Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Same Script, Different Cast

[Trigger warning for racism; classism; sexual violence.]

A caveat: I have not seen "The Help." I do not plan to see "The Help," yet I feel pretty confident that I have "The Help" all figured out. If you don't know about this film, please see this post. I'm going to ground my thoughts about "The Help" in two other documents I will link: Valerie Boyd's review entitled, "'The Help,' a feel-good movie for white people" and "An Open Statement to the Fans of 'The Help'" from the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH). A brief description from Boyd:
"The Help" — the film adaptation of the best-selling novel by Atlanta author Kathryn Stockett — is a feel-good movie for a cowardly [wrt to the ways we deal (or don't deal) with issues of race] nation.

Despite its title, the film is not so much about the help — the black maids who kept many white Southern homes running before the civil rights movement gave them broader opportunities — as it is about the white women who employed and sometimes terrorized them.
And there you have it, the problem at the heart of works like "The Help" that blossoms into myriad other problems—the centering of white women in a story that is supposed to be about women of color, the positioning of white women as saviors who give WoC voice. As my colleagues in the ABWH note,
Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers.
I want to meld these critiques of "The Help" with my own, which is rooted in who I am: My name is elle, and I am a granddaughter of "The Help." And while I can never begin (and would never want) to imagine myself as the voice of black domestic workers, I can at least share some of their own words with you and tell you some places you can find more of their words and thoughts.

I. The Help's representation of [black domestic workers] is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy… [p]ortrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites…—ABWH

Early on in "The Help," we hear the maids complain that they've spent decades raising little white girls who grow up to become racists, just like their mothers. But this doesn't stop Aibileen from unambiguously loving the little white girl she's paid to care for. —Boyd

When you put white women at the center of a story allegedly about black women, then the relationships between those two groups of women is filtered through the lens and desires of white women, many of whom want to believe themselves "good" to black people. That goodness will result in the unconditional love, trust and loyalty of the black people closest to them. They can remember the relationships fondly and get teary-eyed when they think of "the black woman who raised me and taught me everything." They fancy themselves as their black nanny's "other children" and privilege makes them demand the attention and affection such children would be showed.

From a post I wrote some time ago:
I hated, hated, hated that my grandmother and her sister were domestics.

Not because I was ashamed, but because of the way white people treated them and us.

Like… coming to their funerals and sitting on the front row with the immediate family because they had notions of their own importance. "Nanny raised us!" one of my aunt's "white children" exclaimed, then stood there regally as the family cooed and comforted her.
But, as the granddaughter of the help, I learned that the woman my grandmother's employers and their children saw was not my "real" grandmother. Forced to follow the rules of racial etiquette, to grin and bear it, she had a whole other persona around white people. It could be dangerous, after all, to be one's real self, so black women learned "what to say, how to say it, and sometimes, not to say anything, don't show any emotion at all, because even just your expression could cause you a lot of trouble."** They wore the mask that Paul Laurence Dunbar and so many other black authors have written about. It is at once protective and pleasant, reflective of the fact that black women knew "their white people" in ways white people could never be bothered to know them. These were not equal relationships in which love and respect were allowed to flourish.

Indeed, with regard to the white children for whom they cared, black women often felt levels of "ambiguity and complexity" with which our "cowardly nation" is uncomfortable. Yes, my grandmother had a type of love for the children for whom she cared, but I knew it was not the same love she had for us. I think August Boatwright in the film adaptation of "The Secret Life of Bees" (another film about relationships between black and white women during the Civil Rights Era that centers a white girl) voiced this ambiguity and complexity much better. When her newest white charge, Lily, asks August if she loved Lily's mother, for whom August had also cared, August is unable to give an immediate, glowing response. Instead, she explains how the situation was complicated and the fragility of a love that grows in such problematic circumstances.

Bernestine Singley, whose mother worked for a white family, was a bit more blunt when the daughter of that family claimed that Singley's mother loved her:
I'm thinking the maid might've been several steps removed from thoughts of love so busy was she slinging suds, pushing a mop, vacuuming the drapes, ironing and starching load after load of laundry. Plus, I know what Mama told us when she, my sister, and I reported on our day over dinner each night and not once did Mama's love for the [white child for whom she cared] find its way into that conversation: She cleaned up behind, but she did not love those white children.
II. The caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexual harassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of white employers.—ABWH

From films like "The Help," we can't know what life for black domestic workers is/was really like because, despite claims to the contrary, it's not black domestic workers talking! The ABWH letter gives some good sources at the end, and I routinely assign readings about situations like the "Bronx Slave Market" in which black women had to sell their labor for pennies during the Depression. The nature of domestic labor is grueling, yet somehow that is always danced over in films like this.

