Friday, July 31, 2009

Unpacking the Racial Narratives

This may be a few days late, but I've been chewing on the whole Gates arrest thing for awhile now, and trying to figure out what I want to say, or what needs to be said about it. Fortunately, I don't actually have to do much of that work now, as Judith Warner has sort of done it for me. An excerpt from a recent post of hers:

In his story of their verbal tussle, Crowley describes himself as overwhelmed by the noise in Gates’s kitchen, as the black professor loudly accused the white cop of racial profiling. Seeing that Gates could not be persuaded to use an inside voice, Crowley retreated to the street, inviting Gates to join him outdoors.

“Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside,” Gates allegedly told him.

Gates denied referring to Crowley’s mama. “The idea that I would, in a vulnerable position talk about the man’s mother is absurd,” he told Gayle King of Sirius radio. “I don’t talk about people’s mothers … You could get killed talking about somebody’s mother in the barbershop, let alone with a white police officer … I think they did some historical research, and watched some episodes of ‘Good Times.’ ”

I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s very likely that Crowley really does believe he heard the insult to his mother. And that’s because Gates wasn’t the only one in that house, on that day, whose thoughts were traveling well-worn grooves chiseled by race. Both men were, consciously or not, following scripts in their heads, stories of vulnerability and grievance much more meaningful than their actual exchange.

At this point in the news cycle, President Obama and Gates himself have asked us to dial down the drama and, as Gates himself put it, to “move on.”

But I don’t think we should be so quick to reduce this sad, important and deeply symbolic incident to what the French would call a fait divers.

The clash in Cambridge about ID and racial profiling, about identity and expectation and respect was just a snippet of our culture’s ongoing meta-narrative about race. Its major themes played through the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, and showed up , last week, when Barack Obama, speaking for once not as the apotheosis of “post-racial” America but instead as a man who’s spent nearly 48 years Living While Black, was labeled “unpresidential.” Each chapter in this larger story shows us, time and again, what Sotomayor’s critics refused to concede: that how we all think, what we see, how we reason and react are directly determined by who we are. And some of who we are is conditioned by our race.

Had Gates been a white man, approached in his home and abruptly told to step outside, he might well have bristled at the cold officiousness of the officer’s tone, but he probably wouldn’t have thought, or known, that to leave the haven of his house would expose him to the possibility of sudden arrest.

Had he been white, a request for ID would probably not have sounded like an insult, or worse, a potential danger. It would probably not have stirred up memories of black men like Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant who in 1999 was killed by police in the Bronx as he reached for his wallet. He very likely would not have seen what Gates was sure he saw in Crowley’s face, as the cop scanned the professor’s
Harvard ID, trying to take in the fact that the man before him was not an intruder. “He’s trying to unpack a narrative … He was so sure that he had a catch,” Gates recalled to King. “That is when everything turned.”

We don’t know precisely what was going through Crowley’s mind. But his report and later statements seem to attest to a greatly outsized sense of vulnerability and victimization.

Crowley demanded that the small, slight, cane-carrying professor come outside, he said, because he feared not living to make it home to his wife and children. A remark by Gates — “That’s none of your business” — appeared to sting him to the quick. And then there was that matter of his mama. “Speaking about my mother,” he said sadly to a sympathetic local pair of radio talk show hosts, “it’s just beyond words.”

I think Warner is onto something here. It does seem possible that both Gates and Warner sincerely believe the drastically different stories they tell. It's a common feature of failed interactions with the Other that rather than hearing their words and observing their actions, we hear and observe our own expectations of what this kind of person will say and do. As if our expectations and preconceptions are draped around that person like a robe, or a shroud, that obscures our vision of them, and only allows us to see and hear things from them that mesh with our preconception of them. Gadamer was preoccupied with this phenomenon where our ideal of the Other obscures that person from us and prevents true intersubjectivity and any possibility of a fusion of horizons:
What I was concerned with was why I experience my own limitation through the encounter with the Other, and why I must always learn to experience anew if I am ever to be in a position to surpass my limits.*
Sadly, I think this kind of "experiencing it anew," or attempting it anyway, is not the sort of thing that emerges from a media circus like the one surrounding Gates' arrest. Instead you get an increase in the polarization, and a glossing over of the deeper and more complex issues involved. Crowley diverts the blame by appealing to the fear he experienced and suggesting that Gates is overreacting and imagining himself to be the victim. Gates realizes the futility of having a truly constructive dialogue in which narratives are unpacked, and agrees that we should all move on. And the teachable moment becomes a blip in the news cycle.

What are the conditions that would make unpacking the narratives a possibility? I'm not sure. I would guess that moving away from the oversimplified terms in which we discuss these things would be a start. As I watched a portion of Lucia Whalen's tearful and defensive speech, I thought about how sad and counterproductive it is that we conceptualize racist behavior as being limited to overt behavior and explicitly racist thoughts. In this picture, unless one actually thinks to themselves "I hate black people and think they are inferior," they're not a racist. But to my mind, unquestioningly following the narratives and adhering to the script and clinging to the idealization of the Other to which you are accustomed is a far more insidious form of racism than that which is explicitly articulated.

