The Expert Pretender
The assignment is to write an op-ed on a topic on which you are an expert.
Needing more guidance, naturally, I go to Google.
“How do you become an expert?” I type and in .63 seconds my computer presents me with Malcolm Gladwell quotes and Business Insider articles, but before this cacophony of answers, Google has it’s own: ‘Study; Apply; Summarize; Teach.’
At school the following morning I join a conversation lamenting New York’s unlivable prices, its racially biased methods of policing, Columbia’s crippling student debt — capitalism, the patriarchy — the litany of exhortations with which we are all familiar. I am drawn to these discussions of dissension, love to judge and hate on the ‘system’. I recount how enchanting I found Cuba when I visited last year — with its communist ideals, buildings made of patina-ed scraps of metal, chipping paint and broken windows. The rawness and grit are romantic and real. It is my type of place. Just as high rent and tuition are my problems too.
But in using Google’s formula to reveal my expertise about which to write this op-ed I instead uncovered a flaw — it’s prescriptions excluded experience as a perquisite to expertise.
While systematic racial and socioeconomic inequality may be a constant theme in my conversations, the focus of my Masters Degree, and combatting it, my field of work, how can I claim expertise, when, in actuality, I haven’t had to struggle for much beyond requesting almond milk in my latte instead of ‘regular’; I have never been victim to police brutality; or, that thanks to my capitalist grandparents, I do not have student debt or limitations on my rent.
These are odd times, where ambivalence and pessimism have become the norm. As divisions grow deeper and discrimination more unequivocal, as idealism dwindles and certainty fades opaque, my generation has become frenetic, fearing isolation and uncertainty. Most of us are neither Philando Castile nor the officer who killed him, neither a Goldman Sachs broker nor on dependent on food stamps. But as mid-20 year olds we are all desperate for something to inspire and ground us, to give us purpose and shape. In the emptiness and ambivalence we grow uncomfortable and so we run without knowing what towards, but because we are moving.
Today’s overtly unapologetic disparities as explicit as the affordable housing units across the street from apartment buildings that advertise ‘dog spas’ as an amenity of their $8,000 monthly studios make me uncomfortable. I am outsider to both.
To reconcile this unease I have rushed to StandingRock, to occupy Wall Street, to join hurricane disaster relief trips. I have rebelled and rioted, but with the assurance that my fate would remain relatively unaltered despite the outcome. I have spoken on behalf of these populations because I cared about their struggles but not because I knew them.The attempt to reconcile a yearning for hope and purpose juxtaposed with privilege and complacency is dangerous. While support for these movements is crucial, these are not my fights to command or experiences to narrate.
The Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum calculates that by 2010the two million volunteers who had traveled to New Orleans to participate in post-Katrina service projects spent approximately $1,000 during their weeklong visit, during which, on average, they worked no more than 14 hours. The museum demonstrates that the two billion dollars spent traveling to New Orleans to volunteer for 14 hours could have rebuilt 20,000 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, as opposed to the 1,200 that were actually repaired or rebuilt.
After requesting that protestors leave because their encampments were destroying the land, a Standing Rock tribe official wrote: “One of the key tenets of any movement is being considerate about how we treat the community in which we bring our voices and respect the places where we are visitors…the community has every right to choose how it wants people to help them.” Mother Jones reporter, Wes Enzinna writes of the dissonance between the “white-led environmental groups like 350.org, which focus on climate change, and Native activists, who believe the larger issue is one of tribal sovereignty and the unfinished struggle for NativeAmerican rights. The protesters were spread among three encampments, including a largely Native camp and another filled with white activists I heard described as the ‘Brooklyn’ of Standing Rock.”
I pretend because it is more interesting to have a story of strife than of inheritance. I pretend because doing so benefits me in principle without hurting me in practice. I pretend because we live in an era of dichotomies and imbalance that suffocates young idealism and development.
I am an expert at pretending.
But pretending will not dismantle the hierarchical systems creating the divisions and uncertainty cause us discomfort and fear.Assuming a cause as a means of finding your own is to tell truths that are not yours to narrate and to lead movements on which you are no expert.
So, to those who’s struggles I have claimed as my own in my search for purpose and aversion to uncertainty, tell me your truths and teach me your expertise. To those like me — and I know there are many of you — continue to show and stand up, but try listening before you yell. There is space for us all as long as we make the room.