« November 2009 | Main | January 2010 »

5 posts from December 2009

December 29, 2009

Reading Update

Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic quartet:

Sandry's Book

Tris' Book

Daja's Book

Briar's Book

This is the one Tamora Pierce series I could never really get into, probably because it's staunchly middle grade instead of YA. The characters start out around 10 years old and don't really get older; the books are in chronological order, but take place over the course of only one year. I read it this time because my cousins kids are finally reaching tweenage, and I thought this might be a good Christmas gift. It's fun, and right in the Pierce vein, if younger than her other, more YA books, in which kids start out at 11 or so and grow up in the course of the books.

Tamora Pierce's The Circle Opens quartet

Magic Steps

Street Magic

Cold Fire

Shatterglass

So then I had to go on and read this one. These books again take place all in the same year, and don't connect to each other. In this one, each of the four kids is separated from the others and they have simultaneous adventures abroad. They're all fourteen here, so it's more along the YA continuum. I liked this one much better than the Circle of Magic series, possibly because it's less domestic, but also because it has more moral ambiguity in it -- that is, whatever moral ambiguity a Tamora Pierce series can have.

Tamora Pierce The Will of the Empress

Apparently a stand alone, featuring the four characters from the previous two series at age 18. It's fun, as all Pierce's books are, but not strong. Part of the problem is an analogy for rape that forms one of the major plot points and points of moral ambiguity in the book. This is the practice of kidnapping women and holding them until they sign a marriage contract: forced marriage. It's presented as horrible when we first encounter it in a runaway abused wife. But thereafter, it's presented as an opportunity for the character Sandry -- a young noble with enormous wealth, and therefore a very attractive potential bride -- to kick ass. It's a fun plot point for a romantic-ish novel. The moment you start to enjoy a rape scene, even if it's because the proposed victim is kicking ass, you've lost your moral footing.

Paul Beatty Slumberland

An African American DJ, who has created the perfect beat, goes off to Berlin to find a free jazz genius who disappeared into Eastern Europe during the cold war. DJ Darky ends up staying in Berlin through the fall of the wall and much of the nineties (which is when I was there.) Loaned to me by Sunyoung, who thought that the Slumberland bar depicted in the book was fictional. It's not. In fact, most of the hard stuff in this book is nonfiction: the bars and clubs, the Afrodeutsch Bundestreffen, the institutions in general; they all exist/ed. It's just that the book is a satire, so everything is portrayed with an edge of surreality, as so many satires seem to find necessary.

This surreal edge -- which I've found in everything I've read by T. C. Boyle and is why I loathe his writing -- prevents the narrative from putting emotional emphasis into anything. It prevents the characters from growing or changing ... or even from feeling real. It gives a sense of unreality even to factual things, like the Slumberland bar, which has a beach theme and a floor covered in about a foot of white sand. Yes, really; I've been there. In real life it's a delightful piece of whimsy, but in the book, it's a throwaway bit of melting clock, not to be believed anymore than the love interest's much-detailed farting sounds when she's asleep.  I hate this kind of satire; it's smug and superior and just makes fun of everything with an evenness that denies both passion and depression.

And all of the characterization in this book tends to come through characterizing statements rather than through scene, description, and dialogue, or even outright exposition. By characterizing statements, I mean past habitual action: "She would go to the store every day, playing Ozzie Osbourne on the car stereo. I hated it and would always tell her so, and she'd ignore me." This is not characterization. This kind of description of past habitual action implies that a character simply stayed the same throughout. The only reason to use it is to round up a character's base personality so that you can then show how the character changes throughout the action of the book. Because a character -- and a person -- responds differently to similar situations over time. Using past habitual action in place of a hard study of character and its changes is a cop-out.

However, the book is so well-written that I have to forgive it somewhat. Although the language is unrelenting and that's ultimately boring, Beatty is so good at it, and it's so fresh and funny in itself, that I kept coming back to it and enjoying it all over again. No, I'm not going to try to describe it or define it. It's Paul Beatty language from the first person pov of a character named DJ Darky. Figure it out yourself.