There's no doubt in my mind that when Crowley interacted with Gates, he was interacting with a Black Man who was not being Properly Humble and Submissive to Police Authority. And make no mistake that Gates was arrested for Contempt of Cop, one of the worst crimes you can commit anywhere. Similarly, Gates was most likely interacting with White Cop rather than Crowley. And why wouldn't he, given the history of white cops and black men? So we can yammer on about race relations and who was to blame and who overreacted and who has a chip on their shoulder until the cows come home. But until we figure out how to make it the case that Sergeant Crowley, the person, can interact with Professor Gates, the person, and hear what he really says and see what he really does and get a sense of who he really is, we can expect these kinds of events to continue.

*"Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity; Subject and Person" Continental Philosophy Review, July 2000.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Either/Or or Both/And? The Case of Otty Sanchez

I haven't posted anything about Otty Sanchez until now for several reasons. For one thing I hadn't heard enough about the case to be able to form any kind of opinion. And as the mother of a very young child I was just kind of avoiding the news coverage of the story anyway. The salacious way the media often treats stories like this is a little too depressing for me, and when you're chronologically closer to the time in your life when you had a newborn at home, this kind of story is a little too cringe-inducing. And these kinds of stories often get so much blog coverage that I get too burned out to write on them myself.

But this post on Feministing has irritated and saddened me enough to nudge me out of my reticence. I should actually say that the comment thread following the post has irritated and saddened me. I guess I'm always surprised by the either-or thinking that's such a common rhetorical tool in our political environment. Or I'm always surprised when seemingly thoughtful, progressive people fall for it. I expect conservatives to take a "hard" stance on issues like this and view a person who commits a terribly violent act like Sanchez's as hopelessly evil, and exclusively and wholly responsible for the act, and inexcusable, and disposable. I expect them to refuse to view the situation in context or question the systemic and cultural forces at play in the situation or ponder what might have been done to prevent a situation like this. I expect that from conservatives, who tend to be lacking in compassion and an understanding of the complexity/nuance of real life. But I'm taken aback when people who are willingly spending time in a feminist/progressive space exhibit these kinds of attitudes, and this either-or thinking. So, for my own sake if for nobody else's, I feel like clarifying a few things.

  1. A little review from Critical Thinking 101. Oftentimes when someone is trying to get you to agree with them, they'll act as if there are only two options: something you would never agree to, or their claim. Like this: "Either the earth is flat, or you have a turnip growing out of your head." Of course, the only correct answer is "none of the above." And that's easy to recognize when it's a simple and ridiculous dichotomy like the example above. But when the topic of conversation is complex and somewhat confusing, and feelings are running high, it can be hard to back off and question the original dichotomy with which you were presented.
  2. It is not the case that questioning a person's mental state and competence when they committed a violent act amounts to justifying their actions or portraying them as innocent or denying they had any responsibility for the action. This claim is based on a false dilemma.
  3. (I'm just gonna straight-up start quoting my own comments from Feministing here, 'cause I'm too lazy to type it all out again)
    Many events in history have demonstrated that people can be induced to do terrible things in the right circumstances. Good people, who seemed to be compassionate and thoughtful people in other circumstances. Take the situations people find themselves during wartime, or in prison, for example. Brainwashing and mind-altering drugs have also had this effect on people. Heck, look at the Stanford prison experiments or the Milgram experiments. No matter what our cultural mythology says about inherently good and bad people, the evidence shows that anyone is capable of performing horribly violent actions given the right set of circumstances. And it's uncomfortable to think that, because we're accustomed to the idea that every action you undertake, in any situation, is an unquestionable sign of your permanent character. Our cultural mythology also includes the idea that once a person has committed a deeply unethical act, s/he is irretrievably damaged and not fit to live. And I understand that these are the ideas that many of us have internalized via our culture. But feminism and humanism question these ideas,
    partially on the basis of the evidence I've mentioned above, and partially on
    the basis of valuing each human life in and of itself.
  4. There's a huge element of privilege involved in our discussion of cases like this, which may well lead us to view it as a clear-cut, either/or kind of thing:
    I guess I think these are compatible. I do believe she should feel guilty and horrible, but that doesn't mean I can't feel a great deal of pity for her. It's not either/or. It's both/and. I am privileged in that I have never had mental health issues and was able to adjust to parenting and to have a good relationship with my kids. But I acknowledge that not everyone is as privileged in this way, and I feel a lot of empathy for her, even as I am horrified by the tragic way her baby died. I don't have to choose. I can feel both things at the same time.
  5. Another element of privilege that's evident in the discussion of this case reveals itself in the way we conceptualize her actions. I am not schizophrenic, have never suffered from delusions, and have never had any mental health issues. Thus I have always acted in what we would characterize as a rational, self-directed way. So it's natural for me to tend to try to understand and make sense of other people's behavior from this frame of reference. It's natural to wonder "why on earth would she do that?" and "what was she thinking?" But to insist that her behavior has to make sense in my framework is to erase her as a human being. When a person is experiencing delusions, they don't perceive reality in the way they would if they weren't delusional. They might not perceive the being in front of them as their child, or even a child. They might perceive the being in front of the as their child, but also perceive some intensely compelling reason why subjecting that child to violence is the only thing to do, or an act of love, or a means of saving the child from future harm. In that sense, the behavior in question is profoundly rational - it's just based on different reasons than you or I would find compelling. But to insist that the behavior of a delusional person must fit into the framework of someone who's not delusional, and must be judged using the criteria we would use to judge the actions of a non-delusional person is to erase that person and his/her illness and his/her humanity.
  6. I suspect that the lack of empathy that's being shown for Sanchez has more than just a little to do with the fact that she's not married and white and blond and identical to our cultural ideal. People are less inclined to inquire into what went wrong and merely dismiss the person as evil if they are already constructed as less-than-civilized and exotic and savage, as WOC are often constructed in our culture.
  7. Although I don't take myself to be the foremost authority on feminism, I think that empathy should always be a fundamental part of it. And, to quote myself again
    a feminism that fails to inquire into the social situation and the cultural forces that led up to this event is an impotent and useless thing.

I'm sure there's more that could be said about this story, but I'm too burned out on it to go on. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women and Western Medicine

Yeah, so this story combines two of my favorite beefs with western medicine. And ironically, these are two areas in which I experience the most skepticism from other people in conversation. Is western medicine really pharmaceutical-driven and patriarchal and concerned first and foremost with their profit at the expense of your health and safety? Is it really true that the mental health industry has been and is often still used as a means for controlling female behavior? It just sounds so conspiracy theory-ish. And then a story and court ruling like this fall into my lap which demonstrate my claims for me, as if it was a gift from the gods.

So here we go. A woman in New Jersey refused an unnecessary cesarean section during labor, and proceeded to deliver a perfectly healthy baby vaginally. So we should all be happy, right? Wrong. You see, this woman committed the cardinal sins of questioning medical professionals, to their faces, no less, and not being a docile, easily-controlled, passive "patient." And nobody can commit these sins without paying for it. No sooner had she delivered her healthy baby than child protective services was called and yanked her child from her, terminating her parental rights due to the abuse she had inflicted on the medical establishment child.

But there's more to this story than just the refusal of a c-section, which is after all major surgery and carries huge risks for mother and child, and which is one of the most overused surgeries in western medicine, contributing to the shameful fact that the U.S. has the second highest infant mortality rate in the developed world. For real, we have a 31.8% c-section rate, while the WHO recommends at most a 15% rate. But if you read the court ruling from the appeals court, you'll find that refusing a c-section was rejected by the appeals court as the reason justifying removal of the child and termination of parental rights. This is significant, because it would result in a legal precedent for routinely taking children from mothers who refused c-sections in the future. And that's something you oughta know (and no doubt the medical industry would love it if this were the precedent, and all parents knew it) when writing up your birth plan. Instead, the court upheld the termination of parental rights on the grounds that the mother had a history of mental illness, behaved in a less-than-calm manner during labor (shocking!), and had the gall to abstain from informing the doctor of her history of mental illness. Get that? She didn't inform the doctor of her history of mental illness.

Now why would somebody do something like that? Hmmm. Perhaps because we have a tendency to take children from women who have a history of mental illness? Perhaps because "a history of mental illness," no matter what the specific issue was, is universally thought to render one a bad mother in our culture? It seems to me that hiding your history of mental illness is a profoundly rational thing to do, if being a mother is important to you.

I have a friend who lost a baby to SIDS. It was tragic and sudden and inexplicable - a complete nightmare. She was heartbroken to the point that she could barely go on. She would drag herself out of bed just long enough to care for her older child and get him off to school, then return to bed until he came home. After several months of this, her friends and family encouraged her to seek treatment. Immediately upon seeing a therapist she was diagnosed with clinical depression and medicated. Like after the first visit. About a year later she stopped taking the medication, and everything seemed to be fine. However, two years later during her divorce, her "history of mental illness" came back and was used as evidence against her in the custody battle. And she could protest that she had merely been heartbroken over the death of her son (which hardly seems pathological to me) until she was blue in the face, but according to the court, she had a history of mental illness, which compromised her ability to mother her child.

So don't tell me that mental health diagnoses and treatments, which are disproportionately applied to women, aren't used as a means of regulating women in our culture and "encouraging" them to walk the line of appropriately gendered behavior. Don't tell me that the patriarchal approach of western medicine doesn't seek to control women in childbirth and render them docile and passive revenue streams by which doctors can maximize their profits (c-sections are lucrative) and minimize their work time (c-sections are quick). Don't roll your eyes at me when I question the claims of the medical industry and refuse to drink the coolaid of their PR and lobbying and social bullying. If this case doesn't shake your faith in "the system" then what will?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Things That Don't Suck

I love Hen Cam. Go check it out. And Goat Cam.

When I lived in California I used to have a giant organic garden and chickens in my backyard. It was my own little sustainable space that provided fresh organic produce and humanely produced organic eggs for my family and the local food bank. I won't deny that I miss that little setup.

