88 posts categorized "multiracial"

March 13, 2011

The Apocalypse Artist on Stretcher

ShieldsSeeSaw

Hello everyone! A collaboration I worked on has just been posted on Stretcher, the local San Francisco arts webzine.

The feature is called See|Saw, and features works by artists and writers responding to each other. I was supposed to look at artist Christine Shields' work and respond to it, but she and I decided to get a little more complicated than that. She showed me a couple of her paintings, then I wrote a story responding to them. Then she read an early draft of my story and made a painting responding to that. (That's, of course, the painting you see above.)

Here's the post.

It was a really fun project and I look forward to seeing future See|Saw projects!

February 14, 2010

Reading Update

If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson

Meh. It's a somewhat charming interracial love story, but the book is essentially the first quarter of a love story with a sudden ending tacked upon the end. I can't get involved in a love story in which the star-crossed teens have only known each other for 2 or 3 months and haven't even met each others' families yet. The "problems" they have with race are fairly superficial: they get stared at, little old ladies ask the white girl if "she's okay" when she's walking with her black boyfriend, her (gay) sister reacts badly to the news, etc.

It's all surface stuff, not the real problems of interracial relationships, which also can start immediately, but go much deeper. Stuff like differing family cultures and trying to figure out if your families are just different kinds of families or if the differences have to do with race and ethnicity, and when each one applies and when it's a combination of both. Stuff like differing values based upon your differing (racially based) experiences of the world, and when you're creating a united front as a couple, which set of values do you apply -- which is appropriate? What are your new, combined values? When and how to start and stop talking about race when it's just the two of you alone. What roles each of you takes when racial incidents occur with family, friends, and strangers. The heartbreak of when some of your closest friends and/or family members simply can't become comfortable with your partner and you suspect it's primarily about race. How to negotiate not just a gender power differential (when you're talking about het relationships) but then to add in a (sometimes shifting) racial power differential. What language/s to use (be this issue about dialects or about different national languages in international relationships) and how not to use language as a power play. Etc. etc.

This is the stuff that makes interracial relationships interesting in narrative ... or would make them interesting in narrative if we ever got to see it. I don't understand this ... trend? Common mistake? Just like Flygirl, which I read in January, it's a well-written, promising story that ends right before things get interesting. Why?

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.

October 23, 2009

Octavia Butler Panel Podcast

Okay, so I did a piss-poor job of advertising my LitQuake Octavia Butler panel appearance here, so I'm trying to make up for it now.

The Agony Column podcast came to the panel, which was part of the SF in SF series hosted by Terry Bisson, and recorded both the panel discussion, and separate interviews with each of the panelists: awesome black-lesbian-vampire-novelist Jewelle Gomez, awesome Latina-chicklit-vampire-novelist Marta Acosta, and non-vampire-novelisting me (but wouldn't it be cool if I had written Asian vampires and was able to complete a trifecta?)

The reading and panel was a tribute to Octavia Butler and a fundraiser for the Butler Scholarship, which is administered by the Carl Brandon Society (which I'm on the Steering Committee of.)

The podcasts have been posted now and here they is:

Yee haw!

August 21, 2009

Geek Post: Why Voyager Rocked

Over at Tempest's blog, she asks why people really disliked Captains Sisko and Janeway. (If you don't know why this is a loaded question, don't bother reading this post, because it means you don't know shiz about Star Trek.)

I started to respond in a comment, but then it got really long, so I thought I'd just take it over here.

Voyager was a groundbreaking show. The first half of the show's run was shaky, but once 7 of 9 stepped in, the show became truly groundbreaking. In the 7 of 9 era, the characters and roles were slightly reshuffled, until the ship was led by a triumvirate of strong women. In fact, the ship, and the show, were led by the three archetypes of crone, mother, and virgin (that's Janeway, Torres, and 7 of 9 to you.) It took a little while for these roles to shake out, but watching them develop was thrilling. And watching how Voyager took these three archetypes and thoroughly subverted them, was even more thrilling.

Janeway started out as a shaky and boring character for one simple reason: we have archetypes of male leaders of all ages, but we don't have valid archetypes of early-middle-aged female good leaders. Think about it: there are the bad mommies (Medea) and evil witches galore (Circe, wic witch of west), there are the insane women-of-a-certain-age (neither good nor bad), and there are the various monsters (harpies, sirens, Medusa, oh my!), and there are the magical wimmins, like sphinxes and such, who help heroes to something, but exact a price. There are no heroines, no protagonist archetypes, who are early-middle-aged women.

And let's face it: Star Trek's bread and butter has always been Western archetypes.

So Janeway got off to a shaky start, since she had no archetype to embody. After a great deal of silly romantic trouble, and a genuinely touching reckoning with her relationship with Chakotay, she finally settled into her role as, not the captain of the ship, but the mother of all mankind. Yes, it took them about three seasons to realize that, out in the Delta Quadrant, Voyager was a microcosm of all humankind and Janeway was the crone queen. They picked up on this when they opposed her to the Borg queen and discovered that they were equals. The good mommy of diversity, and the bad mommy of assimilation.

What was brilliant about the way they wrote her character was that they then used her position of power to question the way leaders in hierarchies make decisions. She didn't always make the right one, but, while always acknowledging that, the show didn't look down on her for it. Her wisdom was always greater than everyone else's, but her wisdom wasn't always right. They used the Borg queen and 7 of 9 to underline this lesson, comparing the hierarchy that may be necessary among diverse individuals, with the consensus that is possible among the thoroughly assimilated. Hierarchy and diversity were not always shown to be the best choice.

Torres started out as the fiery hottie, the amazon, which is why her character didn't work so well: it's hard to have a fiery hottie who's also a brilliant leader. Amazons are forces of nature, tamed by the love of a hero stronger than themselves. By "taming" her fieriness a bit with marriage and a child, they slotted her into the archetype of mother. However, the man she married wasn't the hero stronger than herself, but the reformed weasel. So she got to remain a leader. This ended up being the perfect platform to talk about a young woman growing into a position of leadership. It subverted, whether intentionally or un-, both the archetypes of mother and of amazon.

And Seven subverted the virgin archetype thoroughly. Raped (in the sense of being abducted) and thoroughly physically violated at the age of 6, Seven as an adult retains a childlike innocence, coupled with some seriously dangerous hardware. And by hardware, I don't mean the kind of asskicking karate-hardware that is the substance of millenial male fantasies from Buffy to whatever happened in the action film genre yesterday. By hardware I mean smarts: brain enhancements, databases, skills, abilities. She also has a fading sense of certainty about herself and her place in the universe that is the legacy of her Borg upbringing. This Borg confidence is depicted as one of the good leftovers of her background; the show doesn't assume that everything she learned as a Borg is bad or wrong except her military capabilities, as a more salacious show would do. And there's some very sophisticated discussion of her Borg spirituality (yes, they have some) and her Borg worldview.

This bumps into the fact that Voyager dealt with multiraciality and transnationality in a much more sophisticated way than all the previous (and subsequent) Treks. Although Torres is largely treated as a tragic mulatta, and her two species viewed reductively, note that her human half is Latina, itself a multiracial identity. Although the two episodes in the series that deal directly with her multiraciality are stupid (there's an early episode where she splits into her Klingon and human halves, and her Klingon half can't think, while her human half can't fight -- not offensive at all!; and a much later one in which she's pregnant and goes crazy trying to make sure her daughter doesn't end up with Klingon brow ridges), the rest of the show, when not focusing on what they think she should be doing with her multiraciality, deals with it rather delicately: showing how she extracts strength and trouble, questions and confirms herself, both, through her cultural uses and memories of her parents.

Seven, on the other hand, is a transracial adoptee, a third culture kid, and a multiracial (since she carries marks of both races on her face and body.) Like I said above, Voyager, unlike TNG, doesn't assume that a Borg separated from the collective is better off. We see Seven having a lot of trouble adjusting, and learn slowly that part of her successful adjustment is owing to the confidence and centeredness she found as a Borg. In one episode, she says that her memories and experience as a child and as a Borg remain with the collective, and it comforts her to know that she will be immortal in that way. Nobody else on board has that kind of certainty of an afterlife. The show's treatment of Seven is an example of true diversity: Janeway sometimes finds Seven's ideas and decisions abhorrent, but she tolerates them and learns to live with them.

I find it strange that people are so hostile to Seven. She was brought in to replace the ingenue character of Kes, who never quite worked out. Kes was both the virgin/ingenue, and the sexual/romantic partner of an old-looking and seeming character (Neelix.) That never worked out, for obvious reasons. And when they started giving her superpowers, it wasn't believable -- or desirable -- because she'd spent the previous three years being annoyingly perky and powerless. Seven was very carefully thought out to replace her: Seven was a virgin/ingenue, but with built-in strength and power. She was the opposite of perky, and was clearly on a coming-of-age trajectory. When Seven got with Chakotay, it was clearly the next phase in her evolution: she wasn't going to be expected to get it on and remain virginal, like Kes was.

I truly think that people who think Voyager was a bad show either didn't watch the second half of the run (most likely) or haven't yet become comfortable with the idea of women in leadership positions. Even the somewhat groundbreaking Battlestar Galactica, which started out with women in leadership positions in civilian and spiritual life, couldn't quite bring itself to depict a good woman military leader. That's pretty radical.

Also, Voyager depicts three strong male characters who choose to take supportive roles vis-a-vis women. Chakotay is a strong character in more than one sense: he takes his own path, he's a military leader and also a leader in personality, and he straddles the military and rebel worlds without breaking apart or going crazy. Chakotay, halfway through the show, in the episode in which he and Janeway confront their romantic feelings for each other, lays it out: he's accepted the role of helpmeet, of the man who enables the woman leader. It's completely awesome. Later, he becomes Seven's lover, and it's clear that he's an older teacher-type lover, a kind of Kris Kristofferson to Seven's Barbara Streisand.

Tom Paris is a stereotype, not an archetype: he's an immature wild-boy, who's the best pilot in the whatever, but is traumatized by the consequences of his own cowardice and immaturity. He eventually grows up enough to atone for his past wrongdoings and Become A Man, but he doesn't have the personality of a leader. Instead he falls in love with Torres, who is a leader, and takes on the implicit role of a woman leader's partner. And then there's Tuvok, who has a wife and kid at home, and is smarter, older, more controlled, and better educated than everyone else on board. And he makes himself Janeway's instrument because he recognizes the power of her leadership, and because he believes that it's the right thing to do.

(And one more thing: the Doctor plays the vain, fussy, diva character. The male Doctor. Think people might have a problem with that?)

The strong and satisfied male helpmeets are probably the bitterest pill for Voyager-haters to swallow, even though no one has mentioned it. In fact, no one ever mentions the male characters on the show at all, not to love or to vilify them. I think it's the absence, the lack of male leadership that causes people to clock Voyager as "boring," or "silly." I used to watch queer films and think they were boring, until I read somewhere that this is a privileged response: most of the films I watch show heteronormative sexuality, which is more interesting to me in the titillating sense, so I don't have to have any interest in other types of sexuality. But (cue violin music) once I got with the program and stopping making every narrative have to be about ME, I found a whole world of narratives out there about people nothing like me with concerns nothing like mine that were not just interesting, but amazing. Including queer narratives. (Here's one among many, by the way, and you can watch it free on the web.)

Which is all by way of saying that Voyager was definitely uneven. And I don't hold it against people for misjudging the show based on the first few seasons. But ultimately, Voyager was one of the groundbreaking shows of the ages, and definitely the most groundbreaking Trek since the original series.

So there.

August 14, 2009

Four Years in the Life of John Hughes, Fascist

(I wasn't gonna write anything about John Hughes, but then my friend Joel Tan called for submissions on Facebook for a little Facebook anthology of John Hughes/80s memorials. I will post a link when it's ready.)

At first it seemed like John Hughes was just bad timing for me.

I was fourteen when "Sixteen Candles" came out and sixteen was too far away. I was also, at the time, going to an all girls' school, and had never known what it was like to have a devastating crush on somebody in school. And let's not even talk about Long Duk Dong. I blocked him out and had to be reminded of his existence, frequently. I also suspected that the character I most resembled was Anthony Michael Hall's. Ugh.

When "The Breakfast Club" came out, I was in a brief fresh-faced phase, not popular, but at the height of my high school popularity, only an average student, the first cut from the team, and unable to identify with any of the stereotypes therein represented. A year later, I'd turn into The Basket Case, but by then the movie had ceased to matter, and the dandruff thing just grossed me out anyway. I never got dandruff until after college; it was a distant, adult thing.

When "Pretty in Pink" came out, as I said above, I had moved to a more Hughes-like public school and morphed into the Basket Case, and was watching Stephen Frears/Hanif Kureishi movies and reading Paul Celan. The previous year the movie would have spoken to me. The previous year I was buying skippy little sixties dresses with my best friend and strategizing how to sneak into clubs we never tried to sneak into. Now I was dropping out of school and trying to ignore how the furniture moved every time I looked away from it. Now the movie appeared to be exactly what it was: a cheap knockoff of an outsider life.

I laughed at "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" along with everyone else: it was funny. I never could articulate then -- nor can I explain even now -- the dread feeling in the pit of my stomach that movie gave me. I still feel it. It had a cold, existential edge to it, and the characters, aside from looking like adults, were so unpleasantly alien to me as to kill any enjoyment aside from that of purely cynical entertainment.

When "Some Kind of Wonderful" came out, I was -- miraculously -- in college, with a blonde bob, and my dream of being a drummer blossoming (it was to peak two years later when I actually bought a used drum kit for $60.) But ... I was in college. I couldn't even bring myself to express the wish of seeing the movie in front of my friends. I waited until I got home for winter vacation and went to see it at a second run theater by myself, a throwback to my Basket Case year. I did not allow myself to love it, even though the misfit finally got the misfit and this was perhaps the only John Hughes movie I could ever have loved; I was too grown up.

But, it turns out, it wasn't timing at all. I never fit the schedule; I never fit the mold. I was not pretty and graceful and cool like Molly Ringwald or Mary Stuart Masterson, and strangely, I never quite wanted to be. I was not exactly the white kid down the block, either; and the goofy and neglectful parents of this universe were nothing like my involved, overeducated, transnational pair. The characters I wished myself into were Maria from "West Side Story" and Alex from "Flashdance": parentless, urban, racially ambiguous girls who risked being shot for love, being fired for art. Self-sufficient girls who made up their own minds and were leagues away from the shallow problems of suburban high school popularity contests.

John Hughes movies were themselves the round hole I never fit into. They ruled my teenaged years like bullies, like Reagan, like the eighties. John Hughes fading out of the consciousness of my age group was a fact akin to the mainstreaming of alternative rock and Bill Clinton: the decline of a set of ideas that had poisoned the end of my childhood; the cultural accession of values more closely in alignment with my own; a huge weight off my chest.

I've been moved by the outpouring of emotion at the death of John Hughes, as I was by the fallout from Michael Jackson's death. But I was moved by the emotions of others, not by the deaths themselves. MJ meant nothing to me, but he was harmless. There was nothing in his message (such as it was) that hurt me. I can't say the same of John Hughes, whose shallow examinations of class distinctions in suburban high schools were a throwback to the geography of the fifties and sixties -- when different classes were still being schooled together.

Hughes never understood real power dynamics as they played out in American public schools. His blithe assurance that a drunken party could achieve social parity between two groups with vastly disparate levels of power was the teenaged version of the blithe assurances that if you laughed along with them, bullies would stop torturing you, or if we stopped talking about color, we'd see that racism was over, or if we squirted more ketchup on our tater tots, we'd get the nutritional equivalent of vegetables.

I was so glad to be shut of John Hughes, that I never thought about him from that day to this, except to murmur unconsciously insincere agreement when somebody nostalgized about one of his deathly movies. But now that he's dead, and I have to look squarely at his legacy, that's over for me. Time to let out the dead, grey feeling in my gut that his movies always birthed. Time to wash away the worst of the previous bad era.

Now, how do we wash away the Bush years?

June 16, 2009

Breakin' Up Iz Hard 2 Do, Part II

So what I wanted to do -- about a month ago now, in the weeks leading up to WisCon, when I was considering "breaking up" with the antiracist blogosphere as a result of RaceFail and MammothFail -- was write a series of posts about how antiracist action online actually works, and why I have problems with it.

But a number of things intervened.

*****First, right before WisCon, Al Robles, an elder in my Bay Area Asian American activist community, died suddenly. His family organized a memorial event and I was asked to help, so I took over volunteer coordination for the six-hour event. The event took place at the venue where we had staged the Asian American arts festival I ran for its first few years; being there as a coordinator reminded me of that work and of the atmosphere of common purpose and mutual help that can arise out of creating a "real world" racial community. It also reminded me that I had a real world community in the first place, that I had been neglecting, partly in favor of my online stuff.

Also, being at Manong Al's memorial really made me think a lot about Al. The sort of elder whose memorial event draws thousands of people, requires ten tables to hold all the food, and has trouble restricting the stories, poems, and testimonials to six hours, is a very particular person. Al was a leader, not in that he put himself and his agenda first, nor in that he had great managerial skills he used to organize people. Al was a leader by example. He was everywhere he needed to be to get the work done. He was physically there; he put his hand on your arm when he saw you. He knew everyone in the community because he talked to them, partied with them, and remembered them whenever he saw them next. He never lost his interest in individuals, never lost his excitement about the new (and old) things people were doing, never failed to connect the creative life (he was a poet) with the activist life, and the activist life with the good life.

The consideration that makes my eyes well up, both in love for Al and in shame for my own failures, is the memory of Al as someone who always gave respect, gave face, to everyone, from the most snot-nosed, fist-pumping teenager, to the oldest, out-of-commission elder.  He made you want to earn the respect that he gave you unconditionally. He loved whatever it was that you did. Thousands of people turned out to say goodbye to him because people like that are so rare.

It makes me really think about who is going to take over for Al. Less than two years ago we lost another elder, Manong Bill Sorro, who had a similar role in the community as Al Robles, had a similar way with people, although the two were very different. As I said, these people are rare. Manong Al and Manong Bill were my touchstones in the community and now that they're both gone, I'm all out of touchstones. They were it for their generation. Who will be it for my generation?

I'm not that kind of person, but I can try to be more of that kind of person. I don't have to be the Manong Al or Manong Bill of my generation, but I think we can split up those duties a little more evenly, especially if we believe in community and continuation. But to do that, I have to get off the fucking internet and get my butt down to where the community is.

***** Second, I went to WisCon. Given the atmosphere surrounding RaceFail and then MammothFail, I was expecting WisCon to be emotionally fraught, stress-filled, and conflict-ridden. Instead, what I found was that there were more POC there than ever before, and that the POC there were organizing, coming together, and also connecting outside the POC community with a confidence and interest and even joy that I hadn't seen at WisCon before.