As is the reality of dealing with poorly-paid work. In her autobiographical account, "I Am a Domestic," Naomi Ward describes white employers' efforts to pay the least money and extract the most work as "a matter of inconsiderateness, downright selfishness." "We usually work twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week," she continues, "Our wages are pitifully small." Sometimes, there were no wages, as another former domestic worker explains: "I cleaned house and cooked. That's all I ever did around white folks, clean house and cook. They didn't pay any money. No money, period. No money, period."**

Additionally, the job came with few to no recognizable benefits. The federal government purposely left work like domestic labor out of the (pathetic) safety net of social security, a gift to southerners who wanted to keep domestic and agricultural workers under their thumbs. After a lifetime of share-cropping and nanny-ing, my grandmother, upon becoming unable to work, found that she was not eligible for any work-based benefit/pension program. Instead, she received benefits from the "old age" "welfare" program, disappearing her work and feeding the stereotype of black women as non-working and in search of a handout. (I want to make clear that I am a supporter of social services programs, believe women do valuable work that is un- or poorly-remunerated and ignored/devalued. So, my issue is not that she benefited from a "welfare" program but how participation in such programs has been used as a weapon against black women in a country that tends to value, above all else, men's paid work.)

The control of black people's income also paid a psychological wage to white southerners:
[Their white employers gave] my grandmother and aunt money, long after they'd retired, not because they didn't pay taxes for domestic help or because they objected to the fact that our government excluded domestic work from social insurance or because they appreciated the sacrifices my grandmother and her sister made. No, that money was proof that, just as their slaveholding ancestors argued, they took care of their negroes even after retirement!
The various forms of verbal and emotional abuse suffered are also glossed over to emphasize how black and white women formed unshakeable bonds. By contrast, Naomi Ward described the conflicted nature of her relationships with white women and being treated as if she were "completely lacking in human dignity and respect." In Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody says of her contentious relationship with her employer, Mrs. Burke, "Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me…" Here, I wrote a bit about the participation, by white women, in the subjugation of women of color domestic workers.

And what of abuse by white men? " 'The Help's' focus on women leaves white men blameless for any of Mississippi's ills," writes Boyd:
White male bigots have been terrorizing black people in the South for generations. But the movie relegates Jackson's white men to the background, never linking any of its affable husbands to such menacing and well-documented behavior. We never see a white male character donning a Klansman's robe, for example, or making unwanted sexual advances (or worse) toward a black maid.
This a serious exclusion according to the ABWH, "Portraying the most dangerous racists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed, society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice to individual acts of meanness."

Why the silence? Well, aside from the fact that this is supposed to be a "feel good movie," when you idolize black women as asexual mammies in a culture where rape and sexual harassment are often portrayed as compliments/acknowledgements of physical beauty (who would want to rape a fat, brown-skinned woman?!), then the constant threat of sexual abuse under which many of them labored and still labor vanishes. But black women themselves have long written about and protested this form of abuse. My own grandmother told me to be careful of white boys who would try to make me "sneak around" with them and an older southern man who was a fellow grad student told me that he and other southern men believed it was "good luck" to sleep with a black woman. Here, in the words of black women, are acknowledgements of how pervasive the problem was (is):

"I remember very well the first and last work place from which I was dismissed. I lost my place because I refused to let the madam's husband kiss me... I believe nearly all white men take, and expect to take, undue liberties with their colored female servants."*

"The color of her face alone is sufficient invitation to the southern white man… [f]ew colored girls reach the age of sixteen without receiving advances from them."*

"I learned very early about abuse from white men. It was terrible at one time and there wasn't anybody to tell."**

These stories abound in works like Stephanie Shaw's What a Woman Ought to Be and Do, Paula Giddings's When and Where I Enter, Deborah Gray-White's Too Heavy a Load and other books where black women are truly at the center of the story. Black women's concern over sexual abuse is serious and readily evident, but "The Help," according to the ABWH, "makes light of black women's fears and vulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief."