National Day of the Cowboy

Apparently it's official, and it gives me an opportunity to sort out a whole range of thoughts and feelings I have toward the cowboy ideal, and it's role in our culture.

Since moving to the cowboy state a few years ago, and coming from a decidedly un-cowboyish background (not too many cowboys in Seattle and LA, even if you count the ones in the gay bars), I'm both intrigued and mystified by the cowboy ideal that saturates the culture in the western states (not as far west as where I'm from, but OK). At first I didn't take it that seriously. To me it was merely a mascot like all the rest. Huskies, Bruins, Aztecs, Cowboys, whatever. Of course I was irritated by the fact that "and cowgirls" is only occasionally tacked on as an afterthought and to avoid accusations of Title IX violations, but never taken all that seriously. But that's pretty much the norm everywhere you go, when it comes to collegiate sports.

However, it turns out that "cowboy" is so much more than a college mascot here. It saturates the culture at every turn. And don't let the inclusion of "and cowgirl" in the official wording fool you. Nobody's celebrating the cultural contribution of cowgirls here. Nobody's emulating cowgirls or imagining themselves to be a cowgirl when they drive their huge gas-guzzling truck that's never so much as touched a bail of hay or a roll of barbwire fencing, and strut around in their immaculate Ropers that have never kicked any turf other than the luxurious grass of their own front lawn and the city parks here in town.

But beyond the somewhat amusing role of the cowboy in the self-conceptions of many people here, the "Cowboy" image looms large as a way of life, a political stance, and a worldview. Cowboys are self-sufficient, rugged individualists, not beholden to anyone, in touch with the natural world, not afraid to face the elements, completely dominant in their relationships with animals, not contained or defined by their fleeting relations with employers, the law, the "establishment," or any woman. They have a strong internal moral compass, and a simple view of morality, politics, and human relations. And this view of and fascination with cowboys is not limited to western states, although it's much more prevalent and tangible here. There are good reasons why images of Reagan and Bush on horseback and clearin' some brush were such useful political tools. The cowboy image is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.

But as far as I can tell, cowboys, as we idealize them, never existed. We've imposed our collective picture of what being a cowboy was really like over the historical reality to the point where we can no longer distinguish the two, and wouldn't if we could. And the end result is people fantasizing about and attempting to emulate something that never existed, and probably wasn't all that fantastic and ideal to begin with. In reality, the day-to-day life of a cowboy probably had much more in common with the daily life of a migrant farm worker than with the life we endow cowboys with in our imaginations. And who fantasizes about that? Working long hours in the heat and the dust for low pay and no respect and no job security and no pension and no health care and not even a decent place to call home only to be disposed of as so much garbage once you're too old to work. Sounds lovely, doesn't it?

So I can think of several factors that most likely contribute to the weight placed on the myth of the cowboy in our culture. First, of course, is the patriarchal ideal of manhood and individualism and domination of nature. In this ideal there's no need for inclusiveness or equality or consideration of the well-being of the disposable, marginalized members of society or the impact of human action on the environment. The marketing campaign would sound something like this:

Cowboy Country: where a man can be a MAN.
Second, there's a yearning for what's perceived as a simpler time and place. People feel entrapped by their mortgages and careers and insurance policies. But very few of us would actually have the courage to choose, or end up enjoying, a life without those things. A feature of civilization is a sharing of risks and the compilation of surplus resources to protect us in hard times. In the simple world of the cowboy, nobody shares your risk. If you get injured or your gear and horse gets stolen, you're on your own. Friends and neighbors might help you out, but they aren't obligated to, and may not be able to, and there's no institutional protection in place. Protection and security come at a cost.

Third, there's a sort of political view symbolized by the cowboy. Cowboys are live and let live. They take care of their own shit and expect you to do the same. They pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and don't whine about their lot in life. They say what they mean and don't pull any punches. They walk the walk and talk the talk. It's this sort of libertarianism (Ron Paul is pretty popular in the cowboy states, y'all) combined with a simplicity and authenticity that's appealing to people, especially when our collective social ills seem insurmountable and our prominent political leaders seem so manipulative and disingenuous and self-interested. But it also goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to over-simplify things as a means of escaping the hard realities and the complexities of the real world. Sometimes life isn't fair and it's terribly complicated and hard to sort out and requires careful attention to detail and nuance. Sorting this stuff out and trying to be fair and inclusive requires some hard work and tough choices. And retreating into cowboy culture can be a means of denying these realities.

Finally, because the world of the cowboy is largely non-existent, taking on a "cowboy" identity amounts to a safe sort of play-acting. A "cowboy" in our world is an identity without a context - a Childe Roland who doesn't recognize that the world that renders his identity meaningful and coherent has long since ceased to exist. And it's fun and convenient to take on an identity without a context, because you can make of it what you will without the inconvenient constraints of reality.