I realized that the online fights that had stressed me out so much, make my stomach tie up in knots and feel like all was sick with the world, had energized a lot of other folks. I was forcibly reminded of how I felt eleven years ago, when I first joined battle -- in a very limited and constrained way -- with folks online on the multiracial list-serv and the Asian American writers list-serv I joined. It was energizing; it did make me want to do stuff. And, because I was in San Francisco, I just went right out and did stuff: joined orgs, started programs, etc. It was a wonderful cycle of discussion and action: I discussed ideas online, and then took those ideas out into the real world and acted on them.

Of course, the energizing aspect of the arguments and sometimes fights had a limited efficacy. They were only energizing as long as they were still new to me, and still had something to teach me about that particular way of viewing the issues. Once I had been through the cycle of argument once or twice (and had experienced intelligent, articulate opponents who just plain didn't listen to you) the argument stopped energizing me and started to stress me out. Eventually, I had to quit the two list-servs, and I didn't miss them much when I had. That was mainly because the people I "knew" on the list-servs were just usernames. I was also spending time with folks in meatspace and many of those folks are still my friends; I'm not still friends with a single person I interacted intensely with online at that time, even the people I met in person and tried to work with there. But what I got out of those discussions didn't go away. The results -- the ideas and ability to articulate arguments -- stayed with me.

***** Third, I went back to Berlin, where I spent much of my twenties, and saw a lot of my friends, ten and fifteen years later. I saw that my friends had taken one of three tracks: folks who hadn't quite gotten started on a career and were still struggling to figure out where to go and what to do; folks who had started a career, then started a family and were now negotiating the limitation on their career that a young family imposes; and folks who were well into a creative career, some simply moving forward and others wondering if they wanted to stay on this track or make an adjustment.

I'm with the last group. I've spent the last decade plowing ahead full steam in ethnic-specific arts and culture, and I've accomplished much that I'm proud of. But I've definitely reached a point where I'm trying to make an adjustment in my direction, and that's a difficult thing to do. While in Berlin, I got a rare perspective on where I am in life, by seeing my peers dealing with being in that same place. And I think I can take this adjustment more quietly -- be less manic and bewildered about it -- and focus in. I think that's the key: letting some options go, and focusing in on what's most important to me.

*

I came back to online antiracism a few years ago with my interest in speculative fiction, and with working with POC SF communities that I had connected with through Clarion West and WisCon. And the community here is wonderful, and vibrant, and full of energy and purpose. I've learned a lot from reading blogs, and getting into discussions ... and even from some of the less pleasant fights I've gotten into. Some things I've learned couldn't have been gotten at another way.

But there are also problems with it ... and it was my intention to tease out those problems in a series of posts, as I said above. But after Al's memorial, and after WisCon, and after my visit back to the site of my young adulthood, I think I'm realizing that I don't need to do that right now. What I'm feeling is particular to me and my situation. Maybe down the road I'll have some perspectives that will be useful to someone else, but I don't think I do right now.

I've been upset and angry at an argument that I've heard too many times before that doesn't have the power to inspire me anymore, but that doesn't mean that this discussion isn't inspiring anyone else to new and great things. I think I'm probably best off shutting up and getting out of the way.

*

One thing I do want to clarify: when I said in an earlier post that the best thing that came out of RaceFail was the smart posts published early in the incident, a few outraged people pointed to Verb Noire (which has just announced its first publication, which makes me want to pee with excitement) as a direct result of RaceFail. I was surprised by that perception. Having been involved in so many start-ups (APAture, Hyphen, the San Francisco Hapa Issues Forum chapter, the now-defunct Digital Horizon afterschool program) and seen so many from a peripheral viewpoint, it's second nature to me to assume that any start-up or initiative has its roots in longstanding dreams and long planning processes ... that then come together around a particular opportunity.

Yes, I believe that RaceFail brought on a convergence of a number of things that led to Verb Noire being launched right then, but I don't believe that without RaceFail there would have been no Verb Noire. (Please tell me if I'm completely wrong here; I have no telepathic connection to the publishers, and no idea what specifically got them going.) Furthermore, I'd be worried if I really thought that RaceFail was the only or main impulse to starting Verb Noire. Last straw, yes; main thrust, no. It's a terrific project, coming at the right time, but it's larger than just RaceFail. The language and direction of the project already seems larger -- seems to fill up a space that has to do with more than just a failure of the general SF community to understand cultural difference and appropriation.

Basically, until it was pointed out to me, I didn't connect Verb Noire directly with RaceFail. RaceFail to me is just an incident: an incident that got drawn out way too long and produced some good writing, some bad writing, and a lot of bad feeling ... but still just an incident. Verb Noire is ... an organization, a long-term program, an institution of new perspective in the making. The two are bound up together, certainly: all good organizations, programs, institutions have their roots in unacceptable circumstances, or ongoing failures, and series of incidents that demonstrate these circumstances and failures.

But the two are distinct. One is discussion; the other, activism. For me, there does come a time when the discussion that inspires activism starts to get in the way of activism, and I have to opt out of direct discussion for a while.

*

I don't know what this means for me on a practical level. I have an online presence that takes some work to maintain and that brings me a lot of pleasure, aside from other things. But it also, I have to admit, sucks too much time away from my writing and my working in my community. I might have to cut back on being present online for a while, but I'm not sure how or how much. I'm not making any quick decisions.

I have no conclusions yet, no declarations to make. I think I'm going to be reading less from blogs, and participating less in any sort of online discussions in this area for a while. But at this point, I'm just thinking out loud.

June 12, 2009

First Book Trailer!

Wow! I'm super proud of this book trailer we produced for Kaya Press (Sam Arbizo did the work.) After having a look at the field, it seemed there was a lot of room for improvement. What do you all think?

(By the way, I'm still working on some longer posts. Just recovering from jet lag and getting back into the swing.)

June 06, 2009

News from Asian America

Just a quick note to those interested in the broad trends of Asian America: Read this.

May 16, 2009

Outrage, Pullback, Punishment: The Structure of One Common Antiracist Post

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

So, to kick off my out-loud consideration of if and how to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere ...

I'm going to start with organizing some observations about how racism is talked about on the POC antiracist blogs I've been reading for the past six years and laying out the basic structure of one type of typical antiracist post.

First, most POC A/R blogs rarely take the bull by the horns, that is to say, they rarely take the initiative in introducing topics of discussion and setting the terms for the discussion. Instead, most POC A/R blogs are reactive, that is, they keep watch on what is happening in the world and especially in the media, and respond to incidents or discussions initiated by people out in the world, or by the media.

The way this works is what I call "Outrage, Pullback, Punishment" (and yes, it is a plus that it compresses to "OPP"). How it works is as follows:

Outrage: something racist happens in the world. A blogger or group of bloggers pick up on it. They note it in their blogs and express outrage at it. The item gets passed on from blog to blog.

Pullback: of the bloggers who post on this topic, less than half will express anything other than outrage. But a subset of these bloggers will spend a little time pulling back from the outrage to contextualize this incident of racism and explain why it's a problem. They will go into the history of these types of incidents, they'll go into academic theories of X, they'll give talking points on why this sort of thing is bad for people of color, bad for justice, and bad for the world in general.

Punishment: of the bloggers who pull back and contextualize, an even smaller subset will propose or initiate action. This action is dual: it proposes advocacy of a particular view, action (usually apology and some sort of remediation), and threatens punishment if this action isn't taken up immediately. I call this step "punishment" because punishment is advocated at two places: often the remedial action is punishment of the original offender (as in asking a radio station to fire a racist DJ), and the action threatened if this remedy isn't taken up is usually a punishment as well (official complaint up the chain of command, formal boycott, or bad publicity, and the hanging of the "racist" label on the totality of the offenders.) The action is then picked up by the other bloggers and passed around.

Lest anyone think I'm trying to hurl accusations from a glass house, I'll give an example from my own oeuvre. (I'm actually critiquing all of POC antiracist blogging, including my own, which is part of the whole and speaks the same language.) The recent example is the Avatar casting controversy:

You'll notice here that the structure not only makes the information easy to understand and assimilate, but it also makes the basic conveyance of the information easy to adapt to each blog. Each new blogger who picks the story up simply gives a spin to the same blog post and passes it on.

This structure of communication has been effective in the past for specific purposes. The best example would be the Jena 6 controversy in 2007 where a group of black teenagers were unfairly prosecuted for an assault on a white teenager that was provoked by a series of racist incidents. Originally ignored by the mainstream media, outrage in the POC blogosphere contributed heavily to the story being picked up nationally. Additionally, the "punishment" phase of this story advocated action that was less punitive and more justice-oriented, and resulted in large demonstrations in Jena and all over the country, that have succeeded in bringing about a more just resolution for many of the defendants than would have happened otherwise. Here's a post from the Angry Black Woman which demonstrates OPP and links to other posts you can check out as well.

An earlier example was the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy (2002/2004), which involved first a series of t-shirts with racist images of Asians on them, then a lawsuit (later settled) that alleged that A&F gave visible jobs to white employees and restricted POC to the stock rooms. The online campaign against the t-shirts -- organized with a speed that surprised even participants -- led to real-world protest outside the stores, which in turn caused the company to withdraw the shirt and issue an apology. The t-shirt protest was actually organized via email, list-servs, and discussion boards, more than via blogs. But if you look at the discussion boards link, you'll see one of the origins of OPP structure. The continuing online scrutiny of A&F's racial attitude helped keep pressure on them that contributed to the favorable settlement of the lawsuit.

As has been rightly said since the Jena 6 protests, online social networking has created a world in which effective protest can be organized quickly and nationally to address even local injustices. OPP is a great launching point for these kinds of effective protests: OPP informs and arouses a sense of outrage very quickly, and creates a sort of information tree or hierarchy which people can follow back to a source of organization if they wish to get involved. People are no longer dependent on being reached by recruiters, they can recruit themselves to act. And POC communities, if they know how to leverage the hinges of the Tipping Point, can control to a great extent the spread of their mobilization effort.

This structure of communication also makes it easy for the mainstream media to pick up on POC responses to national incidents. Reporters don't have to dig through a lot of discussion and process its implications to know what POC bloggers are thinking. They just aggregate the most popular bloggers and do a keyword search for the controversy du jour, and bingo, insta-quote. So in this way, POC can come closer to the mainstream media.

All this is great. But.

The negative result of this is that POC A/R blogs tend to accept, without thought or discussion, that the white-dominated media and mainstream culture gets to initiate action and discussion, and the POC A/R online media's role is merely to respond to this discourse, and not to control it or be a partner in shaping it.

This is fine when an injustice happens -- as in Jena -- and must be addressed quickly. These sorts of things happen all the time, so having a structure in place to deal with these things -- to remedy actual injustices as they happen -- is important. But it does not move the discourse on race forward. It unconsciously takes for granted that POC have no initiative in the world. In the call and response of the mainstream media discourse, POC have only a response, not a call. And as we all know, whoever calls, rules.

I say _________, you say "racist"

Mr. Patel!
Racist!
Airbender!
Racist!

If you look back on any effective movement of the 20th century (suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam) their communication structure all had these things in common:

  1. A clear, articulated overall goal towards which all participants were willing to work for years.
  2. A set, but evolving discourse and vocabulary, which the movement controlled.
  3. Media: alternative media organs (papers and magazines) dedicated to promoting this message and discourse; and, over time, allies in the mainstream media dedicated to promoting this message and discourse.
  4. The necessity of responding deliberately and thoughtfully, owing to the lack of instantaneous communications technology. Because everything written was printed and had to be edited and proofread, everything broadcast had to be accepted by media corporations and could be heavily controlled, the message and discourse were very polished, thoughtful, respectful, and carefully tailored to appeal to listeners who may have held a differing opinion.

If you think about it, OPP simply cannot exist in a movement in which the above conditions obtain. Chaos and Freedom are the twin faces of the same internet beast. The viral responsiveness and speed of protests like Jena 6 and A&F owes to the Freedom face. The lack of a goal, a message, a discourse, and deliberate or thoughtful response owes to the Chaos face. Although there's more than one argument to be made here, I would contend that the POC Antiracist blogosphere is not a movement, it is merely a community.

As such, it can facilitate the creation of temporary movements (like the Jena 6 protest movement), but it cannot change, or even affect, the national discourse on race. All it can do is respond to it.

In my next post, I'm going to talk about initiatives that do shape, or attempt to shape, national discourse on race, and how these work together with online OPP.

May 15, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: How To Handle Antiracist POC Communities

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

WisCon starts in a week, and, as a result of RaceFail and the more recent resurgence of controversy around race, I've been thinking a lot about the issue of how antiracist action is handled on the internet. I'm going to spend the next week on a series of posts about my thoughts on this topic. I need to clear my head and -- not knowing what to expect from WisCon this year -- prepare my thoughts for whatever comes.

(One quick caveat here: I despaired years ago of getting through to ignorant, privileged whites on the internet through argument, and haven't engaged in that sort of argument for a long time: because it kills me, and because it doesn't seem to do much good. The only thing that works, in my experience, is providing copious resources that someone, who wants to seek and understand, can find and use in his/her own way, so that they can choose to prepare themselves to join a discourse, rather than argue their way into knowledge.

So if I seem to be only criticizing the antiracist POC side here, it's because I am. No amount of tantrums, unprofessionalism, and bad behavior from the privileged side surprises me anymore, and I find it pointless to even criticize it. At the latest, after last year's Rachel-Moss-WisConFail, and the conscious delight privileged white males (and females) took in baiting feminists, people of color, differently abled, and transgendered people, I have refused to engage with such perspectives, which I consider a continuum. I only now engage with "our" responses to such perspectives, or more accurately, with a broader-based strategy to combat ignorance and prejudice in our media and in our society. Doubtless RaceFail blame falls much more heavily on the side of baiters and privileged idiots. But they can't bait those who won't be baited. They can't enrage those who won't be enraged.)

Back in February, around the time I thought that RaceFail was going to die down, I started writing a series of posts on this topic. But RaceFail didn't die down then, nor for another couple of months. The residue of a contentious and conflict-soaked election campaign, and of a devastating economic collapse, the impact of which we'll be unraveling for years, was like jetfuel to the usual flame. Whereas internet blowups usually only last a couple of weeks -- a flash flood -- the almost palpable panic and fear and weariness cracked open the levees we'd been ignoring for so long, and our little corner of the blogosphere was overwhelmed. What started as an initially salutary repeat of a discussion that had never quite been put to rest, soon turned into a community eating itself.

Not coincidentally, February was the time the Carl Brandon Society's Heritage Month book advocacy campaign kicked off. We'd chosen one recommended reading list in January -- immediately before RaceFail had started -- and were trying to put together a second list in February as the tone of the discussion got ugly. The difference was dramatic. In January our members were joyfully and actively participating, just like last year. By mid-February, our list-serv had fallen silent: everyone was too busy at work or in their lives to participate. For the first time since I joined the Carl Brandon Society Steering Committee, our members actually ignored direct requests for participation. And I have to say: I don't blame them one little bit.

Heartsick and anxiety-ridden over the tone the public discourse began to take on, I bowed out of the discussion and abandoned the posts I had started. I did save them, though, and, although I'm even more heart-sick and anxiety-ridden now, I have to talk this out, if only with myself. Essentially, I have to decide, in the next couple of weeks, if I'm going to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere.

This is not the first time I've had to make such a decision. In the year 2000, I had to "break up" with the discussion list-servs I was on in 1998/99, that helped me learn and understand so much about my own identity and community, and that helped me formulate my own thinking about race and organizing and why these are important. Without those list-servs and those discussions, I could not have become an effective community organizer, teacher, and advocate. I would not have been able to articulate to myself or anyone else why building a community voice is essential to racial justice.

But the discussions on those list-servs stayed in one place and cycled around that place over and over again, like a ferris wheel. Staying in that discourse after I had completed a few cycles was not merely annoying, it actually militated against progressive action. It made me anxious and sick to my stomach, it made me angry, and -- whereas initially it had brought me closer to my fellow community members -- it began to drive a wedge between us, emphasizing small differences in opinion, and sucking energy and air away from broader-based action.

I thought I would miss it too much. I said I'd "take a break" for three months and then see if I could go back and take part in a more rational manner. What happened instead was that, within a few weeks, I had nearly forgotten about the list-servs, and had discovered a pocket of free hours that I could now dedicate to more real-world action.

But those were purely discussion list-servs; not only were they not intended for action, but calls for action and event announcements weren't allowed on those lists. Breaking up with the antracist POC blogosphere is a much more complex proposition, because it exists not just for discussion, but also for discourse, not just for expression of outrage, but also for action and organizing. And there are people in this community who are so geographically far away, I can't access them any other way.

So this consideration is not just a "in or out" proposition. Being on the CBS Steering Committee requires me to use online organizing and keep up with what's going on in the communities. Writing for Hyphen blog requires me to participate in POC bloggery. I'm not quitting these organizations, so the question is: how to tailor my participation in online POC antiracist action so as to curtail the negative influence of discussion loops, while keeping me in the loop?

This is what I'll be considering over the next few posts. I probably won't respond to comments until I'm through, since this is a longer thought process than usual, and I don't want to break it off or argue until I've gotten through it. Be advised that anything that smacks to me of attack (in comments) may well be deleted. (That's another tactic I'm going to be considering.)

May 12, 2009

White House Geekery

Obama_computer

I am so in love with deadbrowalking's Wild Unicorn Herd Check-in. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, read this first. As a response to one of Lois McMaster Bujold's more clueless statements -- that PoC didn't exist before the internet, essentially -- deadbrowalking called for PoC nerds, especially outside the US who were second or third generation nerds, to check in. The response has been astounding.

My eyes tear up every time I go there and see that the list has added another page. If you're a nerd of color, please go and check in!

In other news, I picked this up from the unicorn herd: Barack Obama is a nerd of color. (Okay, well, we knew the last part already.) But what does his using a Mac have to do with it? I thought real nerds used pimped out PCs.


May 11, 2009

Can We NOT Do Racefail Again, Please?

I'm sticking my head out of its hole here (please note: my head is NOT wearing its CBS hat) to make a plea ... and realizing that I'll probably either get ignored, or get my head bitten off. This plea goes out to my fellow active and activist PoC and white antiracist SF/F fans. Anyone who doesn't fit this description, please refrain from commenting below (I will probably delete you.)

Apparently, Patricia Wrede has written an alternate history YA in which American Indians/Native Americans simply never existed, replaced by magical mammoths. If you don't immediately see what's wrong with this, read this list of links. (I also surfed through from this post and found a buncha stuff that wasn't on the links post above.) The posts linked often link to further reading, so go knock yourself out surfing.

Okay. I, for one, think this list of posts offers a perfect summation of what the problem with Wrede's premise is. What I'm asking for now is for PoC and white antiracists to take a REALLY DEEP BREATH ... and to fail to have a massive, collective, monthslong comment thread freakout like the one that happened this January/February/March/April (a.k.a. RaceFail '09.)

I know you guys are tired of it. We all are. I know the ignorant and vicious attempts to block and derail discussion are making you crazy. But responding to them in comments didn't do much good a few months ago ... and I think it'll do even less good now that the clueless are still smarting from the pileups at various whitepeople blogs which caused everyone to freak out and f-lock and delete their blogs and out each other's real identities and and and ...

What good did any of that do? What good will it do to go there again? The best thing that came out of RaceFail was a list of good, thoughtful posts about cultural appropriation that we can point out to people who want to be educated. Unfortunately, as much as people during RaceFail were linking to these great posts, they were ALSO engaging in increasingly angry comment threads with flamers and trolls who weren't interested in learning anything, and wouldn't have learned anything even if they were BECAUSE THEY WERE ON THE DEFENSIVE, AS EVERYONE IS IN A COMMENTS THREAD BATTLE.

So my suggestion -- my plea -- is to avoid engaging in comment threads as much as possible. You can't argue someone out of their ignorance. You can only lead them to water and WALK AWAY, hoping they'll drink after you've gone. There are some links pileups starting already. Let's contribute to them, and then make some private pledges to simply link to the links posts in comments and NOT COMMENT FURTHER.

WisCon is a week and a half away. I DO NOT want to walk into WisCon wondering who has put themselves in the wrong now. I DO NOT want to have to navigate sudden, new schisms having to do with random ignorant comments-thread comments. We DO NOT have to use this opportunity to excavate every ignorant corner of our fellow SF/F fans' racial consciousness. Let's put the info out there and let them do what they want to with it.

(A suggestion: those of you planning your own blogpost about this, please consider closing comments, so that anyone who wants to respond cannot do so anonymously, but MUST respond by posting something on their own blog. This will cut down on a lot of opportunities for people to enrage you from the safety of anonymity. I'm leaving comments on this post open because I'm hoping we can discuss ways and means of NOT engaging in a RaceFail 1.5.)

*****

In other news, (putting my CBS hat on): the Carl Brandon Society is sponsoring a "Cultural Appropriation 101" class at Wiscon (Friday afternoon during The Gathering -- it will only take up part of the Gathering time, so you can still attend.) The class will be taught by Nisi Shawl, Victor Raymond (both CBS Steering Committee members) and Cabell Gathman.

This will be a SAFE SPACE for anyone who suspects they may be missing some of the basics to come to and learn and discuss, and ask the questions you're afraid to ask for fear of being jumped on. We strongly recommend that anyone who feels a little shaky in the basics, or who doesn't agree with what a lot of PoC are saying about cultural appropriation, come and attend this class BEFORE going into any panels on race or cultural appropriation. Forearmed is forewarned.

May 08, 2009

Busy Today


Brian 1 color300dpiWofford2

Brian Castro and Jenifer Wofford in conversation tonight at SomArts.

Now I have to go pick up Brian from the airport. Will be a headless chicken today.

April 29, 2009

Traditional Immigrant Story

Shipping_routes_national_interest

Pacific shipping routes.

This is just one thread, but it's confusing, so pay attention.

Great-great-grandfather went to San Francisco to pluck duck feathers and carve candles. Great-grandfather didn't join him in the States. Why? It's possible that, returning to Zhong Shan, Great-great blew all the money he had saved on gifts and banquets and couldn't afford to bring his only son over. Another possibility is in the timing: Great-grandfather would have been only 14 in 1882, so perhaps it would have been impossible for him to go, son of a duck-plucker that he was.

Older Cousin, who was going to Costa Rica in 1885, got off the boat too soon and had to establish himself in Colon, Panama instead. Import/export/retail. Cousin offered to pay young Great-grandfather's way to Panama. Skip Ahead.

The year the Canal construction began, now rich enough to support two families, Great-grandfather got a new wife, Great-grandmother, and brought her out to Panama. With three children, and Grandfather on the way, the family moved to Macau, the Portuguese colony off of Hong Kong. Two years later they returned to Panama. Don't know why. Move on.

Great-grandfather and Co returned to Macau in 1922 following his retirement, then Grandfather:

  • studied engineering in Indiana,
  • taught math in Shanghai, where he met Grandmother (who was from Hong Kong, but that's a whole other thread,)
  • settled in Hong Kong until the Japanese invaded,
  • worked for the Chinese nationalist government in Chong Qing until the communists came down,
  • went back to Hong Kong,
  • retired to Vancouver, Canada, and died there.

Which brings us to Mom. She grew up entirely in Hong Kong and mainland China, went to the States to go to graduate school and married there. ... Or something like that.

So my question: if the family makes a good faith effort to return to country of origin, does it all reset? Does Mom get to be a traditional immigrant?

Familypicture

Grandfather is fourth from the far right, last row, holding Youngest Uncle. Mom is seventh from the far right, last row. Oldest Uncle is first on the far right, standing, Second Uncle is seated fourth from the right in front. Grandmother is second row from the top, second from the far left. The rest is family.

For the Joy Luck Hub blog carnival, which I'm running over at Hyphen blog. If you're of Asian diasporic extraction, please submit your 300-word immigrant story, which is NOT like The Joy Luck Club!

April 17, 2009

On Bullying

While I appreciate efforts like this one to bring attention to bullying, particularly bullying that happens around homophobia and other prejudices, I think the organizers are still missing some essential points about bullying, how/why it happens, and how to stop it. (Not surprising: many very smart commentators are missing the point.)

"-Isms" like racism and homophobia are one issue, and bullying is an entirely separate issue. You can address an "-ism" effectively and still have terrible, soul-shattering bullying. (Likewise, you can stop bullying and still drive people to suicide with your prejudice.) The "day of silence" and similar efforts are doomed to only partial success, or outright failure, because they conflate homophobia (or prejudice) with bullying behavior, and assume that addressing prejudice among school-age kids will stop the bullying behavior.

It will not.

***
I was always an unpopular kid in school--precocious (put in school a year early), nerdy, outspoken, uncontrolled ... and multiracial. I was occasionally bullied in grade school, but I went to a small parochial school where everyone knew everyone. I was a nerd, but I was their nerd, and god help anyone from outside the school if they wanted to talk down to me.

So it wasn't until we moved to Ohio when I was ten that I encountered really bad bullying. The school was public, and bigger--30 kids per homeroom and two homerooms--and the neighborhood was all white except for us, one other Chinese family, and one other multiracial white/Japanese family. All the Asian kids were considered nerds. The boys started calling me names and harrassing me physically, and no one stopped them. So they kept doing it. Every day. All day long. For a whole year.

Now, when I say "no one stopped them," I don't mean that my parents didn't try anything. From what I understand now, they were on the phone to the principal almost weekly. At one point the school arranged to have one of those theater groups sent to our class to do a role-playing workshop around bullying. It was embarrassingly bad and actually helped me out only because for a week afterward we all spent our bullying time making fun of the theater group. No one (including me) connected the theater group to what was happening to me because their program was so divorced from reality that it didn't get any hooks into our actual behavior (the roleplay centered around taking someone's lunch money.)

At another point, the homeroom teachers suddenly introduced a new item into our curriculum: a family biography, in which we were to get our parents' help in writing a paper on where our families came from. Then a handful of us were asked to do a presentation in front of the class. Guess who was picked to do a presentation? And my family history is really very interesting, so everyone was interested and had a lot of questions for me afterwards. But it didn't stop the bullying because, guess what? The bullying had nothing to do with why I was different and everything to do with how my difference made me less socially powerful. Explaining why I was different was interesting for everyone, but didn't change the fact that I was less socially powerful.

In desperation, the school had me sent out of class while the assistant principal went up there and told the class point blank to stop harrassing me. That lasted about a week. Guess what happened then? When they started, tentatively, poking me again, and no consequences were forthcoming, we were soon back to a full-blown bullying schedule.

Early on in the year, the boys started calling me a "chink." That lasted for maybe two weeks and then stopped. I wasn't there when it was stopped, but in retrospect, I think some adult heard the boys calling me that, was horrified, and put an immediate stop to it. After all, racism was not tolerated at my school. At all. You really never heard any racial epithets at my school, very few racial jokes. Everyone revered them some MLK and Rosa Parks, which was made easier by the utter lack of any black people in a 10 mile radius of our neighborhood. So the "racist bullying" lasted for only two weeks and was effectively stopped. But the non-racist bullying lasted a year (until my parents pulled me out of the school) and intensified throughout.

No, they didn't need to call me a "chink" to make my life hell. They called me "dogie" when we sang cowboy songs in music class. They called me "Nebuchadnezzar" when we studied the ancient world. They'd just say my name in a really nasty voice. They didn't need to know why I was socially weak, they just needed to know that they could get away with tripping me, calling me names, spitting on me, pointing at me whenever somebody said the insult of the week. They just needed to know that the teachers and administrators didn't value my daily presence enough to punish, or even notice, the daily harrassment. They didn't need racism. They didn't need homophobia (early on, someone tried to call me a lesbo, but for some reason it didn't stick. I'm not sure if they were heard by a teacher, or if I was just so not bothered by that that it wasn't worth it. In either case, they didn't need it.) All they needed was to not be stopped. And they weren't.
***

Bullying is no more or less than a person or group of people with social power, expressing their social power over a person or smaller group of people with less social power. Bullying requires two conditions only:

  1. A social hierarchy in which varying degrees of social power are delineated;
  2. An immediate community in which bullying is considered acceptable.

If you have a situation in which both of these conditions exist, you WILL have bullying, regardless of the prejudices or social enlightenment of the group. A group of all white, straight boys, for example, who have been raised to tolerate racial and sexual difference will still bully within their group if the two conditions exist. Bullies do not need an "-ism" as an excuse.

The first condition is impossible to combat. Human beings of all ages will find ways to create social hierarchies. If you make kids wear uniforms to prevent them from using wealth as a measure, then they will structure the hierarchy not around what clothes you wear, but how you wear your clothes or how you behave. The socially powerful will set trends in how to color on your shoes with magic marker, or how high to roll up your pants cuffs, or which lunch dishes to eat and which to treat with disdain.

It is utterly pointless to try to dismantle hierarchies of social power. But you can change the way the hierarchies work, to make them livable. There are two things you can do: one is to create smaller social units (smaller homerooms, or mandatory club membership) so that every individual belongs to a unit small enough that their participation is necessary, and therefore valued. The other is to make sure that every member of each social unit has a role in the social unit that both suits them and is recognized as valuable by the whole unit. (For me, it was art. When my class discovered that I could draw well, suddenly I had my place and a small amount of respect. A couple of classmates actually commissioned me to paint portraits of their pets.) The powerless will still be low on the hierarchy, but they will not be considered expendable, and they will have a small measure of social power that they can leverage to negotiate better treatment.

The second condition is what really needs to be addressed, though. It is both mutable and extremely difficult to change. When a community decides that a certain type of behavior is unacceptable, and imposes consequences for that behavior, the behavior stops immediately. Look at how quickly the racist bullying was stopped in my case. My community had a huge stake in not seeing itself as racist, and would go to great lengths to stop the appearance of racism.

They didn't have any stake in stopping bullying, though. In fact, I think they relied on bullying, as most American communities do. Because societies rely on their members buying into conventional behavior to maintain stability. There aren't enough police in ANY society to patrol all unconventional behavior. Stability is achieved by getting people to police themselves. This can be difficult if you have to convince individuals to adhere to convention with good arguments and rewards. Punishing unconventional behavior is much easier. Bullying is the quick 'n' dirty version of policing the borders of conventions. The bullying punishes the worst offenders, and serves as an example for those who might consider straying. It's easy to do: just step back and let the bullies do their work.

And they will, because the socially powerful have many ways to express their power, and will use them all if left to their own devices, exercising power by:

  • using their social connections to connect disparate groups to each other (networking) or make resources available unilaterally (thereby making themselves indispensible to everyone);
  • selecting an elect group and rewarding that group with privileges;
  • offering their friendship as a favor to those of lesser status, and
  • withdrawing that friendship at their own whim to show that they can;
  • occasionally offering privileges to the whole community as an exercise of noblesse oblige;
  • setting activities and agendas for the whole community, particularly if they're fun or rewarding;
  • selecting an ostracized group and forcing the whole community to ostracize them;
  • squashing challenges to their authority on an individual basis, or empowering proxies to do so;
  • etc.

Only some of these exercises of power lead to bullying. There's no way to stop the socially powerful from being powerful or from exercising their power. But a community CAN get together and stop the bullying that results; i.e. certain exercises of power can be made unacceptable. This requires that the entire community be able to see the advantage to them of stopping bullying, and that the entire community participate in imposing consequences on bullies.

I don't recommend addressing bullying as a whole phenomenon, because it is so misunderstood. The simple fact that people still call bullying "teasing" is a testament to how misunderstood bullying is.

"Teasing" is to "bullying" as "sex" is to "rape."

Teasing is a general term for a method of communication -- a type of mockery that people use in social situations. Sex is a type of intercourse between people ... essentially a way of communicating or being together, or an activity that people share socially. Bullying is abuse that often leverages a kind of mockery that is similar in form to teasing. Rape is a violent crime that leverages sex as a method of coercion and humiliation. Just as rape uses sex to commit violence, bullying uses mockery to commit abuse. The point of both is an expression of power by the bully or rapist over the victim.

I think if you'd asked my bullies why they bullied me they couldn't have given you a terribly articulate answer. It wouldn't have had anything to do with race in their minds, although, of course, race is always a factor, especially in a neighborhood where the only people of color just happen to be the outcast nerds. No, they would have told you that I was a nerd, or a geek, or stupid, or didn't know how to behave. They would have a thousand ways to say it: I was was beyond the pale. What pale, they probably still don't know. But they could zero in on my, and everyone else's, relative power in our shared community. And I had the least power.

And if you ask kids at one of these homophobic schools where kids are bullied for their sexual orientation--or their perceived sexual orientation--you'll get a hundred variations on "he's a fag!" as a reason. But listen to the tone, watch the body language. The problem is not that "he's a fag!" What they're really saying is: "Because he's weak! Because I can!" And because no one has stopped them. Put a really effective gay-straight alliance in place and people will stop calling people "fags" and "lesbos." But the bullying won't stop.

I think, rather, that bullying has to be addressed piecemeal: by breaking up bullying into component parts and addressing each individually. Break it up into a set of rules that don't mention bullying, for example:

  • No name calling: of any kind. This includes making fun of people's names. Online or off.
  • No mockery of your peers. Online or off.
  • No ganging up on people. Online or off.
  • No practical jokes. Online or off.
  • No poking, pinching, hitting, kicking, punching, tripping or any kind of physical violence.
  • No spitting, squirting, or otherwise throwing anything on anyone.

If this sounds overly restrictive: it is, in a way. But it's very clear: these are the things you don't get to do. Find another way to be social with your peers. And it's very clear for the adults who monitor kids, too: you see one of these behaviors, you cut the kid from the herd immediately and put them in timeout. In two weeks, all those behaviors will stop. Most people can't imagine kids socializing without these behaviors because they've never seen kids (or sometimes, adults) socializing without these behaviors. But I have.

When my parents took me out of the bullying school and put me into an (expensive, private, all-girls) school, I found myself for the first time in a community where bullying was utterly unacceptable. No one called me names. No one mocked me. No one ganged up on me. No one played nasty practical jokes on me. No one poked, pinched, hit, kicked, tripped, spit on, or threw things at me. And I was still unpopular, I was still an outcast. People still had plenty to do and plenty to say to each other, and were still very clear on the fact that I was beyond the pale; weird; ridiculous, nerdy. No one said anything about it. They didn't have to. When I said something nerdy, people nearest me would roll their eyes and then move quickly on to the next topic, excluding me. If I tried to join a more popular group by standing or sitting near them, they'd ignore me. If I got too close, someone would glare at me or ask me directly what I wanted until I went away. My position hadn't changed. The only thing that had changed was that I wasn't being abused.

It took me two years to recover from that awful year of bullying; two years to not wince when someone asked me what my name was, two years to stop cowering away when someone approached me; two years to start trusting my teachers enough to do the work they asked me to do; two years to feel like life was worth living again. And during those two years, I had no friends. But what I had was peace. I had quiet. I had a chance to recover. And two years later I started making friends and collecting social power, and a few years after that I had put myself beyond the power of bullies forever.

I hadn't put the racism behind me, though, or the sexism. I still had to deal with that ... in fact, the more social power I had, the more people wanted to be around me because I was cool now, the more I had to deal with their prejudices and misconceptions and fears. But I was able to manage the -isms myself -- find a group of people like me, study and understand the phenomenon, advocate for my racial group (or for women) -- because I had social power and personal confidence as a result of being taken out from under bullying behavior.

****

Now, none if this is by way of saying that prejudice shouldn't be addressed early and often. You can stop bullying without addressing prejudice, but then you'll still have an active prejudice that will come out in other ways. Even if a gay teen isn't being actively bullied, that teen can still be ostracized, ignored, earnestly told that he is immoral, wrong, or bad, told that his very being disappoints his parents and embarrasses his family, and generally put into such extremes of cognitive dissonance that can cause depression, suicidal tendencies, and the like. Bullying isn't the only social behavior that kills.

I'm just saying: recognize the difference. Prejudice is one thing, bullying is another. Address them separately if you want to get rid of both.

March 15, 2009

On "Hapa" And Cultural Appropriation

Fulbeckhapa

Image by Kip Fulbeck.

I'm not interested in participating in RaceFail '09 in any way, and I don't want to compound the folly by inscribing yet another diatribe about cultural appropriation when everyone is running around screaming, with their fingers stuck in their ears. But I do think that the Asian Women Blog Carnival is a good opportunity to kill a few birds: my thinking on a particular close-to-home topic, which will also offer a cautionary tale to the clueless, the allies, and the POC alike.

For those of you just joining us, "hapa" is a word currently used by many/most politically conscious Asian Americans to refer to mixed-race or multiracial Asians. The word is Hawai'an, and is actually part of the term "hapa haole," meaning literally "part foreigner," but connoting people who are half or part Hawai'ian and half or part white. Hawai'ians still use "haole" to refer to whites.

Sounds like a politically correct word, and it has been a "word of power," as Wei Ming Dariotis puts it (see below). But, it turns out, it's a strange example of cultural appropriation: cultural appropriation by Asian Americans, against native Hawai'ians, for the purpose of empowering Asian American multiracials in a context in which we have been historically disenfranchised. This isn't what we usually refer to as "cultural appropriation," but I think it's illuminating, and may help some white Americans who are resisting being labeled "appropriators" to understand what's at stake.

I want to talk about what the word means to people who use it -- especially to me -- and why the word might be problematic and ripe for retirement. This is about using words to express disadvantage and marginalization ... and it's about your words disadvantaging and marginalizing others. It's about walking your talk and why that isn't as easy as it sounds.

Before I discuss the word and its problems, here are some points of necessary information (I hope I don't need to say this, but these points are from my personal perspective and experience, and have to do with my own opinions and understanding, not universal truth):

  • Why multiracials need their own word: Multiracial organizing only really started in a big way in the late eighties, when Generation X was coming of age. Gen X is also known as the "multiracial baby boom," the result of a boomlet in interracial relationships following the Civil Rights Movement, related Chicano and Asian American movements, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which reversed centuries of anti-race-mixing laws. On the Asian side, the multiracial boom also followed the Immigration Act of 1965, which substantially increased the flow of Asian immigrants into the US.

    Previous to the "multiracial baby boom," people understood as multiracials did not constitute a significant minority in the US. Although the African American community has always been multiracial, owing to the type of power dynamics that made black women sexually available to white men, due to the "one drop rule," anyone with African blood was considered black, and multiraciality was not recognized per se. (A similar situation is true of Native American communities, for somewhat different reasons.) So a great deal of the initial organizing around multiracial identities had to do with rejecting the one drop rule and reclaiming all identities, or constructing a third identity.

    Also, multiracial African Americans were a much larger group than multiracial Asian Americans, and the history and nature of their issues was and remains very different. During the first twenty years of constructing a "Multiracial Movement," a great deal of the work was simply sharing and discussion. Because As Am multiracials were numerically overwhelmed by Af Am multiracials in the organizations, and felt as if their issues were less urgent, they often felt that they didn't have enough space to talk about Asian-specific issues in general multiracial organizations. On the other side of the question, multiracial Asians were finding themselves under the gun in their Asian communities, being invalidated or outright told that they were a threat to the racial and cultural purity of their communities.

    For all of these reasons, multiracial Asian Americans needed, for a time, to differentiate themselves from other multiracials to discuss their particular issues, and to create a power base for themselves to use in their Asian communities to reclaim membership and a stake. A word for specifically Asian multiracials was essential to this effort.

  • Asian and Pacific Islander American organizing: In the eighties and nineties, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans were grouped together officially, and so pan-Asian organizations were actually pan-API (Asian Pacific Islander) and made a greater or lesser point of reaching out to Pacific Islander communities and being inclusive in that way. In the 2000s, though, the two categories -- Asian and Pacific Islander -- have been split off from one another and the urgency in pan-Asian organizations around including Pacific Islanders has dropped off to a certain extent. (For example, Hyphen magazine, which I co-founded, was established in 2002 as specifically Asian American and not API, because the other founders felt that our entirely Asian staff couldn't do justice to Pacific Islander issues. I dissented but was overruled, and they were, as always in such cases, partially correct: we couldn't do Pacific Islander issues justice if we weren't going to do them justice ... and we didn't.)

    This is both good and bad. It's good because in the former scenario, the vast differences in cultures, experience, perception, and privilege between the two groups were often glossed over or outright ignored. It's bad because Pacific Islanders are a small group compared to Asians, and did have some access to a stronger power base and some public attention through being included in API organizing. Also, the inclusion was both a challenge and an opportunity for illumination to an Asian American organizing class that was often ignorant of what was going on in Pacific Islander American and recent immigrant communities. Splitting the two groups off from each other has not led to greater attention being paid to Pacific Islander-specific issues and many incoming young adult As Ams remain very ignorant. (Please note that some API orgs remain genuinely and sincerely API.)

    (An example: Last year the de Young Museum in San Francisco had a Pacific Islander artist from New Zealand in residence and produced a performance evening including two Pacific Islander artists from the Bay Area. Ten years ago, such an event could and did turn out substantial numbers from the Asian American arts-loving crowd. This event, though taking place at a major venue, didn't turn out any Asians that I saw, besides myself, and I only went to support my friends whom I hadn't seen in a while.)

  • How hapa got here: As I understand it, "hapa" as a general term for Asians and Pacific Islanders of mixed heritage was being used in Hawai'i before the Second World War, and might have made its way to the mainland as a result of Japanese Americans from both Hawai'i and the mainland fighting together in the war. In any case, on the continental US, the word was first used in the Japanese American community, and stayed there until the late eighties or early nineties when mixed race Asian Americans of all ethnicities started organizing around a mixed race identity together, and needed a general word that could refer to everybody, which had no bad connotations for Asian Americans.

    Previous terms used are:
    • "Eurasian": which arose in European colonies in Asia to refer to the children of mostly white European men and native Asian women through a variety of types of sexual liaisons, from rape and prostitution to marriage. The word has always had a disreputable cast, a negative connotation that suggests that the Asian mother is a prostitute or easy woman, and the child is a bastard. Eurasian women tend to be viewed by both whites and Asians as sexually available, and Eurasian men as untrustworthy. Tragic mulattism ensues.

      The word is also problematic because it declares the mixed race Asian to be part European, and nowadays in the US many multiracial Asians are Asian and African American, or Native American, or Latino, or Middle Eastern, etc. What to call them?

    • "Amerasian": arose to refer specifically to the children of soldiers in Asian wars of the latter half of the twentieth century. I'm not sure if it was being used post-Korean War, but it was definitely what the children of Vietnam War soldiers were called. The term has occasionally been applied to multiracial Asian Americans from some other context, but never really stuck or gained any mainstream recognition as such. It also has an unsavory, prostitute/GI connotation, and a tragic mulatto implication, given the dire political situation of Amerasian children in their country of origin at wars' ends. 

      Also problematic because it implies that the Asian parent is not American, and the non-Asian parent is.

    • "Multiracial": has no real negative political connotations, but is also not specific enough, as I explained above.

    • "Cablinasian," "Blackanese," "Korgentinian," and the like: There's definitely a value in the Multiracial Movement that holds personal descriptors -- i.e. personally invented descriptors -- in high esteem. Therefore: Tiger Woods' famous "Cablinasian," or the fairly common (among Black and Japanese multiracials) "Blackanese," or the very specific "Korgentinian," which I got from former Hapa Issues Forum Director Sheila Chung, who is Korean and Argentinian. However, unlike "multiracial," these are all too specific. They're great used on an individual basis, but you can't build a movement or group identity around them.

  • Do we need "hapa" now?: in 2007 Hapa Issues Forum, the main organization collecting hapa-centered clubs and associations together, officially closed its doors. It had been latent for three years. There were a number of reasons for this, the first being that the generation that started HIF, my generation, were now on the doorstep of middle age, marrying, having kids, and generally backing away mightily from nonprofit volunteerism. It happens. Another reason, though, was the the next generation of organizers, who always came up through student associations, were no longer organizing under "hapa"; they were now organizing under general multiraciality. This meant that they would transition (if at all) from general mixed race orgs in college to general mixed race orgs out in the world, of which there are many.

    What had happened in the interim was that mixed race Asians had radically increased in number, and our issues had become "mainstream" within the Multiracial Movement. Thanks to HIF and other hapa-based orgs, the materials (books, films, plays, artwork, music, performances, etc.) available to explain us had exploded. We were no longer ignored and marginalized. We had a seat at the table, at least, at the table of mixed race and Asian American organizing. Our advocacy had worked. The word "hapa" had worked.

Okay, do you feel caught up? I feel caught up.

So, I've just spent a lot of bullet points explaining why the word "hapa" has been so important -- to Asian America, to the Multiracial Movement, and to multiracial Asian American organizing. I've also hinted at how Asian American organizing may have gotten in the way of Pacific Islander organizing.

Okay, now read this article by Dr. Wei Ming Dariotis, a specialist in Asian Americans of mixed heritage. In it, she talks about how the word "hapa" has been her "word of power," how it freed her to identify herself in a powerful way, and also to find a community of free choice rather than a community of shame:

It has given us a space of our own, a place where we can be us, without having to explain ourselves. Anyone entering the space created by the word accepts our identity. In this way it works opposite from Bilbo and Frodo's ring of power, which makes the wearer invisible; the word “Hapa” makes my community visible, that is its power.

But:

power, as we all know, always creates the seeds of its own destruction.  The very success of the word “Hapa” has been in some ways its downfall.  What I mean to say that the word “Hapa” as it is used now can never go back to what it (or what “hapa”) once meant: a Native Hawaiian word meaning mixed or part or half, as in the phrase hapa haole.

... Increasingly, many Native Hawaiian people object not only to the way the word has been changed in its grammatical usage, but also to how it is applied to anyone of mixed Asian and or Pacific Islander heritage, when it implies Native Hawaiian mixed heritage.  This is not merely a question of trying to hold on to word that like many words encountered in the English language has been adopted, assimilated, or appropriated.  This is a question of power.  Who has the power or right to use language? 

She goes on to point out that Asians are not native to Hawai'i but rather settlers. Although they were exploited and mistreated on Hawai'i and the mainland, their settlement was a choice, and their subsequent success came through supporting and bolstering European/American hegemony on Hawai'i. Let me repeat that: Asian American success on Hawai'i came through Asian American collusion in the colonization of Hawai'i.

So this admittedly symbolic usage of "hapa" by Asian Americans feels to many native Hawai'ians like the appropriation of land and culture perpetrated by all Hawai'ian settlers and colonizers. Further, that mixed race Asian Americans appropriated a word to find their own power is an item of their own blissful ignorance ... and privilege. As Dariotis points out in her article, Asian Americans appropriated "hapa" because it had no negative connotations for Asian Americans. But that was because the word arose out of a colonizing situation between Europeans and native Hawai'ians. The fact that Asian Americans saw no negative connotations in the word had to do with the fact thatn in this colonizing situation, Asian Americans played a helping role on the side of the colonizers. That's about as ironic as it gets.

When I first read Wei Ming's article, I was just as resistant as she said she was to giving up the word "hapa." It had a similar meaning to me as it did to her. I had experienced some pretty bad bullying as a child based largely on my racial identity (if you want to get the flavor of it, read this; it's pretty much exactly my experience, except that I'm Chinese and my parents were both on the spot), and like many multiracial and monoracial As Ams, I grew up isolated from "people like me." Having a word that identified me accurately, and conferred power on me instead of taking it away was more important than I can explain to anyone who has always had the right to name themselves without question (ask me sometime about how bullies use names to take away your dignity and self esteem, how any word can be turned into something that hurts you.)

Wei Ming's article first appeared on Hyphen magazine's website (I can't find it there now) in late 2007 and I rejected the argument out of hand. "What do they expect us to use then, huh?" I thought. "We have no other word, and the meaning has already changed. It's too late. Besides, a lot of Hawai'ian words, and a lot of Asian words, too, have been incorporated into English without anyone's explicit permission. These words honor the contributions of Hawai'ian and Asian cultures in the American mainstream. Plus, this word is being used to give non-whites power. Don't these hysterical Hawai'ians get it?" At the time it seemed a pretty unanswerable argument. Yeah.

I didn't think too much about it over the next year or so. But then I got into an argument a couple weeks ago or so with a Korean American friend about US Americans' use of the word "American" to refer to ourselves. Don't get me wrong. I think the argument that all people in the Americas are "American" is pretty obvious and silly. If a Bolivian wanted to refer to herself as "American," she'd be totally within her rights, as far as I was concerned. Of course, that's ridiculous, though. She already has a country name, Bolivia, which she can use to refer to herself, whereas our country name IS "America." "the United States of" is a modifier, and it would be grammatically problematic to call us "Unitedians" or "Statesians" (then everyone else could argue that they're also united or they are also states.) And having other people assign to us the name "USians" is inappropriate and goes against all my principles; people name themselves, and people outside of the group don't get any say in it at all.

But then, on the other hand, the USA declared itself caretaker and patron of the entire Western Hemisphere nearly two centuries ago, without anyone else's say so, and has been running around like it's all agreed ever since: setting up murderous dictators, couping out popularly elected officials, and generally acting like anything in the Americas is ... well ... American, in the sense of "United States of." I don't believe that the original use of "American" to refer to British colonists in the American colonies was at all intended to claim hegemony over the entire hemisphere. No USA citizens intend that our use of the word "American" confers hegemony on us. Not even our government intends that. But the fact remains that we've wreaked might-makes-right havoc on the entire hemisphere, and that we dominate it in such a way that all other countries in the Americas must define themselves in alliance or opposition to us. I mean US.

So the jury is very much out on that issue. On the one hand, it would be ridiculous for me and other bleeding hearts to say "Hey, we'll stop calling ourselves 'American' because we don't want to offend our fellow Americas-ians," when nobody else wants to use the word to refer to themselves. On the other hand, maybe none of us should be using the word as a national signifier, since it belongs to all of us. And on the foot, what do we call ourselves then?

Which brings us back to "hapa," and that debate, which broke back over me in the past week as a result of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival declaring a hapa theme this year. In this case, it's not a matter of us trying to share a word with Others that we all have equal right to, and that they don't particularly want to use for themselves. In this case, it's a matter of trying to get the power of a name by ignorantly taking the power of a name away from someone else.

See, the history of "hapa" is that it was a term specifically created to refer to the children produced by European/American hegemony in Hawai'i. Without the colonization, you don't need the term "hapa haole." And it's a specifically positive Hawai'ian word for mixed children, a word created to include mixed children into native Hawai'ian society, to find a place for them. You can't have power in a Hawai'ian word for multiracial Hawai'ians if it doesn't exist solely for multiracial Hawai'ians. Having this word appropriated by Asians who settled or were settled on Hawai'i only after it was literally stolen from the Hawai'ian people -- having this word stolen by Asians brought over to work the plantations that the haoles stole Hawai'i to create -- would be pretty damn hard to take, wouldn't it?

What we've done here is stolen the power of the word. Period. This is not like the whole "American" thing where we didn't steal the word, and the power in it now is something that has accumulated with time. This was a straight-up decision that was made in living memory to use this word because there was nothing standing between us and it ... kinda like the decision made in recent times to simply take Hawai'i because there was nothing military standing between us and it.

This is no longer acceptable to me. Yes, it took me over a year of subconscious mulling to get here but I'm here now. I don't want to use the word anymore; its power is gone and its savor has soured for me.

And at the same time, multiracial Asian organizations have re-assimilated (word used advisedly) with general multiracial organizations; mixed race Asians now have an important seat at the table of both Asian America, and Multiracial America. We don't need the word "hapa" anymore, not to organize around, anyway. So maybe we're able to say "let it go" because we don't need it anymore.

But that doesn't make the letting go any less difficult, or any less necessary.

And what, if anything, do we call ourselves now?

February 13, 2009

Teh Awesome (Obama Swearing Edition)

Via Badgerbag, this post with clips of Obama reading profane dialogue on the audiobook of "Dreams From My Father."

January 23, 2009

Readin' Update

Nisi Shawl FILTER HOUSE

A book of short stories from a fabulous writer who is my friend so the no-review rule holds. Awrsome.

Ernest J. Eitel WHAT IS FENG SHUI?: THE CLASSIC NINETEETH-CENTURY INTERPRETATION

Just what the title says: an 1873 publication from an English-language press in Hong Kong. Eitel was a German Protestant missionary -- apparently with a gift for languages -- who spent his career in China and ended up becoming something of an expert in Feng Shui, Buddhism, and Cantonese, writing texts on the first two and a dictionary of the last. He has his own form of Romanization for Cantonese, apparently.

Anywho, the book is extremely valuable not just for helping me to cut through all the latter day, Westernized, interior decorating crap that fills most feng shui books I can find, but it also teaches 19th Century feng shui and conveys the attitude of an educated and enlightened Western man towards feng shui.

Eitel is alternately contemptuous of and fascinated by feng shui, condemning it as "rank superstition" at the same time that he claims it as legitimate Chinese natural science. He makes the point that I've had to make before, that although the art/science of feng shui is infused with hoo doo and superstition, and doesn't follow the strict rules of western empiricism, there has been a science to the manner of study of feng shui; there is a form of empiricism and experimentation involved -- only it isn't "pure."

Perfect research item for da nobble.

January 19, 2009

Obama Thoughts: Hope and Despair

Stimulating and challenging discussion with Shailja yesterday over the course of a writing date. She expressed distrust towards the Sense of Hope TM that has risen around Obama's campaign and election (and now inauguration.) She's concerned that it's another mass-opiate.

I was thinking rather that it was a swing back to the other emotional extreme, after 8 years of the American public (and that is both right and left) being completely helpless to influence or affect the administration or national policy, and the concomitant despair that has been collecting over that. The despair, interestingly enough, although felt increasingly by the farther left all along, has only manifested in the mainstream in the last eighteen months or so -- not coincidentally, around the same time that long-ass campaign started. So I think the public can't maintain a sense of hope OR despair for very long: we avoid despair for as long as we can, and I think hope is fickle, if not fragile.

What I'm saying is that despair can't motivate us for long, and hope can't motivate -- or opiate -- us for long.

It also makes me think about the alchemy of the election. Our sense of despair arose right around the same time as our sense of hope. I think neither could manifest in the collective consciousness without the other. As a people, we staved off despair about Bush until two not merely viable, but transformational alternatives appeared. Then we all, as a mass, dropped any hope of Bush transforming his administration into something of any value and turned to Hillary and Obama.

And let's not gainsay Hillary's importance in this alchemical equation. The Hope TM came from a conjunction of symbolic sources (and when I say "first ____ candidate," I mean "first viable _____ candidate"):

  1. First Woman candidate = potential final barrier to gender inequality being removed. Curiously, at no time since the women's movement has there been a moment, or an issue, that has been elevated to Symbolic of the Continuing Oppression of Women TM in the public consciousness. Not Anita Hill, not the many abortion fights, not the Duke Rape Scandal, not Lorena Bobbitt. Each of these and many others simply elevated its specific issue to public consciousness, but feminism failed in -- or was blocked from -- connecting each issue to the general issue of gender inequality. I think this is part of the reason that misogyny could be so blatant in this campaign. People think of sexism as smoke and mirrors -- whiny, crocs-wearing women -- and don't connect it to unequal pay, workplace sexual harrassment, rape, domestic violence, and reproductive control.

    And yet we carry with us as a nation a vast, painful uneasiness with each other (after all, half of us are men and the other half women), a vague sense that something is not right that we wish was right. And the appearance of Hillary, while arousing a terrible, sexist rage and hatred in men -- particularly men of my generation, heartbreakingly enough -- also aroused a strong, if vague, hope in them that her presence in the election, and her potential election, would lay this terrible uneasiness to rest.

    And let's be clear: it was only Hillary who could have done this. Immediately below I point out that only someone like Obama could have done his part, and I say that not to discount Obama's individual personality, but to point out that Obama had to simultaneously build his individual image and build his image as symbolic of national and racial healing. I don't think -- I really, really, really don't believe -- that a woman could have done the same thing in the same amount of time. I believe that there is a much greater resistance in the public consciousness to accepting a woman in a leadership image than there is to accepting a man in a leadership image. And that includes men of color, because we've been seeing strong, amazing men of color in leadership roles since Frederick Douglass ... and even during the Civil Rights Movement men-as-leaders of the race wasn't a hard concept to take in. The resistance to women is greater, so women have to take more time to develop their image. Compare Obama to Sarah Palin, who had even less time to build an image than he did. She was very popular on the right, but popular as a mascot, an attraction, a curiousity ... NOT as a leader. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes her to become leaderly in the public consciousness. I'll take bets as to whether she manages it by 2012 or if it'll take until 2016.

    In any case, I've argued before that for liberal or moderate women to achieve leadership in government, they have to be part of a political dynasty (and also that conservative women have to claw their way up through the ranks, be more tough than the mens, and have husbands who aren't in politics, all of which obtains in the Hillary/Sarah Palin case.) Hillary isn't just the only moderate/liberal in American politics who fulfills that requirement (although that's enough); she's also the only one who has a powerful and distinct public image both as an individual, and as a leader. It is this last -- her image as a leader -- that has caused such rage and hatred among sexist men: they don't think she should be viewed as a leader, Because She Hasn't Earned It TM. And this is part and parcel of what made Hillary so effective as a woman candidate: deep down, the men who oppose her don't believe that any woman could deserve such a position, so if Hillary won it, it might be enough to shut up those feminists.

  2. First Candidate of Color = potential final barrier to race inequality being removed. I really don't think I need to comment much on this except to remind everyone that the general confusion about what Obama actually IS, racially, worked entirely in his favor. He was able to stave off the descent of the usual stereotypes onto his image for long enough to build a distinct, and unique, image for himself. That is entirely to his credit and the credit of his campaign team, but he should be credited for taking advantage of the blessed circumstances he was born to, and not for inventing a world in which a strange, multiracial, transnational man of partial African descent is the only possible person who can simultaneously tap the hope for racial union and short-circuit the fear of the Angry Black Man TM.

    And he was the only possible person. A Gen-X, American-born descendent of American slaves could not have done it. A woman of Obama's background could not have done it. Someone of a non-African lineage could not have done it. It had to be someone like Obama, and we, as a nation, did not -- prior to this election -- have the imagination to realize that it wasn't The Next Jesse Jackson TM, who was going to get it done but someone as peculiar and Inexplicable and twenty-first century as Obama.

  3. First Gen-X-ish candidate (just as Gen-Xers are taking over leadership positions in all sectors) = potential final enfranchisement of our generation, otherwise known as accession of our Generation TM to boss-status. We've been ruled by Baby Boomers in the media since Reagan, and in the government since Clinton. The worst president in living memory (and that includes Herbert Hoover) is a Baby Boomer. It's Time for A Change.

  4. First Woman + First Gen-X-ish Candidate of Color + Horrible Failure of a Conservative White Male = we're ready to lay off all our white, male guilt on George W. Bush and cleanse our own souls. We can only be talking about a post-race, post-feminist era now because all these terms and ideas have finally reached -- if not penetrated or convinced -- the mainstream public consciousness. No white, and no male, can walk comfortably around in the world without worrying if they're racist or sexist -- or at least worrying if others will see them that way.

    Combine this with the utter and complete failure of every single Bush policy to achieve what he said it would, or to even achieve anything of value unexpectedly, not to mention the steady deterioration of the national sense of self-esteem as we watched ourselves turn into rabid, nationalistic torturers and imprisoners (seriously, we can justify becoming brutal until the cows come home -- and believe it, too -- but at the end of the day, we're still brutal) and what we have is a perfect storm. Nobody wants to be the horrible, entitled white, or male, or white male, and Dubya pretty much set himself up to be hated. So let's pile our load of guilt on his goatish back and slaughter the bastard (now, if only we could take that symbolic slaughter past the election and into a courtroom ...)

If any of these elements had been missing, Obama might not have succeeded (it took a scary white women to frighten the decisive number of recalcitrant white males into supporting Obama.) More importantly, if any of these elements had been missing, our plate of hope would have been missing a major food group. Not a balanced meal. The Obama campaign made us feel completely healthy for the first time in 8 years of junk food. If a vegetable or a fruit had been missing, or protein, or whatever, it would not have been the whole hog: Hope.

So yes, it's definitely a monolithic Feeling TM that is easy to exploit commercially (although I think it's appropriate and salutary that Obama's first effect in office will be a minor boost to our economy through Obamabilia), but I'm not too worried about it opiating people indefinitely. Losing that Perfect Hope Storm TM will pique the public (I hope), and the first time Obama feels like compromising (or maybe the second or tenth) the More Than A Feeling TM will go away and people will sink back into Apathy As Usual or be moved to protest.

Obviously, I hope it's the latter, but I don't believe that people as a group entity can sustain political action -- or even political concern -- for very long. It's more important that we have an administration that is affected by the protest and action of the few, than that we mobilize everyone forever ... and to possibly little effect.

January 15, 2009

Defining and Identifying Cultural Appropriation

Here's what's going on and why I'm doing this now.

First of all, I'm not gonna deal with global cultural appropriation, but rather focus on American appropriation of cultures brought into the US either by immigrants or by Americans who went abroad and brought stuff back. Okay, here's a brief and incomplete definition of "cultural appropriation" I wrote in this post a couple of years ago (you have to read the whole post to really get where I'm coming from.):

Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture ... and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the "home culture" or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc.

I think that's adequate as a basis, but I DO think I need to distinguish between two concepts so that people get it. The two concepts are:

  • Cultural Appropriation
  • Cultural Syncretism

Syncretism generally refers to the process of reconciling or melding of differing views or beliefs or uses. This can happen intentionally, or by a natural, unconscious process.

More or less discrete cultures that come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways, will start to syncretize aspects of each culture. This is inevitable, and neither undesirable nor preventable. Cultural items tend to get taken on in a new culture if they are useful, convenient, resolve a problem, or appeal to a value that already exists in the host culture. Examples of this would be:

  • the adoption of potatoes into the European diet after contact with the new world (the introduction of potatoes was more or less deliberate, but the spread of potatoes was a natural cultural movement)
  • Christianity becoming a cult (one of many) in ancient Rome, a culture that tolerated multiple gods from many cultural origins, and incorporated them into its pantheon
  • the partial adoption of Japanese corporate organizing practices in the US auto industry in the eighties, when Japanese auto companies began building factories in the States

And of course, small things like words and whole slang idioms, small gestures or sets of gestures, rituals and ceremonies, manners, clothing and accessories, music, visual design elements, etc. can get taken on deliberately or without thought.

This is just how we are. US mainstream culture is a mass of syncretism, from our political culture, to our language ("ketchup" is Chinese, "frankfurter" and "wiener" are German, "chili" is Nahuatl, "onion" is Latin, and "soda" is Arabic, so your standard chili dog and coke is about as syncretic -- and American -- as you can get), our religions, our design, our ... etc.

HOW syncretism happens is not defined under the term. It can be forced (Indian boarding schools, Catholic church incorporation of local gods as saints), it can be friendly, or it can happen unconsciously. Cultural appropriation is actually, therefore, a subset of cultural syncretism -- one way that syncretism happens.

It's a strange, post-colonial way of making syncretism happen, though. Whereas previous to modern decolonization, no one was truly uncomfortable with the idea that the Other was "barbaric" (it was only the argument over who constituted the Other, us or them), it's only since the 20th century that we've consciously moralized this position, and created an understanding of Otherness as having value and even virtue, simply because it is Other. This is the "noble savage" point of view, the exotifying point of view, the model minority point of view, that elevates Otherness rather than denigrating it. It's still a process of Othering, though.

It's also only since the 20th century that groups of people have accepted their identity as Other to the mainstream or dominant group, and turned it into a power position.

Today, in the United States, we have groups, tribes, cultures, of people whose primary identity is that of Other. Although we spend a lot of time saying "we are not Other," people of color ... African Americans, Asian Americans, etc. ... are people and Americans who must define themselves using a modifier. This is an Other identity, not a mainstream one. You can see the difference when you talk to my mom, who immigrated in her twenties and has been a US citizen for half her life: she'll tell you she's Chinese. Not Chinese American, Chinese. She has a mainstream identity from a different country. Here, she's a foreigner or immigrant, but there's a place where she is not an Other. I, on the Other hand, am Chinese American and multiracial. I was born an Other in the world, and have no home ground to go to where I'm not Other.

I make this point because accepting and claiming an Other identity, which has politically empowered a lot of people of color, has been largely misunderstood on the white side as meaning that "it's better to be colored than white." This is an unconscious understanding, but it feeds into the noble-savaging and Othering of POC. This comes about because it's accepted and empowering to be outspokenly proud to be "black," "Asian," "brown," "Latino," what have you, but it's not okay to use the same language to be outspokenly proud to be "white." So this gets translated into the following set of principles:

  1. whites have no 'ethnic' identity because being proud of one's whiteness is just racism
  2. people of color are the only ones with real ethnicity
  3. having an ethnicity is better than not having an ethnicity

Which brings us to cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a method of cultural syncretism that is specific to our primary-Other-identity, post-colonial, identity-politics era. It arises when a dominant culture, as I said above, raids a subordinate culture for cultural items that it then pulls out of context. The dominant culture -- in our case, white Americans -- doesn't properly acknowledge the borrowing -- or else the dominant culture makes a complete hash of the borrowing and then tries to pass it off as authentic. This happens for three reasons:

  1. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they find or make up a nonwhite ancestor and go acquire aspects of that ancestor's culture (see "1/16th Cherokee" or "we're southern so we must have a black ancestor") which they weren't brought up in and haven't acquired in ways that people generally consider to be "authentic."
  2. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they decide to strongly identify with a nonwhite culture and then acquire aspects of that culture (see "I taught English in China for two years," or "I'm blacker than you are!")
  3. Whites of a particular class or position need to appear worldly and eclectic -- not to mention liberal -- so they spend a great deal of cultural time "broadening their horizons" in ethnic shops and exercise/dance classes. This last one is itself an item of a liberal white American subculture: the need to have a culturally eclectic affect.

The reason I made this distinction between cultural syncretism in general and cultural appropriation specifically is that -- you guessed it -- cultural appropriation is about an exploitive power dynamic, whereas not all forms of cultural sycretism are. We see cultural syncretism everywhere in our mainstream culture because the US is an immigrant country and we really do meld a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. The power dynamic lies in the fact that the genuinely syncretic and layered culture of the mainstream is dominated by whites. That broad river of culture is considered -- consciously by POC and unconsciously by whites -- to be the home ground and domain of whites, even though everyone has contributed to it.

So when a new cultural item is added to that mainstream, it is done by whites deliberately, and in a manner that doesn't acknowledge its debt to any subculture or alternate culture. That mainstream is powerful because it is the mainstream and because it is the homeground of the white power-majority. Likewise, whites are powerful because they are white and because they control the powerful mainstream, both. It's true cultural synergy.

The principle of the mainstream is inherently melting-pot-ish, so once something has joined the mainstream, it becomes very difficult to pick out its origin and path to the mainstream. This is an aspect of the cultural mainstream that shores up its power. Likewise, people of color rarely see their cultural product make it into the mainstream intact because of the melting pot principle; it's easier to not give up power if you dismantle a subculture and incorporate it piecemeal: for every Boyz 'n' the Hood there will be twenty Colors's; for every Better Luck Tomorrow there will be twenty Fast and Furious sequels. Dismantle, then control. This is why the live action Avatar can be cast all white. Avatar already began the process of dismantling the cultures by making them secondary cultures.

Cultural appropriation is also hard for whites to understand because it's hard to distinguish between melding and appropriation when we simply don't know where each individual got it from.

For example: generation after generation, African American slang gets incorporated into mainstream white slang. At one point in this process, it's straight up cultural appropriation. But there does come a moment when enough white people are using the slang, that other white people are picking it up from whites in their own communities, without necessarily knowing its origin. At that point, it's already fused into the mainstream culture and the less "cutting edge" whites really aren't appropriating it ... because it's already thoroughly appropriated.

I'll give you a funny example: I left the US (Tucson) in 1992 and came back (to San Francisco) in 1998. During that time, a new set of "urban" slang hit the mainstream. Not a lot of this reached us in Europe during that time. So when I came back to the States in 98/99, I was working at a number of Asian American arts orgs. A lot of the volunteers had gone to ivy league colleges (model minorities) and I noticed something: all the people I knew who had gone to Yale were using this slang expression "My bad." I'd never heard that before so I pointed it out to a Yalie friend and asked if it was a Yale thing. She found that very amusing. Of course, subsequently, I heard it all over the place and it became clear that it was part of a slang set that -- once again -- came from African America. But by the time it reached me, it was so thoroughly appropriated that I was able to think -- just for a moment -- that it was an ivy league thing.

Because cultural appropriation either succeeds or fails -- that is, items are either thoroughly appropriated or they aren't -- it can be hard to tell with successful appropriations where they've been appropriated from. So a LOT of whites, who get these things from their white communities, hear POC screaming about cultural appropriation and are genuinely confused. Aren't we a melting pot? I didn't steal this from anybody! Even my Mom says it for chrissake!

There's also a lot of unconscious disagreement about a statute of limitations on accusations of cultural appropriation. For example, I still hear some Af Ams complaining about how Elvis jacked Little Richard and others. It's true, but we're so many musical generations down the line from Elvis, and most Af Am musicians wouldn't touch rockabilly with a ten-foot pole now, so can we let go of that? I'd still be willing to talk about Vanilla Ice, but there are folks who think that's over, too. So that's another issue that no one can agree on: when does it stop being cultural appropriation and just become culture?

Sadly, I have no answers for you today. Because, of course, cultural syncretism and its various methods are a spectrum, not a clearly defined taxonomy. And where your own actions fall on that spectrum will depend on your point of view.

One thing I can say, and have said before, is that when it comes to creating fictional worlds and fictional characters, you do have the opportunity to control your cultural appropriation, to step back and err on the side of not appropriating. That is not the same thing as not writing the Other, but I happen to fall down on the side of don't write the Other if you can't do it right. Rather, make sure that enough People of Color are getting published and noticed.

But that's just me.

November 14, 2008

888 and Readin' Update

I have 888 comments on this blog! That's very lucky!

I finished Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King last week, one of my American Indian Heritage Month reads. It was published in 1993, I have to note, and reads--quite frankly--as original text for Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys novels. Which is to say that Gaiman's tactic of incorporating gods and myths into contemporary settings, and then sending human and mythical characters on a road trip across the American landscape, seems to have originated here.

Only this is much better. King gets a bit meta on it, incorporating the narrator's voice into an ongoing dialogue with one of the mythical characters (Coyote, to be precise). And the novel is structured in a meta manner as well: as a story telling that keeps going wrong. The four main mythical characters--pop culture archetypes--each get a turn telling the story from the beginning, and each time Coyote messes up the telling. Each time the telling starts anew, the tension resets, although the story continues to move forward for the human characters.

It's pretty cool.

On the downside, there are too many characters and no protagonists. None of the characters is very likeable, either, so it's hard to care about them. Why is this problem so prevalent in fiction?

All-in-all, though, a good, fun, interesting read.

November 02, 2008

As Sarah Failin' Would Say: Readin' Update

So I just finished Obama's Dreams From My Father.

Not sure how to get into this discussion. Obama is, surprisingly, a very good prose writer: assured, smooth, with a good sense of prose rhythm and shape. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised: there are a lot of lawyers who end up writing fiction, so there must be something in the education that trains one's prose style. But the outlines of his career that he lays out in the book tend to indicate little interest in the life of the imagination, or in aesthetics.

But maybe it's what I talked about once, with language issues and writing. I don't know if I ever blogged about this, but when I first lived in Berlin, I was part of an American writers group: five of us, two women and three men, two poets and three fiction writers, all in our twenties, most of us creative writing or English majors, all--except me--white. We didn't do too much workshopping (thank oG), we mostly just sat around talking about books and reading. We'd have poetry face-offs, where one person would bring in a favorite poet and read the favorite poems, and then another would respond with poems on similar topics or using similar tactics. Good--if geeky--times.

So one day I told the group that I had--apparently, I was too young to remember--had a bit of a problem with language acquisition as a toddler. I had started out in Cantonese (I was born in Hong Kong). When I was one and a half, we moved to the States and at about two years, we started speaking mostly English at home. Between two and three, I spoke a personal brand of Chinglish--not one I learned from a community, that is--which mixed vocabulary, grammar, and tones from both languages. Apparently, only my older sister fully understood me. By the age of three, I had separated the two languages and was speaking both correctly, and by four I had pretty much stopped learning Cantonese.

So I told the group  maybe my fascination with language and my desire to master it through writing arose from my early troubles with language acquisition, and suggested that maybe a lot of writers had early troubles with language as well. They all immediately pooh-poohed the idea. Then, over the course of the next hour, it turned out that: the other woman in the group had actually spent her early childhood somewhere in Africa with her linguist father, and apparently (she doesn't remember) spoke the local language fluently; one of the men in the group had had a bad stutter as a child and had to go to speech therapy for years; and another of the men in the group--and this is the best story--had been unable to learn to read or write until he was fourteen years old. He came from a well-off family of all college-educated professionals, and his disability simply stumped everyone until he was fourteen and they sent him to a new program that taught him how to juggle. Something about developmental steps that connect eye-hand coordination and mental processes. In any case, he caught up with thirteen years of school within three, and was able to go off to college "on time".

So, out of five writers, four had had some sort of issue or circumstance in their lives that had made language acquisition either "thorny" (in the words of the one writer of the group with no thorniness) or something of particular import and weight. Something to think about.

All that just to suggest that Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia from six to ten and spoke Indonesian fluently, might have something similar going on here. With the language issue, the writing issue. With the wanting to be the most powerful man in the world issue? Not sure what's up with that.

Although it's well-written in the prose-style sense, it's poorly written in the emotional sense. Obama sticks too closely to the expected emotional/dramatic arc of search and redemption. Along the way, he writes remarkably little--and that very ineffectively--about his own feelings or responses. When he does write about his feelings, it's in a detached way, and he eliminates feelings from the narrative frequently. In what is supposed to be the book's emotional climax (I had not thought, until that moment, that there was going to be one) I didn't even know that he was experiencing any emotion until he described the tears running down his face. Very strange.

All this might have something to do with the fact that, throughout this book, which is an autobiography, not a memoir, there's an 800 pound gorilla in the room: Barack Obama Sr. had three wives and a girlfriend, usually simultaneously, two of them white Americans, and couldn't--didn't--take care of them or the six-odd children he fathered with them. The situation is made clear in the book, but no one addresses it directly. The book is full of resentments toward fathers, full of passive aggressive moments of almost-accusation made toward Obama the father or the grandfather. But no one, not even the narrator, ever sits down and says: we have a problem with fathers and fatherhood here; let's state some facts baldly before we attempt to interpret them.

Maybe Obama felt he would be betraying the complexity of his father's story if he laid out the facts that way ... although I have to say, he had no problems betraying the complexity of his grandmother's feelings about race in his much-praised race speech earlier this year. This is one of my ongoing problems with Obama: the half-assedness of his gender awareness compared with his race awareness. Maybe he felt he would be underlining a stereotype of black men if he characterized his father as being an irresponsible Johnny Appleseed with six or more kids from four women whom he left to the rest of his family to support ... but then that would be the truth. Maybe it would be a betrayal of complexity to point out that his father left his first--African--wife, twice, for white women. Maybe it's too much to ask Obama to speculate on the meaning of this. But I don't think it's too much, given that he wrote the damn book--subtitled "A Story of Race and Inheritance"--in the first place. And while he was ducking this issue, writing a book about a father who hadn't cared enough about him to include him in his life, his mother was dying of cancer.

Yes, I'm supporting Obama. And I read the book with a great deal of excitement, because I felt convinced that maybe I had misread what I perceived earlier as Obama's lack of enthusiasm when it came to women's issues and gender equality. I was reading the book to increase my knowledge of, and excitement about, Obama's candidacy. But there it all was, in his book. Let me clarify: you don't have to be an outright sexist to just not give a shit about women's rights. You can love and respect the women in your life and like women in general, and still feel that gender equity really isn't your problem. And this is the feeling I get from Obama.

I just got an email this summer from a man who was one of my best friends in college. He had contacted me again about a year and a half ago and we've been emailing back and forth. In response to a complaint from me about the lack of confidence I see in men I'm dating online, he wrote, "All the men our age grew up being beaten down by the Feminist Revolution." I have been unable to write back to him since receiving that email, because I simply don't know how to express my outrage and betrayal at such a simple-minded and viciously wrong statement, that faults the liberation and uplift of HALF OF HUMANITY for the loss of a few privileges of a few members of the other half.

It is this same betrayal I'm feeling from Obama and his campaign and too many of the men of my age cohort who support him. I thought this was over, but it's not over and it's not gonna be over. He cares about the big issues, but not about a little tiny issue like the difficult climb to equality for half the world. Fuck him.

November 01, 2008

Reading Update

I'm a little behind in updating, as usual.

I listened to the first half of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood while driving to Mono Lake, and the read the rest when I got home. Got nothing to say about it. Literally. That's no judgment, it's a great book, I just got nothing to say.

Then I read The Insufficiency of Maps, by Nora Pierce, which should be called "The Insufficiency of This Book." Oh, it's fine. It's one of those pebbles that makes no impression on the pond, sinks to the bottom, and is never heard from again. It probably would have been a better book if Pierce had been more concerned with telling the damn story, rather than being all poetic and distanced, and creating a lyrical, melancholy sense of unreality that made it impossible for me to give a shit about anything in the book ... but then maybe it wouldn't have been a better book, either.

I think I read something else in there, too, but it clearly made so little impression on me that I can't even remember, so who cares.

American Indian Heritage Month Book List

I know, I know, you were told to say "Native American," or "First Nations." But the official name for the month is American Indian, so just deal with it, okay?

As you all should know by now (after three of these lists) the Carl Brandon Society just started a heritage month book advocacy program this year in which our members have selected ten speculative books in English, in print, by writers of that particular heritage, for each month.

We've been sending and posting these book lists far and wide, trying to get them into libraries and bookstores to promote the writing of writers of color during the months that they are featured. PLEASE distribute this list even farther! We're relying on word of mouth, folks! Post it on your blog! Email the list to your reading friends and family! These are good books!

*****

The CARL BRANDON SOCIETY recommends

the following speculative fiction books by writers of First Nations/Native American heritage

for American Indian Heritage Month:

THE WAY OF THORN AND THUNDER trilogy, Daniel Heath Justice
This trilogy speculatively re-imagines the Cherokee history of removal and relocation and redefines European fantastical tropes using Cherokee-centered imagery and worldviews.

GREEN GRASS, RUNNING WATER Thomas King
One of the best books I've ever read: a funny, sad, gorgeous story that ties together a contemporary narrative about 
Indians living on Canada's prairies with slightly skewed creation myths and accounts of the historical horrors endured by First Nations people during the continent's European colonization

THE BALLAD OF BILLY BADASS AND THE ROSE OF TURKESTAN, William San! ders &nb sp;
A wry love story that also incorporates critiques of nuclear testing and dumping on Native lands.

EAST OF THE SUN AND WEST OF FORT SMITH, William Sanders
A collection of short stories from Sanders' entire career. You can see some of his best here, including the alternate history "The Undiscovered," in which a shanghaied, shipwrecked Shakespeare is trapped in 16th Century Appalachia and must stage his plays among the Cherokee, and the near-future "When the World is All on Fire" when climate change and toxic waste have caused Indian reservations to become prime property again.

ALMANAC OF THE DEAD, Leslie Marmon Silko
Silko uses magical realism to chronicle numerous characters' journeys ! toward t he prophetic, violent end of white dominance in the Americas.

TANTALIZE, Cynthia Leitich Smith
A departure from Smith's previous, realistic Indian YA stories, this YA novel jumps onto the vampire bandwagon, this time in a vampire-themed restaurant in Texas.

THE BONE WHISTLE, Eva Swan (Erzebet Yellowboy)
The Bone Whistle is about a woman who discovers her true heritage. She is the child of a wanaghi, one of the creatures of Native-American folklore.    

THE NIGHT WANDERER, Drew Hayden Taylor
A gothic young adult vampire story.

THE LESSER BLESSED, Richard Van Camp
A coming-of-age story of a native Canadian boy obsessed with Iron Maiden. Has elements of magical realism.    

BEARHEART: THE HEIRSHIP CHRONICLES, Gerald Vizenor
Perhaps the first Native American science fiction, this is a journey through a dystopian future United States destroyed by the collapse of the fuel supply. 

September 18, 2008

Reading Update and APAture LIVEBLOGGING!

Also, I just finished Maugham's The Painted Veil. Can't write about it right now. I'm reading it as material for an essay I'm trying to write about politics of narrative. Maybe I can work out some ideas here but not for the next couple of weeks because

I'M LIVEBLOGGING APATURE!

APAture is a festival I started with a group of people at Kearny Street Workshop ten years ago. This year is its first big anniversary and I've started a liveblog where I'll be documenting all the events. I've also put a feed to this blog in the upper left hand corner of the page you're reading now. Look over there! It says "APAture Live." That's it!

Please follow along with us, dudes and dudettes.

I gotta run now and start blogging. The gallery opening starts in 45 minutes.

September 15, 2008

Carl Brandon Society Hispanic Heritage Month Book List

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month y'all!

If this looks familiar to you, it's because you've seen this sort of thing before.

Every national heritage month, members of the Carl Brandon Society (an organization of writers of color working in the speculative fiction genres) create a list of ten speculative fiction books in print written by writers of that particular heritage. The 2008 Carl Brandon Society Hispanic Heritage Month Recommended Reading List (I know, it's long) is below.

Please forward and post everywhere, take to your bookstores and libraries, tell all your friends! These are books worth reading, and it would be great if you could read one of them between Sept 15 and Oct 15 and blog about it! Yes?

*****

The CARL BRANDON SOCIETY recommends

the following speculative fiction books by writers of Latin American heritage

for Hispanic Heritage Month:

  • COSMOS LATINOS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION FROM LATIN AMERICA AND SPAIN: a terrific, five-year-old anthology of early-to-contemporary SF stories from Spain and Latin America, showing the breadth of Latino social concerns and imagination.
  • Jorge Luis Borges LABYRINTHS: A short story collection very like FICCIONES, his other book. Am not sure which one has my two favorite Borges stories: A) the story about the man who is on a bus trip and who is fated to die 2) the story about Judas being the real savior because he was the one who was despised and rejected of men. Just turning the entire Jesus story around and saying Judas was the lamb who sacrificed himself.
  • Adolfo Bioy Casares THE INVENTION OF MOREL: Casares was an Argentine writer in the circle of Jorge Luis Borges. MOREL steps directly into the realm of science fiction, in the tradition of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, dealing with unnamed technology and its very specific effects on human psychology.
  • Julio Cortazar HOPSCOTCH: Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you get to choose your own endings, make your own timeline, and generally skip around and rearrange the chapters? This is the best of the best. It's a novel about philosophy and order and meaning and quite fun.
  • Carlos Fuentes DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ: This is the first book (the only book?) I ever read where each chapter is written in a different person. First person, Second Person, Third Person. There is also the great f*ck chapter. An old revolutionary is dying and thinking about his life. We see a lot about the Mexican revolution and get tons of stuff about political corruption.
  • Angelica Gorodischer KALPA IMPERIAL: a quirky collection of stories about a fictional great empire that rises and falls and rises and falls. Translated by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Mario Vargas Llosa AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER: hilarious, mischievous, and masterful...a wonderfully comic novel almost unbelievably rich in character, place and event.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE: Totally wonderful love story with folk-legend. It's like listening to one's hoo-doo believing grandmother telling you about events in her life. A lot of brothers, a lot of love, a lot of passion, a lot of spiritual cause and effect.
  • Guillermo Gomez-Peña THE NEW WORLD BORDER: the strangest book about performance art you've ever read, Gomez-Peña casts forward into, and writes news reports from a borderless future where whites are a minority and the language is Spanglish.
  • Juan Rulfo PEDRO PARAMO: A man goes back to his parents' village to try to find the father who abandoned him. Trapped there by ghosts, he learns the horrifying story of his father's evil deeds. One of the first "magical realist" novels from Latin America.
       

For more information, please visit www.carlbrandon.org.

August 15, 2008

Michelle Obama "Happens" To Be Black

It's not her fault. We swear. It just happened:

She’s a type we’ve rarely seen in the public eye, a well-educated woman who is a dedicated mother, successful in her career, and happens to be black. This has created confusion for some people, who seem desperate to find a negative quality in her: She’s too big, too masculine, too much like a drag queen. While Obama may be able to play with urban tropes, like dusting off his jacket à la Jay-Z or speaking in a black patois when the time calls for it, Michelle has been increasingly forced to curtail her personality during the campaign, lest she attract rumors of uttering a verboten, anachronistic word like “whitey” or find herself labeled a “baby mama.” As much as any political campaign is an extended meditation on authenticity, the question of just how black the Obamas are has become particularly loaded. Michelle must project herself as black to one community, but she also must act white to another, whatever either adjective means nowadays. (Link.)

Where's the confusion, really? Isn't being black the "negative quality," even if it's no one's fault and just happens?

No, I'm not gonna let up on this seemingly small issue. This is the third time this week that I've read that Michelle just happens to be black. I could be wrong, but I don't think any journalists are writing that Barack "just happens" to be black. Maybe it's because there's a vague, unsubstantiated quality of intention around creating a child of a multiple racial mix when it comes to interracial couples, i.e. it didn't just happen, someone made it happen. But I guess all-black couples just happen to bump into each other hard enough for a penis to slip into a vagina, spurt some baby batter, and create another happenstancical black person. It just happens all the time.

There's two things going on here. The first is that, as I've suggested above, being black is negative quality enough. Saying someone "just happens" to be black is the same thing as saying that they didn't do it on purpose, and therefore can't be blamed for it.

The second is the implication that there are people who have babies on purpose and people who don't, or to put it differently: people who plan families, and people who don't. Intention is higher quality in the baby game, which is why "family planning" is the term used to describe simply educating people about sex. Nobody ever "just happens" to be white. White babies have an intentionality behind them, the quality of being wanted, of having a purpose. Black babies? Not so much with the intentionality, being wanted, or having a purpose. They just happen.

Do I really need to come up with a neat closing? Did I get my point across? Good. I'm just going to go off and hope I don't have to talk about this again, even though I suspect I will.

June 26, 2008

Having a Bad Week

Just finished watching the John Adams miniseries, which is terrific.

A lot is going on this week. Aside from all that, I'm realizing how wearing it is to participate emotionally in this election.

The Carl Brandon Society did a panel at Wiscon about identity intersectionality in an election year. It was called "Some of Us Are Brave" and focused on African American women.

That's how I've been thinking of intersectionality, too, and not really applying it to myself. At the same time, though, I've seen Asian Americans as a group called out for supporting Clinton, called racist. I've seen white feminists as a group called racist for supporting Clinton. I've seen my male friends, Asian Am and otherwise, supporting Obama and giving Clinton's Iraq War vote--and nothing else--as a reason. At the "Some of Us Are Brave" panel I've had a middle-aged male Asian American Obama supporter try to school me on how to manage Asian American activism--something I've been doing for ten years. And this week I got called out by an older feminist for disagreeing on a minor matter, and again schooled on issues I've been discussing and acting on for twenty years.

And another thing: I've gotten no second of public space to enjoy the ascendence of our first biracial presidential nominee because absolutely everyone, from white Republican to black Democrat and back again, is deeply invested in reading Obama as just black (except when it suits their agendas not to), despite the extremely nuanced reading of his own identity that he's offered the whole world for years now. I don't get to feel a kinship with him based on that.

I am extremely dissatisfied with every party, every Democratic campaign, and the behavior of every group of supporters in this election. There is no group, no campaign, and no candidate who has not been treated unfairly in public, and who has not also treated someone else unfairly. And because of the multiplicity of my own identity, group belonging, and loyalty, I have been able to come down nowhere.

My loyalty to Clinton has been treated as racist and suspect, because of hatred of Clinton herself, because of the stupidity of Clinton's supporters, and because of my own identities: my Asianness, my whiteness, my non-blackness, my gender, and my age. If Clinton had lost fair and square, i.e. not because she's a woman, I would be now recovering my joy at Obama's candidacy. But I feel no joy whatsoever, because I feel that every part of my public, political self has been attacked from one angle or another.

And it goes on even now. It's as if there's no joy anywhere at Obama's win, because we've already built up too much bitterness. The racial and gender watchdog machines are on red alert, the racial and gender offense-taking machines are white hot from cranking out product, but where are the liberal joy machines?

This is not all that's going on and stinking up my week. But it's a big chunk. I think I'm going to try ... try ... and take a break from politics for a week or two. Maybe that'll lighten things up a bit.

May 15, 2008

Yay!

Stuartjohn

Imagine my immense pleasure, upon hearing the good news and going to the internet, at finding on the front page of the New York Times this lovely picture of my friends Stuart and John whose marriage four years ago in San Francisco was rendered null and void, and who were plaintiffs in the test case upon which this decision was made.

Here they are in a video, with horror writer Jewelle Gomez and her partner.

Stuart, a Chinese/white hapa like me, has been very much on the record about the irony of his own family history: anti-miscegenation laws were part of the national dialogue when his parents got married, and now the Cali Supreme has used its 1948 ruling overturning Cal's anti-miscegenation law to make Stuart's marriage possible.

Congratulations to the plaintiffs ... and to all of us!

May 13, 2008

Register Your Bone Marrow!

Hey all, somebody else needs a bone marrow transplant.

Actually, a LOT of people need bone marrow transplants. Bone marrow is much harder to match than blood, and it's much likelier that someone will find a match with a donor from their own racial or ethnic group.

But people of color don't register as bone marrow donors in the same proportions as whites. So people of color with leukemia tend to get screwed. Mixed race people especially tend to get screwed.

I'd do it, but my diabetes prevents me from donating just about anything. So instead, I'm passing on the word, hoping that some of you will step up and do it for me.

If you're a person of color, you can get a free testing kit. Click here to register, no matter what color you are!

May 07, 2008

My Wiscon Sked

Is as follows:

Carl Brandon Society Update
Join the Carl Brandon Society Steering Committee for some brainstorming, some celebration of people of color in SF, and an update including information on the Awards and the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. The gang will mostly be there: Nisi Shawl, Victor Raymond, Candra Gill, Bryan Thao Worra, 'n' moi!
Saturday, 10:00-11:15 A.M.
Conference 5

Red Beans and Rice
A reading, starring Alaya Dawn Johnson, Doselle Young, Bryan Thao Worra, 'n' moi!
Saturday, 4:00-5:15 P.M.
Fair Trade

May 04, 2008

YouTube/Asia Society API Heritage Month Project

Awesome.

The Asia Society and YouTube have gotten together to post a series of videos from Asian Americans for API Heritage Month. They've started by posting vids about "What does being Asian American mean to me?" from luminaries like Sandra Oh, Kal Penn, and Yul Kwon, but it's open to any ol' slob ... like me. And I might just do it if  I can figure out how.

Clicky here to submit a vid or just watch the other ones.

May 02, 2008

What I'm Reading for API Heritage Month

Okay, having posted the CBS API Heritage Month list, what am I gonna read for it?

Well, I've already read:

  • Ted Chiang STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS
  • Haruki Murakami HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

Yes, it's sad. That's all I've read.

I'm going to read:

  • Sesshu Foster ATOMIK AZTEX: I've actually read about half of this book but got distracted and didn't finish. So I'm going to start over and finish it.
  • Cathy Park Hong DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION: I've got it, I've started it, and I'm going to finish it.
  • Bryan Thao Worra ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EYE: I've got it, I've started it, and I'm going to finish it. By the way, go order this book! Bryan is a member of the CBS Steering committee and decorated the envelope he sent this to me in with a personal poem. Cool.

May 01, 2008

Carl Brandon Society API Heritage Month Book List

Hi Everybody!

It's not only MayDay, the day when everybody in the world except capitalist ol' USA celebrates labor, but it's also the start of the American ASIAN PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE MONTH.

Yes, it's time once again to celebrate the Asian and Pacific Islander AMERICANS in your life. Don't hesitate also to celebrate the Asian and Pacific Islander whatever else's in your life as well, though.

The Carl Brandon Society
, per our new Heritage Month book program, has come up with a list of recommended speculative fiction books by writers of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. (These writers are not all American.)

The idea is for you to copy this list and put it on your blog, email it to your friends, take it to your local bookstore and ask them to post it or make a display of these books, etc. We also want you to READ SOME OF THESE BOOKS THIS MONTH! They're terrific!

If you do end up reading one or more of these books, or have another API-heritage SF writer to discuss, please consider participating in the Carl Brandon Society's API Heritage Month blog carnival. A carnival is basically a "magazine" of blog posts on a particular topic. You just post something on the topic on your own blog, and then submit your post to the carnival by clicking the link and then clicking on the orange "submit your blog article" button.

Okay, without further ado,

The CARL BRANDON SOCIETY recommends the following books of speculative fiction for
ASIAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE MONTH:

  • Ted Chiang STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

A collection of stories from one of American speculative fiction's most precise and beautiful writers.

  • Sesshu Foster ATOMIK AZTEX

An Aztec prince or a Los Angeles meatpacker? The protagonist travels back and forth between two alternative realities, never sure which is real.

  • Hiromi Goto HOPEFUL MONSTERS

Wonderful stories by the author of The Kappa Child.

  • Cathy Park Hong DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION

The story of a Korean uprising told in pidgin poetry.

  • Kazuo Ishiguro NEVER LET ME GO

In a dystopian England, three children discover that they are clones produced to provide organs to the sick.

  • Amirthi Mohanraj (illustrated by Kat Beyer) THE POET'S JOURNEY

A young poet sets out into the wide world on a journey to find poetry; with the help of a few magical creatures, she finds more than she ever expected.

  • Haruki Murakami HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

Mad experiments with the unleashed potential of the dreaming brain.

  • Vandana Singh OF LOVE AND OTHER MONSTERS

The main character wakes up from a fire and doesn't know who he is, but can sense and manipulate the minds of others. He is not alone in this ability. Singh takes us on a metamind ride.

  • Shaun Tan THE ARRIVAL

A wordless graphic novel about immigration and displacement.

  • Bryan Thao Worra ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EYE

Speculative poems that take us from the secret wars of the CIA in Laos to the secret edges of the human soul and the universe.

April 15, 2008

More On Race And Dolls

It's amazing how the racial politics we've driven somewhat underground seems to collect around certain fetish objects. In this case it's dolls.

A little while ago I embedded a wonderful short video by Kiri Davis called "A Girl Like Me," about black women's body image. The video included archival images of the Brown vs. Board of Education doll study, in which black children were offered black and white baby dolls and asked which they preferred--most preferred the white ones. Then the filmmaker conducted her own repeat of the study with today's schoolchildren, to very similar, and heartbreaking, effect.

Well, if you ever wondered about the other side of the equation, which dolls white children--or their parents--prefer, wonder no more.

This American Life recently did a story by a mixed-race Latina about her time working at FAO Schwartz. Her job was to pretend to be a hospital nurse taking care of lifelike baby dolls which went for $120 and were "adopted" out of a fake maternity ward on the store's top floor. Due to an unexpected publicity boost on a reality TV show, the store was depleted of its stock of white baby dolls right before the holiday season, and our reporter got to see firsthand what happens when upper and upper-middle class white families are only able to adopt babies of kolah for their little girls.

It's profoundly depressing, though not at all surprising if you've been paying attention to race relations at all.

You can listen to or download it here. Skip to Act Three "Babies Buying Babies."

What jumps out at me here is how incredibly unselfconscious--or maybe just unself-aware--many privileged and educated white people are about their own racial prejudices when you put them into situations that aren't typical "racial" situations. That is to say, if nobody is using the "n" word or outright refusing to hire or befriend or sell a house to somebody because of their race, then blatant racism can happen without anyone seeming to care.

The narrator, who passes as white, points out that her customers attempted to collude with her, or at least assumed that she would understand their racial concerns in rejecting the black baby dolls. This suggests that they were aware that a person of color would find their actions objectionable, but assumed that their concerns would be shared by a white person.

What that says to me, and this may be blatantly obvious, is that many white people think that an action is only racist when it is publicly defined as such by a person of color ... or else that racism is a sort of perceptual filter that only people of color use, and as long as they don't catch you at some "racist" action, it's not really racist. Or perhaps the attitude is that these small actions are racist, but in a really small, unimportant way. Just like stealing a candy bar from a 7-11 is theft, but who really cares? Only boring sticklers with poles up their asses.

Minor shoplifting is to be avoided not because it's wrong (is it really wrong to boost a candy bar from an evil corporation?) but because you might get caught and suffer the consequences. After all, how many of us "experimented" with petty theft as children or teenagers? And didn't we do it with friends, to be cool? But would it have been cool if we'd been caught, and publicly humiliated ... like, say, Winona Ryder?

This seems to suggest that many white people aren't so much afraid of being racist as they are afraid of being considered racist. Just like with petty theft, they don't see the broader implications (minimum wage workers can be held accountable for shoplifting on their shifts, and the cost of shoplifting--which can be enormous--is passed down to the consumer and not absorbed by the corporation), don't understand how their private actions can indirectly hurt people they've never met, and don't believe racism exists anymore in any case.

I think that's the crux of the matter: the disbelief that racism exists. And that disbelief is in itself racist, because to disbelieve that racism exists even while you reject black baby dolls for your white child, is to believe that black baby dolls are inherently less worthy. It's not racism, it's fact that blacks are worth less. But this belief lies so far beneath the decisionmaking process that it's invisible, especially when you're putting all your energy into not seeing it.

March 20, 2008

In Which I Consider Supporting Obama

First, here's the whole speech, in five parts, hi-def:

I'm starting to change my mind about Obama. No, it's not because his baritone turns me on, or his sincerity, intelligence, charisma, and social consciousness get my panties all ... *sigh* ... YOU know. It's because he's a first class pander. Check it out:

"In no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

Argh. We all know it's just speechifying, but does he have to be so crass? Or maybe he's so used to playing the exotic for white American oafs, he really doesn't know how mundane his story is compared to the tragedy, mendacity, and exotic parallelism of other stories.

But seriously, that's just a throwaway line all whores politicians have to ... well, throw away. Where he really went onto the reservation was when he sold out his ... er ... "former" pastor, a guy he seems to have unloaded just before all this shit hit the fan. (I wonder why.)

Oh sure, sure, he made a lot of proud noises about how he could no more abandon his poor, old pastor--who was more like family than an advisor, mind you, although he was part of Obama's campaign as recently as late last year--than he could abandon his loving, white grandma, whom he also sold out in this speech. But really, saying that what your pastor (and, until recently, advisor) says in his speeches is just wrong wrong wrong wrong is ... well let's just say it rhymes with "shmelling shmout."

Doubt it? Dude, this is what he said about Wright's comments:

A profoundly distorted view of this country, a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America. A view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam. As such, Rev. Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity, racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems: two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis, and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but problems that confront us all.

Do you think he knows what "endemic" means? 'Cuz the PC consensus is that racism is endemic in America. To suggest it isn't is kinda turning back the clock. Oh yeah, and ignoring the deep-rootedness that makes it so persistent. And the whole "elevates what is wrong" bit? Barack, baby, you're denouncing him for seeing the glass as half empty? We get it, you're an optimist. Gah.

Now, the rest of us aren't privy to what Wright says in private about Israel, but his public statements? Duuude, you seem to be putting words in his mouth. Even the freakin' Anti-defamation League has no issue with him. See below. And then to add that whorish politically savvy throwaway line about radical Islam? I'll just leave the wad of cash on the bedside table, mmm?

I think these are all the Wright quotes Obama and pundits are responding to:

Seriously? Except for the AIDS genocide accusation, what part of what he said here isn't true? I mean, weren't YOU expecting Bush et al to plant WMDs? I was. I didn't count on the fact that most of America either wouldn't care that he was lying or wouldn't be literate enough to read about how he lieded. And this is all aside from the fact that that might simply have been a bitter joke.

But the best sellout is the money shot. After eloquently (seriously, my panties again) explaining the bitterness of old time activists like Wright, he actually went forth and paralleled the frustration of African Americans with the current dissatisfaction of middle-class white Americans who went and voted themselves into "two wars ... a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis, and potentially devastating climate change":

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Then repeat the platform and end on a note of hope in the next generation. (Young white girl and old black man. She joined the Obama campaign because her mother needed health care and she needed food. The ol' black man, of course, joined the Obama campaign for her. Magical. Like "Song of the South." You can almost see them tap dancing together at the DNC.)

Wow, recent white political doopidity = 400+ years of oppression? I love America!

And Barack's gonna let all the white liberals get away with it. He just said so.

So, all sarcasm aside, I'm beginning to believe that Barack is whorish enough to make a go of this politician thing. He's savvy enough to please his entire natural constituency. That was a tightrope walk of a speech and he sold the fuck out of it. And yeah, he'd sell his own grandmother for office ... in public.

I'm starting to love this guy for president. Maybe he'll be my slimeball. Too bad we're not gonna have a chance to see if the other slimeballs will let him play their reindeer games first.

March 02, 2008

SNL's Fauxbama Blackface Thing

Hyphen, as usual, is where I picked up on the public controversy about a non-black multiracial actor playing Obama on Saturday Night Live. (Video above is the second sketch featuring "Fauxbama" Fred Armisen; Hyphen has the first one.)

I saw the previous clip on the SNL site (can't find it now but it's embedded in the Hyphen post above), led there by a discussion about media bias towards Obama, and noticed immediately that the actor playing Obama was wearing dark makeup for the role. My first reaction was, "Oh, boyyyyy ..."

But then, as the sketch played out, I stopped being concerned about it. Why? Why would I be concerned about it in the first place, and why would I stop being concerned after watching the sketch?

It has to do with the nature of "blackface" (or any dramatic portrayal of people of color by white actors). This requires one of my beloved, bullet-pointed breakdowns. Blackface is problematic for reasons historical, intentional, and representational:

  • Historical: blackface was used in minstrel shows and later in blackface sketches in more mainstream vaudeville to humorously denigrate African Americans. Blackface performances found their humor in depicting the worst stereotypes of African Americans. Blackface became most popular during Reconstruction, when the "threat" of black equality was most strongly juxtaposed with a formerly slave culture, and arose out of that racist fear. But these representations have found expression in every era of American entertainment since long before the Revolutionary War.

The length and persistence of this form of racial denigration means that any performance by a non-black of a black character or figure automatically draws on this history, intentionally or unintentionally, and is to be considered carefully if not fully avoided.

  • Intentional: As mentioned above, the main purpose of blackface is to denigrate blacks using humorous depictions of stereotypes.

The other big problem with blackface, after the outright racial denigration that is its purpose, is that it is the incongruity of the makeup on a white actor that creates the humor. Blackface assumes that the racial phenotype it lampoons (dark skin, big lips, kinky hair) is unattractive and ridiculous, and draws its humor from the overposition of exaggerated or imaginary "black" features on white features. It's clown makeup, with the strong implication that blacks are clowns.

  • Representational: a contemporary issue with blackface is the issue of who gets to play black roles in media. There are few enough roles specifically written for African American characters, and few enough casting directors willing to go for nontraditional casting in ethnic-non-specific roles. On top of this, many of the roles written specifically for African American characters are stereotyped and in themselves denigrating.

So having a plum role for an African American character parceled out to a non-black actor is extremely problematic, when there are so many qualified black actors out there looking for work.

Additionally, the very idea that a white actor gets to occupy a plum black role raises the question of who gets to write, embody, and ultimately determine the form and representation of blacks in the public sphere. Casting a white actor is a pretty clear answer in favor of keeping the right of representation with whites.

So, how does the SNL sketch play with these considerations?

Firstly, the sketch does not have racial denigration as its purpose, and there is no unintentional or side-effect racial denigration (in my opinion) happening here. The purpose of the sketch is to lampoon the media's apparent infatuation with Barack Obama; the actor playing Obama needs to exaggerate Obama's personal tics for humorous effect (as SNL does with every politician it mocks) and to portray a stereotype of Obama's public image.  There is complicated racial coding involved in Obama's public image, but this sketch is fairly straightforward, and does not grapple with them, nor (in my opinion) trip over them.

Secondly, the makeup Armisen uses to portray Obama is fairly subtle and clearly used to let the audience know what figure he's depicting, and not to portray Obama's racial characteristics as unattractive or ridiculous

So far so good. On the minus side, however, is the simple fact of the history of blackface and the way that blackface representation is going to play--no matter what its intentions. Putting a nonblack actor in blackface is so easy to avoid, that producers simply cannot avoid the question, "why didn't you just get a black actor to do it?" SNL doesn't have a slick answer for this.

The real answer, of course, is that currently, SNL has only one black male actor, and he looks nothing like Obama and, more importantly, has an acting style that doesn't match Obama's affect well. But that's not an excuse. SNL currently has six white male actors, two white female actors, and two multiracial actors, Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph (the latter of whom is the only actor on the cast whose racial background matches Obama's and who apparently will not return to SNL after the strike.)

Why so many white men? Why so few black men and women? Among other things, it limits (obviously) SNL's ability to successfully represent public figures, and this tokenism is a perennial problem at SNL, which has six different faces to match to white male public figures, but must force black characters into the oeuvre of a single actor. This gets to the heart of the representation issue. Lorne Michaels has tried to play that old chestnut: we cast the best actor for the role, regardless of race. And Armisen does do a credible acting job. But that old record won't play. If you have only one black actor, he's certainly not going to be the best actor for every black role. Some other black actor would be.

But all of this is, again, avoiding the fact that Obama is multiracial. Just because America views Obama as black, doesn't mean he entirely is. And he's toned down his self-representation as biracial because he found it didn't play with either white or black. That doesn't mean he isn't still biracial. So who gets to depict a man who is half white? If they had cast Kenan Thompson as Obama, would he have had to do it in whiteface and would that have been alright?

Add to all of this that Fred Armisen, who actually played Obama, is an extremely multiracial man, part white, part Asian (Japanese) and part Latino (Venezuelan). And it seems I do need to remind people that Latinos are pretty multiracial--and African-mixed--as well, and that Venezuela especially, as a nation on the Caribbean coast, has a strong Afro-Caribbean history and population. That doesn't tell us anything about Armisen himself, but it does tell us a great deal about our own simple-minded, reductivist racial viewpoint.

So the representation piece of this little controversy? I'd say SNL needs to check itself, but so do the sketch's racially simplistic critics. And I'd say that SNL does still need to go ahead with its mockery of the current presidential candidates using the tools at hand, and learn from this controversy that maybe it would be a more interesting show with a less monochromatic cast.

February 04, 2008

Carl Brandon's Black History Month List

Hey all,

As many of you know, I'm on the steering committee of The Carl Brandon Society, an organization dedicated to increasing representation of people of color in the speculative genres. We've polled our members and come up with a recommended reading list of speculative fiction books by black authors for Black History Month.

The idea is for you to read these books this month, forward this list around to your friends, take this list into your local bookstores and ask them to display these books this month, post the list on your blogs and websites, etc. I hope you'll all strongly consider at least picking up one of these books and falling into it. It's a wonderful list, and your February will be improved!

So, without further ado:

THE CARL BRANDON SOCIETY
recommends the following books for BLACK HISTORY MONTH:

  • So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  • Mindscape by Andrea Hairston
  • Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell
  • Futureland by Walter Mosley
  • The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  • Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

And the 2005 CARL BRANDON SOCIETY AWARD Winners:

• PARALLAX AWARD given to works of speculative fiction created by a person of color:
47 by Walter Mosley

• KINDRED AWARD given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group:
Stormwitch
by Susan Vaught

(cross-posted at Other magazine blog.)

January 27, 2008

Avoiding Sensitive Conversations

There are times that I know I am not as good a person as I could be, but I don't really care. I know that I could exert myself more in this direction or that, but I don't care enough to.

But there are also times when I genuinely wish that I was a better person--more concerned about others and less about protecting myself. That happens around conversations about race with clueless white people. I have a lot of friends of color who really draw my admiration for their boundless patience and kindness for this type of conversation. I have none of that patience and kindness.

What I do, and a lot of others do this too, is as soon as someone says something awkward or insensitive, I either bowl them over with a rapid-fire critique of what they said, or I clamp my mouth shut and look away. In the latter case, I'll refuse to pick up the conversational ball, and just leave them hanging with the stupid thing they said, knowing that they did something wrong, but not knowing what.

Later on I'll have to recognize that I missed the opportunity to educate someone ... or at the least, to loosen someone's ignorance. And all arguments that it's not my job to educate people about race sound somewhat tinny. It's exhausting, having to teach people things that it's their own responsibility to learn by themselves, but I'm there, and I'm spending the time with them anyway. So what's my problem?

(For those of you who genuinely don't know what my problem is, this is the nutshell: all poc have to deal with having their ideas and viewpoints invalidated to their face. A good example of this is when people ask me what my ethnicity is, I tell them, and then they dispute what I have told them about myself. Another example is when, say, a black blogger posts about his/her *personal* experience as a black person in a white-dominated world, and a bunch of white trolls tell them that they're  whining or simply dispute their understanding of their own *personal* experience. A major component of racial privilege is that the privileged are always right, and the Others are always wrong, even when the Others are talking about themselves. So getting into a discussion of race with ignorant white people is basically an exercise in asking to be invalidated and patronized about something you know more about than the person invalidating and patronizing you.

Another issue would be, of course, having to batter down someone's defensiveness about their own lack of racism just to have a conversation that you've had fifty thousand times already. You're pushed into a discussion that is tedious and fraught for you, and then you have to fight just to have the conversation in the first place, and just to get basic respect for your viewpoint. No, thanks.
)

I just had such an experience, from the other side, recently when trying to talk about class issues. I work for an organization that serves low-income people. Our clients have to fall below a certain income level to be eligible for our program. Yet all of our office staff positions--which pay well and carry excellent benefits--require a college degree and a high level of skillsets. So we're by definition a bunch of middle/upper middle class people serving a bunch of lower middle/working class people.

Our org culture emphasizes customer service, so our staff tends to get along very well with our clients. But there are inevitably a number of interactions which reveal class differences. Some of the projects that I am responsible for themselves raise interesting questions about class viewpoints and ways of proceeding with various tasks. But we're too busy at work--and probably too wary of engaging in such fraught discussions--to get into more theoretical conversations about class differences. We proceed at a very pragmatic level.

This weekend I met a woman at a party whom I had met before. She wanted to participate in my org's program but didn't qualify, so she had ended up going to another org. We were talking about various interesting things we'd noticed about the people involved in these programs and the programs themselves. I embarked on a thinking-out-loud moment about something I'd been thinking about but had never had the opportunity to talk about with someone who understood the background of this kind of work.

I wanted to say something about the strangeness of middle/upper-middle class workers serving low-income workers and helping them to become financially self-sufficient when the "higher" class workers, employees of a large organization, weren't financially self-sufficient themselves, but did earn more based on their high skill level. This was going to lead to some thinking-out-loud about how a higher socio-economic bracket meant access to a higher-paying state of dependency, and how popular programs promoting self-sufficiency for the poor were popular with many people precisely because they meant that we didn't have to deal with the question of how to give greater access to "dependent" but high-paying jobs to the poor.

I got about halfway through the first thought when the woman froze me out. She did the same thing to me that I do to clueless white people who say something stupid or offensive: clamped her mouth shut, looked away, and jumped into someone else's conversation while I was still talking. I don't know what it was that offended her: if I used the wrong word, or if she mistook where my comment was heading ... or if she didn't mistake where my comment was heading but just didn't want to go there.

And I'm not sure it really matters which it was. I'm pretty sure that this isn't the usual thing that people talk about when they talk about class differences (if they ever do), so what she thought she was protecting herself against was probably not what I was getting at. But if she did know where I was going with it, it may not be such a bad thing that she didn't get into it. Someone who is working her way through a difficult and time-consuming program to increase her own skills and self-sufficiency, doesn't need to waste any energy considering that the people who are helping her might be avoiding difficult discussions about access.

And if I used a offensive word or phrasing, I obviously don't know I did it.

Clearly I wasn't going to get the interesting discussion about class and access out of this woman that I was hoping for in any case. But what bothers me is that I don't know where I can go to get this discussion. I can't talk about these things at work, I'll be much more wary of talking about them with people I don't know well who are involved in these projects, and my friends who are up for such discussions aren't involved in this nonprofit field, so they can only talk about theoretical things. Yet I spend half my working day on this type of work. I don't have access to discussions about class differences.

Discussion is an essential resource; discussion with people who know what they're talking about is an even more important resource. As much as I and other poc resent being treated as a public accommodation in discussions of race, we are sitting on knowledge and experience that are an important--nay, essential--resource for truly informed and intelligent discussions of race. If someone is spouting ignorance, it's because they have not yet availed themselves of their access to such resources (you know, like libraries and the internet.) I wish I could be more of a resource to the people who actually need it. Maybe that would have a higher impact in changing the world the way I profess to want to change it.

And I'm not just saying this because I got smacked down this weekend. This certainly wasn't the first time it's happened to me and won't be the last. But these moments are a reminder of something I feel--perhaps less strongly--when I'm on the other side of the equation and just. can't. take. another. stupid. discussion. about how cool and funny political incorrectness is.

Ya know?

January 21, 2008

MLK Day Meme

via Chrome Kitten.

Hope you had a good one.

January 15, 2008

Reading Update

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Still catching up on YA. I'd heard a lot about The Chocolate War when I was a kid but never read it because the jacket copy made it sound so boring: a kid defies a secret society by refusing to sell chocolates? Yawn.

But then I read a question on Yahoo Answers about whether or not there was any existentialist YA fiction and a buncha people mentioned The Chocolate War, which I found really interesting. And it was ... the book I mean.

Actually, I don't want to write about it right now. I have too many other things to write about. But a recommended read to anyone who hasn't.

Passing by Nella Larsen

I think my friend Tisa may have mention this to me first during her visit to SF in late Fall. We were talking about biracial and passing texts. In any case, I looked up the book at some point, and then acquired it used at another point. Okay, the provenance of the book is boring.

Anyway, it's about a light-skinned black woman, Irene, in the twenties who can pass for white. She's married to a black doctor--a handsome man who can't pass--and lives in New York black society. While visiting her family in Chicago she stops off in a (white) tea room to refresh herself--a privilege you understand she allows herself frequently--when she runs into an old neighborhood friend from childhood, Clare, another woman her age who can pass.

It is revealed in their conversation that Clare disappeared from the neighborhood after her janitor father died, and everyone assumed she had become a prostitute or a kept woman. Instead, it turns out that she's gone over to the white side and married a man who doesn't know she's black. Clare takes Irene back to her hotel, when Irene meets Clare's extremely racist white husband. Clare's husband insults Irene unknowingly, when he makes derogatory racial remarks to Irene, who has internalized a strong black identity (it is suggested, although never stated, that Irene does so to anchor herself to her community, given her ability--and propensity--to pass.)

Two years pass and the two women meet again in Clare's world of New York. And the shit proceeds to hit the fan when the logical extension of the choices and behavior of each play out.

This book was amazing, fascinating, smart, beautifully written, and ultimately disappointing. When I say "beautifully written," by the way, I, as usual, don't mean the kind of cheap lyricism held up by contemp creative writing workshops. Larsen is earnestly literal about making her meaning clear--in the way of her contemporary D.H. Lawrence--by often describing moment-by-moment what a character's internal reactions are.

But you discover that she leaves just as much out, and deliberately, revealing more about a character's feelings than that xtr herself would reveal, but keeping the xtr's deepest, most shameful secrets, except in gesture and deed.

Larsen's ability to dramatize racial ambiguity is the best I've ever seen--and not the less astounding for being a project few have tried with any ambition.

But the novel's climax and end come far too quickly and are too melodramatic for my taste. It felt wrong to end with such a scene, and it also felt abrupt to end without revealing any denouement. But still, a strongly recommended read.

January 14, 2008

The "Missing Black Woman Formation"

Not to be down on Scott Westerfeld, whom I consider a friend on the skiffy side of the blanket, but his recent blog post about the "Missing Black Woman Formation" (hereafter referred to as MBWF) needs some complications added to it.

The MBWF concept is explained by one of the characters of Scott's YA novel So Yesterday thus:

“You know, the guy on the motorcycle was black. The guy on the bike was white. The woman was white. That’s the usual bunch, you know? Like everybody’s accounted for? Except not really. I call that the missing-black-woman formation. It kind of happens a lot.”

Scott then goes on to point out that we're living through a MBWF right now, posting a picture of our current Democratic presidential front runners (Edwards, Clinton, and Obama, natch). He underlines this by posting a photo of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus from The Matrix.

Okay, but not really.

There are a number of problems with this, starting with how complaining about a missing black woman only works for commercials (which is mostly what the So Yesterday characters were talking about.) Commercials are 30-120-second gestures in the direction of a brand. You have time to say one simple thing, so that's what you say.

The black man inserted into a white couple says, "Our brand is diverse!" whatever that means. The missing black woman, if she were to appear, would say, "We're selling to blacks and whites equally!" which is not what most commercials want to say. Most want to say, "Hey, liberal white guilt dollars! Flow this way!"

When you get into broader pop culture, and especially when you get into the bizarre mix of current mainstream reality, branding, idealism, fearmongering, and passion play that is the contemporary presidential race, the MBWF has nothing interesting or true to say to the matter anymore.

Gloria Steinem proved this in the NYT op-ed that Scott (and everybody else) linked to. By Shakespeare's sistering Obama (dang, can't we get some new feminist tricks?) Steinem sought to prove that women have it worse than blacks, but only managed to give every reader a case of  SIWWTABIDKW (something is wrong with that argument but I don't know what), which is usually accompanied by a terminal case of the squirmies.

What was wrong with that argument, by the way, is that you can't compare apples and oranges (or sexism and racism), and you can't predict society's behavior towards the intersection of the two except by, as Steinem did, assuming that each must be overcome separately before the intersection will become penetrable (Frex: we needed an Albright, and a Powell, before we could have a Rice.)

So, a listing of problems with MBWF as applied by Scott:

Flip through a magazine and check out the ads. In any group of three or more models, one invariably will be black. (If there are six or more models, one will be Asian and one Hispanic.) Same on TV. In any commercial for beer or snack food, one of the guys on the sofa is always black. This probably misrepresents the incidence of interracial hanging out, but it isn't just tokenism. It's a harmony fantasy, buried deep in the collective conscience.

I.e. the MBWF, a white fantasy scenario, is leaving out a much more complicated, and truly diverse, group of people because that would complicate and diversify the white audience's social scene, rather than placating them for having a mostly white peer group. So it's a bit more complicated than just a missing black woman. If we're going to look at negative space, let's really look at it.

  • I'll take the last one second: Keanu Reeves isn't white. He specifically was chosen to play Neo in The  Matrix because he is obviously multiracial. Many people don't know that Keanu is multiracial--not because he doesn't look multiracial, but because he's been offered to us as white since the mid-eighties and most people have never thought to question that. In the mid-eighties, it was because the mainstream consciousness had no concept of multiraciality, especially not Asian multiraciality. But those same people who were incapable of noticing Keanu's halfiness in the mid-eighties have become, in the interim, so sensitized to it that they would notice it in an instant now if they were to encounter a second Keanu. But Keanu himself, name and all, is grandfathered in as a white dude.

It is for both these reasons--the obvious multiraciality and his acceptance by mainstream audiences--that Keanu was cast in the racially radical Matrix. Suitably millenial, the first Matrix suggested that a lot of race mixing had gone on among surviving humans after the apocalypse with its casting of actors of a variety of races and mixtures (including Marcus Chong, Tommy Chong's adopted son, whose ancestry isn't public, but is almost certainly multiracial.) This was deliberate.

Morpheus as the odd black man out in a MBWF is questionable, but his status as a magical negro? not so much. I said the first Matrix was radical, not perfect. (By the way, I distinguish between the first Matrix and subsequent Matrices because the Wachowskis got lazy in the race element, as well as everything else, and let a bunch of black actors stand in for diversity thereafter, i.e. losing grip on the multiracial aspect of the whole thing.)

  • Finally, with regard to our beloved Donkeys, can I just remind everyone that Obama is a biracial child of an immigrant. Far from being a quibble, this is absolutely essential to understanding how Obama has gotten as far as he has, and how he might even have a real chance at the presidency.

As I said, in our new millenium, our mainstream culture has become sensitized to multiraciality, so that we begin to recognize it when it appears in the public forum. But we're not so sophisticated as all that. We recognize it, but we still gawk at it. It's still unusual, exotic ... and not yet re-problematized, as all new, exotic things are.

Obama's clear and apparent multiraciality (one that left him with darkish skin and European features, which earn him the adjective "handsome" even though he's nothing of the sort) put him beyond our immediate racial hierarchy into a biracial status that is still fluid in the public consciousness. If he were just black, he wouldn't be here, but because we don't exactly know what he is, he might still be electable. So there, Gloria Steinem, my lass.

Furthermore, Obama is not the child of an African American descendant of slaves and a white American; i.e. he's not that difficult and problematic product of centuries of slavery and sexual stereotyping. Rather, he's the child of a white American and a black immigrant. A what? Exactly. We don't know what to do about it, because it's an exotic and new story: the black immigrant. But, dudes, immigrant. Undocumented labor issues aside, the American identity is an immigrant identity, and the American story is the triumphal story of immigration and assimilation.

In this context it's much easier to see why Obama, the child of a black man and a white woman, doesn't trip more people's black man/white woman wires. The white woman in this case is the agent of assimilation to an honorable immigrant. As copious recent immigration from the Caribbean and East Africa shows, it's a toss up whether such an immigrant will come down as black or as immigrant in their interlocutor's estimation, when the shit really hits. Clearly this question is decided by what is most beneficial to the interlocutor. If the black immigrant in question is threatening them, then they're black. If, however the interlocutor needs an ally and the black immigrant shows willing, then they're an immigrant.

White America needs an inspiring leader--an ally--to take us away from all this horrible Bush stuff, so Obama falls off on the immigrant side in our popular subconscious, even if the public debate has been hijacked by the word "black." I'll bet a lot of people have already forgotten the recent debate over whether or not Obama is really black or black enough. That fight had to be fought out to get detractors out of the way so that we could talk about Obama as a black candidate without digressions. What no one has noticed is that we're processing him simultaneously at both levels: as a surface black, and a crypto-immigrant.

By accepting Obama as our symbolic representative, even if only for a few months, we are essentially underlining and celebrating our existing core American values: immigration, assimilation, triumph, and pot-won't-melt-in-my-mouth virtue.

And via Racialicious, here's a little sumpin' sumpin' to make you think hard about the intersection between race and gender: a nice, long, fascinating article about transgender people of color.

December 12, 2007

Multi Facial

Somebody finally posted it:


This is why I love Vin Diesel.

November 30, 2007

Diabetes Videos: Good, Bad, Ugly

Okay, to finish up National Diabetes Awareness Month, here are two videos from YouTube:

This first one, which you don't need to watch more than a few seconds of to get the idea, reveals that only white kids get diabetes, and tries to make you feel sorry for the precious souls. The beeyotch who made it doesn't seem to get that "no one deserves this" isn't really an argument, and that diabetes research should be funded not just because cute, fluffy, white kids get it.

This second one is from a cool series called Cooking Up A Story:

Stories about real people and their special connections to food and sustainable living.

No on-air talent, no scripted programming, and no studio environments, just authentic stories filmed in native surroundings.

And, it features a hapa kid with diabetes! Yay hapa diabetics! He's cute, too, although no particularly fine point is put on that. Rather than trying to make you feel sorry for the poor cutie, the video just shows you the rollercoaster of blood sugar values that is a typical diabetic kid's day.

Note here: this is a not-so-good example of what life is like on the pump. The kid's BGs (blood glucose values) are really terrible and he can't seem to stay on top of them. This might just be a bad day for him. Or it might just be that he's a kid; kid's don't always handle diabetes that well. It's complicated and relentless.

Come to think of it, that right there is a much better argument for donation funds to diabetes research. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation is the typical place to do it, although their slogan about "saving childhoods" makes me gag. My childhood was technically more complicated than everyone else's, but it was still a childhood.

November 19, 2007

Jennifer Beals at GLAAD awards

Jennifer Beals is way too awesome.

Harmless

This is so wrong in so many ways, but at the same time, it just feels harmless, you know? It made me laugh.

You know how some things---films, tv, books---just have this negative power that drives you to comment on how horrible it is in your blog ... and some things just don't have that power at all? Usually, the power-free things are just sad. But this one isn't even sad! It's happy! And silly! And wrong!

I dunno, maybe I'm becoming post-race.

Oh, well, no not quite:


  1. The black dude is wearing a pendant chain

  2. The Indian dude has a headfeather and arrow

  3. The Arab dude has a beard and a turban

  4. The white dude has a beret and a baguette, I guess 'cause being white isn't hint enough

  5. The Asian dude appears to be the only woman

  6. It's a biracial isle with five distinct monoraces.

  7. Contrary to my expectations, the Asian dudette didn't fuck each of the guys and produce biracial offspring of every intermediate hue. This was my biggest disappointment. That would have made this filim.

But who am I to argh with a racial cornucopia of joy?

October 26, 2007

10 Mistakes

Update: I forgot to include my small beef with #5 so I inserted it below.

I'm glad Heather Wood at the Huffington Post wrote about the ten mistakes white people make when talking about race (via RAAW), but, sadly, she got some of it a leetle bit wrong.

2. Using Culture-Specific Slang to Relate to Other Races

K-Fed, you ain't. And you just shouldn't try to be--ever.

Hunh? Does she not know that K-Fed is white?

3. Assuming Biracial People Identify More with One Side Than the Other

The majority race in America today isn't white, black, or even Latino. It's biracial. And this will only increase with each successive generation. We're a society that loves to check off boxes, but the greater challenge is to stop seeing people as shades and start knowing them for who they are.

Hunh? Lady, biracials/multiracials barely even make up 2% of the US population. Are you confusing this stat with the one where multi-ethnic whites make up the majority of whites nowadays? That is to say: most whites are no longer just Polish, or just English anymore. Most of them are Norwegian/Italian, or Swedish/French, or ... whatever, combos don't interest me.

Also, the problem isn't people assuming biracials identify more with one side than the other. What she's talking about here is actually people assuming black/white biracials identify as black ... unless, of course, they can pass. The actual mistake is assuming anything about multiracials at all. Many multiracials do identify more with one side. Others don't. You can't tell by looking at 'em.

5. Using Outdated Terms When Describing Different Races

Oriental, Colored, and Indian went out of style a long time ago; in fact, they're considered offensive. So, too, is lumping every Spanish-speaking person into a general category like "Mexican" or any Arab-looking person as "Persian" (it's a specific country, people). Feeling the need to identify is a nervous reaction we have when faced with issues of race. Black, white, Asian and Latino/a are generally accepted, but when in doubt, how about you just call someone by their actual name. Who says we have to classify ourselves all the time anyway?

Um ... actually, "Persians," or Iranians, aren't Arab at all. They're a completely different ethnicity/race/whateveryouwannacallit. And no one refers to any Arab-looking person as "Persian." They don't even refer to them as "Iranian." They refer to them as "Arab." Or else something worse.

6. Believing Stereotypes

Yes, black Americans dominate most sports, more Asians are accepted into MIT than any other race, and Latinos have been known to tear up a dance floor. Though some race-specific stereotypes seem like positive assumptions, imagine yourself on the other end, with high expectations placed on your shoulders simply because of a scrutinized minority. White people don't have the pressure to be the best in math or sports; they just have to be good enough. Everyone else should get the same slack.

Yikes! what an argument! Lower your expectations of POC because that's more fair? No, sweetie, the real problem with "positive" stereotypes is that they bolster a system of thought in which people think you can tell something about someone by their race. Not by their culture, by their race. "Positive" stereotypes are stereotypes with a smile. All people smile, even racists. And the person who smiles at you and expects you to play basketball well, or do math, or be hot in bed, is always also the person who thought you got into college because of affirmative action, or who will, when the chips are down, finally pull out a "negative" stereotype.

All stereotypes are racist!

But kudos to her for getting this out there. It's by thinking things through that you actually understand things, and it's by putting it out there---and maybe getting some discussion---that your ideas are improved upon.

October 03, 2007

readin' update

Deep Wizardry by Diane Duane

Wonderful, again, like the first. And, again, like the first, a little bit of a disconnect between the hokey-jokiness of meeting whale wizards, and finding out dolphins' real, and very silly, names ... and the very serious and dark turn the book takes around the middle.

Beautifully written and heartfelt. But this tonal disconnect is starting to worry me. Don't know if it's just a personal limitation or if it's a problem with the book. I'll definitely keep reading, though. This stuff is too good not to.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Still digesting. But a few initial observations:

  1. after this, no one gets to use a "The ______, _______ Life of _______" title anymore. Oscar Wao finished that mini-trend, and anybody else will be overkill. I mean it. Francis MacComber will crawl out of his short, happy grave and eat your brains if you try it.

  2. Diaz also brings the geeked out, pop-cultured, genx hipster, muscle-voice to a point. Everybody's been trying it (including me) and it's taken care of now. Enough.

  3. I've been rebelling against the American Immigrant Story Structure for so long now, that everything stinks of it. I can't tell if this is regressive, or if this actually moves it forward. I don't think it moves the immigrant story out of its mid-century straightjacket, but, like I said, I'm still digesting.

  4. If you imitate the voice and outlook of a terminal macho asshole so well that your readers can't tell the difference between authorial and narrator's voice, then aren't you the terminal macho asshole? Just because you namecheck Los Bros and Luba, to get all meta and distance yourself from the fact that your one strong, alive female character is racked like a bowling alley, haven't you still showcased the breasts before the person?

I haven't decided on all this yet, and I finished the book a week ago. That's a good thing.

August 24, 2007

One African American Reading List

In the course of this ongoing discussion of race and literature, David Anthony Durham gave a commenter on his blog a recommended reading list -- but only in the comments. I hope he doesn't mind my reposting it here--mainly because I want to save a record of it for my own use.

Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin (First novel by a famous black literary novelist, about coming of age, identity, religion, race.)

The Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (The only novel by a sci-fi novelist here – a tale of a near future with a world in increasing chaos, brutal and grim, but also poignantly hopeful as well. If you haven't read her please do. I think she was terrific, and I'm disappointed I'll never get the chance to meet her.)

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (Classic with a capitol C. His notion of invisibleness of African Americans became a central theme and metaphor regarding race in America.)

Angel of Harlem, by Kuwana Haulsey (A young, contemporary author. This is basically a biopic novel about the first black female physician in New York. That was a rather amazing accomplishment considering that the medical community didn’t think blacks – much less a female as well – were anatomically capable of higher thinking.)

Hunting in Harlem, by Mat Johnson (Another young author, decidedly urban, with a bit of the “thriller” to it.)

The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas, by Reginald McKnight (Interesting short stories with quite a bit of range.)

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. (Toni can be tough to get into, but she's worth the effort. I think Beloved is one of the best novels written - ever. I mention this one, though, cause it's darn good to, and bit more accessible.)

Little Scarlet, by Walter Mosley (This is a crime novel and can be enjoyed as such. I also think it’s shot right through with insightful – and sometimes confrontational – thoughts on wearing dark skin in the US.)

I’d be being coy if I didn’t mention my own books, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness. I’m very proud of them, and believe they’re accessible and plot-driven at the same time as they're meant to hit some deeper themes.

I can second the Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, and, of course, Ralph Ellison picks. And I have to admit that Song of Solomon really didn't do anything for me. Everything else is going on my wishlist.

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