III. The popularity of this most recent iteration [of the mammy] is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.—ABWH

This mention of the White House is not casual (Boyd opens her review with an Obama-era reference, as well). I'm currently working on a manuscript that examines portrayals of black women and issues of our "desirability," success, and femininity in media. To sum it up, we, apparently, are not desirable or feminine and our success is a threat to the world at large. Many black women are trying to figure out why so much is vested in this re-birthed image of us (because it's not new). One conclusion is that it is a counter to the image of Michelle Obama. By all appearances successful, self-confident, happily married and a devoted mother, she's too much for our mammy/sapphire/jezebel-loving society to take. And so, the nostalgia the ABWH mentions comes into play. It's a way to keep us "in our place."

It happens every day on a smaller scale to black women. I remember someone congratulating me in high school on achieving a 4.0 and saying that maybe my parents would take it easy on me for one-six weeks chore-wise. The white girl standing with us, who always had a snide comment on my academic success, quickly turned the conversation into one about how she hated her chores and how she so hoped the black lady who worked for them, whom she absolutely adored, would clean her room.

Even now, one of my black female colleagues and I talk about how some of our students "miss mammy" and it shows in how they approach us, both plus-sized, brown-skinned black women with faces described as "kind." I do not need to know about the black woman who was just like your grandmother, nor will I over-sympathize with this way-too-detailed life story you feel compelled to come to my office and (over)share.

IV. [T]he film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history of black Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP, gets some attention. However, Evers' assassination sends Jackson's black community frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos and disorganized confusion—a far cry from the courage demonstrated by the black men and women who continued his fight.—ABWH

Embedded in this is perhaps the clearest evidence of the cowardliness of our nation. First, we cannot dwell too long on racism, in this case as exemplified in the Jim Crow Era and by its very clear effects. "Scenes like that would have been too heavy for the film's persistently sunny message," suggests Boyd. I'd go further to suggest that scenes like that are too heavy for our country's persistently sunny message of equal opportunity and dreams undeferred.

Second, when we do have discussions on the Jim Crow Era, we have to centralize white people who want to be on what most now see as the "right" side of history. They weren't just allies, they did stuff and saved us! And so, you get stories like "The Help" premised on the notion that "the black maids would trust Skeeter with their stories, and that she would have the ability, despite her privileged upbringing, to give them voice." Or like "The Long Walk Home," (another film about relationships between black and white women during the Civil Rights Era that centers… well, you get it) in which you walk away with the feeling that, yeah black people took risks during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but the person who had the most to lose, who was bravest, was the white woman employer who initially intervened only because she wanted to keep her "help."

These stories perpetuate racism because they imply that is right and rightful that white people take the lead and speak for us. (On another note, how old is this storyline? Skeeter's appropriation of black women's stories and voices, coupled with the fact that "Skeeter, who is simply taking dictation, gets the credit, the byline and the paycheck" reminded me so much of "Imitation of Life," when Bea helps herself to Delilah's pancake recipe, makes millions from it, keeps most for herself and Delilah is… grateful?!) The moral of these stories is, where would we have been without the guidance and fearlessness of white people?

I know this moral. That's why I have no plans to see "The Help."


*From Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America.

**From Anne Valk and Leslie Brown, Living with Jim Crow.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Reason #43790 mama is going to kill all of us...

She has said emphatically that no more dogs can come here. She's gone too much. The kids don't help like they say they will. The adults don't come take care of them as they should.


the other day my nephew went to take the trash to the dumpster and he found three itty-bitty puppies that someone had left there. Of course he had to bring the bedraggled little things home. Their ribs were showing.

Mama wasn't here. I was all, "Oh, no. WE CANNOT HAVE DOGS. You have to take them somewhere... as soon as you feed them and give them some water. But then immediately!!!"

And I resolved to ignore the puppies. Maybe just look at them out the door. Or, pet them only once. Use a really old pan to give them water. Buy just one bag of puppy food because they wouldn't be here long. They couldn't be--my nephew and I are both going back off to college in 3 weeks.

Then, Mama made it home. She fussed and huffed and shook her head. NO NEW DOGS.

