Jessey Eagan, a mother of two, is the voice behind the “Pandemonium… My Life of Utter Chaos” blog; a blog that reads like a how-not-to manual for white Christian progressives. The stories range from her “loving to compliment people if they have dreads, and also get feedback on mine (appropriation of black hairstyles)” to her husband dressing up like a muslim shooting victim (I can’t even) for an Oscar’s party as an act of protest against American Sniper.
Jessey has decided to go through Lent wearing a hijab. Through this she intends to combat islamophobia and remind herself and others what it is to be an outsider. She is blogging about her effort; saying it is “all about helping my people, specifically white Christians, learn how to see difference, embrace it, and engage with it.”
Those eye-roll inducing tidbits aside, it seems that she truly does desire to remind herself and others of what it feels like to be an outsider. I don’t know her heart and I won’t assume, as many have, that she is motivated by a need for attention. In fact, I want to affirm what she has done right. Jessey lives in relationship with Muslim women and has taught at an Islamic school. Her husband works for an organization that seeks to build bridges between Christians and Muslims; though I am wary of an organization that has a website message to devout Muslims saying, “We invite you to consider our message of love and compassion through the many resources we offer those seeking to know the one, true God. Please let us know how we can serve you in your search for the truth“.
I always appreciate when members of white America take steps to move beyond themselves and actively seek to challenge the systems of oppression that they themselves benefit from. For that, thank you, Jessey. Still, those of who pursue what is just must not shy away from correction. We must always be asking, “Where could I have done better? How could I have gone further?” We don’t need to vilify this woman in order to realize that her choice is another in a long list of examples of people meaning well yet doing wrong. No amount of good intention changes that. We’ve got to push past the idea that intent is all that matters. Results matter too. Every act we engage in must be tested with the question, “Is there anything in my “activist” work that is actually oppressive?”
Let’s not pretend Jessey is unique in her error. All of us need to stop acting out of our own privilege in some ill-informed effort “empathize” with those who are marginalized. A better, and less offensive, use of our privilege would be to decenter ourselves and amplify the voices of those we seek to serve and be in relationship.
Can we turn the page on the “social experiment” chapter of activism? The fat suits have been worn, the unnecessary wheelchairs have been used and the straight pastors have gone “gay for a day”. Let it be over. Jia Tolentino said it well, “In 2015, if these experiments are useful in increasing political empathy, they are useful only to people who have a troublingly low level of it to begin with.”
Might I suggest an alternative? Perhaps 40 days of intentionally sharing the stories of the Muslim women in your life? Or even handing your blog over to them so they can share their stories thmeselves? In Jessey’s case, this was would have been a very doable alternative. That’s a wonderful thing and could have put her in a unique position to build a bridge between her Christian and Muslim communities without appropriating parts of a culture (even if her Muslim friend did give her a thumbs up) and running the risk of defeating herself by unnecessarily offending others.
Eagan has acknowledged in multiple interviews that this could be seen as (read: IS) cultural appropriation and may offend some Muslims but she appears to find it relatively easy to dismiss that, “The last thing I want to do is offend,” she says. “I am trying to break down cultural barriers, and I’ve found that this is a very simple way to do it, and I hope that people will understand that, and maybe walk along with me in this journey.”
Jessey continues to defend the choice by pointing out that she knows what it is to be a minority because she lived in Jordan… 7 years ago… for a mere 18 months. Reality check, folks. Being a minority in numbers is NOT the same as being a minority subject to systemic racism that affects every aspect of your life. Privilege is being able to treat being a person of color like a costume you can put on and take off at will. Privilege is being able to leave the country in which you are a minority. Privilege is being able to center yourself in a conversation about marginalized people.
Do we really need another privileged person to walk a mile in someone’s shoes? Do we need a white person to put on the dressings of the oppressed in order to legitimize their stories and experiences? There’s an inherent offensiveness to engaging in acts that reinforce this idea that for silenced voices to be heard AND believed, someone (someone who is seen as reliable) has to “become” the silenced. Perhaps the truly revolutionary act would be to believe them. To say, “I haven’t walked in your shoes. I haven’t lived your experience. Still, I hear you and I choose to believe you.”
Putting on a costume for a few days isn’t going to show you what it’s like to be a person of color. You will never know the lived experience of a person of color. You didn’t live like that. It’s no more possible than it is for me to know what it is to walk through this world as a blonde blue-eyed woman.
Do not put your desire to understand above our desire to be respected.