Tunnel of Oppression 2006 Reflection

May 6th, 2006
Tunnel of Oppression Reflection

Over 1200 people walked through the tunnel this year. That’s 1200 people who were affected by something we did. That feeling is probably one of the most incredible feelings I have ever felt. Granted by involvement this year was behind-the-scenes and only towards the end, I still feel proud of what we accomplished and would like to thank everyone else who worked on the tunnel for allowing me to tag on in the end. I truly wish I could have worked on a room and I have lots of excuses but I basically didn’t have time semester. Ok, enough about that. Constructing the tunnel was indeed stressful and I think people walked out of Stamp at midnight on Monday with long faces and the miserable feeling that they would be up for a long time that night. Needless to say, many stayed awake for hours (myself included printing out papers, frequenting Kinko’s, gluing, stapling, and basically getting stuff ready for the next day. We got to Stamp at 7am the next morning and rushed to put the finishing touches on everything before opening time at 10am (which was delayed until 11am but whatever).

11am- Doors open and people start trickling in. Some for extra credit, some because they saw the vague “The Tunnel is coming” signs, and some simply out of curiosity. The whisper track starts, the rape video is turned on, “Believe in Me” and chanting can be heard throughout the tunnel. I never thought sound could be such a powerful trigger of emotions.

“You May Enter Here” reads the sign at the entrance of the tunnel. So I enter. I am immediately faced with a wall of pictures of ridiculously skinny models with amazing bodies and perfect features. I turn around and catch a glimpse of myself in the full length mirror and see anything but perfection. Doesn’t everyone know that mirrors are for looking for flaws? I face the mirror and I see myself but I also see the wall of perfection behind me and I size myself up to them. I desperately think of ways that I am better than “them”. Better than those who are gorgeous and flawless. I tell myself that I am happier than them; I am not faced with the pressure of looking like that every day, I don’t have to worry about everything I eat and where it will go. Justification for being imperfect. Funny how the mind works. I turn to the right and see the ‘Vanity” mirror. Vanity-literally it says. In this superficial world of ours, however, vanity seems to go hand in hand with self-confidence. What do all those diet commercials say? If you look good, you feel good. I wish I could say that it wasn’t true, but it is. My baggy tunnel shirt and jeans are not flattering. There are bags under my eyes from the past few sleepless nights and my hair is a mess. I’m done with mirrors. I turn the corner and stand in front of the rape video in shock and disgust. I want to tear my eyes away from the screen but I am rooted to the spot. My mind plays ticks on me and it’s not funny. We are so conditioned to separate what we see on TV from reality. Rape is reality. Watching scenes of rape on TV doesn’t make it any less real. 1 in 4 women will be raped. 9 out of 10 women will not report that they were raped. Come to think of it, would I? I feel like I would NEVER want to think about it again or I would be too ashamed to even speak of it. I can’t even imagine. I recall Jonathan’s poem about the statistic becoming 1 in 3…Nausea ensues and I walk away but those screams haunt me throughout the tunnel. Genital Mutilation. I think back to our global studies debates about cultural relativism versus moral absolutism. Should we accept certain things like genital mutilation as being part of a different culture and regard it as something we can’t interfere with? What makes it a human rights violation? Where do we draw the line? The next thing I see are babies in a dumpster and a description of illegal methods of abortion that women used before they could go to a clinic. Don’t get me started on my pro-choice philosophies. In this country we are granted the right to freedom of religion. If YOUR religion tells you that life begins at conception then don’t get an abortion. If someone else’s religion or lack thereof tells them otherwise, don’t try and force your beliefs on them. Abortion should not be used as an alternative to birth control, I get it. I still believe that women should have the right to CHOOSE. That’s just it, it’s a choice. You can choose to have an abortion or not to have an abortion. Everyone wins. I look up and see “out of reach contraception” and am reminded of the microbicides presentation at the SGAC conference. An alarming number of women in South Africa and other developing countries contract HIV from their husbands who refuse to use protection. They think it’s a sign of distrust and they think it’s atrocious for the wife to even ask him to use a condom. The proposed solution? Microbicides- a vaginal gel-like substance that acts as protection. The woman doesn’t have to tell her stubborn husband that she is using it. It’s still in developmental stages but I really think it’s a revolutionary method of prevention.

