Archive | March, 2012

Saturday quote

31 Mar

“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.”

—Herbert Spencer

Social justice jargon

30 Mar

Today, I’m just posting a follow-up to yesterday’s post, when I threw down some jargon.

For more on slacktivism and soft bigotry (see yesterday’s post):

ANTI-IMPERIALIST PRO-VEGAN RADICAL FEMINIST HIP-HOP & GRIME REVOLUTIONARIES

29 Mar

In reading more about KONY2012 (I know it’s over for some people, but the issues of advocacy v. implementation, the [mis]information power of the internet, responsible engagement v. “slacktivism,” and the “soft bigotry” of the “Save Africa” mentality are far from over), I came across this blog: https://sistersofresistance.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/kony-2012-is-racist/ (search for “Racism, Invisible Children and the Kony2012 Viral” if the March 7th post doesn’t pop up).

I thought their compilation of perspectives (while homogeneous) were articulate and compelling, and it made me wonder who these Sisters of Resistance are. As I clicked on “About Us,” I noticed the all caps tagline at the top of their blog:

ANTI-IMPERIALIST PRO-VEGAN RADICAL FEMINIST HIP-HOP & GRIME REVOLUTIONARIES

… and I forgot about Invisible Children and KONY2012 for a moment. The sisters–or sistas, as they call themselves in their “About Us” manifesto–declare:

We are sista resista, a revolutionary, anti-racist, anti-imperialist feminist diode conducting the current in only one direction — against the tide of oppression. In our rejection of patriarchal gender roles for women including submission and servitude, we are not divorced from popular culture, but engaged in a critical analysis of it.

We resist the ideologically motivated, neo-liberal cuts being forced upon the poorest and most vulnerable. We resist racism, white supremacy and imperialism. We resist the commodification of education. We resist neo-liberalism and capitalism. We resist environmental destruction. We resist war and systematic violence. We resist patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic behaviour and attitudes and the white male power structure. We also resist sexist domination and abuse from men in so-called “activist” circles and our personal lives.  We resist all forms of oppression and injustice, wherever they arise, all of the time.

What I find fascinating about the tagline is how “PRO-VEGAN,” “HIP-HOP” “& GRIME” are invoked as synonyms for “revolutionary, anti-racist, anti-imperialist feminism.” Let’s take “HIP-HOP” as an example: while the genre may seem like an obvious match for a revolutionary movement, a look behind the scenes of the music industry suggests otherwise. In the documentary HIP-HOP: Beyond Beats and Rhymes filmmaker and hip-hop fan Byron Hurt reckons with the reality that white music executives are profiting off the commercialization of the music, videos, racist stereotyping of black men and women, and violent sexism and homophobia of rap (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/hiphop/film.htm). And this is what the Sisters of Resistance are using as code for “against oppression.”

As for “GRIME,” that shorthand resonates with me as someone who both works in the arena of social justice and lives in Mill Valley, CA. I’m supposed to live in Oakland (and not the hills). That’s what I read when people’s eyebrows register my privileged zip code. Because Oakland is synonymous with The Work, The People and Social Justice. Oakland is authentic. And it would make me more so to move there. But again, that’s shorthand. I’m in this work because of my privilege and to unleash more privilege for more people. Getting a “grimier” zip code won’t in and of itself make me more engaged. Although it might make me look more like a sista.

This is not to critique the Sisters of Resistance. In fact, I really dig their blog. It’s to take a moment to reflect on the shorthand we use everyday in our communities to try to define and present ourselves and our values. Because that shorthand may not ultimately serve us or the values we aspire to embody and enact.

Trayvon Martin and the Hunger Games

28 Mar

Note: I write this post with absolutely no knowledge of The Hunger Games, book or movie. But according to jezebel.com editor Lindy West, some teens are furious–or just racist–over casting choices for the movie.

Apparently, the authors Suzanne Collins described the character Rue as having “dark brown skin and eyes.” On that basis, picture the character: what do you see?

