Oppression and Other bodies
There is a tweet that often recurs on my Twitter timeline. Someone will log on to the site and post "what are we angry about today?" It always makes me smile sadly, as I realise both how often we make our anger visible on the social-networking site and how often we have something to be angry about.
As Roxanne Gay writes: "On my more difficult days, I'm not sure what's more of a pain in my ass - being black or being a woman. I'm happy to be both of these things, but the world keeps intervening. There are all kinds of infuriating reminders of my place in the world." The world serves up constant reminders that certain bodies are treated differently, whether you are woman, gay, transgender, differently abled, black, poor, or a combination of these, there is a detestable hierarchy of privilege that calibrates your humanity. If you are not a white, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied man, the world will constantly remind you of this fact, of your 'Otherness' and its fragile vulnerability.
This past week was marked by the collision of three events that served as yet another reminder that the bodies of those who are 'Othered' are unsafe and constantly violated. The explanation for what some might view as the unlikely meeting point of all these stories is the narrative of structural violence carried out against certain bodies, which calls for the importance of intersectionality in our thinking about how human bodies live out their differences - the acknowledgement that "at the level of the individual, we can at differing points occupy positions of privilege", and that our experience of the world is coloured by multiple aspects of our identity.
Last Monday, I awoke to find that there was another leak of celebrity nude photographs. A user of the site 4Chan had leaked private photographs of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Ariana Grande and Jill Scott, among others, in a flagrant violation of their privacy that should be viewed as a reprehensible sex crime against all involved. However, in a post titled "After naked photo hack, 'white feminists' ignore Jill Scott", the Washington Post highlighted how while there was an outpouring of support for Lawrence, Scott's story did not receive attention and remained invisible. It is another instantiation of the fact that appearance, both phenotypical and otherwise, so often determines how we are perceived and received.
On Wednesday, many contemplated what has been an ongoing discussion about South African artist Brett Bailey's new work, Exhibit B. The performance supposedly investigates the "human zoos" of 19th century Europe, where black living bodies were forced to be exhibits for a paying white audience, but in actual fact is simply a replication of the same power structure, and as TO Molefe argues, is both misguided and false consciousness.
Later on the same day, the story about Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz began doing the rounds on social media. Sulkowicz was raped in her dorm room, but the authorities refused to take action when she reported the incident. It is a familiar narrative that transcends place and time. In response, she has undertaken a performance art piece titled Carry that Weight, and will carry her mattress around the university until her alleged rapist is expelled, or leaves of his own accord.
It is a remarkable yet simple act of defiance, but also a reminder of how often 'Otherness' can remain invisible because of the erroneous notion that human rights discourses affords us all equality.
Contemplating these three events, I am reminded of the words of Ralph Ellison's protagonist in The Invisible Man: "It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass," as a predetermined lens structures and determines our perceptions of Other bodies. Sulkowicz's planned performance art undertakes the political act of rendering the invisible visible, in all its visceral colour and uncomfortable violence. Too often we are taught that we have a certain place in the world, and advised to stay in our lanes, experiencing subtle terrors of our daily existence in silence as the world seems stuck in a sadistic, oppressive loop.
In the wake of events like these, my immediate reaction is often a stunned silence, before the inevitable awareness descends that these events are structural manifestations of oppressive violence and will recur, and before the certain and immutable anger that follows. These ceaseless interventions leave us tired, but also require us to understand that when faced with the grammar of oppression, there is no place for silence. In the place of silence, we need to find a vocabulary of resistance that remains remarkably resilient and resolute. It is in these moments that I take refuge in the words of Maya Angelou: "We understand that these prejudices, these walls, have been built over centuries, and we must not be disheartened that we can't knock them down in three months or four years… We must understand we need some heavy artillery."
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler