Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe caused considerable outrage this week when she claimed that she sometimes skips meals so she can be in solidarity with those who are starving in her country. Her comment was particularly shocking given that her husband is partly responsible for the high levels of poverty in her country and that she has become so notorious for her costly shopping trips in Europe that she has been dubbed “Gucci Grace”.
To be honest, I don’t find Mugabe’s comments surprising at all. While Mugabe may be the most blatant example of someone condescendingly flaunting their privilege by treating oppression like an experience, she is far from the first. The mentality that Mugabe displayed is unnervingly common and is the very same mentality behind concepts like the CEO Sleepout, where CEOs of multimillion rand corporations spent a night in the streets of Sandton to “experience what it’s like to be homeless”. It’s the same mentality behind social experiments as seemingly harmless as the Fat Girl Tinder Date experiment, where a thin, conventionally attractive women used her thin pictures to get dates with men on Tinder, donned a fatsuit for the actual date, and then recorded their mostly negative reactions towards her. Because apparently, this is somehow an accurate reflection of how actual fat women try to get dates.
I can see how the intentions may seem noble at a surface glance. The participant recognises that they are in a position of privilege and that those who are not in the same position as them are suffering as a result of their marginalised position. This recognition is an important and necessary one that must be taken in order to address inequality in our society.
However, the second a privileged person wants to “try on” the oppression that a marginalised group faces problems arise. Certainly, an argument can be made that such an “experience” can be a humbling experience that many privileged people need. But at the same time, such an argument ignores that it is completely insensitive to the lived experiences of those whose oppression is being tried on.
As one fat girl said in response to the fat girl Tinder date video, at the end of the day the girl in the video can take off the fat suit and the makeup and go on being thin in a world that caters to thinness and treats thinness as the standard of beauty. Fat girls don’t have that option; they are fat 24/7. The same can be said for homeless people with regards to the CEO Sleepout and starving poverty stricken people with regards to Grace Mugabe’s comments. To pretend that one gains an understanding of oppression after experiencing it for a few hours is a short sighted one as such an experience is extremely limited.
[image of the CEO Sleepout which took place in Sandton in June]
Grace Mugabe may feel the hunger pangs for a few hours but she does not experience the desperation that comes with not knowing where your next meal will come from. The CEOs may have felt some of the discomfort that comes with sleeping outside but they were provided with warm sleeping bags, jackets, beanies, and security, as well as fires for warmth and billboards surrounding them to block off the cold wind. These are luxuries that homeless people do not have. “Trying on” oppression for a few hours does not give one a fraction of an idea of what it’s like to actually be oppressed, and to pretend that it does is the height of privilege.
In an age of social media, where information is highly accessible and marginalised people are speaking out about their experiences, reading the testimonies of those who face oppression on a daily basis is more insightful and far more informative than trying on oppression could ever be. Even in the case of the homeless who the organisers of the CEO sleepout wanted to help, I believe that it would have been far more empowering for the homeless to have been given an opportunity to share their stories.
I feel that efforts like the CEO Sleepout and Grace Mugabe’s comments take the focus away from where it should be and put it firmly on the privileged people who are “selflessly sacrificing” to experience oppression. The marginalised are once again being sidelined while the privileged steal the spotlight.
While I believe that the privileged absolutely should be more proactive in the fight for equality, I believe that we need to be critical of the approaches we take. Rather than taking seemingly noble gestures at face value, we need to be questioning whether or not these gestures are empowering to those they claim to empower or are done from a shallow, extremely privileged perspective.