Ultimately, I think no novel, whether satirical or dramatic, is served by an unvarying, unswerving tone or language. It's variation that gives texture, and increase or decrease in depth and velocity that creates tension and meaning -- in both life and literature. I was disappointed in this book, but can't quite say that it isn't worth a read.

December 16, 2009

White "Privilege"

I'm writing this because it came up in a conversation I had with some friends recently. I don't want to get back into race blogging, but I've been thinking about making this distinction between "rights that not everyone has" and "privileges" for a while. And now that it's actually come up, I think I should put it out there.

In the conversation, my friends, who are white, protested that white people mostly don't use white privilege ... at least the white people that they know: by implication, the "good" white people. I was a bit shocked, and said, in essence, yes they do, all the time. They gave each other the "I'm not going to dispute this with a POC even though she's wrong" look. I couldn't shake off the feeling that we'd been talking at cross purposes ... again.

So I went back later, when there was an opening, and started talking about what I had meant by "white privilege." And judging by the reaction (listening rather than disputing,) my friends clearly had been working with a different definition of "white privilege" than the one that I was using. They also had clearly been working with the idea that "white privilege" referred generally to one thing, and that one thing was absolutely negative, and something all people could do without.

Their definition of "white privilege" seemed to be the one  in which "white privilege" becomes a less murderous version of "racism." Somehow -- not sure how -- all whites have access to white privilege, but only the bad whites actually use it. And when they use it, it's always a negative thing: pushing non-white opinions aside, taking credit for the work of POC, ignoring POC voices, etc. In this definition of "white privilege," the privilege is like an arsenal to which you have a key, but which you don't ever have to enter, much less take weapons from. This is the most basic level of understanding of white privilege.

But there are more levels to this issue. The next level of understanding white privilege, beyond the actively malevolent racism most people think of in the race debate, is "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." If you're unfamiliar with this idea, please read the article. In essence, the knapsack is about understanding that white privilege isn't necessarily something you choose, but something white people are born into (in this society) and walk through life with, without ever realizing it. The knapsack demonstrates that there are aspects of white privilege that you have no choice about. The article says that you can choose to give up your privilege, but it doesn't say how. And, really, how do you give up the privilege of, say, "taking a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race?" That's not a privilege you can give up or fail to use, because it's a privilege that is bestowed upon you by others, not one you take for yourself.

There are two dichotomies happening here that are confusing the issue. The first dichotomy is between active use of privilege and passive possession of privilege. Most white allies have no trouble understanding this dichotomy. (If you do, read "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" again.) But the second dichotomy is between a privilege that is good to have, but that nobody needs, and a right that everyone needs and should have, but which not everyone has.

So, at the third level of understanding white privilege, you have to understand the difference between those things that should be given up by the "privileged" and those things that should be extended to everyone, and NEVER given up. Here's where the term "privilege" gets very confusing, because we associate it, in our hysterically class-phobic society, with upper classes and that great American sin: unfairness. A "privilege" calls up images of yachting, and private tutors, and ivy-covered neo-gothic compounds in which secret societies choose future presidents at the age of 19.

"Privileges," strictly speaking, are things that are either earned, bought, or inherited. They are not "rights." Back in school, our teachers would make a distinction between  what we had a right to (an education, to walk down the street) and what was an earned privilege (a driver's license, permission to leave campus during school hours.) But when we talk about "white privilege," we're talking about a complex of things, not just the one thing. This complex includes (but isn't limited to):