So I say by all means, let's celebrate the Day of the Cowboy. If it's an excuse to enjoy the oh-so-fleeting-around-here summer weather and toddle out to the fairgrounds to look at some livestock (still a giant novelty to this city kid) and drink some lemonade and let the kids wear their cowboy dress-up clothes all day and listen to some live local music or ponder some local art, then that's all fine and good by me. However, I will be Celebrating the Cowboy with an ironic twinkle in my eye and a shot of tequila in my lemonade. Because, even though I live in cowboy country, I don't live in the world of the cowboy, and I have the balls to acknowledge it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Police Will Be Called

Another post having nothing to do with feminism...

I love passive-aggressive, so I have to post this one from work. After an email exchange clearly establishing that it was a violation of fire code to prop open the internal fire doors in our building, this note showed up on an exit door. A couple of days later the little question at the bottom was added by someone else.
In case it's too hard to read from the picture, the question at the bottom reads "Is door propping a felony or a misdemeanor??"

The Post-Racial Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell has written a really thoughtful post on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that explores the implications of "post-racialness" in the current situation.

The New Yorker has an article up that focuses on his work and links to a number of his writings.

And Jimi Izrael has a post up at The Root entitled "The Education of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr." A quote:

The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., at a minimum, quashes any talk of a post-racial America. It may not be the best example of racial injustice I've ever seen, but it's a great example of how life for black people is often complicated by class and race. If a mild-mannered, bespectacled Ivy League professor who walks with a cane can be pulled from his own home and arrested on a minor charge, the rest of us don't stand a chance.

We all fit a description. We are all suspects.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Apropos of nothing...

Quote of the day:
He had never learned to live without delight. And he would have to learn to, just as, in a Prohibition country, he supposed he would have to learn to live without sherry. Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy, without passionate griefs. But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that.
From The Professor's House by Willa Cather, 1925

'Cause, you know, sometimes I just like a quote and it has nothing to do with feminism. I've loved this quote since I first read The Professor's House as an undergrad. Also, this was one of my (ex, ex, ex) ex's favorite books, so here you go RJ.

And besides all that, Cather kicks ass.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lost in the Shuffle

...of supreme court nominee hearings and celebrity deaths and torture revelations and health care reform and governors cheating/seceding/quitting is this exciting tidbit of national political news. Obama's choice for surgeon general is a black (yay!) woman (yay!) who has a long history of humanitarian work (yay!) and provides medical care to a poor rural community (yay!). Feels like progress to me.

Regina Benjamin.

The God's-Eye View

I'm finding the Republican obsession with Sotomayor's identity and the "bias" that follows from it both amusing and annoying. As if anyone approaches the world from an unsituated, un-embedded in culture and gender and race position. As if there is a such thing as a Purely Objective Perspective.

Oh wait. They think there is.

They think you can rise above it all and get the completely objective view of Things-As-They-Actually-Really-Truly-Are-Independent-From-The-Human-Perspective. It's called the White Male Perspective. aka the God's-Eye View. Not biased at all.

Headline Fail, and Bathrooms...Again

A friend sent me this link to an article entitled Sex change woman 'humiliated' at Rama. It's hard to even know where to begin sometimes. "Sex change woman"? Really? And humiliated has to be in scare quotes? Because when transgendered people are targeted by security while peacefully using the restroom, have their identity questioned, and then are escorted out of the building by 4 security guards, they're only "allegedly" humiliated, and not actually humiliated like a cis person would be? Come now.

This story is the latest in a string of events that have brought the bathroom issue back to the forefront. There's a long history of using public restrooms as a battleground. Currently, the specter of "men in the women's room" is the tool of choice for anti-trans conservatives who are opposing legislation that would protect people's access to public facilities (among other things) on the basis of gender identity. By refusing to acknowledge the self-identification of trans people, and by portraying them as perverts and predators, they divert our attention from the real issue and the actual situation in question. And this is not a new tactic. The esteemed Phyllis Schlafly and her cohorts used the whole men-in-the-women's-bathrooms shtick to bring about widespread panic and defeat the ERA back in the day. Same story, different bigoted cause.

Of course, this history of using public restrooms as a social positioning and stigmatizing tool goes way back before the ERA fight. When I was in fifth grade my friend W (who's black) and I went to visit her grandma for a week. She told us a story that impressed me in a way that no other talk about racism and diversity had ever done. She said when she was a child she rode across country with her mother on the train to go visit relatives. At many of the train stops the restrooms were restricted to whites only, forcing the black passengers to go find somewhere to pee outdoors. Not only was this humiliating and inconvenient, but it reinforced this idea that whites are cultured and sophisticated while blacks are dirty and crude. Bigoted people have understood for generations that dictating who has access to a public restroom is a powerful way to establish who is valuable and legitimate and human and who is not. These subtle but powerful messages are internalized by both the oppressor and the oppressed and profoundly informs their views. So the next time you hear someone whining about allowing men in the women's room, imagine having to leave the train station and hike out into the field and find some bush to pee behind, and remember that the reason we don't have the ERA amendment today is precisely because of this kind of bullshit.


Monday, July 13, 2009


Let's talk about the big bad C word.

If you complain that the vast majority of children's books reinforce traditional gender roles, default to a leading male character, and are endlessly heteronormative, it never fails that at least one commenter will reply with "whadya want, CENSORSHIP?!?"