Last night, as we were driving home, she outlined her very good reasons. Three dogs are too expensive on her fixed income. They need vet visits immediately. We don't have a doghouse anymore and it is blazing-ly hot (My mama is very much "Animals belong outside!!!" We used to get in the most trouble for smuggling puppies in because we figured they were too cold or too hot or too lonely. That's the reason this post is titled as it is; as you can see from the picture, Deuce is carrying on the smuggling them in when Mama is gone tradition :-). She's on the go several days out of the month. I nodded along. It's not like I'm going to volunteer to take 3 dogs back to my apartment, so fair is only fair.

We pulled up in the yard. She looked at the puppies. She looked at me. She looked at the puppies. She looked back at me. "You know if you've started feeding those dogs, they're going to want to stay."

Me, meekly: "Yes ma'am."

She shook her head and got out. "Feed the puppies. They're little enough already. But we are not keeping those dogs!"

Yes, we're all suckers.
Seriously, we're in a rural area where we can't just run them to a shelter or a pound. Abandoned animals are just abandoned here. I have no idea what we're going to do. We won't just turn them out but we really can't keep them. My nephew is hoping that his other grandmother might have mercy on all of us bleeding hearts and take them in--she lives out in the country and already has some dogs.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Last night, while I was cooking dinner, my son suggested we have hot dogs at some point this weekend. I just looked at him because he knows a hot dog for me means all I'm eating is chili and a bun. I can't stand boiled wieners. He tried to compromise.

"You could grill 'em and burn them a little bit like y'all like."

Now, that has possibilities because I can tolerate a grilled hot dog a little better. But when it comes to grilling, I feel strangely torn. I'll marinate or season the stuff, throw it on the hot grill, but the grilling itself? I can't STAND smoke in my hair and clothes. Someone always starts the grill for me and watches the stuff. I have a feeling my kid is about to become an expert at the latter.

At this point, he's become emboldened by my silence. "You know, if I could have my favorite barbecue meal, it'd be hot dogs, sausage, and some of those brown beans."

And I recognize, this is my child's plea for simplicity. He's been placed in the role of guinea pig and while his palate has expanded a lot and I can get him to try most stuff one time, he longs for just a few things: rice, mac n cheese, fried catfish, hamburgers, and sloppy joes. He'd eat those everyday, but I, on the other hand, want to cook something new or different every night. Plus, rice goes with grits in my mind--why the love? They have no flavor! I understand their role as staples and fillers and recognize the importance of rice in diets around the world, but rather than add a pound of sugar and butter to my diet (as I am wont to do when I have to eat white rice), I just avoid it.

So last night, he watched me butterfly pork chops, stuff them with herbed goat cheese and sundried tomatoes, sear and then braise them in a mix of whatever I felt like throwing in the pan. I also made him try squash with peppers and onions which he thought was akin to losing cell phone privileges. As a compromise, I cooked rice... with a little cheese, broccoli, and butter :-) He mostly ate the rice... and dreamed of hot dogs, apparently.

As he planned his barbecue, I reminded him Friday was out because he has basketball practice. And Saturday is probably out because of a basketball tournament.

"All day Saturday?" he asked.

Here is where y'all should be proud--I totally resisted the urge to tell him "We might be caught up." I almost explained the Rapture to him in a teasing way then remembered how biblical stories like that terrified me when I was a kid.

Hell, I'm terrified now given some of the chain text messages I've been sent. Dear concerned family, you don't have to send any more messages questioning my readiness. No, I'm not. Though there are plenty of people who have gone on that I'd love to see just one more time, I don't know about being caught up with them mid-air.

And what does one wear to be Raptured?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Presentism

Dear U.S. History Student,

I understand protectiveness of your idols, I guess. If I felt someone impugned the figure of, say, Fannie Lou Hamer, I'd be ready to take off the earrings and smear the Vaseline. But I'm weary of your smug responses to any critique of your beloved Founders and/or your racist and sexist and classist grandfathers--the cry of presentism. How dare I or any student suggest that your beloveds were, well, fucked up? We can only come to that conclusion because we're judging them through the lenses of our day. We have to look at the "time in which they lived" (C). We are guilty, in our naivete and lack of understanding, of presentism.

I'd like to point out that your concept of presentism rests heavily in your identification with dominant groups. You may not have noticed, but one of the books I use, that you're supposed to be reading, is called Dissent in America. It's chock full of all kinds of primary sources that show that people in the past also thought your idols were full of privileged bullshit. Your adored historical figures had contemporary critics who were pointing out the same things that your classmates and I are. So, your claim of presentism dismisses all those people, all their arguments, and the history of dissent in this country.