  1. The ability to get away with tormenting and discriminating against people of color in small and large ways: from lynching and job exclusion to racist media representation and social stereotyping
  2. The ability to ignore the complaints of POC about being tormented and discriminated against; in essence, to live in a world in which this kind of discrimination doesn't need to breach your consciousness
  3. Easier access to "privileges" or luxuries, that are more difficult for POC to access, such as admission to clubs and elite schools
  4. Relatively unobstructed access to universally acknowledged rights, such as good health care, decent education, a fair chance in applications for jobs and schooling, decent housing, freedom from harrassment and danger, opportunities to thrive.
  5. General social acceptance of the legitimacy of what you say and do
  6. A sense of entitlement to fair or good treatment, that allows one to take effective action to receive fair or good treatment
If you'll notice, numbers 1 and 2 are simply negative: "privileges" that exist solely in a society in which a racial hierarchy exists. Without a racial hierarchy, numbers 1 and 2 would be impossible. They are solely bad, and are the most obvious form that a racist society takes. It's relatively easy to avoid number 1 if you are racially conscious, and relatively easy to tackle number 2 as well, which many white allies do by simply never disputing POC complaints of racism, and by making an effort to pay attention to racial discussions among POC. (It's a start, anyway.) I think we can all agree that these "privileges," if that's really what they are, can be done away with without further concern (were it only that easy!)

Assuming that number 3 is true (and I'm not asserting this unequivocally), this is where we're dealing with the actual "privileges" of wealth, status, and social power. As long as we are people living in groups, there will be such privileges. It's impossible to get rid of them. I don't argue with people who say that these kinds of privileges are unfair, but I'm also not super-exercised about acquiring them for everyone. I'm more interested in making sure that everybody gets a decent education, than in making sure that everyone gets a shot at getting into Harvard. These are privileges that people can resent, but until everyone has their basic rights and freedoms, these privileges won't--and shouldn't-- be the main business of social justice movements, because they sit above the basic rights that social justice movements are still trying to gain for everyone.

And that brings us to number 4. These things are called "privileges" because not everyone has them. But what they really are is rights. This is where the "white privilege" discussion really starts to get tangled up. Because these aren't "privileges" and they aren't things that white people who have them should give up. You can achieve social parity by taking away whites' ability to discriminate against POC. But you can't achieve social parity by blocking whites' unobstructed access to, say, a good education.

Now, of course, no one is blocking whites' access to these things. But the language of "white privilege" constructs this very simple dichotomy between things whites have that they shouldn't have, and things POC don't have that they should. So when greater access to jobs and schools results in a white person not getting the place they wanted, they revert back to this paradigm of access to a job or school being a "white privilege" that has been taken away by POC. They don't realize that:

  1. it was never a privilege, it was a right;
  2. the right wasn't getting the job or the school acceptance but rather having equal access to it;
  3. and that the right wasn't taken away by a POC, but rather extended to POC in general, thus making the pool of applicants larger and the chances of getting in smaller.

This is where the language of "white privilege" really starts to fail.

Numbers 5 and 6 are more complex still. Having what you say and do generally accepted as legitimate is a good thing. It's one of those things that POC should acquire, without whites having to give it up. But on the other hand, it's also not a right. We don't have the right to be believed. We don't have the right to be considered credible. We don't have the right to have all of our actions applauded. This, above all, is a privilege in human society that must be earned. The injustice isn't that people must earn credibility, it's that in disputes between members of different races, some people automatically have greater credibility and some people have an automatic lack of credibility, in both cases, unearned. In this case, social justice would not be automatically granting everyone credibility, but rather making sure that everyone has an equal chance to earn the privilege of credibility.

This is supremely hard to do because you can't mandate conferral of credibility. You can't tell people who to believe and who not to believe.

And number 6 is even more complex still, because the feeling of entitlement to speak up or act on behalf of yourself hangs, to a great extent, on the possession of number 5: a chance to earn credibility for yourself. POC who grow up being smacked down every time they speak up for themselves, being disrespected every time they act for themselves, will not feel entitled to speak out or to act. A lifetime -- and a community full -- of this experience, results in situations in which whites and POC are discussing or negotiating, and, because of this sense of entitlement, whites always speak up first, setting the terms of debate, and unknowingly using their greater credibility (yes, the credibility is general among whites and POC) to get more of a hearing.

POC antiracists tend to be very conscious of number 6, but number 6 is the one that white allies have the most trouble with. Because the strength to speak out and to act comes hard for everyone. It's an unequivocally good thing to learn to speak and act. And generally, people speak up when their rights are being abrogated in big or small ways, or when they have a chance to get what they really want, at no one's expense. But, at the same time, this is one "privilege" that whites often have to give up to vouchsafe POC access.