If you note that mainstream hetero porn centers on male desire and depicts women as objects with no desires or interests of their own, other than moaning at the right time and posing in the right way to appeal to the male gaze, and that this gives hetero men a really skewed idea of what a "normal" sexual interaction is, it never fails that at least one commenter will reply with "whadya want, CENSORSHIP?!?"

If you point out the ridiculous fat-shaming, lookism, and total lack of gender reciprocality involved in most reality TV programming, it never fails that at least one commenter will reply with "whadya want, CENSORSHIP?!?"

So...let's talk about censorship. When you whip out the big bad C word, most people get a picture in their head of a tight-laced, humorless, puritanical old woman with a well-starched apron and a tightly-wound bun at the nape of her neck who mercilessly prevents all the fun and interesting books, TV shows, movies, video games, and songs from hitting the market. And that's an image that's easy to hate. But this, of course, is a silly little fiction that has nevertheless worked it's way into a central position in our cultural mythology.

Where does the real censorship occur on a daily basis? In the media, of course. Take, for example, media coverage of the research on calorie restrictive dieting and its impact on lifespan. Although the study "found no statistically significant difference in the number of deaths among the monkeys who’ve been eating a calorie-restrictive diet for more than 20 years compared to the monkeys who’ve been allowed to eat ad lib all day as much as 20% over their normal calories," all the news stories have trumpeted the "fact" that low-calorie diets have been "proven" to add years to your life. For a fabulous investigation into the reasons and forces behind this, read the full post on Junkfood Science.

And this is often the case with any research having to do with weight and obesity and dieting. You can tell by looking at the information that's selected to appear, and the way it's worded, and the important subtleties that are omitted, that the person who is choosing which stories to report on, and which info to include, and what wording to use, is in the grip of a picture. And that picture dictates what s/he sees and takes to be important and reports on. We currently have very strong anti-fat sentiments that permeate our culture, and this is reflected in the way important research results are reported. Of course, the financial interests that the researchers and sponsoring pharmacuetical companies have in reaching a given result is also a huge, huge factor.

Paul Krugman points out another great instance of censorship in the media. It seems that in the popular imagination, the debate on the economic stimulus package boiled down to a disagreement between Obama and his supporters versus those (mostly Republicans) who thought the stimulus package was too big. Lost in the shuffle were the (not that quiet) voices of those who thought the stimulus was too small. They were simply not included by the mainstream media. And that amounts to censorship.

So to all those who attempt to silence critics of any genre and shut down conversation by hysterically shouting about censorship ... I've got news for you. We've got all kinds of censorship, whether we want it or not. We're swimming in it. So knock it the fuck off already and learn how to engage in constructive dialogue.

Lateisha Green

The trial for the murder of Lateisha Green starts today. Via the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund site:

Lateisha, the middle child of three, was born and raised in Syracuse, New York. At 16, she came out as transgender to her family and community, and began to transition. Although her family was supportive and encouraging, she encountered tremendous discrimination outside her home. Early in her transition, her face was slashed when she was out on the street dressed as a woman. In high school, she endured horrifying abuse and harassment from her peers. She received death threats and was beaten by fellow students. While administrators at her school permitted Lateisha to come to school late and leave early in order to avoid other students, they did nothing to address the abuse itself. As a result, Lateisha had few
friends in school, which bothered her and her family. The isolation didn't fit her personality, which her mother Roxanne described as very outgoing and very social. Her brother Mark, 16, and her sister Shaconia, 26, were her closest friends and provided tremendous support to Lateisha.

One summer, Lateisha discovered her passion for childcare while working with children, taking them on trips, playing games and enjoying the social interaction she missed while in high school. Everyone expected that her future career path would involve childcare. Outside her professional life, Lateisha cultivated other passions. She loved to dance and she loved music, especially hip-hop, finding inspiration in artists like Lil’ Kim.

On November 14, 2008, Lateisha was allegedly shot and killed by Dwight R. DeLee outside a house party, which she went to with her brother Mark. Mark was also shot, but survived.

The Aftermath of Lateisha's Murder
Prosecutors have charged Dwight R. DeLee with murder in the second degree, murder in the second degree as a hate crime, and criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree in connection with Lateisha's murder. This is the first hate crime
prosecution in New York State involving the murder of a transgender person. Indeed, it is the first murder ever classified as a hate crime in Onondaga County. If DeLee is convicted of committing a hate crime, it will be only the second hate crime conviction involving the murder of a transgender person in the United States. Angie Zapata's murder trial led to the first such conviction. DeLee faces life in prison if convicted of murder.New York State law currently classifies it as a hate crime for an individual to target and attack a victim because of the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation. While Lateisha was a transgender woman, her attacker perceived her to be gay. Lateisha's murder is a hate crime because her attacker perceived her to be gay and targeted her for violence because of that perception. That Lateisha was, in fact, transgender, highlights the unique nature of this prosecution as well as the need for reform of New York State and federal hate crime laws. Neither state nor federal hate crime laws include gender identity or gender expression as a protected hate crime category. Indeed, federal law includes neither gender identity and expression nor sexual orientation as hate crime categories.In June, Hon. William D. Walsh, County Court Judge made several rulings during a preliminary hearing in the case. Among them: he denied DeLee's constitutional challenge to the application of the hate crimes statute in this case, allowing the hate crime charges to proceed.

