Last night, I experienced oppression. Being a white, American, Catholic, middle-class, privileged, heterosexual, conservative male, I had never before been able to experience oppression first-hand. Luckily, the RHA and a number of other groups decided to host a Tunnel of Oppression for people such as myself, so that we could “engage … in an immersive experience of scenes where participants experience first-hand different forms of oppression through interactive acting, viewing monologues, and multimedia.” In short, the experience was something of a liberal haunted house, where instead of being spooked by ghosts and goblins, you are instead spooked by such things as Border Patrol Agents, homophobia, and identity crises.
I am not sure if this was planned or not, but the entire first floor of Cobb is currently covered in Harry Potter decorations, which really did nothing to dispel my haunted house theory. Nevertheless, our tour of the Tunnel began as we walked into the room with the signage of Platform 9¾ hanging over the door. The first exercise (following the Roller-coaster-like introduction, where we were informed that we could of course step out of the Tunnel if the experience was too much for us) was one of those if-this-applies-to-you-step-forward (or backward) gigs. However, the only purpose of these questions seemed to be to segregate the white, American, Catholic, middle-class, privileged, heterosexual, conservative males from the rest of the group. My hypothesis was proved correct, when at the end of the exercise, my companion and I were standing in the front of the room and the six or so black members of our group (among whom was one-time presidential candidate, Joe Levin-Manning) were at the very back of the room. Maybe that makes me an oppressor? I prefer to blame this result on my altitudinal disability and the fact that this disability requires me to take smaller steps which would allow those in the room with longer legs to more easily move away from me.
Following this, we were each given a nametag with various derogatory names on them. I was a “Towel-Head.” We then proceeded down a flight of stairs (at which point the “Gimp” in the group was forced to take an elevator), passed a group of homeless people, and viewed a display that appeared to bemoan the existence of wheelchair ramps in the world. I cannot even pretend to understand what makes wheelchair ramps so oppressive, but the fun does not end there. We then viewed a skit of sorts that discussed the problems that revolve around self-image, weight, etc. The next part of the tour was absolutely classic.
Walking down the hall, we were confronted by two police officers, who lined us up against a wall and began checking IDs. However, they did not of course check everyone’s ID, just mine (the “Towel-Head”) and the “Wet-backer,” who upon being unable to produce ID, they promptly arrested. I will also note that the two officers had clearly defined and greatly exaggerated Southern accents. This was one of my main critiques of the Tunnel. Rather than provoking a substantive discussion about policy issues, the Tunnelers preferred to set up caricatures, straw men, and gross generalizations. In this case, they characterized those officers who legally enforce immigration laws as nothing but stupid, Southern hicks who hate Mexicans. There is, of course, plenty of room to debate immigration laws, but characterizing the current situation in this way was quite childish.
They also seemed to deride profiling techniques that law enforcement officials often use to catch criminals. But is that not what police work is supposed to be? In order to catch the bad guys, you have to have some idea of what they look like. If you know that your crook has a huge scar down the side of his face, wouldn’t it make sense to more closely examine those people with scars down their faces? There is no point in examining the people without scars, as you know your crook has a scar. The same principle applies to race.
We next moved on to the GLBTWXYZ room, where two people impersonating Evangelical Christians accosted the “Homo” in the group and began calling down fire and brimstone. There were several problems with this display. The first was that the Tunnel people were again setting up a straw man. Not everyone who disagrees with the idea that homosexual couples can enter into a traditional marriage is by definition homophobic. There is room for substantive disagreement on the issue without having to descend to petty name-calling. The two performers also did their best to use rather exaggerated Southern accents while they rattled off Bible quotes. The fact that this accent kept popping up throughout the tour indicates that the organizers of this little event have a rather low opinion of people who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line. This may be in part because the South tends to be the more conservative part of the country, but that is just a guess. If I was from the South, I would be insulted. However, in light of what I learned last night, I am doing my best to feel insulted on behalf of Southerners.
We next moved onto a display about world religions, which had nice little diagrams about what various people around the world believe. A few minutes later, we were rounded up by some guerrilla fighters and gassed. While we were being gassed, we had the opportunity to learn about genocide around the world and listen to a clip of people being gassed. This part of the tour seemed to do a good job of trivializing some of the larger mass killings of the 20th century. The two comical and absurd guerrilla fighters coupled with the tape of the gassing and the pictures of children killed by genocide taped along the inside of a play-gas chamber seemed a rather inappropriate and irreverent way of discussing this rather somber topic.
We then moved on to a performance on relationship violence. There was a noticeable hole in this performance though. Considering that the Tunnel seemed oriented to exposing students to oppression in all its forms, you would think that in this part of the tour, they would have included both a male and a female who could talk to the issues of relationship violence. Alas, they did not. Instead, I was treated to two women pouring out the stories of their oppression. While they claimed that the stories were true, the way in which they were told seemed to suggest that they were at least partially manufactured and that they were about as true as any of the stories told by the Democrats any time they talk about health care.
The final room was very strange. We talked about race relations. There were three speakers. The first one was an Asian woman who complained about getting a B on a test and was afraid of the abuse her parents would rain down upon her. This one was hard to take seriously, as it replicated the stereotype (which I thought we were supposed to move beyond) that all Asians are rocket scientists and their parents slave drivers when it comes to school. We then heard from a black man from New Orleans who complained about the lack of resources for black people after Hurricane Katrina and in relation to schooling. Of course, the common denominator in both those problems is the government, which he did not seem to appreciate. Somehow it is my fault as a white, American, Catholic, middle-class, privileged, heterosexual, conservative male that he suffered during the hurricane and that he went to a poor school. I would suggest that he instead look towards the government of Louisiana as the originator of his problems.
We then heard from a Latina woman who complained about how hard it is to get a visa and how people like her do the “dirty work that Americans don’t want to do.” A discussion about immigration policy is a topic for another post; however, her last comment nearly set me off. To be blunt, it is simply not true. As a white, American, Catholic, middle-class, privileged, heterosexual, conservative male, I have done such “dirty” work, even alongside migrant farmworkers. I have worked in a field and done all sorts of unpleasant work. And I know that I am not the only white, American, Catholic, middle-class, privileged, heterosexual, conservative male to do it. It is not fun, but it pays, which is why people do it, especially in this economy.
Finally, we were treated to the woes of a woman who is half-white and half-black. She seemed intensely fixated on the color of her skin and whether she should consider herself a black person or a white person. She concluded by saying that a new race is emerging “mixed, bi-racial, or multi-racial.” I will suggest that it does not matter what she decides to call herself. As Dr. Martin Luther King suggests, what matters is the content of your character, who you are as a person, and what you decide to do with your life. The color of your skin or your race should be insignificant details.
The Tour ended when we entered the Hallway of Happiness and were debriefed in a kumbaya session afterwards (what is a liberal feel-good event without one?). Thus ended the haunted house and the Tunnel. I suppose that most people come away feeling like they have really accomplished something and have successfully been made aware of oppression in the world. I came away convinced that the people running RHA are insane and wondering how anyone could want to spend three days of their life running such a thing. As far as awareness goes, I am now more aware of just how ridiculous these sorts of events are and to what depths some people will descend when they attempt to debate politics. It was a fun experience though. It was a neat twist on people watching, and provided me with valuable insight into the liberal mind. One thing I might suggest they add is a section on political and intellectual oppression. I wonder how they might have reacted had I worn my official Carolina Review t-shirt to this event. My instinct tells me it would have been rather ironic to observe.