I'll give you an example, which I think I've mentioned on this blog before: I helped start and was involved in an Asian American arts festival for several years. The all-volunteer festival organizers were grouped into curatorial teams, with a team leader for each group taking point. The year after I left, a white man, who was friends with a lot of the organizers and spent most of his social time with them, joined the organizing committee, and became a member of the visual art team. When the festival coordinator asked for a team member to step forward and take point, no one did. So this white man, after some hesitation, did step up. It was apparent to him (he told me) that someone needed to do it, and that none of the others were going to step up.

He didn't know that in an Asian American group, you'll never know how much people will hang back, partly out of various Asian politenesses, and partly out of that POC lack of credibility and empowerment mentioned above. Working with a POC organization centered around self-determination is a long process of empowering yourself and others to take responsibility. Furthermore, this festival was specifically designed to give young adult As Ams an opportunity to empower themselves by doing. He didn't know that, when I was the festival coordinator, getting folks to step up to be team leader was a multi-step process, involving announcing it at a meeting where no one spoke up, calling team members individually later and asking if they *might* be willing to take point, then bringing it up again at the next meeting and delicately negotiating among the now two or three people who really wanted to do it, but hadn't spoken up before. He didn't know that, far from being frustrating, the process of empowering young folks to step forward is exhilarating, and wonderful to watch in all its slow, agonizing glory.

But, once he spoke up, there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that anyone else would touch it. The visual arts team leader is traditionally the person who gets up at the gallery opening and welcomes the audience. And since the gallery opening was the first event, and the official kick-off to the festival, that year we had a white man welcoming a mostly Asian American audience to an Asian American-organized festival of Asian American artists. It was quite a message, let me tell you.

When I talk about empowering people to step up and speak up, it's something they have a hard time understanding, coming from me. I'm a very assertive, step-up-and-speak-out kinda gal, both online and off. But what they don't see -- and what folks in my own community even don't see, is what it took to get me here. I've always been an assertive loudmouth: it's in my nature. I used to walk into neighbors' houses as a toddler and start talking to them in Chinglish, completely undaunted by the fact that they had no idea what I was saying. But early on in school I started getting smacked down verbally, and sometimes physically, by my peers and by my teachers and other adults. I got smacked down for everything: for speaking up at all, for being a child, for being unfeminine, for not being white, for speaking up at the wrong time or for saying the wrong thing or laughed at for saying it the wrong way, for having an outsider's point of view, for NOT having an outsider's point of view, etc. There was always SOMETHING to smack me down about, but it was almost always ultimately about not wanting to hear from me, because I didn't belong. By the time I was ten, I heard my father explain to some strangers whose children I wouldn't play with: "She's shy. She's not really shy, but she acts shy until she's known you for fifteen years." By the time I got to college, I had to learn how to talk to strangers at all, and one of the biggest revelations of my freshman year was that I could go up to people and just talk to them without being slapped in the psyche.

In college I started exploring identity issues by myself. There were a few Asians and mixed Asians around, but they (literally, no joke, no metaphor) ducked their heads and scuttled sideways away from me if I tried to talk to them about any issues. When I tried to talk to my white friends, they very simply and confidently denied everything I said. The conversations usually never got past my insisting that they not call me "that tall Chinese chick" since I was "half-Chinese." (By the way, don't call me that! ;)) "It's just a way of describing what you look like," they'd say dismissively, already losing interest in the conversation.

It took me five years of living in Germany and reading every identity lit and theory book I could get my hands on to find any confidence in my own point of view; everyone denied that my perspective had validity, so why would I think I was right and everyone else was wrong? And I came to the Bay Area, where there were a lot of Asians and mixed Asians, and spent a couple of years on online discussion groups with people like me, before I really felt comfortable speaking up on any of these issues, both within and outside of my community.