I suppose that saying "The historical figures I admire were understandably a product of their times" is a lot more face-saving than saying "The historical figures I admire held tightly to oppressive systems out of self-interest and an unwillingness to challenge the status quo, thus ignoring the people who suggested that maybe, just maybe, there were problems with said systems." Whatever. Hey, they ignored protest from the margins, why shouldn't you?!

So, you can, if you choose, go ahead understating your idols' flaws and bristling at the critique of them. Or you can acknowledge things like the fact that, for whatever else they did, quite a few of your Founders were a bunch of sexist, elitist, racist slaveholders, some people told them that, and they didn't give a damn. Or that it wasn't just some abstract notions of states' rights and strict constitutionality that your southern forefathers were interested in upholding. Etc, etc.

Or you can continue to claim that critiques of them only occur in the present and conveniently disappear people like:

Benjamin Banneker
Abigail Adams
Maria Stewart
Frederick Douglass
John Brown
Chief Joseph
Ida Wells
Mother Jones
Joe Hill
Carlos Montezuma
Alice Paul
W.E.B DuBois
Hubert Harrison
Angelo Herndon
Fred Korematsu
Hector Garcia
Grace Lee Boggs
Bayard Rustin
Septima Clark
Clyde Warrior
Dolores Huerta
Audre Lorde
Vito Russo
Howard Zinn

Yep, I listed all those as a start. Crying presentism erases their historical critiques, their arguments that the world that was, wasn't the world that had to be.

Of course, that version of history is the one for which you probably long. It's safe. You can simultaneously, dissonant-ly claim the U.S. is exceptional and dismiss any problems with "but other people did it as well." Either we're different and special-er than everyone else or we're not; make up your mind. But maybe that dissonance is part of our heritage as well--how could the same person who theorized "All men are created equal" so completely challenge his own theory in Notes on the State of Virginia?

But my God, if your totally complacent answer is "That's just how it is," what limited possibilities must you envision for yourself and your abilities to effect change?


dr. elle

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Breaking News!!!!!!

In a blog post at Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa has come to the totally original conclusion that black women are "Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women." For some reason, Psychology Today pulled down this ultra-objective, ultra-scientific post! You can read it here.

Personally, I'm floored. This is such new, groundbreaking stuff. No one in our society has ever suggested that black women are less attractive than other women! I mean, this is not something you see every day in media outlets.

Oh, wait...

Okay, slightly turning off my sarcasm, I'm just going to post what I wrote to my BFF on when she asked me to find the article and talk about it:
**Yawn** same ol', same ol', Mrs. O. We as black women are too masculine/have too much testosterone AND his "objective evidence" of our lack of attractiveness [as far as I can tell] is based on the opinions of some interviewers who do the longitudinal study "ADD Health." These are the opinions of people who have **totally** not been influenced by a culture that is always positing black women are less attractive and less feminine than other women, I'm sure. Now, while their opinions are "objective" the opinions of black women, who rank themselves as more attractive than other women, are subjective. 'Cause we're not bona-fide experts or authorities or whatever. **Side-eye alert**

But, oh, thank goodness that our lack of attractiveness is not due to our lack of intelligence (yeah, he cites "racial differences" in intelligence, too).

He also pondered if it might be our "much heavier" bodies (surprise!) or our African genetic mutations.

What he didn't seem to consider is that beauty is a standard constructed by and within a sociocultural context. As Kanazawa's colleague explains:
Standards of beauty, like most other beliefs, are socialized and change not only from place to place but also over time. In both the United States and England, (where Kanazawa lives and works), standards of beauty are essentially "White" standards, because whites comprise the majority of the population and have disproportional control over both media and fashion.*


As long as this is understood and framed accordingly, there is no problem with the data Kanazawa reports. What they show is that because Black faces and bodies don't fit mainstream White standards of physical attractiveness, both respondents and interviewers show an anti-Black bias. Unfortunately, Kanazawa fails to consider either sample bias or socializing effects. Even if he believes, as he apparently does, that human behavior is entirely "evolutionary", good science requires a careful analysis of sample bias and an explicit discussion regarding the study's generalizability. Without this kind of methodological analysis, Kanazawa's entire premise -- that there is such a thing as a single objective standard of attractiveness -- is fatally (and tragically) flawed.

What's tragic is that this shit keeps getting published.
*These aren't the only reasons, I'd argue

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I Need to Borrow a REALLY Small Violin, Please

TW for homophobia and transphobia, including use of slurs and references to violence

Via a university newspaper, I first became aware a couple of days ago of a proposed Texas state budget provision "requiring state colleges and universities that use state funds to support 'a gender and sexuality center' to spend an equal amount to promote 'family and traditional values'." The amendment was proposed by Representative Wayne Christian and passed by a margin of 110-24. Christian identified the source of his consternation as centers "for students focused on gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, transsexual, transgender, gender questioning, or other gender identity issues."

Inside Higher Ed has more on the story, including the observation that "Lawmakers supporting the bill have said that they favor only equal time for all kinds of sexuality" (Because cisgender heterosexual people aren't getting their fair share of time or money... or something).

But the Inside Higher Ed article and the school newspaper make it clear that other supporters are honest about their ultimate goal--getting rid of centers "that serve gay and lesbian students":
[T]he Young Conservatives of Texas, a group that worked with Christian on the legislation, did so with the hope that public colleges would respond to a law, if the bill passes, by ending support for existing centers. Tony McDonald, senior vice chairman of the group and a law student at UT Austin, said in an interview that "we could try to get these groups defunded" in a law, but that the equal funding approach was viewed as more likely to pass (perhaps with the same impact).

And from the school newspaper:
"State funding and student fees should not fund any university minority or political group whether it be black, white, gay, etc," John McClellan, Christian's Chief of Staff, said. "This amendment is just one step in the process towards getting rid of these centers."

The argument seems to be that traditional family values*, whatever the hell those are, and heterosexuality are in danger because of a conspiracy to "promote" homosexuality. Wherein promoting homosexuality is roughly equivalent to daring to exist as a gay person.

Poor Tony McDonald of the Young Conservatives of Texas is distraught that ""If I were to walk through UT law school with a shirt on that said, 'Homosexuality is immoral,' if I were to do that, there would be an uproar. People would be upset, and it would be considered out of place and not acceptable to do that. I'd probably get a talking to. But if you go through campus to promote homosexuality, that is the norm."

See how equivalent these things are? Being gay or supporting a university gender and sexuality center is the same as walking around wearing a t-shirt that actively promotes a hostile climate and condemns/others people.

Again, I ask where does this shit come from--these ideas that the most privileged people in our society are persecuted simply by the presence of truly marginalized people who are refusing to stay confined to those margins?! According to the article, students indicated that they just want "to create 'an equal playing field' for those who may disagree with the gay center."

Because the playing field at universities is so obviously leveled in a way that unfairly benefits gay students.

Dear Mr. McDonald, despite your (un)righteous indignation, as the Inside Higher Ed and the linked Texas Observer articles point out, there are things you will probably never have to worry about:

1. Grown ass lawmakers won't "crack jokes and guffaw" when discussing your sexuality or gender identity.

2. As the program co-ordinator for the center at Texas A & M notes,
I have never heard of any student who took their life because their college roommate outed them as being a heterosexual student.


I have never had a student come up and complain that someone comes up and out of the blue calls them a 'hetero' and slapped them, but that happens to my students, who are called 'dyke' and 'fag.'

3. No one is ever going to accuse you of promoting heterosexuality just because you exist.

4. I agree with the Observer that you probably won't have these worries on the first day you're on campus:
How will he fit in? Should he tell his new roommate about his alternative hetero lifestyle? Will he be bullied, just like he was in high school, where he was mercilessly teased for being a sexual deviant? Where does a straight person turn?

No, you'll bounce through life willfully oblivious to the ways that heterosexuality is promoted, via everything from media outlets to tax benefits, imagining yourself egregiously put out and put upon.

But it's everyone else that has a "grievance-based" identity, right?
*It would've taken another post to unpack the ongoing assumption that only people who are straight and cisgender (and to a certain extent, married/aspiring to be married) have family values and that "traditionally"/historically no one but those people have existed--I find the term "traditional" neatly and conveniently disappears the lives and experiences of a whole lot of people.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pull Over, that Ass Is Too Black!

When I first turned on the internet this morning and realized that President Obama had released the long-form version of his birth certificate, verifying that he was, indeed, born in Hawai'i, my first sarcastic thought was, "Bet some people finally regretting how we stole Hawai'i now."

Beyond my sarcasm, though, I think the president has set a horrible precedent. I mean, on a grand scale, he just got pulled over and asked to show papers proving his citizenship. I could be optimistic, I suppose, and think, "Well, maybe now he'll take a firmer stand on the treatment of immigrants and other people of color who are harassed, badgered, interrogated and violated every single day over questions of citizenship. Maybe he'll have this as a reference point." But optimism is not my strong suit.

He is supposed to be, as we so smugly and arrogantly love to say, the most powerful man in the world. This should be a lesson as to how that power is negated? mitigated? birthergated? by race and the equation of "Americanness" with "whiteness." In releasing that birth certificate, President Obama not only validated current problematic (understatement!) immigration policies, he conceded to the historical demand for people of color to "prove" their citizenship and that they deserve access to political and civil rights.

And why? He can't really believe the people who even posit shit like this will ever be satisfied or accepting of his presidency. Instead of saying, "I'm tired of this shit, it's ridiculous, so here is proof," he should've been saying, "I'm tired of this shit, it's ridiculous, and I won't engage with it."

I don't understand how you validate the extremists in the "other" party while always scornfully chiding the so-called extremists (ahem, perhaps actual progressives?) in your own.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Endangered White Men: The Saga Continues!

In a Newsweek article more accurately described as a lamentation on the possible loss of privilege, Rick Maren and Tony Doukopil explore the plight of the "Beached White Male.” More specifically, they continue the ever popular myth of "the endangered white man.” From the article:
Brian Goodell, of Mission Viejo, Calif., won two gold medals in the 1976 Olympics. An all-American, God-fearing golden boy, he segued into a comfortable career in commercial real estate. Until 2008, when he was laid off. As a 17-year-old swimmer, he set two world records. As a 52-year-old job hunter, he’s drowning.

Brock Johnson, of Philadelphia, was groomed at Harvard Business School and McKinsey & Co., and was so sure of his marketability that he resigned in 2009 as CEO of a Fortune 500 company without a new job in hand. Johnson, who asked that his real name not be used, was certain his BlackBerry would be buzzing off its holster with better offers. At 48, he’s still unemployed.

Two coasts. Two men who can’t find jobs. And one defining moment for the men in the gray flannel suits who used to run this country. Or at least manage it.
Capitalism has always been cruel to its castoffs, but those blessed with a college degree and blue-chip résumé have traditionally escaped the worst of it. In recessions past, they’ve kept their jobs or found new ones as easily as they might hail a cab or board the 5:15 to White Plains. But not this time.


The same guys who once drove BMWs, in other words, have now been downsized to BWMs: Beached White Males.

The theme throughout the article is that the effects of the “Mancession” are suddenly more alarming because people like this--Ivy-league educated, BMW driving, white men--might be suffering, too!

I don’t know rightly where to start or stop with this article because it is so very, very loaded. Maren and Doukopil really used the phrase “All American… golden boy.” They really casually reference the easy way in which white men "hail a cab," an un-innocent choice of words, an invocation of the sorts of things white men have been able to take for granted, given cab drivers' well-documented reluctance and outright refusal to stop for men of color. They really suggest that white men used to run the country, as if the presidency of Barack Obama renders invisible the makeup of Congress, the court system, the governorships, business leaders… well, you know. But most disturbingly, they really imply that the situation created by the recession is unfair, not solely because these men “deserve” security because they are educated or made good career choices (that would be problematic enough in and of itself given the unequal access to education and work opportunities, but I digress), but they “deserve” better because they are white and male.

See, the endangered white man myth does not solely rest on the zero-sum argument that white men are increasingly disadvantaged in this country by the gains of women and people of color. The myth is also fed by the fear that being white and male will no longer bring all the old advantages. Claiming that white men are suffering unfairly or disproportionately is the not-so-subtle code for, “Ahh! The old system of privilege is being dismantled and we want to hold onto it!” Many white men have come to see the benefits of the privileging of whiteness and maleness as their due, as rights to which they are entitled. When that privilege seems even remotely challenged, when the systems that have upheld and institutionalized their "exceptionalism" seem no longer to do so, the result is a "real" crisis, i.e. one felt by the people deemed most important in society.

And so, Maren and Dokoupil inform us that the term “ ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged populations’… now includes white males.” This operates at once, as an acknowledgement of class and an ahistorical disappearance of generations of poor and working class white men, commensurate, I guess, with their focus on the plight of white men with the most social privilege. They speculate on the devastating effects the recession may have on the mental health and well-being of these men who might feel less-than-men. And they equate (their problematic definition of) manhood solely with the experiences and existence of upper class white men as they wonder, “Can manhood survive the lost decade?”

The power of the endangered white man myth lies partially in its ability to obscure the plight of people who really are suffering inordinately. In this case, in an admittedly terrible economy in which white men are struggling, they still have relative privilege to everyone else, who are also struggling, but even worse. For example, the alarming statistic around which the Newsweek article is organized is this: “Through the first quarter of 2011, nearly 600,000 college-educated white men ages 35 to 64 were unemployed, according to previously unpublished Labor Department stats. That’s more than 5 percent jobless.”

Y’all… when I looked quickly at BLS statistics for March 2011, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for white men 20 and over was 7.7% For black men in the same age group, it was 16.8%

But Newsweek makes it clear to whom we should direct our attention and concern. For the last few years, we have been repeatedly told that the effects of this recession are somehow made more damaging because it purportedly affects men more than women. Now, we learn, its even worse than we thought because it is affecting the men who matter most.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Child, Son of a Sistorian

Yesterday, on our way to basketball practice, my son and I were treated to the delightful sound of Rihanna... umm... "singing" S & M.

"I hate this stupid ass song," I said.

"Mama," he countered, in that tone that lets me know a dig is probably about to be made about my age or total lack of coolness, "this is a good song!"

"Boy, please."

"It is! The only part that's bad is when she says 'chains and whips excite me.'"

I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, half afraid to ask why he thought that particular line was bad. I just knew he was going to reveal some knowledge about bondage or sex that I wasn't ready for him to have, much less discuss with his fragile-flower mama. But, of course I asked, "Why that line?"

"Mama! Chains and whips excite me? How she gone say that? She needs to think about her history. I bet they didn't excite her ancestors!"

Monday, January 17, 2011

On Law & Order

The emphasis on and call for "law and order" has often been synonymous with the suppression of social justice struggles in our society. Martin Luther King, Jr., realized that and spoke eloquently of it. Today, as some of us commemorate his birthday, I just want to quote relevant passages from his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and the "Statement from Alabama Clergymen" that prompted the letter.

The Alabama clergymen had already written a statement called "An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense." They imagined themselves moderates, negotiating between southern segregationists and civil rights workers, each equally "extremist." See, there's a problem with proclaiming oneself a "racial moderate" or "neutral." Because the perspectives of dominant groups are normalized and regarded as the default, those perspectives are often viewed as “neutral.” In the case of social justice struggles in the United States, the so called “moderate” perspective, in reality, centers the feelings, thoughts, and ideologies of non-marginalized people. King wrote, for example, that white moderates took the same paternalistic view of African Americans as white southerners who were more overtly racist. As a result, he had been
...gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.
King also pointed out how the moderates’ claim that the Birmingham protests were "unwise and untimely" revealed their privileged status as “white” in the racial hierarchy and their inability to fully understand African Americans’ perspective:
Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."
Unaffected by the "disease of segregation," clergymen composed a statement that insisted on the importance of obeying the law. They implied that the legal system and the institution of law were logical and just and that justice would be the result if people use them. The clergymen acknowledged no distinction, King claimed, between just and unjust laws. Segregation laws were unjust, examples of "dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

So, why did the Alabama clergymen, who imagined themselves moderate and even sympathetic to African Americans insist on "law and order" and define civil rights demonstrations as representative of disorder that "incite[d] hatred and violence?" Why did they suggest that African Americans pursue their cause via the courts--a suggestion not rooted in any historical or social context, as African Americans had received little redress in southern courts--instead of "in the streets?"

Obviously, the people who will or do benefit from the system in place have a vested interest in maintaining and/or prolonging the status quo through the use of "law and order." Order was more important to them than any semblance of justice, despite their claims:
[The moderate] ...constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; ...paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; ...lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
And, in the case of the "moderate" Alabama clergymen, King theorized they had a problematic definition of peace, that prioritized "a negative peace which is the absence of tension" over "a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

King called for moderates to shift their perspectives and to realize that the "calm" appearance of order often obscured the violence necessary to maintain it:
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation.

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake.
Do me a favor? Keep thinking of justice and positive peace, not "order," as the foundation upon which we should build.

Happy MLK Day!
Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...