150 posts categorized "race stuff"

October 30, 2014

Street Harassment Dudebro F.A.Q.

 

I'm sick right now, but the kerfuffle around this video has driven me back to blogging.

I'm so exercised over some of the comments I've been seeing that I've actually been commenting on YouTube, oG help me, so I've created an F.A.Q. to respond to the comments, apologia, and excuses most frequently made by dudebros on this topic. (Btw, a lot of these are drawn from comments I've already made elsewhere.)

 

But the so-called "harassment" in the video is mostly just guys being nice and saying "Hello" or complimenting her! Why are you feminazis so opposed to mere human interaction?

You think that because you've never been the recipient of said "niceness" or "compliments" so you don't know where they're headed.

Street harassers do not expect women to respond, much less to actually develop relationships (*extreme eye roll*) with them. What they expect, and want, is for women to feel vulnerable and powerless before them. Why else would a man follow a woman who is totally ignoring him for five minutes? Why else would a man stand on the street and call out to women who all totally ignore him, for hours? If he wants an interaction, he's failing and being humiliated, but if he wants her to feel scared and creeped out, and gets off on the power of that, then calling out to her and following her makes total sense. That's why he does it.

Most or all of us women and girls have started out our public adult lives by being greeted and "complimented" by such men and taking the interaction at face value. Most or all of us have responded with a pleased or confident "hello" or a "thank you" back as we've walked past. And what happens then? Please note again what I wrote directly above. The catcall is not intended to create friendliness or confidence in the woman, so a friendly or confident response does not get the guy what he wants.

So what happens then is that he immediately becomes aggressively sexual, asking the woman out, plastering her with increasingly sexual and intimate "compliments", making sexual suggestions, even sometimes crowding her or touching her. He does this until she is forced to start ignoring him or responding negatively -- either one will do, because both mean that she has started to feel vulnerable. Then he either lets her go, having made his point, or he caps it off by calling insults after her in a purely angry and aggressive tone of voice. Nothing makes a woman feel more vulnerable than a man angrily yelling "bitch! cunt!" at her in front of a bunch of other men who do nothing.

All women in cities have experienced this (unless they've never gone out alone). And all women who have had this experience a few times know that the only way to deal with it is to ignore it. Any response only escalates the situation. A guy who will stand on a street corner and yell at women who pass is a guy prepared to escalate until he gets what he wants. Women know subconsciously, in our guts, what is meant by a catcall, and we respond appropriately. You men, who have never had to deal with this type of situation, have absolutely no idea what catcalls are about, and have no right to try to tell us that we're wrong.

 

I agree that the dudes following her are creepy (what's that about?) but everything else is just people being friendly! (Add in "you fascist cunt" or dudebro insult of your choosing here.)

Again, it's not one thing or the other; it's not a nice interaction or a gross imposition. It's a continuum. Some guys will only say "nice" sounding things, if aggressively. Some guys will say really gross and aggressive things. Some guys will threaten, some guys will touch, some guys will follow, some guys will hit. You never know until the incident is over how bad it will get.

I've been grabbed, groped, butt-slapped, followed for blocks, had disgusting sexual practices suggested to me, had my body examined and described in great detail, been told I was beautiful, been told I was ugly, often by the same person in the same incident, been called a bitch, whore, cunt, sweetheart, baby, girl, had my biraciality praised, then insulted, and my racial makeup broken down and praised, then insulted piece by piece, been pursued around a subway car by someone taking upskirt photos, been rubbed up against in public transportation, been flashed, masturbated at, crotch-grabbed at, lurched at from out a darkened doorway (to no purpose except the entertainment of the lurcher), etc. etc. It all feels the same. The only difference is in how threatened you feel; but you feel threatened no matter what, because they are all threats.

The problem is not that we're too stupid to understand the difference between a real interaction and harassment. The problem is that there is just so. damn. much. harassment.

 

This video is so stupid! 10 hours and THAT'S all that happened? What a whiner!

I actually agree that the video, as it is edited, is not effective. The point of the video is not, and should not be, the type of harassment she's receiving, but rather the sheer volume of it. The video says that in 10 hours she had over 100 incidents of street harassment. Unfortunately, the video doesn't show it, and I think that's a huge missed opportunity.

Because there are really two points here: the first is what I detailed above: a "hello" or a "compliment" are not what you think they are. But the second point is the sheer volume of such encounters. Over 100 incidents in 10 hours? That's 10 incidents per hour, or more than one incident every ten minutes. Try to imagine that, dudebros. Try to imagine having to field "hellos" and "compliments" and demands for your attention from aggressive men every ten minutes of your life. (And it's not just on the street, but we won't get into workplace harassment here.) I know you guys have your own street interaction issues: check-ins and body checks and dominance play. But at the frequency of more than one every ten minutes, every time you leave the house, every day, for the rest of your life? I don't think so. Try to imagine it. Just try.

 

Aw, that's just New York. They're all assholes there. I'm from a small town and nobody behaves like this. We're all friendly to each other. 

I would imagine in a small town, where everyone knows each other and reputations really matter, there would be repercussions for harassment, but also for unfriendliness. Cities are different. There's no penalty for being unfriendly, and none for harassment, as evidenced by the reactions of men to the video, and even to this post. 

And also, men's and women's experiences are different. Most men simply don't know the type and amount of harassment that women experience every day -- because we don't tell them (because of the way that men typically react when we do tell them) and because it usually doesn't happen when we're *with* other men. It's not just "Hellos" or fake compliments.  The last time I counted, I rarely went a week without an incident, and often didn't go a day without at least one incident. I haven't set foot outside my door without headphones on and blaring since 1999. And my experiences are not unusual

I'm sick of men telling me what to think about the behavior of men they don't know and have never seen in action. You will never experience the street the way a woman does. You will never know what it's like to spend all day, every day, for your entire adult (and teenaged, and tweenaged) life braced for a verbal assault that inevitably comes. I don't know what it's like in small towns; I've never lived in one. But I know what it's like for a woman in a city. And I can tell you uncategorically: the quality of life for women in cities would be improved at least 1000% if no strange men EVER talked to us except if they had legitimate business. Once again, there are thousands of places and situations to meet people and socialize, and street harassers do not harass to socialize or meet people.

 

#notallmen

Believe me, we are all of us women aware of that. Not all men harass. Not even most men harass. Not even a majority of men harass. Not even a large minority of men harass. We know. We know better than you do, because we're the ones who see the harassment. We're the ones who walk past 100 men who don't even notice us, before encountering the daily asshole who harasses.

But #allwomen are harassed on the street, unless they don't walk alone, or don't live in a city. I challenge you to find a single living woman who has ever lived in a city and walked in the city alone and never been harassed. All. Women.

If you do not harass, good for you, I guess (or rather, good for us; you shouldn't be praised for behaving the way you're supposed to), but that doesn't change the fact that the relatively small minority of men who harass manage to do it to all women. And this conversation is not about how horrible you are. This conversation is about how to stop the harassment that you are not committing but other people are. So stop making this all about you.

If you would like it to be about you, maybe make it about how from now on you're going to be more aware of what is happening to women in front of you in public and how you're going to take action to stop it.

 

I have to (be the fifty thousandth person to) point out the elephant in the room here: all the guys harassing her are black. It must be part of their culture (or replace with racist insult of your choosing.) But the rest of us aren't like that (stated baldly or by implication.)

In case you were wondering, what you just said was racist. *Gasp!* How dare I?

It doesn't matter if your comment was "All n****rs!" as I saw several times on YouTube or "I noticed that all of the harassers are African American. I think it's part of the masculinity-building in their culture " (or, as some people called it, "hip hop culture.") Doesn't matter. Either way, what you're saying is that it's racially inherent for black men to be misogynist, and that is not true.

What is true is that:

  1. this is a huge can of worms and deserves its own post, which I might write later;
  2. there are a lot of folks who've written (probably way better than I could) about the topic so you should read them; 
  3. race doesn't just affect who harasses, but who is harassed and how severely; and
  4. the race argument is just a racist version of #notallmen.

 

But wait! Am I not allowed to talk to women AT ALL? How am I supposed to meet women?"

Yes, if walking up to a total stranger in the street is the only way you can meet women, then there is something seriously wrong with the way you're living your life. Street harassment is not about meeting people! It's about expressing power on total strangers, so that you can feel powerful at someone else's expense, without there being any repercussions for you.

If you are idiotic enough to believe that men harass women on the street to try to find girlfriends and you've been trying to emulate them, that might explain your lack of success with women. So, YES, YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO WOMEN YOU DON'T KNOW ON THE STREET ANYMORE. If you can't meet women at school, work, church (if you swing that way), volunteering, through your friends, through your interests and hobbies, at shows, on the internet (like everyone else), or even, as a last resort, in bars, then you are a huge loser, and women trying not to be harrassed in the street has nothing to do with your problem. Jeezus.

October 28, 2013

Clear Guidelines for Not Being Racist On Halloween

There's been a lot of talk about racist Halloween costumes in the last couple weeks, but I haven't seen any direct guidelines for the clueless (other than hilarious stuff like this.)

So I thought I'd provide.

Here's what blackface is. Relatedly, yellowface, brownface, and redface.

Here's the problem with racialized Halloween costumes. (If you need more, use those highly developed google skills. It's not like the discussion's been hiding somewhere.)

Okay? Okay. So here are your guidelines:

  1. Are you dressing as someone or something of a different race or ethnicity than yourself? For example, a fireman or a cop or a mouse or a sandwich is non-ethnic-specific, so your race or ethnicity could conceivably be that thing. So no worries, you're in the clear. Go forth and costume to your heart's content. On the other hand, a slave, brave, or geisha? Well, I guesss they could be someone who isn't African American, Native American, or Japanese, technically ... but we're not splitting hairs. If you're not of the typical ethnicity/race of your costume, you're in the red zone. Keep reading.
  2. Are you costuming UP or costuming DOWN? This is similar to "mocking up" or "mocking down," in that true humor always makes fun of power, not powerlessness. So if you're making a joke about people below you in the social hierarchy, you're exercising privilege over people less powerful than you, whereas if you're making a joke about people at your level or above you in the social hierarchy, you're speaking truth to power. Costuming is, similarly, imitation, parody, or travesty. Costuming down is usually a disgusting exercise of privilege. So do it up only, never down, unless you're doing it as an unambiguously positive way of honoring someone. So, are you dressing as someone, or something, of a race or ethnicity that is above or below your own on the racial hierarchy? If above, you're probably on the side of the angels, but be thoughtful about it. If below, you've moved even farther into the red zone. Keep reading.
  3. Did you choose this costume to mock, be cool, or honor? If you're costuming cross-racially and down, you have to ask yourself why did you choose this costume? If the answer is "because it's funny," then you hit the third rail. That's mocking down and you're wearing a racist costume. If the answer is "because it's cool," then zap again. You're culturally appropriating and your costume is racist. If your answer is "because I love this person/these people and I want to be like them/honor them," keep reading.
  4. Are you dressing as a person or a category? That is to say, are you dressing as an actual present or historical figure or as a fictional character, or are you dressing as a member of a category? A member of a category includes: Indian princess, Indian brave, geisha, ninja, martial arts whatever, Mexican dude in serape and sombrero, mariachi, gang-banger, chola, "pimp" complete with 'fro, any kind of ethnic costume, arab, chinese, indigenous Australian, Zulu, etc. etc. If you're dressing racially down to honor an individual, keep reading. If you're dressing racially down as a fictional character because you love that character/want to be that character, then keep reading. But if you're dressing racially down as a member of a category, because they're cool and you want to be like them, then you're culturally appropriating a stereotype and need to check yourself. Game show buzzer: your costume is racist.
  5. Are you changing your skin color and/or wearing a wig to change your racial appearance? If so, your costume is racist.

You'll note that, if you're:

  1. cross-racially costuming 
  2. down
  3. as a character or historical figure 
  4. because you love and want to honor them and
  5. have not changed your skin or hair color or put on an "ethnic" wig to approach that character's racial appearance more closely

... then the implication is that you're okay. Right? Well, again, be thoughtful about it. And check this out. Do you see a pattern there?

ETA: Oh, this one's good too!

February 22, 2013

There ARE Second Acts in American Blog Posts

It seems my "damned if you do, damned if you don't" post about white writers writing about POC has been Tumblred and hit some sort of critical mass. It even reached people I know who missed it the first time around. Someone even emailed me today for permission to use it in a presentation. (The same day I deleted a comment calling it "reverse racist." I don't allow that term to be used on my blog.)

So I went to the original Tumblr post and read through all the comments (I still don't get Tumblr. Why make it so difficult to see people's responses?) and I find I have a couple more things to say.

  1. This is a "shut up and deal with it" post. It's not a post telling you what or what not to do with your life. It's a post telling white writers who have been fortunate enough to complete a book, find a publisher, find an audience, and have a public discussion happen about their work to "shut up and deal with the negative criticism in the midst of your good fortune." Shut up and deal with it.
  2. Dude, you don't know any of these people who might be criticizing you. Why would you let my saying that a few nameless, faceless (literally, this is the internet) POC will criticize you stop you from doing anything?

...

Yeah, that's pretty much all I had to say. Beyond that, whoever doesn't get it, doesn't get it. Maybe someday they will.

Also, here's a good rephrasing.

And here's a moment of perspective.

And, if anyone was wondering, here's an ideal response from a white writer.

February 08, 2013

"Smash," Sexism, and Prejudice

I've been watching the TV show Smash and, although it's really not a big issues show, the latest episode this week -- which features sexual harrassment heavily in the plot -- got me thinking a lot about prejudice.