I read the Wall of Shame look down at the glass ceiling and then enter the LGBT room. A wall of pictures and I have to guess their sexual identity? Is this an exercise in purporting stereotypes or reversing them? How else am I supposed to guess? I go by the only standard I know- what society tells me is “acceptable.” A man with long hair and feminine features- can he be straight? A girl with short hair dressed in baggy clothes- what’s your first reaction? I flip over one picture and see that the person has described himself as “bicurious”. I giggle but then I stop and think…that’s a pretty darn good answer. I walk a little further to the bathroom scene. I never though about how transgender people are forced to choose between one or the other in so many social settings. But I can’t help but wonder if it would be realistic to have it any other way? What’s the alternative? I walk out of the bathroom and turn the corner to the “Gay Bar” scene complete with rainbow beer glasses and flag. I am immediately reminded of my first gay bar experience at “The Bronx” in Cape Town, South Africa. I’m not going to lie and pretend that I felt perfectly comfortable, but it was certainly an experience. I turn around and see a WALL full of civil rights denied to non-heterosexual unions. A wall. A whole wall full of them. Disgusting. I am a firm believer in the fact that being homosexual is not a choice. Actually, does it even matter? Why can’t we accept people for who they are? Why are we so averse to letting people be happy? Who are WE to judge? On Semester at Sea, Jed asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu how he felt about homosexuality. I’m watching my footage right now and here’s what he says “Our [South African] constitution outlaws discrimination based on almost everything- gender, disability, sexual orientation, culture, whatever whatever. So in South Africa it would be a criminal offense to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation. My own position which is not necessarily the official position of the church- my own position is that I fought against apartheid because it was penalizing people for something about which they could do nothing- their skin color, ethnicity, whatever. And I also opposed discrimination against women in our church. For a long time we did not ordain women to the priestdom and I said I couldn’t just keep quiet and I couldn’t, just as a matter of justice, you couldn’t tolerate a situation where people were being discriminated against about something for which they could do nothing about. Their gender. And then we have this third category where I think almost all the evidence is pointing to the fact that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. If it was…see, who would be crazy to choose a way of life that exposes them to so much- homophobia, violence, even murder. I would say myself that it is clearly a given that you don’t choose to be gay, you don’t choose to be lesbian, you don’t choose to be whatever. And so for me, it’s a very straightforward matter. I couldn’t possible keep quiet when people are discriminated against; injustices are leveled against them on the basis of something about which they can do nothing- their sexual orientation. And so I would, yeah, in our Anglican church it has become a burning issue. But I stand fairly squarely and solidly on the side of gays and lesbians and I say that. ..hehe they’re human beings and are entitled to all the rights of all human beings. And I would hope that one day we will wake up and wonder why we were so crazy for so long?”
Ok so I keep walking. Wait- look down. Throw a pebble in the bucket if you’ve ever described something as “gay.” It hurts my ears and my heart to hear people describe something negative as being “gay.” I’ll admit it, I used to say it too. My turning point? Throwing a pebble in the bucket at last year’s tunnel. I haven’t said it since. But it’s so hard to stand up to your friends. Especially when people laugh at you when you ask them not to say that. And trying to explain it to them is even worse. I’ve stopped trying. What a horrible thing. If we all “stop trying” nothing will change. Sorry guys, I’m about to start again. After all, words can sometimes hurt just as much as actions, if not more.

On to the Class Room. I walk down a narrow brick hallway that reminds me not to forget about the “Invisible Poor”. I feel claustrophobic and nervous as I walk through the hallway with tattered clothes and frightening statistics sharing the wall. The hallway ends and I am faced with a decision….sets of footprints on the ground. Which path should I follow? I forgo the intended route and just walk around aimlessly. We waste 65 billion pounds of food a year? Economic disparity screams at me from all over this room. A dinner table with a plate of food next to a plate of food stamps. “The amount of money spent on cosmetics in the US could provide basic education for all.” Income inequality in MD/DC. And then I see a copy of the Diamondback article about the homeless university student. I recall reading it but I conveniently forgot about it the next day. And now…the feeling of “helplessness” begins. A feeling that I carry all the way through the tunnel and afterward.

I move on to the Race Room. I first see the definitions along the wall of social group, target, privilege, Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, etc. But my attention is drawn towards the TV which is showing clips of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” ( I think?). Stereotypical descriptions of different cultures….wait a second, I watched this in Dafni on SAS. Why didn’t it bother me then? Taken out of context and placed in a room intended to raise awareness about racial oppression…maybe that’s what’s wrong with the world. Everything is relative. Laugh about it in the moment. Take it out of context and it’s offensive and atrocious. There are pictures of people along the wall and a sign that asks me to “Find the American” I learned, over and over again, on SAS that much of the rest of the world sees American as being blond haired and white skinned. That’s not me. I was born and raised in this country. I am as American as you are whatever that means. And now I am forced to live a hyphenated-existence. Too much information in this room. My head is spinning.

On to the Ableism room. It’s those whispers again. And those stares. I walk past the TVs as fast as I can. But people with disabilities don’t have the luxury of “walking away”. That’s reality for them. That’s their life. Ableism-discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities; discrimination in favor of the abled. Have you ever said “That’s so retarded??” That’s just like saying “That’s so gay.” Think about it. Just like there are people who are gay. There are people who are mentally retarded. Neither one has a negative connotation so it shouldn’t be used in a negative context. I continue walking to the classroom and there are activities at each desk to simulate what learning would be like if you had cerebral palsy, ADD, or dyslexia. I guess that’s something I take for granted- my ability.