Apparently Collins needed to make an explicit announcement: Rue is black! Check out some of the teen response to Rue and her–surprise!–blackness:

“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad,” wrote [one teen]. (Okay, you’re racist. And you left out a “k.”) “HOW IN THE WORLD ARE THEY GOING TO MAKE RUE A FREAKIN BLACK BITCH IN THE MOVIE ?!?!?!??!” wondered another. One didn’t mince words (or use them correctly in any way): “Sense when has Rue been a nigger” (http://jezebel.com/5896688/i-see-white-people-hunger-games-and-a-brief-history-of-cultural-whitewashing?tag=hunger-games).

Let’s step out of the Hunger Games frenzy and back into the nonfiction world for a moment. In the still raw aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, these children’s uncensored sentiments seems to embody a national truth: that a black person dying just isn’t as sad. Because that black person is a nigger, or at the very least a bitch.

While West reports, “Pretty much all of these teens have since locked or deleted their Twitter accounts—because it’s totally cool to be racist in front of your friends, but the rest of America can be a real drag, bro,” I am not entirely reassured. As in the Trayvon Martin case, the violence is done: our protesting it is critical, but what did we do before Zimmerman pulled the trigger or these teens tweeted their hate, to say it is wrong to hate people because they’re black? Did we just read about emancipation and the Civil Right movement, and think we could check “unracist” off our list? Did we express the requisite shock and appalledness at previous incidents of racism among a group of sympathetic peers, and derive some comfort that the problem is not us? Did we personally commit to treating everyone equally by not seeing or speaking about differences?

While the notion of equality seems irreproachable, I would argue that the problem with treating people equally is that we inevitably treat people equally as if they are all the same. That is to say, as if they are all men, as if they are all heterosexual, as if they are all physically able… as if they are all white. West’s analysis of this Hunger Games race-confusion is spot on:

Those tweets raise knotty questions about what we see when we read—how our brains conceptualize things that aren’t explicitly dictated, the ways our subconscious is conditioned to fill in the blanks. The characters that these racist garbage-teens are so upset about are either explicitly described as having dark skin (to the point where, while reading, I felt a little weird about the demographics of Panem—did they seriously just make District 11 the black-people district?), or not specified at all. But, of course, if it’s not specified, it mustbe white.

The ubiquity of whiteness in popular media is so overwhelming that, in the absence of any racial signifiers, I would guess that the majority of white people and a significant number of non-white people automatically assume that characters are white.

Yes, white is the norm, the default, the unless-stated-otherwise–even when stated otherwise. I am intrigued by the physical descriptions of two of the main characters Katniss and Gale: from “dark hair, olive skin, and grey eyes” (http://jezebel.com/5896515/a-character+by+character-guide-to-race-in-the-hunger-games) we get blonde Jennifer Lawrence and Thor’s younger brother (Liam Hemsworth)? While neither of these characters is “necessarily white” in Collins’ novels, apparently they are.

And for the record, here’s a picture of Amandla Stenberg, the young actor (just 13) who plays Rue:

Stenberg’s mother is African-American and father is Danish. So even Collins’ “dark brown skinned” character ends up more lightly interpreted.

And while this whitewashing seems harmless enough in the world of fiction, the teen fans who carry their zealotry over into the real world illustrate the non-fiction consequence: Trayvon Martin could never have been their hero. So his death really just doesn’t matter to them.

To read more about the racial furor over Rue’s casting, check out: http://jezebel.com/5896408/racist-hunger-games-fans-dont-care-how-much-money-the-movie-made.

* Thanks to AIP for the article.

Hyenas in petticoats

27 Mar

In November 2011, London journalist Laurie Penny wrote:

You come to expect it, as a woman writer, particularly if you’re political. You come to expect the vitriol, the insults, the death threats. After a while, the emails and tweets and comments containing graphic fantasies of how and where and with what kitchen implements certain pseudonymous people would like to rape you cease to be shocking, and become merely a daily or weekly annoyance, something to phone your girlfriends about, seeking safety in hollow laughter.

An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/laurie-penny-a-womans-opinion-is-the-miniskirt-of-the-internet-6256946.html).