Violence Against Transgender People and Hate Crime Laws
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, murders of LGBT people in 2008 increased 28% from the previous year. More than 2,400 people reported being victims of hate violence involving incidents motivated by anti-LGBT bias. 12% of these reports on hate violence involved incidents motivated by anti-transgender bias. Nearly 300 transgender people filed reports of violence against them during the reporting period. On average, a transgender person is murdered once a month in the United States, based upon information collected by Remembering Our Dead and Transgender Day of Remembrance.

You can join the Facebook group, and keep track of the trial via TLDEF on Twitter.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Video of the Week

Just because I really love Jonathan Coulton. And I really love this song. And this has got to be the best video of him performing it.

There are norms, and then there are norms

This is a perennial issue that keeps cropping up in various conversations concerning oppressed and marginalized groups. It's been annoying me for ages but for some reason I haven't posted on it yet.

In conversations about marginalized groups, the word "norm" is often thrown around a lot. As in "normal" and "abnormal." As in "norming" and "othering." And one thing that frequently happens in these discussions, online and IRL, is that various uses of the word "norm" and "normal" become conflated. Generally speaking, it is not the case that a given word in our language (or in any language, for that matter) has only one meaning. Any competent English speaker knows this to be the case about our language, so I take protestations to the contrary as an indication of convenient and willful ignorance.

Two of the most common usages of the word "norm" are what I'll call the numerical norm and the social norm. This is a statement of numerical norm: there are more heterosexual people than homosexual people. On the face of it there is no moral judgment, no good and bad. It's just a factual, descriptive statement about people. And this is an important point: statement concerning numerical norms are merely descriptive. On the other hand, social norms are prescriptive. They involves statements about how we ought to behave, what attitudes and beliefs and values are acceptable, or the best ones. As such, they indicate the value and rank of a person within a cultural hierarchy on the basis of identity and life choices.

One common exchange in discussions of marginalization and the treatment of oppressed groups goes like this.

Person A: The reason why refusing to adopt a descriptive label for non-trans people, such as "cis," is problematic is because it norms the cis experience and others the trans experience.

Person B: Well, being non-trans is the norm. There are more non-trans people than trans people.

This exchange involves an equivocation between the meanings of the word "norm" such that B's response to A does not count as a rebuttal or even a response. They're simply not talking about the same thing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Holy Shit

That's really all I can say about this clip. Holy. Shit.

And on an only-slightly-related note... When an 18 m/o says "holy shit" it sounds like this "HOyee szit." And then mommy knows she needs to do a better job of watching her fucking mouth already.

via Sociological Images.


From a recent (rather flattering) email:

hi Rachel! i just wanted to tell you that i love your blog! i followed the link over here from one of your comments on feministing because i almost always agree with your comments there. ive added you to my bookmarks now so i can check back every day. but I'm curious about the fact that you don't seem to belong to BlogHer? It seems like most feminist bloggers do.

I have mixed feelings about BlogHer that run deep. I guess theoretically I'm in favor of spaces that feature the thoughts, concerns, and writing of women. Sort of. I can see why some women advocate for it, but I don't personally feel the need for it, and when it comes to bringing about social change (which is what I personally am invested in, although I realize that not all members of BlogHer are), I think that conversations with a large cross-section of society are far more vital and productive. Although preaching to the choir can be fun too.

One of my issues with BlogHer is the relentlessly commercial atmosphere. As if it's not enough that women are cast as perennial consumers by our patriarchal capitalist culture. As if it's not poblematic that shopping is constructed as a central feature of Womanhood in our culture. So then we have to turn around and invent a space for this very kind of marketing to occur and target us where we live? Feels a bit like collusion to me.

But the main reason I generally avoid BlogHer is that many of the posts are entirely lacking in a nuanced or thoughtful approach to what I view as women's issues. For example, this post, Neutrogena Keeps Your Kids From Burning, by Susan Wagner, not only hawks a product of dubious health and environmental status (for containing possible neurotoxins and known endocrine disrupters, among other things), but it also mindlessly repeats the same old gender bullshit "Even my sons, who don't care at all about product. Boys -- sheesh." that has been used to maintain the gender hierarchy for ages. I think we get it already. Boys don't care about skin care but girls automatically do. From birth. It follows from merely possessing a uterus. Right.


So it occurs to me that it's rather ironic when friends in RL and commenters online ask me why I don't belong to BlogHer or feature the BlogHer widget on my blog. For one thing, in my view, too many widgets are a big no-no, as they clutter things up and detract from the conversations taking place in the main body of a blog. But beyond that, just because I am a blogger who also happens to have a uterus doesn't mean I should automatically belong to any community or provide free advertising for any particular group. And the fact that so many people assume I should ironically reveals the subtle and profound gender essentialism in our cultural worldview. The fact that the BlogHer bloggers and I all have uteruses (uteri?) does not automatically make us kindred souls, or allies, or partakers in a shared point of view.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Valley Swim Club

Take a minute to write or call the Valley Swim Club in Pennsylvania and let them know just how fucked up their policies are. You know, the club that kicked out a group of black kids that were with a summer camp that had paid the club for use of the pool, because management was afraid they would "change the complexion of the club." Seriously.

Mailing Address:
P.O. Box 134, Huntingdon Valley, PA 19006

Club Phone Number:

Club E-mail:

via Womanist Musings

Video of the Day

More info here. Love it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"I just want to help people"

This is the classic line you're supposed to recite when you announce you're going to med school, and I have to admit, it's caused me to squirt coffee through my nose upon hearing it on a number of occasions. Does anybody really become a doctor with the sole or even primary motivation of helping people anymore? Maybe. It's kind of hard to believe, given the starry-eyed reverence and huge paycheck that comes with being a doctor in our culture. On the other hand, I do have a couple of friends who slogged through law school only to take relatively low-paying jobs with non-profits and NGOs, so maybe I should back off the cynicism.

But whatever may be true of the individual people who go into the medical profession, it is certainly not true of the industry as a whole that its sole or even primary goal is to help people. In fact, helping people appears to be very low on its list of priorities. This is evidenced by the fact that the industry is currently spending $1.4 million a day, every day, to lobby congress on health care legislation. And this effort involves paying a lot of money to a lot of insiders who know how to work the system on behalf of the highest bidder. Because heaven forbid they be required to offer real care to real people, in a way that limits their ability to make giant profits while leaving the poor and disenfranchised people of the world to die. No, that would be the course of action taken by a group of people who honestly cared about people and wanted to help them.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Prison-Industrial Complex and Hate Crime Legislation

Generally I'm very critical of the prison-industrial complex. The number of issues surrounding our penal system defies a single blog post. But the cynical profiteering involved, and the influence this has on our drug legislation, sentencing policies, method of inmate discipline, ways of exploiting the families of inmates, etc. seem like the biggest issues to me. And the fact that we incarcerate a larger proportion of our population than any other country (think about that for a minute) is a huge, huge issue that merits a lot of attention and concern. And don't even get me started on the racism and classism involved, or the long-term disenfranchisement of those who have been incarcerated.

On the other hand, I tend to support hate crime legislation. Because it's clear to me that some members of our society are more vulnerable to victimization precisely because of who they are and how our culture values them. And these marginalized groups often have less access to legal help and a supportive social network, and are less likely to be protected by our deeply flawed system of justice. So supporting hate crime legislation seems like a no-brainer to me.

However, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project's stance on the GENDA bill in New York has gotten me thinking about this. On the face of it, it does seem deeply inconsistent to oppose our increasing incarceration rate while also supporting legislation that would impose harsher sentences for certain crimes. And this is compounded by the fact that, generally speaking, any bill that involves tougher sentencing is supported financially by prison industry lobby groups. If you follow the money, almost every piece of legislation requiring stricter sentencing, and almost every politician who takes a strong anti-crime stance is backed by prison industry dollars. And that is something to take very seriously. But does it trump the good reasons for supporting hate crime legislation? I don't think so.

For one thing, violent crimes account for only 4.6% of arrests in the U.S.,* and of those, only 20% of the victims are hurt badly enough to need medical treatment. So clearly the problem of high incarceration rates is not connected to violent crimes, but has much more to do with the misguided and ineffective war on drugs. Since hate crimes would fall into the category of violent crimes, they don't seem to be a major contributor to the whole cycle of increased incarceration rates that is required to fuel the prison-industrial complex.

On the other hand, the fact that crimes are disproportionately policed, prosecuted, and differentially sentenced based on race and class is an issue in this case. But I'm not convinced that abstaining from enacting hate crime laws will have any impact on this. Instead, it seems like there's a lot of work that needs to be done at the systemic level in law enforcement and the justice system to bring about real change in this area. Add to that the fact that in many parts of the country we already have hate crime laws in effect that cover race and sexual orientation but not gender identity, and it's clear that it would be unhelpful and exclusionary to oppose hate crime legislation that protects people who are targeted on the basis of their gender presentation. The problems surrounding the prison-industrial complex are serious issues that deserve a lot of attention and advocacy to bring about profound change. But opposing hate crime legislation is not the way to do this.

*Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002. Table 4.8.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Transgender Woman Attacked in Queens

You've probably heard about this. According to all the news stories I've read, the district attorney in this case is still refusing to investigate and prosecute as a hate crime the attack of Leslie Mora by 2 men who shouted "faggot" as they beat her with a belt buckle. Because Mora is a trangendered woman, so her attackers were technically wrong when they called her a faggot? Because the New York Senate has not yet passed pending legislation that would make it a hate crime if they had attacked her because she was perceived to be transgendered? Or because an attack on a transgendered woman is the last thing the DA office wants to trouble itself with?

For what it's worth, existing legislation already makes it a hate crime to attack someone on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. So since this attack seems to have been motivated by the perpetrators' false perception that Mora was gay, then it counts as a hate crime. Why is this so hard to understand?