Smash is a musical drama about a broadway show. Yeah, it's the about the show and everything that goes into making a show, from the creative team coming up with the idea for a musical, through writing it, finding a producer, finding funding, casting, rehearsals, etc.

SPOILERS FOLLOW: The first season got the show -- a bio-musical about Marilyn Monroe called Bombshell -- through its initial run in Boston. Along the way, the two actresses competing for the lead succeed in destroying each others' relationships (and pretty much everything goes wrong for everyone involved as well.)

The director of the show, Derek, initially makes a pass at one of the rivals, the ingenue Karen, during the drawn out casting process. He invites her to a late night audition at his apartment, tells her she needs to be sexier, and then sits on the couch while she gives him what is essentially a lapdance, while "doing" Marilyn. Then she leaves and goes home to her boyfriend. (When the boyfriend finds out about this later, he punches Derek out.)

Then Derek makes a more direct pass at the other rival, the experienced Ivy, and she not only goes for it, but they end up in a serious relationship, where the "L" word gets used.

Throughout most of the season, both characters are up for the role. First one gets chosen, then the other, then a Hollywood actress who can't sing gets cast for a while (and has an affair with Derek while she's doing it, putting a strain on his relationship with Ivy,) then they're both being considered again. Roller coaster. Finally, Derek makes the call and he chooses Karen, i.e. NOT his serious girlfriend.

The second season starts with the reviews coming in and the show getting ready to make its first run on Broadway. But everything is going wrong: the producer is accused of using mob money, the librettist's marriage is falling apart, and ... dunh dunh duuuuuuunnnh ... the Hollywood actress accuses Derek of sexual harrassment.

And this is where things get interesting. In the second episode, apparently emboldened by the Hollywood actress's accusation, six chorus girls from other shows that Derek has done come forward and accuse him of sexual harrassment as well. In many other shows, this would be presented as just another trial of Job to be heaped onto Bombshell, i.e., not something worth exploring for its own sake. And I never would have suspected Smash of having the heart or intelligence to make something more out of this.

But then we get this scene (s2, ep2, starts at 11:20 in the video above) in which Derek seeks out and confronts one of his accusers, a chorus girl named Daisy. He mansplains to her that she doesn't understand the term "sexual harrasment" and says he never touched her. She counters that she never said he did, and then outlines exactly what he DID do, which was hit on her through four callbacks and then refuse to cast her after she definitively turned him down. He insults her talent and says that's why he didn't cast her. Then this:

Derek: Since when is it harrassment to ask someone out on a date?

Daisy: You don't get it. You're a big-shot director. You're in a position of power from the minute you wake up in the morning, and you don't treat that power with respect. Or did you really think women say yes because they actually like you?

Being a decent show and not a great show, Smash goes on to blunt this incredible scene with a cheap musical number ("Would I Lie to You") in which Derek gets pushed around by a bunch of  chorus girls, plus Karen and Ivy, dressed identically:

Although the identically dressed girls could be said to be a comment on Derek's view of women, it looks too much like that's actually the show's viewpoint (and not just Derek's) for that point to come across. It looks too much like this:



So there's that. There's also the rest of the episode, which has Ivy letting a mopey Derek off the hook. But just for a moment, the show's understanding of the world and one of its characters opens up, and you get to see some of the underlying dynamics of this world, and how this fictional world connects to the real one:

  • The Hollywood actress is actually lying. Her sexual relationship with Derek was entirely consensual and welcome, and, in fact, she had the power there, because her star power got her a role that Derek didn't want to give her. In fact, his affair with her was partly intended to boost her confidence so she could sing better, i.e. he was "servicing" her. (Of course he was also just dogging and star-fucking.) Her accusation was made so that she could save face. She quit the show because she couldn't sing, and she wanted to quell the rumors.
  • Even though she nominally has the power, because she's a woman and he's a man, his opinion of her abilities is still important and still has power over her. Note that her attack on him was, in essence, for her to take on the role of victim.
  • This is a common (and largely unwarranted) fear of women: that women will take power over men by falsely accusing them of exercising their power.
  • The show is just good enough that it can't quite make itself depict the Hollywood actress "playing the harrassment card." That whole thing happens offscreen, frankly because we wouldn't believe it if they put it onscreen.
  • Derek is a huge sexual harrasser, although clearly not a sexual assaulter, and his power has prevented anyone from stepping forward before.
  • The Hollywood actress's accusation, although false, is what finally allows Derek's real victims to come forward, because sexual harrassment is entirely about power: who has it and who doesn't. Only the powerful Hollywood actress can make such an accusation without negative repercussions, and the chorus girls require the shelter of her power to do the same.
  • Since the real accusations are enabled by the false one, this lets Derek off the hook in his own mind; the real accusations are just copy-cats of the false one, and equally false.
  • Until Daisy breaks it down for Derek, he genuinely doesn't understand what sexual harrassment is, and genuinely doesn't believe he's doing it. When she says "you didn't really believe all those women liked you?" the look on his face says it all: yes, he did really believe all those women liked him. He really didn't have a clue that it's his power, and not his attractiveness, that makes the women accessible to him. It's equally never occurred to him that his relationships have all been with women who want something that he has the power to give or withhold.

I think it was this last one that really opened something up for me. Yes, it was fiction, but it felt real; rang true, as they say. It was that Derek genuinely believed that he wasn't doing anything wrong that got to me. Because, when it comes to -isms, I always tend to look at things from the oppressed pov, and not from the -ist pov. Or at least to try to.

I understand that privileged white people think that they have a right to a spot in a university that a person of color got "through affirmative action." But I always thought that that was more about the white person thinking that POC can't possibly "deserve" a spot in a university. It had never really gotten through to me that white people think that they DO deserve the spot, have earned it, etc. Although I never thought it through in those terms, I might have thought that, were there no affirmative action, the same white complainer wouldn't complain about not getting into the school of their choice because "their" spot went to another white person. But now I'm wondering if the white complainers wouldn't complain anyway, find other reasons why they were denied their just deserts.

Now, obviously, privilege requires a lack of privilege to be privilege. If there's no lack of privilege, there's no privilege. But privilege is self-referential. It bounces off the Other, but doesn't refer to the Other.

Without the power differential, Derek wouldn't have all these willing chorus girls for his bed. And without all the willing chorus girls, he wouldn't have learned to think so well of his attractiveness. But his view of sexual dynamics is entirely self referential: girls say yes because he's attractive, not because they're afraid to say no. The latter conclusion requires you to refer to the other person, to be aware that the other person has needs and fears and other mechanics. The former conclusion is all about you.

Which leads me to clarifying for myself that prejudice is not just -- and in many cases not even primarily -- prejudice against someone, but rather prejudice for oneself, and by extension, one's own group. This should be obvious, but I've never seen anyone break it down this way (I'm sure others have, I just haven't seen it.) In antiracism we focus so much on the prejudice against, that we never end up talking about the prejudice for. But prejudice for is much more prevalent in the world, simply because the people with the power still control the media, the narrative, and the world's voice.

And this might be why the antiracism/feminist/lgbt/intergenerational/body-positive messages are so often ineffectual: because most people genuinely don't recognize that being prejudiced in favor of you and yours necessarily means that you're prejudiced against others.

That's the end of this thought for now, but I might have more to say about this in the future. Still processing.

January 10, 2013

Urban Fantasy Structures and Definitions

So I'm starting to see if I can put together an urban fantasy novel (and/or series) entirely by pre-plotting it. If it doesn't work, I won't write it. But I want to try writing this way, since I've never tried it. (I always start with a concept, a basic plot, even possibly an ending ... and nothing else. Then I start writing and see where it goes, leading to spending three years on a short story and ten years -- and counting -- on a novel. Trying something new now.)

So right now I'm investigating the urban fantasy novel formula. And I'm reading stuff I wanna respond to. Let's start with Carrie Vaughn's series of short posts on this (in which she never lays out the actual formula.) She does enumerate annoying clichés, though, and also says this:

I can’t help but look at the popularity of urban fantasy and ask, What is this symptomatic of? What anxiety in our culture is being expressed so eloquently in these works that they’re striking such a powerful chord in the readership, leading to phenomenal popularity?

The answer is pretty simple: these books are symptomatic of an anxiety about women and power. We have made so many gains over the last few decades. Women really can do anything, pursue nearly any career, become influential and powerful in any area. And yet. Women are still ostracized for appearing powerful. Women are still told that their role is to be deferential, nurturing, humble, self-deprecating, and they’re still criticized and marginalized when they don’t fit conventional images of femininity. Women still have to fight for acceptance in so many areas. You think this dichotomy, these mixed messages, aren’t real? Look at the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s (aka The Bitch) and Sarah Palin’s (aka Caribou Barbie) runs for office and get back to me.

So many of my pet peeves are symptomatic of this conflict: these aggressive yet conflicted women characters who are simultaneously strong yet exhibit low self esteems, who kick ass with violence but submit to the sexy alpha male. Another symptom: so many of these books only have one strong woman character, and many other female characters are stereotypical and inconsequential. Maybe lots of urban fantasy isn’t really about strong women, but about one special, chosen woman. (Thank you, Suzy McKee Charnas, for articulating this so well at Bubonicon.) There’s still anxiety about toppling the status quo. It’s possible in these worlds to have a strong woman, but not strong women.

I have to say that it's interesting to see her looking at the anxieties these fictions work on from the outside (i.e. NOT from the pov of the writers and readers.) But I think you also have to look at them from the pov of the people whose wishes are being fulfilled, i.e. the writers and readers, who are all or mostly urban professional women of childbearing (read: dating/marrying/relationships-with-men-having) age. And it's clear that these books are dealing with the confusion and anxieties of these women themselves, who want a number of conflicting things. Among these conflicting things are:

  • Personal power: the power to be and do what you want in life and in the world.
  • Negotiating power in your relationships; equality with your partner.
  • Kickassedness: the ability to protect yourself against exploitation, violence, oppression; but also the ability to appear very cool, to protect yourself in cool-looking and -seeming ways, not in gross or questionable ways. (e.g.: directly kicking someone's ass rather than being manipulative.)
  • Desirability: to men, that is. Most of these novels give very little thought to being a desirable friend/coworker/associate, much less lover, to women. Yes, sexual desirability. But only to men. This is heteronormativity, yes, but it's also about the kind of desirability that is the most problematic for urban career women. The wish being fulfilled here is to be desirable without negative consequences. (ETA: reading over this now and realizing how this sounds. I meant: sexual desirability to people with whom you have a massive, society-wide, gender-based power differential. And wanting to be desirable to them without incurring the negative consequences of being less powerful than they are. That's all.)
  • Competence: in life, but mostly in career. This never crosses over into desirability, i.e. being a desirable worker to employers and coworkers. That desirability is taken for granted, interestingly. Our heroines never have to stress about applying for a job, or even for a promotion. However, the wish fulfillment is to (grudgingly AND willingly) be acknowledged as competent/great by bosses and coworkers, who are mostly or entirely male.
  • A traditionally masculine man, who wants a contemporary, powerful woman: HA! The biggest crock, but also one of the biggest wishes being fulfilled. This one is the most regressive, but possibly the most understandable. It's wish fulfillment for women who were raised to desire the traditionally beautiful and masculine alpha male -- women for whom alternative masculinities have never been effectively promoted -- but were also raised post-second-wave-feminist, i.e. raised to take advantage of and expect to be treated as equals. This item is the one that shows up the biggest failure of second (and third) wave feminism: its failure to not just conceive of, but also actively promote, alternative masculine roles that work with the alternative roles for women we've essentially pushed through.
  • Outsider status: although all these conflicts and anxieties and desires are common and mainstream, there's still the desire to stand outside of the mainstream, to be special and also be to be a bit oppressed. This is partly adolescent, partly American (wherein our entire identity hinges on overcoming challenges and being individual), and partly guilty-white-girl. The last one is why so many urban fantasy heroines are mixed race (never just poc, though.) In this post-civil-rights-movement era, outsider status is most quickly vouchsafed by being a person of color. But, of course, no white woman REALLY dreams of being black, so it's always American Indian or Asian (although the half-Asians are usually the sidekicks.)
There are more, I'm sure, but these are the ones jumping out at me. No conclusions right now. More soon.

March 03, 2012

Reading Update: Tired of Urban Fantasy?

Raven Cursed Faith Hunter
A Perfect Blood Kim Harrison
Sins of the Demon Diana Rowland

All of these are the latest installments of urban fantasy series I've been devouring since last year. I love the combination of mystery, horror, fantasy, and romance in the genre -- not too much of any one of these genres, each of which -- except for mystery -- is largely a turn-off for me. And I really dig that the wish-fulfillment in these series can only be fulfilled by that particular combo of elements. Because it's not something simple like needing the perfect man, or needing to be vindicated by solving a crime, or needing to cleanse the Earth of an evil, or needing to find a MacGuffin. It's all of those together, plus the complicated need of a not-super-young, urban, professional woman for self-actualization ... whatever that means.

Guilty pleasures though they be, good books in this genre manage a real socio-cultural balancing act in pushing so many buttons at once, but not pushing them too hard; and in moving the character arc forward book-by-book, without either resolving too much, or repeating the central conflict over and over.

However. I'm starting to get tired of the genre. None of these latest installments really got me excited. Maybe it's because I read the series that each of them belongs to all at once, and then had to wait for the next book and kind of forgot the last book in the meantime. But I also think I've sucked the genre dry, and am sated. Pun intended.

Also! I'm tired of Kim Harrison using mixed-white-Asian features as an attention-getter, without any culture backing it up. And duuuuude, Diana Rowland actually wrote "oriental" in reference to her mixed-white-Asian character's featurs at the end of Sins of the Demon. That is SO not okay. Dude, hasn't she read Said?

I'm feeling a need for nonfiction right now. I've got a couple of ideas lined up. Stay tuned.

September 07, 2010

Reading Update: Serial Killing Hello Kitty and (update) Feminist Swedish Mens

Angela S. Choi Hello Kitty Must Die

Stieg Larson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hello Kitty: Recommended. Can't say too much more since I'm reviewing it for Hyphen. But I asked for their lit editor to request this book, because I suspected it of being a genre-buster ... and I wasn't disappointed. Hie thee, Asian America, to a bookstore, to support the downfall of Azn Chicklit! Yee haw!

One note: she busts the genre, but doesn't bust some of the problematic tropes involved, such as the pushy Asian parents, the abusive Asian uncle, the thousands of Asian American men who are all losers, and the white men who rescue Asian girls from all of it. Argh.

Also, she stoleded the last image directly from Heathers and it didn't really fit that well. Well, actually, she stoleded the whole plot from Heathers ... kinda. Anyhoo.

Dragon Tattoo: an addictive read, although the writing was only competent. Interesting stuff in there: not white guilt but male guilt. I'm in the middle of the next book and Larson seems to be motivated entirely by misogyny ... I mean by his mission to combat misogyny, as if that were the only thing wrong in the world. All the mens are either older, enlightened, feminist mens who handle women perfectly and are always mentoring (and sometimes fucking) younger, brilliant women who look like children ... or they're older or younger vicious misogynists who think all women are cunts and whores. There's no in between, and no subtlety or nuance in his understanding of how sexism actually works in society. Sigh.

July 05, 2010

Reading Update: Slave Narratives

My cousin, whose house I'm staying at in Mono Lake, has most of the Library of America in a bookcase in one of the bedrooms. I pulled out a volume of slave narratives -- partly out of interest and partly as research for da nobble -- and read the following:

Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

The Confessions of Nat Turner

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green by Jacob D. Green

I have some questions about the Harriet Jacobs narrative, which was essentially an American slave version of Clarissa. It was basically the story of a beautiful young slave girl whose master wanted her, but for some reason wouldn't force himself on her. He practiced every sort of deception and pressure, but didn't rape her. For years. In fact, at one point he let her leave his household and go live with her free grandmother, doing no work for him -- again for years. I don't find this plausible at all, especially given the almost casual and frequent incidence of rape -- particularly when a slave refused to give in to her master's demands -- in the other slave narratives. (Jacobs' master, by the way, wasn't averse to violence, which makes her story less plausible.)

The one thing that gives this narrative some support is how Frederick Douglass, in his narrative, mentions the difference between treatment of slaves in towns, where everyone knows when a slave is abused and masters can get a bad reputation, and treatment of slaves on plantations, where masters and overseers have an essentially free hand. Part of the reason Harriet Jacobs gives for her master's self-control where rape is concerned is the respect in which her free grandmother is held in the community of the town where they live, and the disapprobation her master would incur if he displeased the grandmother.

I still don't find it entirely plausible though. Jacobs' narrative was clearly written for women to read; to impress upon women readers the horrors of rape and "degradation" that slavery imposed upon women slaves. It seems as if Jacobs and/or her editors didn't quite dare to take the narrative's heroine down to the level of commonly raped slaves -- perhaps lest the narrator lose the reader's respect entirely. Or maybe they were jumping off of the Clarissa-type of narrative, writing slave women into a common narrative that would be recognized by lady novel-readers.

The narratives mostly tend to emphasize successful escape as the climax, and settlement in free territory as the denouement, of a proper slave narrative. Talk about the tyranny of narrative! Of course, this would be what interests former slave writers and mainstream readers alike; what a perfect, built-in narrative arc! There seems to be little treatment of what life is like, in detail, in the free north, although Harriet Jacobs does detail -- with great indignation and a language that seems ahead of its time -- some incidents of "color prejudice" she encounters as the sole "colored" nurse among white nurses at a resort. Too bad, because this contributes to the black-and-white notion we have of North and South, the north being this mythical land of freedom and justice where fugitive slaves met with kindness and equality, etc. etc. But I suppose that's the product of its own times and political agenda.

Aside from these reflections, I read these with an inquisitive mind, as research, to give me some background on some characters in da nobble, so I wasn't, for the most part, reading critically.

June 25, 2010

Reading Update

Shailja Patel Migritude

A. Lee Martinez The Automatic Detective

Talking about Shailja's book would break two rules: reviewing a friend's book and reviewing a book I'm publicizing professionally. But I will mention that it's a book made from a performance made from spoken word poetry. And that I've seen the performance twice (and loved it!) And that I was surprised at how well the book read on paper. That is all.

The Automatic Detective is a lot of fun. I dragged out the reading of it by only reading it on the BART, otherwise I would've gotten through much sooner. But keeping it to a BART reader gave me something to look forward to on the BART. I even chose BART over driving the other day so I could spend my travel time with this book.

The novel revolves around the protagonist robot, Mack Megaton, who has been acknowledged as having the free will glitch in his programming that confers sentience, and who is four years away from completing his probation -- at the end of which time he'll become a fully recognized citizen. Mack requires probation because he's actually a killer robot created by an evil genius -- a killer robot who then refused to serve his purpose. There are worries, not least in Mack's own conscience, that Mack may break one day and start killing people.

Anyhoo, Mack is a bit emotionally distant from the world, but he does have a few friends, chief among them the wife and daughter of the family next door. The wife ties his tie every morning (he doesn't have the manual dexterity to do it yet.) One day, he surprises a thug in the act of terrorizing the family, and in the confusion, the prescient (mutant) daughter is able to slip him a note telling him to look for them. Then the family disappears and someone blows up Mack's apartment.

From this point on, we're in a classic noir, except for the cartoony sci-fi world ... and the fact that the femme fatale isn't fatale. It's, as I said, a lot of fun, and seamlessly pulled off. Loved it and highly recommend it as pure entertainment. No redeeming social value.

February 16, 2010

Why Aren't Women and POC Submitting Their Work?

ETA 5/6/13: I'm re-reading this now because of a discussion I'm having with someone, and I'm realizing that some of the criticisms below in comments are more accurate than I could see at the time I wrote it. I wrote this post with the explicit intention of "validating" the perception that women/poc submissions "aren't as good" as white submissions as a rhetorical device. My intention was to validate that perception to draw the reader in, and then smack them over the head with the fact that too many terrific women/poc writers simply aren't submitting for the following reasons (etc.)

I'm realizing now that this was not a super-effective tactic. And I have to admit that I didn't think it through clearly. When I conceived of this piece, I had recently been fired from a paid gig at an online magazine that was all white (except for me) and mostly male. Although I got some legit-sounding excuses for being fired, I didn't think it was a coincidence that I was fired right after I intensified my campaign to diversify the artists and writers being covered in the magazine. These things are hard to prove, though. The editor in question had told me that: a) they didn't get enough submissions from writers-oc and b) the ones they got weren't good enough. I had also been trying to diversify another (paid) online magazine that some friends were involved with and that I read but didn't contribute to. They told me the same thing: not enough submissions, not good enough. The way the editors I knew said this reminded me of how editors in this online fight had been saying that they don't get enough woc subs, and I noticed (or thought I noticed) that there was an unspoken implication that the subs they did get weren't good enough.

The other thing was that I thought it might well be true that the editors I had talked to weren't getting good submissions from woc because the good woc weren't submitting to them. I had had that experience as an editor of a poc magazine -- one of not getting enough good submissions even though I was seeing terrific writers in the community all the time. That was something that no one would say in public, and I was struck with the idea of writing a piece that did say it, and then turned it around on its ear. And then I simply wrote it, without thinking of how off-putting or ultimately inaccurate that would be. Bait-and-switch is fundamentally dishonest, and even if my intention was always honesty, honest dishonesty is ... uh ... problematic? I should have been more straightforward, is what I'm saying.

Also, a writer below took me to task for saying that most women or poc "fail" to make the leap to mainstream mags. My intention was always to use the word "fail" to mean "didn't do," and my critic contended that my use of "fail" expressed actual failure in the not doing. I.e.: it sounded like I was criticizing women/poc for not making that leap, and calling them failures. Because this was never my intention, I dismissed the criticism at the time. In re-reading, I'm realizing that she was completely right. This is exactly how that sentence, and its contextualizing language, reads. I should have worded that much more carefully. My critic, understandably, didn't believe me when I wrote back that an accusation of "failure" wasn't my intention with that wording. All I can say about that is that when I wrote this post, I had just recently made a completely conscious decision to publish my first book with a diversity-focused feminist small press, and deliberately did not submit it anywhere else. I did NOT consider this "not doing" a "failure."

Now, on to the original post:

***

I'm about to post something more on the general topic area of literary diversity, but I realized that I've never actually written a more foundational post that I've been meaning to write for a couple of years now.

Basically, this is about the totally valid and justified complaints of white editors that writers of color and women aren't submitting enough work to them. This is absolutely true (as far as it goes.) If you teach (as I do) writing in community orgs, 90-99% of your students will be women and poc. If you've studied creative writing in universities, even or especially at the MFA level (as I have), you'll know that about 60-75% of students are women. But start reading slush for a major publisher or journal and you'll notice a sudden, steep drop in the percentages of women, and an even steeper drop in the percentages of poc submitting work. And look at what is actually published and you'll see the drop is even steeper: mostly men, mostly white.

ETA: Some of Those who read slush know will tell you (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms ETA: as evidenced by the heated comments below. Please note, this is my experience and that of many folks I've talked to or read stuff from, not a universal experience.) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published. (Sometimes. There's usually also a factor of white male editors not quite getting the culture or language of marginalized writers, so they don't fully appreciate the nuances of the work. But that's another discussion.) So when a white male editor says, "We only had one woman and one poc in the anthology because we were going for the best work," that could be true, or true-ish.

(ETA: with reference to comments below, let me just put in here that your percentages may vary. We're still working with more women (and a larger percentage of poc) attending writing classes, but more men and white writers actually submitting work. How radical your discrepancy is, like I said, varies, but the discrepancy exists.)

And yet, I know from teaching and learning in community and academic settings that there are metric tons of good poc and women writers out there, just waiting to be plucked from the vine.

What gives?

For someone like me, and many of you, who are in on every step in the long, slow process of literary accomplishment (looks like this: community writing classes, MFA courses, community readings, ethnic magazines, indy publishers, mainstream lit magazines, major publishers -- I am or have been involved in all of these except the last two) it's very easy to see that there's a huge chasm at one step in this process. And that chasm comes between writers developing their craft in the bosom of their communities, and writers taking a leap away from their local identity communities into the ether of the mainstream -- basically at the point where writers have to take a deep breath and submit their work to mainstream editors who don't know them and aren't familiar with the communities they come from.

Here's the problem:

MOST WOMEN AND POC WRITERS FAIL TO MAKE THAT LEAP.

Yeah, that's right: most of them. You know all the "ethnic" and women midlist writers at majors who will get dropped soon and move to indies because they get no attention? For every one of those, there are at least three who never bothered with the majors but stayed in indie and community publishing, and ten who never made the leap to publishers at all. Yes, it's true. It's not that most women and poc writers fail to become good enough to make that leap. It's that, of those that reach a point where they CAN make the leap, most either don't recognize that they've reached that point, or, for other reasons they never manage to make the leap.

I have a friend near my age who was taking community writing classes with me, started an MFA the year after I did, and has been writing just as long. When this friend finally got a story published, it was in an ethnic mag. Last time I checked, my friend still hadn't submitted any work to mainstream journals.

Why not? What are those reasons? Enlightened editors want to know. Well, I have some ideas, although I can't speak for all women/poc writers who don't make the leap (please feel free to add ideas in the comments.) These reasons are in order of frequency (in my opinion):

  • Many women/poc writers don't hang out in mainstream literary circles locally or online so they don't know what to expect or what's expected of them in this scene. They don't understand how to "break in" to mainstream markets, so they stick to the literary scene they know how to work.
  • They don't know about your publishing house/journal (see directly above).
  • They know about your publishing house or journal but don't think you take work from women/"ethnic" writers. (This impression usually comes from the actual dearth of women/poc writers in your mag or on your list.)
  • They know you'll technically read work from women/ethnic writers, but don't believe their work will be taken seriously or given a fair reading.
  • They know you'll read their work with an earnest intention of fair play, but don't believe you're equipped to understand it.
  • Those who do submit work often don't submit their best work, because they fear their best work will be considered "too ethnic" or "chicklit," so they submit more standard "literary" work that their hearts weren't really in.
  • They don't think that anyone like them READS your books or your magazine, and they want to reach their own audience.
  • They have a political agenda around their work and have decided that that agenda is best served by keeping their work within their communities.
  • ETA: Ide Cyan and Minal Hajratwala added another good point in the comments. As Minal put it: "A serious economic/class differential that means that many women of color who write are barely able to eke out the hours to write, let alone any extra hours to venture into a whole new & unwelcoming literary 'scene,' to network, attend conferences/ workshops, research publications, submit work, blog or read blogs, deal with rejection (in the face of a host of other societal rejections)... Some of the students in my community-based classes are writing mainly because it helps them survive, and the idea of publication is not a priority."

Most of those good writers who don't submit do it for the first two reasons. I know, it's hard for editors and publishers to remember a time when they didn't know the rules and the landscape. Many editors and publishers grew up in culturally savvy families or communities, so they don't even know how they learned the rules and the landscape. But the folks who aren't submitting either don't know the rules, or don't think they're considered important enough to engage the rules. They either don't have a map to the landscape, or simply think that it's a closed, privately-owned parcel of land. And far too often they're right.

