul with English-speaking expats. Facebook and Meetup teem with groups filled with English-speaking film buffs, musicians, foodies, dancers, literati, and every other interest you can imagine. You know—my people. But that’s not why I came here. I didn’t come here to speak English and recreate my American life. I came to learn, to reindigenize myself, and immerse myself in native language and culture.

What this means is that, at least for the time being while I am still learning the language, I am totally at the back of the bus, the end of the line, the bottom of the social ladder. Because I can’t express myself with any complexity or engage in in-depth conversation, I’m relegated to the periphery.

Korea doesn’t embrace difference, and Seoul in particular presents many difficulties for differently-abled folks of any type. At school the other day I saw a woman in a wheelchair, the first I had seen ever on campus. I watched as folks poured out of the elevator and another group poured in. The woman in the chair was left out. No one made space for her, and no one gave up their spot in the elevator for her. Even being physically large creates problems because of the density of the city, not to mention the extreme cultural bias and fat-phobia.

But I am slowly finding the “party at the back of the bus” here in Korea.  This weekend Jung-In and I are visiting an alternative community called 빈집, Empty House. In Detroit style, a group came and began occupying some vacant houses, and eventually created a community in Seoul. Now they have about 40 low and moderate-income people living there, a café, and a guesthouse where we are staying for 2000 won/night ($2).

Last weekend I went to the courthouse on Jeju Island where a group of activists received their sentences for civil disobedience, for protesting the militarization of Gangjeong village. Despite the somber occasion, I enjoyed sitting with the motley crew of down-to-earth cultural and political creatives.

My people are everywhere, and as always, occupy the fringes with flair, passion, creativity, vitality, and intelligence. Meanwhile, I toil away with my stack of vocabulary words, my clumsy tongue, my willingness to act the fool and be an object of disapproval, to be at the back of the bus where I can see all the dynamics and goings-on, and to be an open channel for whatever learning I can humbly absorb.

Hey, friends, pray for me. And join me in dismantling whatever privileges you have that depend on systemic oppression, while creating a more sustainable life for yourself and others. What other analogies can you offer?

In love and struggle,

Sister Gwi-Seok

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