Sadly, Penny’s is not a surprising revelation, given the misogynist insults female figures publicly elicit (imagine what Rush Limbaugh might have felt comfortable e-mailing to buddies in private about Sandra Fluke). But it is still disturbing. Even more so? The fact that she’s not alone. In the wake of Penny’s disclosure, the UK’s Observer noted that receiving graphic rape threats for voicing an opinion is “business as usual in the world of website news commentary–at least for the women who regularly contribute to the national debate.”

Business as usual. Since at least the 18th century, when, according to Penny, the writer and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft was called “a hyena in petticoats.”

This gender-tailored threatening and name-calling reminds me of a conversation I had with friends the other night. A man in the group was positing that there is a gender equity more or less in name-calling, in that both men and women “have” categories of slurs that pertain specifically and solely to them (“bitch” versus “dick” were his examples), including body-part specific slurs. And I disagreed.

Just because there are words to denigrate both men and women does not make those words equal. (And, by the way, what a sad version of equality that suggests: not an equality that uplifts, but an equality that drags all of us down.) Consider just for a moment the difference between calling a man a “dick” and calling a woman a “cunt.” It’s not the same. There’s a particular venom to the latter term, a taboo which gives it that much more power when it’s invoked. I would argue that the slurs for women tend, on the whole, to pack a meaner punch than the slurs available for men. And that’s not even getting into the rape threats.

While I appreciate my friend’s observation that we as a culture don’t shy away from sex-based insults for men or women (or race-based insults for people of all and multiple races), I disagreed then and disagreed now that this is evidence of sexual equality or equity. The fact is that there is no equivalent to threatening a woman with rape, or a black person with lynching. And being called a sexist or racist for saying either of those things doesn’t carry the same intent or intimidation. These are the trump cards, if you will, that reveal a tacit desire to perpetuate bigotry and keep unearned power intact.

Just say no… to flowers?

26 Mar

Here’s a quick synopsis from The Week about the Lithuanian custom of men giving women flowers on International Women’s Day:

Did you get flowers for International Women’s Day? asked [journalist] Jurgita Noreikiene. In Lithuania, just as in other countries in the former Soviet sphere, it’s customary for men to give women flowers on March 8. “Just for being a woman.” For being so “feminine, charming, sweet, and caring” that men must, as a matter of course, treat us like princesses. “Stop, stop, stop!” This is not what the day is supposed to be about. It started back in the 19th century as a women’s labor movement, a “day of solidarity” when women protested against their crappy salaries and rotten working conditions. Now we are free “not only to work and earn money, but to run our own businesses.” We have paid maternity leave and child care. We should be spending this day “thinking about what we have won and what is yet to be achieved.” For example, we have equality before the law, but we’re still struggling against sexist stereotypes. That’s why when our male co-workers shower our desks with flowers once a year, it’s not exactly appropriate. “Of course they mean well. But this gesture disempowers their female colleagues”—no matter how “flattered” we may be (http://theweek.com/article/index/225527/lithuania-saying-lsquono-thanksrsquo-to-flowers).

Noreikiene’s call for Lithuanians to rethink an accepted and seemingly harmless (even admirable, to some) tradition is for me an apt example of UMass Amherst professor Sonia Nieto’s observation that “nice is not enough” if a society is striving for equity and justice. Beyond perpetuating the very sexist stereotypes that Noreikiene decries, this custom of giving flowers ends up turning a celebration of women into yet another instance of institutionalized heterosexism.While I can appreciate the sentiment of the flowers, what’s “nice” about the gesture is simultaneously dismissive of real disparities that continue to disadvantage women and men, especially as long as they can be petaled over with an understandably preferable exchange of flowers, smiles and status quo.

Noreikiene got me thinking about other holidays when we give flowers–and ties–as a way of honoring people in our society. What if Mother’s and Father’s Days weren’t just occasions to give the usual gifts that say “thanks for being so sweet and caring” but instead, days of solidarity when we “think about what we have won and what is yet to be achieved” in terms of rights for mothers, fathers and guardians of all socioeconomic standings and family structures? Of course, we could practice “yes, and…” thinking: recognize the issues that we still need to tackle as a society, and have our waffles in bed, too.

This post comes well ahead of either parent’s day as an invitation for each of us to rethink what and how we want to honor this year.

Saturday quote

24 Mar

“Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings–that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”

—Buddha