It took me, in fact, until I was past thirty to really feel like I could speak up in confidence and dispute other people -- particularly white men -- without getting hysterical or feeling smacked down. And I still get over-aggressive. Over-aggression is the reaction of someone who is afraid that she will be unsupported and attacked when she speaks up. And that fear is justified: it was my usual experience for the first thirty years of my life, and it's only because I'm a natural assertive loudmouth that I was able to (mostly) overcome it.

(Think about that the next time you think a POC is being overly loud, angry, assertive, aggressive, or just generally hysterical. Maybe they are. And maybe they need to be, to speak up at all. And the POC you'll see speaking up and taking leadership positions are often (not always) people who, like me, are natural assertive loudmouths who reconnected with their voices after discovering that they were externally silenced for political reasons. It makes for an explosive kind of leadership.)

Back to working in POC groups: The example of the white guy who stepped up to a leadership position that put him in the forefront of a POC org is relatively rare. But lesser examples of this happen all the time: for example at panel discussions organized by POC groups with mixed audiences. Often, when time comes for Q&A with an all-POC panel, the first audience members to raise their hands are white. It's not that they don't have the right to speak first, but whoever speaks first gets to set the terms of debate, and often gets to set the topic for debate. There are times when it's better to hang back and let the debate go someplace where you didn't want it to go, for the sake of the greater good.

This is what I was talking about above when I was discussing "white privilege" with my friends: those moments of mild culture clash, where whites are doing the unequivocally good things they were taught and empowered to do -- stepping up, speaking out, volunteering, taking responsibility -- not realizing that they are stepping on POC's opportunities to do the same. This is the one area in all of the above where whites would have to consciously give up a "privilege" that is good and beneficial so as to protect the empowerment of POC. 

And it's a hard thing to do, to keep your mouth shut and your rump in the seat, to trust that eventually someone will speak up or step up ... and that if they don't, it's their right--their privilege--to fail.

In breaking this down, I'm realizing that it's not just a battle of definitions we're talking about when we talk about "white privilege." It's a failure of nuance and complexity. And, yes, there is genuine sacrifice asked of white allies here: the sacrifice, in fact, of some of your most precious rights. Because white allies tend to be politically conscious activists who have had to go through a process of empowering themselves to speak and act. For these allies, finding themselves in a world where everyone had the same rights and privileges as they did would be no hardship -- quite the reverse in fact. But giving up -- even only occasionally -- the right to speak and act so that others may have it ... well it doesn't necessarily make sense. And it's not going to feel right.

This is what happened in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when Malcolm is approached by a young white woman who asks him what she can do, and he says "nothing." He acknowledges later that it is true that she couldn't do anything from within a self-determinist black power movement, but he was partly speaking out of bitterness. And it isn't true that she could do nothing; she could be active for social justice in white communities. This is not the perfect solution. In my world of anti-racism, although we seek to create and maintain safe POC-only spaces sometimes, the ultimate goal is an integrated -- not assimilated -- society that respects and celebrates difference and offers equal opportunities to all. In such an ideal world, no one would have to shut up and sit down, no one would have to keep to "their own" community to be active,  no one would have give up their own power to protect someone else's.

But we don't live in that world yet, and sometimes, compromises that feel wrong have to be made.

That's all for now, except to say that there is a lot of hurt in all of this activism, and there's plenty of hurt to go around. Even when no one is trying to hurt or exclude anyone, the dictates of a certain kind of justice means that sometimes allies have to step back to let Others step forward. Not doing so doesn't mean that they are bad people or racists, but that is sometimes what POC mean by an exercise of white privilege.

December 13, 2009

My Chapbook Is Out! Yay!

Conv-series-26-cover  (Although someone pointed out that, because it's perfect bound, it's not technically a chapbook.)

Yay! My little book, called Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories and Three Drabbles, and is available NOW at Aqueduct Press' website! (Click on the "orders" button and scroll down.)

Right now, for the holidays, the book, usually $12, is $9, so get it now! Also, the book is part of a series called "Conversation Pieces," which you can subscribe to at $80 for 10 consecutive subscriptions (and you can choose which title to start with.) I've read a handful of these titles and they're all worth it, so you might consider a subscription, or make it a gift for the feminist or progressive geek in your life.

OMG, I'm so excited!

December 07, 2009

Reading Update

Just re-read Naomi Novik's Temeraire series -- yes, all of them -- again. This was partly comfort food (It was getting cold and wet outside) partly to break me away from television, which is increasingly boring, and partly because I wanted to particularly examine how she builds the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire.

Laurence came across as stultifyingly virtuous this time ... at least until the fifth book, which is a welcome relief from all his goodness. But the relationship itself wasn't any more sentimental than at the last two readings, I think mainly because she is so economical about presenting the moments of positive emotion. For example, in the first book, Laurence and Temeraire, after spending a little time together, profess their devotion to one another. But it's not, as in most other books, a deliberate exchange of vows or emotion. Temeraire goes first: at the end of a conversation about something else, he says very openly and confidently that he'd rather have Laurence than ... I forget what, something valuable. Laurence is -- briefly, in a sentence -- moved by this. A couple of chapters later, Temeraire, in a moment of generosity, offers to release Laurence to return to his ship and his old life, and Laurence mirrors Temeraires earlier statement by saying he'd rather have Temeraire.

Novik doesn't spend a lot of time on Temeraire's reaction to this; it's focusing ad nauseum on reactions that make sentimental scenes sentimental. Someone's eyes fill with tears, or their hearts beat faster. Whatever. The mirroring of the two sentiments at a temporal distance sets up an emotional resonance that carries through the rest of the book. Temeraire's profession of devotion is a call that creates a bit of tension: will Laurence respond in kind? When Laurence does respond later, it closes the circle, and creates more satisfaction than it would have if he had responded immediately. It also carries more emotional weight.

Interestingly, their relationship doesn't substantially change between this moment of closure and the end of the fourth book. The end of the fourth book, where the two have to make a devastating decision with no good options, marks the end of Temeraire's childhood. They spend much of book five apart, with Temeraire learning leadership and acquiring his own voice. I think the development of these two as characters is very interesting in the fifth book, but their relationship doesn't develop successfully, which is why I think Novik keeps them apart. For the first time, Laurence emotionally stonewalls Temeraire, and that's interesting. But when they come out the other side, things are back to normal with them, and that rings false.

On the other hand, they didn't have a lot of time to develop the new footing after the end of Stonewall. So I can't wait to see what happens in the next book.

Bad Daddies and Fighting Alpha Males

Is what Lost is all about.

Jack's Dad was a controlling alcoholic

Kate's real Dad was an abusive fuck and her enabling mother chose him over her.

Hurley's Dad left.

Sun's Dad was a violent mafia leader.

Jin's Dad was weak and poor.

Sayid's Dad pushed him into violence, but really, Sayid's bad Daddy was Saddam Hussein: he was pushed into violence through his stint with the Republican Guard.

John's Dad was the ultimate asshole: a con artist who stole his kidney and then threw him out a window.

Sawyer's Dad killed his Mom and then himself, but really, Sawyer's bad Daddy was the con artist who caused it all.

Ben's Dad beat him.

Miles' Dad (he thought) kicked him and his Mom out when he was a baby, and never reappeared.

Dan's Dad is the ultimate bad guy, whom he never knew.

There are more bad parents in the earlier seasons, even some bad Mommies, but by season five, all we see are bad Daddies. All parents in season five abandon their kids and go back to the Island to reckon with their bad Daddies in some way. And now, we have even more fighting alpha males than in any previous seasons:

Jack

Sawyer

Sayid

Ben

Horace

The crazy, violent scientist dude from the Dharma Initiative whose name I can't remember

Charles Widmore

Richard-ish

Jacob

...

and frankly, I'm getting tired of it.

**********

Oh, okay, I just watched the episode where they SPOILER detonated the nukular bomb and killed Jacob. It's the Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel story! Duh! I guess it took me five seasons to get on board with that, plus getting clubbed over the head with it.

Join My Mailing List!