And most of them aren't necessarily even aware that they think this way. I can't tell you how many writers I've encouraged to submit their work who had never done it before because it simply never occurred to them. They never signed up for a writers list-serv. They don't read lit blogs that post opportunities on them. They don't know about Writers Market or the Poets & Writers database. They don't know that you can (and sort of have to) look the various markets up and note down their guidelines and simply submit work according to the guidelines. (There's a big component in here of internalized racism, where the writer has been absorbing messages of her inferiority for her entire life, and is unwilling to risk being rejected on that basis, but that's another blog post.)

I have a good friend who has been writing for decades. My friend has a towering reputation in local and extended identity communities, is invited to read around 10 times a year in a variety of venues, has had work published in a number of anthologies, has edited an identity-based anthology published by an indy publisher, and has also been the editor of a literary journal. This friend had an offer of a book on the table from an indy before the economy went to shit and the publisher had to taper off publications for a while. This friend has never made an unsolicited submission. So when the indy publisher had to rescind the book offer, my friend didn't know what to do. When I suggested we get proactive and prepare a package of work to send out as an unsolicited submission, my friend was both surprised and relieved. And this is someone with a lot of publication and literary experience. This is someone even the most boneheaded white male publisher would be delighted to get a submission from.

So, the point of all of this is that editors have to go out and find good writers of color and women writers just like they have to go out and find good white male writers. The obvious first place to start is independent magazines and publishers, but editors will need to go deeper than that. (I won't go into it again here.) And the big issue is not just knowing where to look, but knowing how to approach.

A number of small gestures can make a huge difference. Make the whole experience as painless and welcoming as possible. For example:

  • Make sure your submission guidelines are easy to find on your website. Don't hide them. Add language to your guidelines that specifically welcomes women and writers of color. Something like "We are especially interested in innovative work by women, writers of color, and writers from historically marginalized groups. We love to discover new writers!" Don't beat around the bush. Be plain.
  • When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and poc front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable "minority" names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for "minority" writers. This is a subtle language you must learn to speak.
  • When you send a call for submissions out on a list-serv or send it to a website for a "minority" group, be sure to personalize it and express your strong desire to get submissions. Sign it with your name. Say something like, "I really want to encourage you all to submit work. Our submissions pile isn't nearly as diverse as it needs to be, and as a result, our publications aren't as diverse as they need to be. You can help change that. Please take a chance on us and send us your best work!"
  • Write up a brief primer (maybe a paragraph) on how to make an effective submission (including maybe a little something about what to put, and what not to put, in a cover letter.) Include this in your call for submissions. Make your expectations plain, and don't give anyone any excuses not to submit.
  • Be sure to ask them to tell you in their cover letter where they heard about your magazine or publishing house, so you can track where the submissions are coming from; and ask them to include a brief bio that talks about their origins, so you can get a sense of where your writers are coming from. Encourage them to talk to you about who they are and what their process is, so you can understand it all better.
  • If you're rejecting a promising submission from someone who's obviously a writer of color or who says they're coming from a poc website or list-serv, be sure you personalize the rejection with at least some minimal feedback, and an encouragement to submit again. Yes, I know you don't have time, but it's part of an editor's job to cultivate promising writers, and if you want a healthy field of diverse writers in ten years, you have to plant now. This is assuming that you actually DO send rejection letters out. Many journals don't reject in a timely or consistent manner, and there's nothing more off-putting to someone who already thinks they're not going to get a fair shot, than being utterly ignored. Basically, acknowledgment is key, even when you're rejecting.

That's all fairly easy, surface stuff. But if editors and publishers really want to become more diverse and reflective of 21st Century reality, they're going to have to change the way their organizations approach the work itself. Changes like:

  • Having some non-white, non-WASPy names on your masthead or staff list. Yes, we do read these. Yes, we are turned off when we don't see any names like ours. Yes, I'm much more likely to send a story to a market with an editor of color or a woman editor first (although there are so few of these that I've learned not be picky.) And if a market's guidelines don't say anything about multiculturalism, but do say stuff about "no genre" and "high quality" (both euphemisms for New Yorker-style Carverism,) all the masthead names sound white, and all the author names on the website are or sound white, I'm probably not going to bother to submit to you at all.
  • Having a diverse editorial board or a diverse set of guest editors. Aside from the above issue, they'll make an effort to reach out to their communities if they understand that that's their job (no, you can't just tokenize an editor and watch her go. If your mag isn't diverse, she'll often just assume you only want white male writers and do her job that way.)
  • If you're successful in all this, your volume of submissions should increase. Go to ethnic and gender studies departments at your local universities and pick up an extra, slush-reading intern there. Put the intern's name on the masthead. Let your intern know that their expertise in ethnic/gender studies is needed and they should point out any boneheadedness in editorial decisions if they see it.
  • Having an editorial mission statement and a strategic or business plan whose language fundamentally reflects a deep commitment to diversity.
  • Being advocated for in the community by a diverse set of respected writers. (Yes, when one of us has been published by a market, we DO immediately go out and tell our peeps to submit there. When one of our respected leaders tells us this stuff, we particularly prick up our ears. And when an editor buttonholes one of us and says "How do I get [your folks] to submit to [my magazine/house]?" without sticking their feet in their mouths, we do go straight to Facebook and post a link.)
  • Having a "usual round" of in-person visits to open mics, reading series, classrooms, etc that are in diverse communities, so you're "touching" minority writers all the time.
  • When you request work from big name writers, hit up women writers and poc as often as you can. This is not to fill out your minority quota with big names, but rather to use the big names to entice emerging marginalized writers to submit to you.
  • Be constantly reading marginalized writers. Duh.
  • This is whole 'nother blog post, but start actively (and savvily) marketing your books/magazines to marginalized communities. It's a cycle: if they're reading it, they'll want to submit to it. If they're being published in it, they'll want to read it. Rinse, repeat.
Yeah, as I've said before, it's a lot of work. And you do have to change the way you do that work in the first place. But if you want actual diversity and not just lip service and real frustration, this is where you start.

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 25, 2009

Lost in Battlestargate: Voyager

So, I've gotten addicted to the new Stargate: Universe series, and, just as quickly, started losing interest in it.

It steals storytelling and camera styles from the BSG playbook. Don't mind that. But there's no actual characterization involved. The much-touted lesbian Ming Na character didn't actually turn up a single characteristic until episode five. Her personality point? Craven manipulativeness. Ah so, Madame Ming Na!

Also, the black character is an out of control, violent brute who first shows up imprisoned, emphasis on "prison". But With A Heart Of Gold Of Course! And the high-status white girl? A slut. A slut who sleeps with one man while using another (the requisite Seth-Rogan-a-like Mary Sue geek.) The other two white women? A hot blonde whose hair never gets out of place, and tough cookie with huge bazoombas, who is first seen fucking the same guy the high-status slut later fucks. Oh and that guy? He's the honorable, young, white lieutenant we all love. Plus, this universe is full of wives who stay at home and reject their honorable, white husbands, or are too dependent on their honorable white husbands so that they fall apart when they die, or who die themselves, driving their formerly honorable, genius, white husbands mad (potentially.) But what else would a woman do? Unless she's a dyke, of course, or a slut?

Also: the good colonel is a white guy and teh bad colonel is Lou Diamond Phillips.

The good news: an early conversation between the hot blonde and Ming Na puts the Bechdel Save on this series. Unless it's just a setup for them to have hot lezbo secks. The bad news: see above.

Plus, did I mention? No characterization. We have a volatile genius scientist guy who may be manipulating everyone and everything and may have put them all out in space in the first place (Dr. Longhair, I know Gaius Baltar, and you, sir, are no Gaius Baltar.) We have an honorable, white captain leader type. (Sir, I know Captain Picard and you are no Captain Picard.) We have the honorable lieutenant (see above), we have the supposed hottie all the guys are starting to want (the not-so-hot and very annoying Senator's daughter, but high-status!), we have the dykey, cowardly, Asian bureaucrat, we have the scary, violent black soldier, we have the potentially dykey hot blonde medic (Ma'am, I know Izzy Stevens and you are no Izzy Stevens), we have a bunch of ineffectual, white, male geeks (Sirs, I know Joss Whedon, and you are no Joss Whedon. Whedons), and ... uh ... yeah.

Characters? We don't need no stinkin' characters!

Is it sad that this is my best SF of the season?

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 27, 2009

Reading Update: Mammothfail Is A World-building Issue

I just read: Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede and the fourth Buffy Season 8 Omnibus.

Naturally, I ordered this Thirteenth Child from BookSwim (netflix for books, not sure I recommend it yet) as soon as Mammothfail broke. I'm not sure I recommend BookSwim yet because it took that long for those books to reach me. So I'm reading this very late, with regard to the brouhaha, and in fact had forgotten that the book was coming at all.

First of all: yes, Wrede is a good writer. The book was a fun and fluent read, with a decent plot, interesting magical rules, and very alive characters. This last is very rare. I've noticed that readers will often credit a flat-charactered book with good characterization if the book itself is good. But a book doesn't have to be character-driven to be good. There are other drivers.

The book is also distinctly feminist in outlook, but also in a very rare way: feminist historical fiction tends to invest its characters with anachronistic attitudes and skills. Thirteenth Child didn't make this mistake. Its female characters, although strongwilled and powerful people, never complained about having to stay home and do the mending while the boys got to go out and play. They expressed frustration over it, but didn't combat it on a theoretical level that would have been inappropriate for the nineteenth century. I really appreciated that. It made the expression of female power so much more interesting.

The one part that is problematic is, of course, in the world-building. Yes, race in SF is a world-building issue. It has to do with how you see your world, not with how your world really is. There are very few places in the US that are actually all white. But there are also very few places in the US where middle class whites can't get away with failing to perceive the actual diversity all around them. We think there are huge all-white pockets of the US because writers portray fictional USes as all white so often, that they must be drawing on some sort of reality. But they're not. They're drawing on their perception of reality, as are all us chickens.

Let me break this down a bit for myself as well. There are three types of white-protag books by white authors in SF: the type that has important characters of color, the type that doesn't have important characters of color, and the type that has no characters of color at all.

The white-protag, white-authored book that has no characters of color in it: we don't need to talk about those, I hope. They are what they are, and I don't read them anymore. Some of them are extremely well written, most not so much. All take place in an alternative world in which white privilege has won, irrevocably. I think they have become immoral to write, as do a lot of other people, but as long as there is a market for them, they will sell. But let me just underline, before we leave this subject: these books have fictional worlds that are utterly unrealistic, in both the sense of fictional mimesis, and in the sense of human truth. US-written SF comes from a country where all-white simply doesn't obtain outside of certain clubs and gated communities. Period.

PoC, especially activists, will tolerate the type that doesn't have important characters of color -- like Harry Potter -- as long as there is a clearly genuine good faith effort to reflect some sort of real-life diversity in the book. There's a lot of discussion, and there can be a lot of disgust over the second-class-citizenship of characters of color in these worlds, but it's clear that the author hasn't completely ignored the actual racial diversity of the situation they are depicting. In fact, there's an honesty to this sort of writing: if you're white in America and middle class or higher, the chances that the main characters in your life are white are enormous. So reflecting diversity in your fictional world -- while your main characters are all white -- is at least honest about not just perception but your own personal reality. (Of course, it's fiction, so you're supposed to not reflect your own personal reality exactly, but I'm making a point here.)

The first type of book, in which some of the more important characters are of color, makes the situation more complex, because -- while these are the books that really start to deconstruct the white-only paradigm of American fiction -- there's the danger of the Magical Negro, and the dark-skinned sidekick, both stereotypes. There's also the danger, when a CoC is focused on so intently, that the CoC will be either whitewashed, or overethnicized. And finally, there's the danger of tokenizing. Because so much authorly energy is spent on a main CoC, there seems to be no color left for the rest of the humanity, and so you have an M&M adrift in a sea of marshmallows.

To reiterate:  while the diverse-world, white-main-characters book has a world-building honesty to it, it still keeps CoCs in second-class citizen mode. Whereas the oC-main-characters book may utterly fail in world-building. That's what's so puzzling.

What's weird about Thirteenth Child is that this book is two of these types: there are two important characters of color, both black; there are no other characters of color in the book at all; and the whole takes place on a continent that has no indigenous characters of color. If you look hard enough, it looks like a Harold and the Purple Crayon-scape: deft and lively figures and scenes, but drawn on a completely blank background. What has been making everyone so crazy about this book is that it is an attempt to write a "morally correct" fiction with important characters of color, but it is placed over a fictional world that has been deliberately and completely whitewashed.

Let's deal with the first one first: the book has major characters of color. These are a female magic teacher and a male itinerant magician and mentor. Both are black, both practice some fusion of "Avropean" (European) and "Aphrikan" magic, and both mentor the white, female, teenaged protagonist in developing her own magic, which maps better to Aphrikan than Avropean styles. Neither encounters any racism in this world ... one in which slavery was abolished three decades earlier, certainly, but one in which there was black slavery.

While both characters presumably have their own goals in life, we don't know what these might be; they are never hinted at. One character has a background, a family, and a place to go when she leaves the school she's teaching our protag at ... but the fact that she'll be leaving that school shortly after our protag graduates sort of underlines the idea that this teacher is there specfically to help her. The characters serve three purposes in this particular story: to teach the white protag a form of magic that whites couldn't teach her, to diversify the population of the story both by being black and by embodying the cultural diversity of magic, and to give the main characters moral stature by being their friends. (Yes, in a world where trolls cite their one black friend to justify racism, social proximity to one black person does serve to heighten your moral standing.)

So yes, these two characters are the very definition of Magical Negroes. Thus ends the analyze-the-two-characters-of-color portion of this review.

When you look away from these two characters, the rest of this world is entirely white. I've mentioned above that that's a danger of white-authored narratives with important CoCs. But it's much deeper than that in Thirteenth Child. Even white-washed frontier narratives like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books had Indians in the background, or at the very least, the threat of Indians. Their presence in the land was minimized, but it was one of the essential givens of this world, one of the essential elements that shaped frontier life and limited migration. Yes, their presence. Because, unlike with African Americans, whose presence in the US wasn't the issue -- it was rather where they got to go, what they got to do, and who got to decide what these were -- the whole issue with Native Americans was their presence. Remember that little word "genocide"? Yeah, that's a presence issue. It's not about where you get to be, it's about if you get to be.

So, there's a little something extra going on here than merely a white middle class author reflecting her privilege of being able to ignore the PoC all around her since her particular neighborhood is mostly white, as are all her friends. No, this is extra-blanking. Even old SF took us to other worlds to give us our white-only. This is an alternate, white-washed US, a re-do, a retcon. Aside from all the moral issues, it's impossible to get with on an imagination basis. Throughout the reading, especially once they left the safe settlement and went out into the wild, my mind couldn't stick the idea that there were simply no Indians out there. It's the Old West! There are Indians! Bad Indians or good Indians depends on whether it's Terence Malick or John Ford making that film. But there are Indians. My mind kept sliding away from the empty-of-humans landscape and putting Indians over the next ridge. Seriously, it's impossible. The only way I could make it work was by blanking out the landscape and blotting out human AND animal threat, both. This was easy since there weren't many descriptions in the book. And it resulted in the Harold-and-the-Purple-Crayoning of the story.

One more thing I want to mention about this and then I'm done: I have to wonder what Wrede was imagining the landscape as when she wrote this. Did she have trouble seeing the Indian-free landscape? Presumably not, but she doesn't fill in what she sees very much or very well. (Usually I appreciate low-density-of-description narratives but there are times when these don't serve their purpose.) This makes me wonder further ... in whitewashed mainstream narratives there usually isn't a lot of description of landscapes and cityscapes in which PoC don't take place either. I imagine this is because white writers, writing for predominantly white readers, only have to sketch in the consensus perception of an all-white reality with a few gestures. So the barely gestured, non-Indianed US frontier of Thirteenth Child: did Wrede subconsciously assume that the rest of her predominantly white audience could see an unpopulated American West just as easily as she could?

And my last question about that is: could they?

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 11, 2009

Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!

Argh!

I wasn't gonna mix into this discussion (in fact, I've said pretty much all I thought I wanted to say before) but dude. Come on.

We're back to the stupid argument about whether editors just take what's coming in through the transom vs. what writers whom they've invited to submit have sent them vs. what they've read before. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Are those the only options? WHEN DID EDITORS BECOME SO FUCKING PASSIVE?

Okay, look, I come into fandom via "literary" fiction, not the other way around. And yes, a lot of lit fic editors are lazy fuckers, too. But the basic expectation over there is that you get work by:

  1. calling for submissions
  2. keeping up with your peers so that you know what other editors are publishing. This is so you know what's current in the field, but also so you know what's being overplayed, so that you DON'T publish that.
  3. research into new authors, works, and trends. That's what this post is about, so keep reading.
  4. inviting interesting writers to submit. You know who's interesting by keeping up with the field and doing your research.
  5. maintaining relationships with agents and writers and asking them to find or create specific types of work. This is more proactive than #4, which passively asks specific people to submit what they've already written or to submit what they want to write for your collection. #5 is about actively shaping what people write; and it gives you the opportunity to give writers new opportunities, and to push promising writers in new directions, if you are so inclined. This is a tactic used for books primarily, but can be used for themed anthologies as well (and is so used, frequently.)

What boggles my mind is not that SF readers are ignorant of the editorial process, but that the implication that has been coming out of this argument is that SF editors DON'T GO THROUGH ALL THOSE STEPS. Somebody please tell me I'm wrong about that!

Because "resting on the laurels of what you've already read" is not one of the above steps, and is not part of the editorial process. People who are experts in a field are chosen to, or permitted to, create anthologies because they have a strong background in the field that allows them to understand the new stuff that they're seeing, and NOT because they've already read everything they need to read to create an anthology. Anthologizing is hard work not because you have to read so much slush (get an intern to weed that shit out) but because of all that other work you have to do. And if you're not doing it, you're doing a piss-poor job.

So, to get down to the nitty gritty, as someone in Tempest's comments asked to do, how do you -- not "become a good editor" but -- change the way you do business so that your editing becomes more than an exercise in futility? Here are some steps:

  1. Go out an read diverse stuff. This is not hard. There is google. Go to google and look up "African American fiction anthology," "Asian American fiction anthology," "New Women Writers," "LGBT Fiction" etc. Check these books out of the library. Read them. Then pick the two or three writers whose stories you liked the most AND WHOSE STORIES YOU HATED THE MOST, and read a book each by them. Look them up on wikipedia and find out who their influences and mentors were and read a book each by them. Etc.
  2. Go to Wiscon, Diversicon, Gaylaxicon, whatever, and talk to people who don't look or talk like you. Ask them what they're reading and what they think you should be reading (the answer to these two questions will usually be different.) Take notes. Then GO READ some of what they told you to read.
  3. Send your calls for submissions out to all the people of color you know and ask them to forward it. Follow up with them a week later and ask them where they sent/posted it. Sign up for those lists/groups and follow up on those lists/groups a week later with a personal invitation from the editor to EVERYONE ON THE LIST to submit work. Also go here and send calls for subs to these folks and follow up. ALWAYS FOLLOW UP!
  4. If you are a real editor, then you live in a real city with real readings. Go to them. Ask around for the POC/LGBT/Women's/whatever readings and attend them. They will be mostly boring or painful. That's how it is. You have to dig for gold. Keep going. Every time you go, talk to two people you don't know, especially if they look like they're in charge or if they know a lot of people. Ask them to recommend other readings in the city you should see. Carry cards and call for subs fliers with you. EVERY SINGLE TIME you see writer you think is remotely good, hand them a flier. In fact, hand them to writers you don't think are that good either, and ask them to pass it around. Do this in every city you go to.
  5. Keep doing this. This is not a remedial course that will eventually finish, after which, you will now be diversified. This now how you do your job. Keep doing your job.

Yeah, sounds impossible doesn't it? Right? Right? I mean, who has time to do all that learning about writers and keeping up with writers when you have so much ... editing to do?

And before you ask, YES I HAVE DONE IT, not as an editor, but as a multidisciplinary arts curator. I did it for four years, spent four years going out almost every night to shows, talking to total strangers and asking them to send me stuff, designing and printing calls for submissions and handing them out everywhere, etc. etc. Yeah, it's a full-time job. That's why they call it "a full-time job".

As far as editing an anthology goes, I haven't done that, but it's akin to (but a lot more serious and long-term than) the work I put into creating a reading binder for a writing class. Class reading binders are about book-length, like a short anthology, and need to demonstrate a variety of writing techniques clearly. They also need to tell a variety of types of stories so the students have models of the types of stories they can tell, so that they aren't limited by the narrow scope of their current imagination (my writing assignments tend to focus on both content and form.) And, as a writer of color who generally teaches writing in the context of community antiracist organizations, I make it a point to make my binders diverse in terms of who is writing the stories, their point of view, and their content.

So, how do I do all of this? Dude. I read. A lot.

I ask my list-servs (I've been on a few writers' and readers' list-servs) and I ask friends that I know are readers and experts. And then I go online and look up reading lists, and go to Amazon and look up anthologies and then get them out of the library.  And read them. And mark them up with those bookmark post-its, so that I have stacks of books around the house that look like they're wounded and bleeding (because if a book was wounded, wouldn't it bleed pink paper?) These are books with subtitles like "An anthology of fiction about 9/11" and "New African fiction," and "Poetry About War."

And, here's the thing: I START OUT with, not a quota system, but a food groups scheme: this meal has to have meat, veg, fruit, grain, dairy. And it has to fit into another of my diversity categories: one of the formal ones, and one of the content ones. So I can't just grab at random one story each by an Arab, African, Asian, Latino, and Native American about their families. One of these stories has to be science fiction, and one has to be about war, and one has to have a sex scene in it, and one has to be a coming-of-age. One of these stories has to be in first, one in second, and one in third person. One has to be minimalist, and one has to contain a lot of lists, and one has to be written in lush, lyrical prose. Etc.

Yes, I start out there, with the categories, but I don't end there. Because the most important thing I talk about with my writing students is LIFE, or that mysterious something in a story that makes the whole piece of writing come alive for the reader. So, just any contemporary fiction by any Arab or Latino won't do. It has to get under my collar, whisper to me, pop, or just make me uncomfortable. It has to be alive. I'm fine if it's going to make the students angry, as long as it makes them feel something.

I made a spec fic reader for high school students once that included Jaime Hernandez' first few pages of his Locas series, and a story by Ursula Le Guin. I chose both of these because they were both from genre-changing writers, and because I thought the pieces were cool. The Locas piece baffled them: comic books weren't about Latina punk rock chicks arguing about their waitressing jobs and then becoming rocketship mechanics! WTF? And the Le Guin story, "Darkrose and Diamond," pissed them off. It was a sort of YA-ish coming-of-age story about a kid who had magic but chose to pursue his gift for music instead. His choice angered them incredibly because they were led to believe this was a story about the acquisition of a superpower, and instead the protag chose to ignore the standard reader wish-fulfillment.

These discussions, about stories that I thought they would love, became incredibly rich discussions about reader expectations, and the rewards and dangers of subverting them. The kids actually learned more than I intended to teach them. And at the end of the class, those two stories were the ones they remembered the best.

If I hadn't made a point of making that SF reader diverse, if I had just gone by the white, male classics, I might not have thought to include Jaime Hernandez, or even Ursula Le Guin. The point here is that when you go for diversity -- by setting up food groups or quotas, by going for work that has challenged you or others in the past, by taking a chance with something slightly outside the mainstream -- you often get more even than you thought you were getting. You often get a challenge you didn't realize was there, a subversion that hadn't occurred to you, a lesson you didn't know needed to be made.

Yeah, it's a shitload of work. And this is just the reader for a class. It's not an anthology for the ages. It's not going into libraries and personal collections. It makes no claim to definitiveness. Imagine how much reading you would have to do for that.

But that's the job, Asshole. And if you're not willing to do that much work, then don't make anthologies. THAT'S why people are so pissed off at Mammoth Mike Ashley, not because he's a white male, but because he didn't do his job, and the rest of us marginalized folks are gonna suffer, as usual, for it.

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 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.

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.

April 07, 2009

The Gross-out Dolls

Okay, I've been pretty ambivalent about the TV show Dollhouse, which, if you're unaware of it, is a Joss Whedon show about people whose memories are wiped so they can be reprogrammed as any type of character to help rich clients play out their fantasies. Gross, right?

I'm ambivalent because, although the show gives plenty of French-maid-lace-thigh-highs-my-perfect-girl moments, it DOES seem to be tending towards some sort of complexity about personality, memory, and ownership of self. Tending, I said, not actually building.

But then I was watching last week's episode on Hulu and this commercial for Target came on (see vid above and pay attention to the lyrics) and I'm so completely grossed out by it that I'm not sure I can watch the show anymore. The commercial was clearly designed specifically for the show, and has no faux-redeeming irony or humor in it at all.

Gross!

Also, the show isn't getting any better. Sierra, the fine-boned Asian chick, keeps getting more and more victimized. First she's raped by her handler -- who is then executed by hand for his crime, because delicate-boned Asian chicks are so precious and helpless that we need to commit extreme violence on the men who rape them -- then it turns out she was brought into the dollhouse by a guy she wouldn't sleep with, who has since had her every which way to Sunday.

Gorsh, this show is awful empowering! Ugh! I'm just grossed out right now.

There's been this real "true crime" style undercurrent of salaciousness to all of the evils the show is committing on the women characters. There's lots of frowning and moralizing around the women, even as the show depicts at least one over-the-top sexy outfit per episode. They just can't stop raping Sierra, and then wagging their fingers about it, or playing sad music every time Echo is wiped and wanders around looking blank ... and with her mouth slightly open in the primate signal for sexual availability ... remarkably like a supermodel in a Prada shoot.

And in the meantime, no one's bothering their godless heads over the men's loss of power and self ... in fact, the men are even made fun of: one episode revolves around Victor's crush on Sierra and how they have to track its progress by watching for his boners in the shower.

To summarize: women powerless and sexually available = delicious and sad ... and wrong! Men powerless and, er, available fer whatever = ridiculous and funny. Oh, and the one active that has escaped? A dude. Named "Alpha." Who's extremely violent.

Ugh. This show is just gross. I think I'm done watching.

April 05, 2009

Weekly Roundup: March 29 - April 4


My folks were in town for a while but left this week. And I've been having trouble getting to sleep, which is making me tired and bad-memoried.

I had to scramble to finish my Asian American women profiles for Hyphen blog this week, before Women's History Month was over. It was a good project, but a lot of work. I asked the readers for suggestions, and most of the suggestions were for artists and writers, which tells you what kind of readers we have, but wasn't terribly helpful. So I had to curate the profiles for age, ethnicity, and field of endeavor. That also meant I had to do some research to actually find a range of women to profile. But I'm glad of the result. You can see all the posts here.

By the way, I'm going to be asking Asian Americans to send in 200-word family histories for me to post on Hyphen Blog for May, which is API Heritage Month. Spread the word!

Also, currently working for Kaya Press and putting together book tours for Australian novelist Brian Castro and Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara. We've been watching Hara's films lately, and I have to say, although I would never have sat through one otherwise, I'm glad I was forced to: this guy's a genius. For writers out there, you HAVE to see A Dedicated Life (which you can get on Netflix). It's a documentary about a Japanese novelist, famous for one particular book, who used to be a member of the Japanese communist party and was excommunicated for kicking off his novel writing career by writing a book criticizing it. But that's not what the film is about. The film, an amazing 2.5 hours long, is about narrative and how people build their lives. That's all I can tell you, because it's the kind of film that does what only film can do ... so you can describe it. Watch the film and if your jaw isn't on the ground after the first half hour, and STILL on the ground two hours later, I'll buy you dinner.

I didn't really like his Goodbye CP, which I think was his first film, and which is basically about forcing the audience to watch endless footage of people with cerebral palsy moving through public space and being ignored by others. But definitely see The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, which is about a super-crazy protester in the 80's who tries to kill his former WWII commander for reasons best understood by watching the film.

Katherine Mieszkowski, probably my favorite writer at Salon, has an article about a couple in Berkeley who acquire most of their stuff by scavenging. It's really interesting and has some tips for down 'n' out East Bay Areans. The irony here is that this couple has written a book about scavenging, which you have to buy new, because presumably most people who buy it aren't going to toss it out.

My friend Jaime said last weekend, after the funeral of the four Oakland policemen, that he thinks a city can reach a point where its reputation is just broken, and there's no coming back. I've been watching The Wire on netflix these past few weeks, and Oakland feels like that right now: broken beyond repair. The anger that Oscar Grant's killing unleashed was one side of the violence coin -- and the police DO have a lot to answer for, over the years and right now. But these killings are the other side, an indication that when violence gets this out of control, no one is safe. The one thing everyone can agree on is that Mayor Dellums is an asshole. The feeling in Oakland right now is sadness just on the edge of despair; there's no real anger, just shock. And the violence continues.

I saw the William Kentridge show at SFMOMA last weekend and highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend it. Don't wanna talk about it right now, though. Also saw the Nick Cave show at YBCA. Candylicious!

And I've started revisions on Draft 3 of da nobble. And started writing dates with other writers. If this works out, I might have a way of sticking to it. I have to get this sleep issue resolved, though, because I don't have much brain power this week.

Saw Amber Benson, who played Tara on Buffy, on BART last weekend. At first I thought she was someone I knew down the way, so familiar did she seem. I stared a little, but tried not to bother. She was with a group of geek girls, which is cool.

Been watching the first season of 21 Jump Street on Y*O*U*T*U*B*E. Yeah, it's cheesy (the music is truly horrible), but the storytelling is actually pretty decent. I remember LOVING this show back in the day: it started the year I went off to college. I was still seventeen when I first went: still a teenager in a lot of ways. So I watched it off and on until Johnny Depp left. The gender and racial dynamics are so clear in this show, it makes me understand the 80's much better. Holly Robinson's character is the only woman on the force (there are no female extras in uniform). She's depicted as being just as capable as the men ... but she never has to fight anyone. Whenever there's a shooting or an accident that she's involved in, all the men get this look of concern on their faces and touch her shoulder and ask if she's alright. God, I remember that.

As far as the racial dynamic goes, the only black characters on the show so far are bad guys, except for Robinson and the captain. There's even one episode where a rich white kid gets hooked on smack and is forced by his black dealer, also a teenager, to rob stores to pay for his dope. The black dealer gets put away and the white junkie gets off scot free with no explanation. Everyone feels sorry for him. And yet, there's some sophistication in the way the individual characters interact racially. In the pilot, Johnny Depp's character is surprised that Holly Robinson's character owns an MG. She laughs at him and asks him if she should have a pimpmobile instead. No pretty-boy cop-show hero nowadays would ever be allowed to make racist assumptions like that.

Pireeni gave me Proust Was A Neuroscientist for my birthday (very belatedly) and I've started reading it.

Will do a sleep study next week.

That is all.

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 18, 2009

An Appeal To The Anti-racist Hive Mind ...

... and especially my POC out there.

I'm working with someone who is my superior (I'm freelance, so pretty much everyone is my superior). This is a regular arts writing gig and I'm the only person of color who writes there regularly. All the other writers are white, and most are male. So the writing that gets done here covers primarily white artists. No, not primarily ... almost exclusively. Most of the writing about artists of color comes from me (it's about 75% of what I write.

And let me just say here that I don't mind writing mostly about artists of color. I don't feel like I'm missing out on some essential experience by not writing about white artists. But I resent like hell being the only one.)

It's Black History Month--it's more than half over, in fact--and the only piece on black artists so far is mine. In fact, all of the other pieces so far this month are on white artists, with one exception: an Asian American artist who collaborates with a white artist. I've already had an email exchange with this superior about how we're not covering enough black artists in Black History Month, but he chose to misunderstand me, saying I could switch out one of my assignments to cover a black artist if I want to.

So it's time for me to write him a serious email about how he needs to diversify ALL the stuff that everyone writes and that effort needs to come from him--being the superior. He needs to request more pitches about artists of color from the other writers, and to hold them accountable if they don't do it. But before he can do that, he needs to change his own attitudes.

Other details: our communication is by email. I've had an exchange with him about this before and thought he heard me, but he seems to think now that because I'm the only person who seems to care about this, that I'm the only one responsible for bringing diversity to this situation.

So are there any POC out there who've been in a similar situation and have SUCCESSFULLY advocated for greater diversity? Especially if it was with a superior who was reluctant and had a bad or laissez faire attitude at first but ended up changing their mind and doing it? Any success stories out there you tell me that will give me a model for how to approach this guy?

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.

December 15, 2008

Reading Update

Boy, have I been bad about posting lately. If anyone is still reading this blog: my apologies.

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn last week. I've never read it myself. My dad read it to me when I was a kid, and it really wasn't the best book to read to a kid. It's not really a kid's book. Tom Sawyer might have been, but Huck Finn isn't.

It's very similar to Uncle Tom's Cabin in a lot of ways, except more racist. Jim is actually less of a well-rounded character than Uncle Tom, which isn't surprising. Uncle Tom's was written from a northern pov, from someone who hadn't actually met very many slaves, so Uncle Tom was a vehicle for her ideas about blacks. Jim is less of a vehicle for ideas as he is a placeholder, a representative for slaves. He's superstitious, loving, and loyal, probably traits that Twain saw -- or thought he saw -- from his encounter with slaves as a child ... and probably the traits he picked out as being the best that blacks are capable of.

But the book's not about how slaves are people too. It's all about Huck's process of realizing that slaves are people too. Ugh. I understand that this was a big deal at the time, but the time was nearly 150 years ago. Can we stop being so impressed now?

I've also read:

Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh: a few glitches but mostly enjoyed very much.

The first three omnibuses of the Buffy Season 8 comic book: fun, but not essential.

The first omnibus of The Last Man comic book: kinda hated it.

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. 

October 08, 2008

Making My Mind Up Over Obama

Ooo! New Blog App Display! Me like!

Having a crappy, post-drinking, pre-menstrual day. Beautiful day, by the way. The light in my house has been gorgeous today.

Anyway, I was thinking about why I haven't been blogging about politics for a while and the real reason is that my mind is made up. I blogged for a long time about Clinton/Obama not because deep down I didn't support Clinton, but because I hadn't made my mind up about Obama ... as anyone who read my posts could tell. I mean, I didn't know how enthusiastically I could support him if he won, and then after he won, I wasn't sure how I felt about him.

This is not because he isn't close to my position politically, or close to me demographically. Obama is the (viable) presidential candidate in the entire history of the United States who is closest to me in politics and demographics. And that includes Hillary Clinton. It's been less difficult to figure out my support for typical white, male, establishment candidates because there's never been any possibility for me to identify with them personally. They are just symbols, or figureheads for the half of the political spectrum I happen to land in.

But I've always expected more from Obama because there's so much I have in common with him. He's biracial; he moved to an area where he could really live within his minority community, and he chose for a time to identify totally with that minority community. During that time he became a community organizer. He's come out of that time strong in his understanding of progressive racial politics, yet ready to be post-race, to put his stronger understand of race in America to work to the advantage of the almost universally more ignorant populace he's serving. And he's just 8 years older than I am--he's essentially of my generation; we have similar cultural referents.

So I'm much more sensititve to his mistakes, much more betrayed by his failures to take the "right" position on issues important to me ... and especially betrayed by his failure to speak out strongly against sexism in the election and sexism in general. All of this has meant that I've been hesitant to fully embrace him as "my" candidate ... because that embrace would be so much more meaningful, and would go so much more deeply than my aligning with all the candidates I've previously voted and campaigned for.

So it's interesting that it's Sarah Palin who has gotten me over the hump. She kicked me in the head with the previously overused "anyone but her" motivation. I realized two things: the first is that I don't have to decide to fully identify with Obama to support him. We're a two-party system and I only have two choices. It's never caused me trouble before. And the second is that I had a problem with the first because Obama is the first candidate we've had in EVER so long whom people are looking at as not just a lesser of two evils, but actually as a bearer of hope and change, a possible bringer of What We Want rather than an obstruction to What We Don't Want.

That's powerful. This election is amazing. We are living in interesting times.

Oh yeah, and I'm supporting Obama for President of the United States. Duh.

October 01, 2008

Reading Update

Just finished re-reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. I read it the first time in college, when I was going through my Forster phase. I didn't think much of it at the time, but for completely different reasons than those making me not think much of it now. I'm reading it now as an example of decolonization-process novels for something I'm writing. So I'm looking at it critically that way, and don't have much to say about it now ... except: what a load of hooey!

Was Forster always that annoying? This is what bugs me about the stupid stupid lit critic expression "closely observed." No writer worth her salt puts things in her novels that aren't closely observed. Why praise a novelist for doing what their art form requires? It's what they DO with the observations that count. And Forster uses his, here, to bolster a half-baked, half-formed idea of the coldness of the universe and its intentions. Through all the bizarreness of his method, you can see many, many moments of close observation. They ring true, like the right kind of metal, in a way that his explanations of the natives don't. But it's all part of a net of insufficiency.

It made me kind of sad. This is a great novel--a piece of writing by a brilliant writer at the height of his powers--about an impoverished set of ideas that the writer evidently found grandiose. It also made me kind of ugh. I'm going to have to read Howard's End again, the book of his I found the most brilliant. Perhaps trying to understand "India" in the mid-twenties was beyond him, but maybe understanding England wasn't? Who knows? All I know is that if Howard's End fails the re-reading, Forster's getting demoted.

September 23, 2008

Readin' Update

I finished Barbara Neely's Blanche on the Lam, the first of the Blanche mysteries. Took me two weeks.

I read the second or third one many years ago when it first came out (my mom had it), Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, and was surprised that this story of a black domestic worker among richer, lighter-skinned members of "the race" would ring familiarity bells with me. It was the first book I ever read that described a (small) part of my own experience. Don't ask me now how that can be, I'll have to read the book again. Something about Blanche being one of them yet being repudiated.

Anyway, I always meant to go back and read the others and I was recently in Marcus Books on Fillmore and found this one on a table. It took me two weeks to read, even though it's only 200 pages, because Neely was so intent on exploring the contemporary master/servant relationship from the point of view of the servant. The murder doesn't actually happen until more than halfway through the book. The relationships in the book are complex, complicated by race and class and personality.

The book is terrific until the end, when the bad buy deteriorates into a caricature. But definitely worth reading.

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.

Hillary the Man and Barack the Woman?

Damn, how did I miss this one back in March? And a man wrote it!

This overnight love for my brotha makes me very nervous, when in the next breath the same people utter the most hateful language to describe someone who looks like their mother, sister or wife.   Hillary remains the "Bitch", demonic, evil, divisive.  "She acts just like Bill.".

That is when it hit me.  "She acts like Bill!" That was code for what I knew but could not voice my suspicion. Survival for Black people in America demands that we do a daily decoding of White folks language and commentary about us and themselves. Of course they hate Hillary! They hate Hillary because she acts like a white man. She is assertive, she is confrontational, she is smart, she is aggressive, she knows how to fight, she has an alfa male personality. White men and "uncle" white women are punishing Hillary because she has stepped out of the prescribed role designated for women. She has dared to have the personality of a Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Rudolph Guliani.

American white women never forgave her for distancing herself from those house wives, sitting around listening to Tammy Wynette sing that self-effacing lyric,"Stand by your man". Hillary early in building her relationship with the American public made it clear she would not be the sweet little blond in the White House baking cookies.

In contrast America has fallen in love with Obama.  He warms the hearts of White Americans because his public personae is that of a "White woman."  He is the nurturer, he makes people feel good, he is polite, he is non-aggressive, he inspires us to want to be helpers, he wants to fix things. His speeches are generally neutral and he is always willing to adjust his tone to accommodate White sensibilities. He has a smaller waistline, he wears the appropriate uniform, unlike Hillary with those pants.

Okay, this seriously is my last post on this topic.

July 16, 2008

Obama Cartoon

I've been trying to stay away from political commentary for a while because it's been making me very unhappy, but it's hard to get away from. And I've been very discomfited by the lefty hysteria around the Obama terrorist cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker, but the long, hard fight of the last year or so has made me wary of speaking up. Do I really want to pick this battle?

Fortunately, Gary Kamiya picked it first.

To judge from the reaction of much of the left, you'd think that New Yorker editor David Remnick had morphed into some kind of hideous hybrid of Roger Ailes and Roland Barthes and was waging an insidious Semiotic War against Obama.

I don't know what lugubrious planet these people are on, but I definitely don't want any of them writing material for Jon Stewart.

Some thoughts:

  • This is how it goes: in anti-racist work, we're very, very, sadly, very used to the use of ill-considered "satire" as a safe way for idiots to play with stereotypes that they feel are otherwise prohibited. It's a complex gambit: you don't know what lies beyond the stereotype, and you have a fuzzy understanding of what politically correct language and notions are for. All you know is that the stereotype is not allowed. So with a vague idea that pushing the stereotype to an extreme is allowable under "satire," and that the people whom the stereotype addresses are somehow oppressed, you take it upon yourself to have a good, politically incorrect, time, trusting that--somehow--it'll all come out in the wash.

This is thoughtless, and very likely an expression of a subconscious racism you need to express--but can't really cop to--publicly.

Additionally, you know that extreme stereotypes are at least mildly shocking, so you'll get attention and probably a laugh and some popularity, by voicing them, even if the form you voice them in is ham-fisted and unfunny. Naturally, this is probably your strongest impetus: not the desire to address racist stereotypes, but rather the desire to get attention and be considered funny and popular.

Your excuse, that "this is not a racist joke, it's a joke about racism" is impossible to answer to everyone's satisfaction. And the world is full of people who feel as you do and will jump to decry the "censorship" if anyone takes issue with your joke.

Anti-racists are then left in the position of arguing either that not everything is acceptable, which is hard to argue about comedy, especially against people screaming about freedom of speech, or that the joke isn't funny, which is, of course, a matter of taste and perspective.

Critics of anti-racist activists will then, inevitably, talk about humorlessness and taking oneself too seriously, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, etc. We've all heard it a million times before.

There's a spectrum of perception, intention, and impetus in all of this. The swift-boaters, the pundidiots, and the sharp satirists all have political agendas, all have subconscious prejudices, and all have a desire for attention. How, and how much, each of these play a part in their public expressions is a matter of degree. There's no hard line between the racist excuse, "it's a satire," and the legitimate explanation, "it's a satire."

Likewise, there's no hard line between anti-racists armed with clear-sightedness pointing out the racism submerged beneath a "joke," and anti-racists drunk on conflict losing their perspective and--yes--their sense of humor. High on my first taste of group power, I've attacked things that didn't need attacking before. I know what it feels like and it does happen. Being expressly anti-racist, being an activist, does not magically protect you from your own complex of perception, intention, and impetus ... or your own bantam aggression.

  • What I'm seeing here is a group of people--anti-racist activists and writers--who have been largely ignored and marginalized before, suddenly put front and center in the media for months and months because they're the only ones with the language to address what's going on with race nationally.

Antiracist activists online--who are mostly people of color raised during the culture wars of the eighties--have learned to make their case one two-days'-wonder at a time, crying out briefly against stereotyped media depictions of people of color as they happen, and trusting that an accumulation of such incidents--and the strong reaction against them--will eventually turn some people's minds in the right direction. It's not one, major challenge, but the repeated calling out of small challenges that makes up the main tactic of online racial dialogue. And it's not been a bad strategy, given the circumstances under which it was developed.

But what it means is that now we're seeing a bunch of people used to building up a mosaic slowly, one tiny tile at a time, suddenly thrust onto a scaffolding and told to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, upside-down, before the plaster dries.

It's worse than that, even. During the Bush administration, the national dialogue on race, such as it is, has been off the agenda since 9/11. It's been nearly impossible to talk about race in a context where even centrists spend too much time arguing that anti-Islam isn't racist. And after seven years in a desert of attention, broken only by a Duke rape scandal, or a Jena Six, or Don fucking Imus, suddenly race activists have to come up with a universally understandable explanation of Obama's place in the universe, or render themselves permanently irrelevant.

So it's people used to fighting their way over to the mosaic each time they want to lay a single tile, suddenly heaved onto the scaffolding and handed a brush and paint they may never have learned how to use. Don't fuck up, now.

  • Since the Clinton/Obama fight really heated up, I've been confused and demoralized by how badly the discussion has been handled by anti-racist bloggers and pundits whom I've admired and looked to for years. Suddenly, alliance isn't enough. Because alliance is easy to sustain, lifelong, when the candidates you support are merely of your political spectrum, and not of your tribe. But when, for the first time in history, you see a candidate of your tribe up against a candidate of someone else's tribe, it's easy to forget the difficult exigencies of alliance in the face of your first experience of truly powerful tribalism. And this applies both to the "black" tribe and to the "women" or "feminist" tribe.

This is what the initial discussion over whether Obama was black enough was about: is he or isn't he of our tribe? And the answer was a resounding yes. The very people who could be counted on to slow the public down and (try to) make them reasonable about the complex identity of a Tiger Woods or a Halle Berry, suddenly had a personal stake in glossing over the complexity of Obama's identity. That's when we first started losing the clear-sighted, steadying voice of the antiracist phalanx.

This kind of politicized tribalism is something we've seen forever in third world countries, without understanding it. Because, let's face it, when wealthy whites have a lock on government, there's no opportunity for the millions of tribes in the United States to operate racially-based politics on a national level. Alliance between the one, powerful ethnic group, and all other ethnic groups, is necessary. And race-based political maneuvering has been grounded in the necessity of finding your political spectrum-mates, and not your tribal siblings.

Race activists have been accused for years of "Balkanizing" the United States, without justice or truth. Ironically this is the first we've seen of any true tribalism in politics. It's not going to take over. A two-party system of the type we have won't allow it, and besides, what we're seeing here is simply a role-reversal: white liberals, who are so used to politicians being of their tribe that they aren't even aware of it, are now having to make alliance themselves. Please note that Obama is clearly not subscribing to tribal membership. And it's easy enough for white men in a race against Clinton to subconsciously feel a masculine identification with Obama.

Tribalism is not going to take over, but the important question is: are the citizens with voice, who are nominally of Obama's "tribe," going to be able to pull their heads out of their ... sand ... in enough time to welcome Clinton supporters, centrists, swing-staters, and the racially doubtful? Or are they going to continue to add their demoralizing and often vicious clamor to Obama's incomprehensible about-faces on surveillance, reproductive rights, and Iraq ... until Obama's public image sinks and the election is lost? In short: can they learn how to make alliances from the other side?

  • What's also been happening is that liberal citizen journalists and major journalists, who have always been symbiotic and nominal allies before, now find themselves knocking heads. And this is very specifically because of where and when national attention falls.

You may not like the New Yorker, you may resent its elitism, but this is a magazine that publishes 10,000 word investigative pieces, the only major national publication that's had its head on straight about Iraq the whole time. This is the one and only magazine that is famous for its tradition of dry, often silly, but trenchant political and social cartooning. This magazine's beat is broader United States: national news, politics, society. The media perception of the Democratic presidential candidate falls squarely within the New Yorker's purview, and the New Yorker has always felt free to deal with such major topics through the use of satirical cartoons. The New Yorker is not doing anything new, shocking or different.

The difference is that race bloggers and commentators are turning their usual MO (see above) against the New Yorker's usual MO. This is not because the New Yorker is wrong, but because, for the first time in history, media perceptions of the Democratic presidential candidate and media perceptions about race are the same topic. Race pundits, used to only seeing stereotypes produced by political enemies, are suddenly seeing stereotypes reproduced satirically by allies because the allies are finally being forced to deal with them.

Some of these allies are proving unprepared for the task, certainly. But the race pundits are also falling short of this new challenge.

In closing: this discussion cannot continue as it has been going or we're going to lose this election. And by "we" I don't mean Obama supporters. I mean everybody, even McCain supporters who, even after 7.5 years of Bush rule don't realize that they're being screwed.

Obama's candidacy has laid out the novel position that a "black" president would unite the races and the parties. But they've failed so far to model this behavior, or to provide a working strategy for actual unity even within their own party.

But it's not the government's role to lead in the actual tasks of living morally and ethically. That's our job. Obama is extraordinary because he has not just said to us what we know we want to hear, but also said to us what we didn't know we wanted to hear. He's set a new national goal of genuine unity. But it's really up to us to figure out how that's going to work and to make it happen. And Obama's supporters so far have been more than usually divisive, contemptuous, humorless, and vicious towards those who would normally be their allies, myself included.

It's time to put down the tiles and start painting the ceiling folks. Here, I'll help.

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.

June 18, 2008

Falling Us in Love with Her

Look at her. She's dooon it, just like Hillary did sixteen years ago. Winnin' us over.

Why is it that a candidate's wife ends up being the voice of reason more often than not these days? Funny that in that way they can only compare her to Laura Bush.

But then also: why is he the drama and she the class? That's classic politics. To compare her to Jackie.

Here's the thing: so far, she's comparable to Hillary as a person, but not in the role she's playing. Because Hillary aroused ire from the git go by being outspokenly feminist--i.e., being more feminist than the mainstream was ready to take, remember?--and by making it clear that her role wasn't to be classy but to be co-dramatist. She was going to operate drama along with her husband.

So far, the Obamas are not making that choice. And who knows what role Michelle really plays, or will play, in the political side of their marriage? So far, she's grounding his campaign, as well as classing it up. She's playing equality theater in gesture, but separate-but-equal in dress and family role. She's able to appeal to a generation of women still smarting from the mommy wars, no matter which side they came down on.

And already she's being felt as more feminine than Hillary, which in itself is a triumph against stereotypes of black women. I'm thinking that might be part of the point of how they're casting her. Because there's a Hillary, that makes it easier for Michelle to look "softer" and more feminine. It's easy to forget that she's a lawyer, like Hillary, that she's 44, exactly Hillary's age throughout most of Bill's first campaign. She didn't want in to politics, she says, so it's easy to imagine that she won't want in later, after her husband's been president. All that scary stuff is easy to forget as long as Hillary's on the scene.

It'll be interesting to see how her image evolves whether or not Hillary gets the VP nom. But I'm guessing that with Hillary will be different strategy from without Hillary.

And all this critique aside, I gotta admit, I love her. Not as much as I loved Hillary way back when. Way back when I wasn't yet seated in my adulthood and still screamed at my guy friends for calling me a "girl." Now I'm just six years younger than Michelle and realize that, given a real choice, she's a person I'd never socialize with, or trust at a local level. Hillary was a role model for me. Michelle is an elevated equal.

I admire the figure she cuts and her demeanor. But I'm not sure yet how she's earned further admiration, although I'm ready to give it to her. We'll see.

June 05, 2008

Institutional Power

Reading over the post I just made below, something struck me hard. Here's what I wrote:

If Obama is going to win, not only does he have to stop making bitter white people comments, but his supporters have to stop ignoring the desires of people tainted with the racism brush, since they make up the majority of voters.

I'm not 100% behind the argument that racism only applies to whites because of their institutional power, but I'm 98% behind the definition that racism = power + prejudice. I just tend to define power more broadly than others do. Institutional power can be found in national organizations like the NAACP, for example, albeit a very limited and endlessly embattled institutional power (and therefore, a very limited and embattled sort of a racism can arise from it. See "The Tsunami Song").

But what struck me about my comment above was that, without thinking about it, I had already made Obama an institution, and associated his black supporters with that institution. I automatically assigned them the power that the institution confers: the power to notice or ignore what the constituents are saying, and to have to take the consequences of those decisions. This power--the power to notice or ignore, the power to put a particular complaint on the national agenda--is exactly the political power, or maybe just access to political power, that has made, and can break, racism.

Suddenly, accurately or not, African Americans are represented in a race for highest office. Suddenly, Obama supporters or not, African Americans are representatives by association of a presidential candidate. Suddenly, what Obama supporters are talking about is important, because it affects Obama's public image. Suddenly, just because you're an Obama supporter, you have something to say, nationally.

Power. Institutional power.

So it just hit me: Fuck all this bickering over Geraldine Ferraro. We have a black presidential candidate.

Wow.

June 04, 2008

I'm SOOOO Tired of This

First, Geraldine Ferraro says reverse racism, and Harriet Christian says "inadequate black male."

They get reamed, as is proper and right, with a thoroughness that you can google yourself.

Then, Joan Walsh says,

Beyond Christian's deplorable reference to Obama as an "inadequate black male" was a wail worth hearing. She also said, "I'm proud to be an older American woman!" I can feel her pain. Reading the sexist attacks on Clinton and her white female supporters, as well as on female journalists and bloggers who've occasionally tried to defend her or critique Obama, has been, well, consciousness-raising. Prejudice against older women, apparently, is one of the last non-taboo biases. I've been stunned by the extent to which trashing Clinton supporters as washed up old white women is acceptable. A writer whose work I respect submitted a piece addressed to "old white feminists," telling them to get out of Obama's way. I've found my own writing often dismissed not on its merits (or lack thereof) but because as a woman who will turn 50 in September, I'm supposed to be Clinton's demographic. Salon's letters pages, as well as the comments sections around the blogosphere, are studded with dismissive, derisive references to bitter old white women.

Then, Ta-Nehisi Coates says:

Once I heard Walsh invoking the words of two bigots to make her point, I checked out. Physician heal-thy-mutherfucking-self. Ferraro is the same woman who argued that "racial resentment" was OK. Walsh apparently thinks Harriet's description of Obama as an inadequate black male, "was a wail worth healing." I'm physically sick reading that. I never much agreed with Walsh's take on the Clinton's, but for my money, she just fell into Pat Buchanan territory. Anyone who thinks there's something to take from someone who says it's fine to resent black people racially, who claims that there's something worth hearing in describing the first black man to ever win a major party's nomination as "an inadequate black male" is the moral equivalent of a racist to me.

Oh, HELL NO. Walsh specifically said beyond the deplorable "inadequate black male" comment was a wail worth hearing. It is NOT OKAY to twist that into her saying that "inadequate black male" is a wail worth hearing. That's just plain stupid. Walsh was VERY CLEARLY saying that these women had a message about sexism that was obscured by their racism, and NOT that their racism was okay.

And pointing out that a woman who is a forty-year democratic party stalwart, as well as a woman who is the nation's first female vice presidential candidate, might have something apropos to say about sexism in elections despite their manifest racism, does NOT put Walsh into the lunatic fringe. There are few women out there being loud and passionate about the sexism in this campaign who aren't outright Clinton supporters and, racist or not, all white women Clinton supporters have been accused of implicit racism in this election at one time or another. To say that a woman who approves the gender message of a racist commenter is herself beyond the pale is tantamount to an attempt to silence the debate on sexism in this election.

I'm sooooo sick of hearing people say that racism puts people completely beyond the pale ... that the moment somebody says something racist, you simply don't have to listen to them anymore. People can be--and usually are--vastly ignorant about everybody else's oppression, but very clear and articulate about their own. The poor whites who blame undocumented immigrants for their own bad education and healthcare and underemployment are obnoxious not because their situation isn't truly bad, but because they're blaming it on the wrong people. And ignoring the whole complaint because of its racism is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This is EXACTLY the attitude that led to Obama's stupid and arrogant bitter white people comment. This is exactly the attitude that puts educated, powerful blacks like Obama beyond the sympathy of poor and working class, less-educated whites. If Obama is going to win, not only does he have to stop making bitter white people comments, but his supporters have to stop ignoring the desires of people tainted with the racism brush, since they make up the majority of voters.

If a misogynistic black man can be both held to account for his misogyny, and also listened to for his experience of racism, then racist white women who have just been treated to the year-long public spectacle of a wealthy, powerful, and respected white politician publicly pilloried by men of all races because she is a woman can be both held to account for their racism, and MUTHERFUCKING LISTENED TO for their experience of sexism.

And just like non-blacks don't get to tell blacks when they've crossed the line in their frustration with racism, MEN DO NOT GET TO TELL WOMEN when they've crossed the line in their frustration with sexism. If Coates wants to analyze, instruct, or ream Ferraro and Christian for their racism, more power to him. And yes, it's time for them to shut up. But to dismiss the just protest against manifest and obvious sexism made by these women is not okay. And it's not okay to dismiss Walsh's argument because she jumps off of Ferraro's and Christian's comments.

Coates says further:

I want to see Barack Obama out there courting the vote of all women. I want to see him talking specifically about what his plans are. But I've got no interest in seeing him court those who would use feminism, as a cover for their own blackaphoic views. Later for them. Let them vote McCain, and go join the party where bigotry is part of the platform. The rest of us have a country to save.

HUNH? Does Coates really think that Ferraro's and Christian's public brainfarts were about how afraid they are of black men? Their feminism isn't anything but a cover for their racism? Wow, that's gotta be the most sexist thing I've heard all year.

DUDE, IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. I know it's shocking, but sometimes, even in a world Obama inhabits, even in an election that includes your wannapund ass, race isn't the thing people are focused on. These women are angry about a woman NOT getting elected, they're not really angry about a black man GETTING elected. They're blaming it on a black man getting elected, because they need something to strike out at, and this is something new that they don't understand. But their passion is all about the wimminz. Shockingly enough, they're passionate about THEMSELVES, NOT YOU.

Of course it's not okay for them to be striking out in this racist manner. And yes, they need to be called out for it. And yes, Ferraro and Christian need to shut up, now. They've lost their right to the talking stick because they can't seem to hold it without being racist. But let's be clear: if the race had been between Clinton and Edwards and the same thing had happened, the same campaigns had been run minus the racial element, Ferraro and Christian, not to mention Gloria Steinem, would be making just as loud public statements about the sexism of the campaign, and would be just as angry. And rightfully so.

At the end of the day, a woman's racism will not buffer her from misogyny. DO NOT tell me or anyone else that racism somehow makes a woman's testimony about sexism worthless. And Walsh does get to point this out because SHE'S got the talking stick.

May 29, 2008

More On Rachel Moss and Her Legion of Losers

I was admiring badgerbag and moondancerdrake for their ability to laugh at/brush off the idiocy at SASS (the place where people reposted Rachel Moss' disgusting fatphobic WisCon report and then outdid her in racism, fat-hating, ablism and all around misogyny.)

But, as I knew would happen, those mama's boys picked up on my post from yesterday and went looking for pictures of me on the internet. When they called me "halfchink" and said that "tall women should die" and posted an actually pretty attractive picture of me on their forum, I have to say, all I could do was laugh. Is that the best they got? Seriously? Like Cyrano, I could insult myself ten times better than they can, and ten times over, without repeating. Plus, how much of my blog did they have to read to figure out I'm a "halfchink?" Hint: a lot more than I would ever read of theirs.

Some dumbshit actually reposted MOST of my post but, not at all surprisingly, left out the stuff about why so many physically ill and abused women are fat. Wonder why that is. Also, that loser had to rearrange my post to try to make it look bad, and failing. What said loser doesn't realize is that the kind of idiots who inhabit SASS really can't edit anything I write because I exist in a completely different idiom ... most of the world does. Oh, also they raised my hit count by posting my "catblogging" archive, all three posts of it. Wow. I don't have to do anything to disarm these guys; they're arm-free already.

I'm still inclined to be angry on behalf of my friends, who don't need to hear this shit anymore, but seriously? What these losers don't seem to get is that we've ALL HEARD IT BEFORE AND WE'VE ALL STOPPED LISTENING TO IT. Which is why my wonderful friends are able to shake it off with a laugh or a shrug and move on. I wouldn't have posted in public about my own "issues" if anyone still had the power to make me feel badly about them. This has actually been instructive to me: hearing that bullshit about me specifically didn't hurt at all, although two days ago I would have suspected that it would have still hurt a little bit.

No one's all that furious about what these cowards are saying about THEM. We're all furious about what they're saying about our FRIENDS. So, my friends and allies, no need to be furious on my behalf. And I'm even going to stop being furious on badgerbag, moondancerdrake, and tempest's behalf. It's not worth my fury because these losers aren't really hurting them.

This is the last time I'm going to post about this idiocy. It's fangless, ultimately, and I have better things to think about.

May 28, 2008

Rachel Moss and the Legions of Hiding Assholes

Those of you who haven't yet heard ...

there's an internet brouhaha going on over a girl -- word used advisedly -- named Rachel Moss, who went to WisCon and posted a con report on Something Awful with pictures of mostly fat and transgendered participants, taken without permission, making fun of these people for their non-normativity. She apologized, then took her apology back. She took her post down, but someone else put it back up without her permission and a dogpile of cretins jumped in to finish the work. By the time they were done, they pulled WisCon photos off of Flickr to add to the mess, making fatphobic, transphobic, ablist, racist, and generally misogynist comments about a wide variety of individuals, many of whom are my friends, and all of whom are at least nominally my allies, by virtue of being WisCon attendees who treat others with the modicum of respect required for this Con. There's a link to a mirror of the original post at Angry Black Woman, who is also calling for people to post about this and make sure Rachel Moss' name is well connected to this on the internet.

I don't care about Rachel Moss -- the culprit here -- and I'm happy to see her banned from WisCon, but I'd be just as happy to see her show up again and get snubbed and hissed as she deserves. I doubt very much she'll even try to come back. Apparently she's on the public (blogging) record as having an eating disorder of her own--bulimia--which makes this attack both more understandable and more disgusting. I'd ask that no one who comes through this post attack Rachel Moss for her eating disorder--that's her problem--but rather for her unacceptable behavior regarding WisCon.

I have the advantage of having been an extremely close friend for 18 years of a woman who suffers from Cushing's Disease, a disease that affects women disproportionately, and that actually makes women fat. I got to see her develop from a physically healthy and average-sized petite 20-year-old into an obese woman in her late twenties, without any "normal" reasons for the change. I got to watch her fight misogynist doctors and careless HMOs for over a decade before she could get someone to diagnose her with the often fatal disease she already knew she had. I got to see total strangers casually call her "lardass" and suchlike on the street, dropping bombs on her when they weren't even in a bad mood (I get the bombs usually when the bombers are in a bad mood), simply because that's what you do with a fat woman.

 

And we're talking about a woman whose obesity was very definitely not "her fault."

But then I've also gotten to see in close friends the effects of early abuse and early eating disorders pushed upon them by family members (I tend to think pushing eating disorders on a child is abuse, but the abuse I'm talking about was often from someone else, and far more serious and devastating than even eating disorders). If these people "made themselves" obese by overeating, what person who knew the kind of childhood they had, the kind of families they have, could possibly blame them or say that their eating was their own fault?

And who the fuck are these people to take it upon themselves to decide that someone deserves to be openly hated -- and to hate themselves -- for a body that they did not choose? Thinking about it makes me want to cry in a way that thinking about all the bullshit that actually touches my own life --- the racism, the stupidity about multiraciality, the neverending aggression I get from men for being tall, and all the put-downs I've had from misogynists --- does not make me want to cry.

My feminism, my antiracism, my refusal to allow total strangers to get me to agree that my tall woman's body is abnormal, all of these empower me. But watching fat people get smacked down makes me want to cry because while most of me is an ally, a small part of me still tugs me towards the smack-down crew, and how can we fight this when I'm also the enemy?

There's still a little voice in my head that agrees with such awful people as Rachel Moss when they say awful things about fat people. I've come close many times to stomping that little voice out, but it's a tough one. It's the same voice that tells me I'm fat, but it's okay as long as other people are fatter. I know a lot of you out there know that voice, even if you won't admit it.

Rachel Moss knows that voice, only she has completely failed--if she ever tried--to stomp it out. She's let that voice take over, and it's a monster's voice. That's what she's turned into for the time being: a monster, who's projected her hatred of her own body onto the bodies of others, to get some relief. Who can really doubt that that's what's happening with women who hate on fat women?

And who can doubt that that's what's happening with women who hate on disabled people? I read the blog of a friend every day who posts about how much pain she's experienced that day and whether or not--and for how long--she was able to stand before having to resort to her wheelchair. Her blog strikes me dumb because nothing I experience puts me in such physical pain and I can't even properly imagine it. And some ... god I don't have bad words enough to express it, let me resort to other languages ... some turtle's egg, some drecksau posted a picture of her in her wheelchair and called her a "cripple" and someone else hoped she'd get cancer and undergo chemo so she could cosplay Charles Xavier.

I'm actually crying with rage as I write this. I don't think I can dig deeper into the comments on that post to find the extraneous shit. So far they've turned a picture of a (black) friend of mine into an icon with the tag "100% N*gger" on it, hoped that a Muslim woman's head gets chopped off, and ... I'm not continuing with this filth. Who are these people? And will someone who knows how to do this please let the rest of us know how to get them kicked off the social networking services they're using so we don't have to hear about their shit anymore?

But all you need to know about shame and cowardice is that every one of those losers posting in comments is hiding behind a username and icon, and every single one of the women they are making fun of is out in the open on the internet.

I'm closing comments on this post because I'm just passing the word on.

PoC Are "Scary"

Why does rivals.com list only players of color on its ten scariest players in college football list? Hint: it's not 'cause only PoC play on college football teams.

Here's their definition of "scary":

Some hit with teeth-rattling impact. Some swoop down on quarterbacks like buzzards on road kill. Others have so much big-play ability that quarterbacks only throw in their direction as a last resort – that is, if they throw that way at all.

Putting together a list of college football's scariest defensive players isn't easy because scary has different definitions. Some may be physically imposing. Some are just athletically intimidating.

Scary doesn't necessarily translate to best, either, because all coaches want players that are efficient and consistent.

Still, there are players who can wreck a play, wreck a running back and make a quarterback a nervous wreck. Here's the list.

In other words, they're all African American--half of them wearing dreds or braids--except for number one:

Rey Maualuga, USC, LB: The 6-3, 250-pound Maualuga is physically imposing – and just plain looks mean. His play measures up to his stature. A two-time All-Pac-10 selection, Maualuga is a punishing hitter who led the Trojans in tackles last season despite being limited at times by a painful hip pointer. He posted 10.5 tackles for losses and six sacks while accumulating 79 tackles last season. This season will mark his third as USC's starting middle linebacker.

Looks mean? You be the judge:

MaualugareyReymaualuga250_0108_2

Item: brown skin

Item: nonwhite features

Item: is of Samoan descent, which is scary

Item: large size (because no other football players are large or aggressive)

Item: tribal tattoos

Item: "ethnic" looking hair

Conclusion: "scary"

There it is again, folks, a stereotype bound up in a pretend compliment. Because in the realm of football it's a good (ish) thing to be "scary," it's okay to call anyone scary, even if the only people you're calling scary are scary because of their race.

And remember Scary Spice? The black Spice Girl? The one who, according to wikipedia, "was given the nickname 'Scary Spice' by the British media because of her outrageous, 'in-your-face' attitude, 'loud' Leeds accent, throaty laugh, manner of dress (which often consisted of leopard-print outfits), and her voluminously curly hair"? As if Posh weren't ten times as scary. (Although, I gotta admit, fucking Eddie Murphy qualifies you as scary.)

Hmmm ... I smell a pattern.

 

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