Religion Room. A candlelight vigil of sorts to martyrs of religious resistance. I turn my attention to the Temple of Intolerance (good job Earl). Inside the temple are tombstone like structures highlighting religious persecution in Uzbekistan, Myanmar ( yes now I do feel a little guilty for going there- thank you USA Campaign for Burma), and other countries. I walk out of the temple and see more stats about Burma, Abu Gharib, Northern Ireland, Falun Gong, and of course the “organs for sale” display. I walk through the metal detector and it beeps a warning for the future. Yeah we’re erring on the side of caution, but at what cost? This room makes me so angry that I don’t know what to do with myself. In my briefings I told people that we have resources for action available for them at the end of the tunnel but what about resources for anger? A punching bag maybe? Or a pillow to muffle my screams? But wait, anger doesn’t solve problems- it causes them. I remember what we’re been trying to teach our class- non violent resolution and how difficult it is for them to grasp the concept. I understand for the first time how difficult it really is. How can you attack someone based on their personal beliefs? Time for a Desmond Tutu quote again. This one is from his Global Studies lecture- “Remember that religion, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It’s morally neutral. And I usually use the analogy of a knife. I say when you have a knife; it’s neither good nor bad if you use that knife to cut up bread for sandwiches that knife is good. If I used that same knife to stick into your guts then that knife is bad. Equally with religion, in and of itself, Christianity is not in and of itself is good. It is what Christianity makes its appearance becomes. And so you have very good Christians and very bad Christians. After all it is Christians who are at each others throats in Northern Ireland, its Christians who were responsible for the holocaust in Germany, its Christians who are responsible for the apartheid in South Africa. So Christians cannot walk around and strut and feel arrogant that they have seniority in moral conduct. Didn’t we burn people at the stake? And we have Christian fundamentalists. There are people who say “the bible says…” and they get to say quite a lot of things. The bible says a lot of things and many are things that I would not accept. I don’t accept. Just because it is in the bible doesn’t make it therefore right. But we call people who do behave that way- so when you talk about fundamentalists- we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t say, because this terrorist is a Muslim, therefore Islam is terroristic. ….the people who were responsible for the Oklahoma bombings were not Muslims, they were Christians. I don’t remember that we then said, because they were Christian fundamentalists therefore Christianity….we didn’t say that. We said that they happen to be bad Christians. Such that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. I get very sad when we Christians seem to think that we have a corner on the God market. There are so many of us who think that God was a Christian. God is not a Christian. I mean, people get upset when you say that to them- God is not a Christian. I mean what was god before Christianity came along? I mean Christianity came along only about 2000 years ago do we mean that before that ” oh poor god”, god had no religion? He was waiting for Christians to come along? It’s bologna of the worst kind. And we all…see, religion is a very powerful agent and many people will want to use religion to sanction whatever. Now I’ve met the Dalai Lama. Now I’ve met fewer people more holy, more serene, more everything really that I would want to be. But he’s not a Christian. I can’t imagine god saying “you know Dalai Lama, you are a neat man. but I wish you were a Christian.” or mahatma Gandhi- just look at how good you’ve been about non-violence and all of that kind of stuff. You would have got into heaven you know? I mean we make our God so small. No. GOD BELONGS TO ALL and ALL BELONG TO GOD. I mean, every single one of us is precious. Even though you deny the existence of god. I mean, if I had the power of god to hold someone in being and this guy deny s my existence I would smash them up. But god doesn’t. That’s incredible. God is a god who says all of you are precious to me. All of you. I mean, I sometimes say I’m so glad I’m not god. Imagine god has to accept responsibility for Saddam Hussein….. for George bush….”

Now on to the last room. The International Room. So much information everywhere. Shameful corporate practices, the new American flag, economic oppression, the Shell sign, structural adjustment programs, IMF and World Bank, white phosphorous, Halliburton, military spending, and of course North Korea. North Korea is an issue that I didn’t know much about before Tunnel but now I feel so stupid to not have realized what was going on. The sex slavery room was creepy and reminded me of the movie Salaam Bombay. I kept walking and saw the AIDS display that we had put together. I wasn’t affected by the pictures that we taped on the floor until right then. There’s just something about stepping on faces that creeps me out but I guess it goes along with the ” If one of us does…we all have AIDS theme” The last corner of the room was about animal rights and they had some really interesting facts. I’m glad we decided to include that.

Now the best and worst part of the tunnel. The graffiti wall. Every time I looked at this wall I got teary-eyed. There were both positive and negative comments, but just the fact that people commented showed that we affected them in some way. “It took me 20 years to become who I was and 20 seconds to break it all down.” “I feel like throwing up.” “I feel human.” “Let’s change things.” and of course “cheap emotional mutilation.” There was so much written (and unwritten) on that wall…I don’t even know where to start.

That’s it for now. Thanks so much to all who worked on the tunnel and especially to Jonathan and Juliana who served as inspiration to us all.
I have video footage to send all of you. IM me at XOakXO becaue the file is too big to email out.
Send me your pics too!!!!

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