Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I Will Never Be a Radical Woman of Color Feminist

I said this sentence in therapy and she said it would make a good blog title.

It makes a good blog post, too, I think.

I'm not a big fan of essentialism in general. Within my experiences as a white feminist, it is a daily irritant. Discussions on whether Thinking or Feeling as personality traits on the Myers-Briggs personality test turn into claims that there can be psychological essentials because men develop muscle easier (and then presumably are stronger than women, which is why there are no female fire fighters, blacksmiths, and why the military is easier on females). Just to cite a recent example of blinding rage. The continued claim that men and women unfortunately born in non-consistent bodies can never be actual men and women would be another.

However, there are identities to which I will never be privy and for which I can never know what it's like. To an anti-essentialist like myself, this is a bitter pie to dig into. I can feel my lip curling. (Did you know disgust was one of five emotions we think are universal with universal expressions? Now you know.) And sometimes this impossibility means that I cannot adopt identities despite finding them wonderful, interesting, and enviable. A part of my anti-essentialism I must also own to is that, as a white liberal who has grown up I can be anything I want to, this smacks of being told no in a very stern voice, and as a rule I don't like that very much.

But, I will never be a radical woman of color feminist.

I'm still teasing out the differences in my mind. I know there are these two things, one I like and one that I don't, and that there are bits and pieces all over the place with them, but I think it will take me being reconciled to the second (since I don't like it, let's call it the antithesis) until synthesis can arise for me personally.

Or I could read the synthesis on an awesome blog.

The second sounds easier - get to work! ;)

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Musing on Collage

I walked away from closing one of my jobs down (which included literally packing everything in boxes) with an armload of National Geographics for collage making - which many (white) collagers probably know is like paper gold.

One of the side effects of my chosen thesis (currently condensed to "an attempt at amplifying the archetypal figures which come from and speak to marginalized populations") is that - as an integral part of its nature - it forces me to examine the images I am choosing to put forward in my collages in a way I never had before, and from this new perspective National Geographic is deeply disturbing.

Most of the people in National Geographic don't look like me, you see. Most of their skin is brown because the skin of most of the people in the world is brown. Even the people who have a similar skin tone to mine wear clothes which do not resemble mine, live lives with few ties to mine, have souls which are not a part of me outside of the more philosophical implications embraced branches of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the White New Age Movements in the US.

I find myself looking at the images which draw me with new eyes. Where lurk the artifacts of psyche which dehumanize these people whose photographs I had never before thought twice about cutting up for my own purposes? Can I find them all, or is this a twisted treasure hunt without either clue or end?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The obvious victims are men, but women exist unseen and unspoken of

This about the Indian workers who were brought in to Tulsa, Oklahoma to work who were held as ill-treated slaves. The details are even more horrifying that the broad strokes; above and beyond paying them, $2 an hour, they were told to clean toilets, fed half of an egg omelet for breakfast, and the vegetarian Hindus were denied milk, which led to many of them beginning to eat meat to survive. And to top it all off, the owner said he thought he was doing the Indian men a FAVOR because people were starving in India, so you can add blatant racism on the caliber of the rationals about owning black slaves because they're inferior.

A local priest gave up his home for them, and a local lawyer paid out of his own pocket to continue the suit against the company on behalf of the men.

And what struck me, especially in light of the recent discussions about what are feminist issues, is that it's this sort of racist mindset that leads to self-justified ill-treatment of women of color. And even in this specific case, the Indian workers borrowed so much money to come that they took out loans and borrowed from their families - which affects their wives and female children. And the way this fell out, some of the men have brought their women and children to the US.

And, more rootlike, these sorts of injustices are the same as the ones we fight against on behalf of women. As fall-out form this case, there is now a pathway for how to deal with human trafficking of this kind in the US; my understanding is that women tend to be trafficked more than men, so they are likely to gain benefits from this precedent. The racial biases against the workers would affect Indian women, too, in addition to the sexism they're going to face. There are so many ways in which this, while not directly a feminist issue, butts up against and will shift feminist issues.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Uprooting Colorblind Racism

I was raised a colorblind racist.

I say this without any particular shame or anger. Colorblind racism was an honest effort on the part of white liberals who wanted to support people of all skin-tones and histories but who clearly Did Not Get It (tm).

And what they did not get was that racism was systemic, not personal, and that all the "be proud of yourself" messages in the world wouldn't do anything so long as people of color (henceforth PoC*) faced regular objectification and bias due to the color of their skin. All of the "our race is human" does nothing against people who appear Latin@ (whether they are or not) needing to wear their birth certificate as protection against being deported for their skin tone and accent despite their birthplace. None of the "I don't see color" helps the thousands of PoC given less advantageous mortgages despite having the same financial situation as whites who got the good mortgages. The world is made of color, the world sees color, and people of color are regularly and routinely discriminated against in the present, as well as inherently disadvantaged due to hundreds of years of degradation and racism which kept them from the best jobs, education, and homes.

Colorblind racism is the well meaning attempt of privileged people to wite-out history and call us even, who then don't notice the people with most of the advantages are white because there is no color anymore. Colorblind racism is the person who immediately brings up "the race card" as something that should be talked about more, who when challenged to describe examples of this "race card" describe a situation where the person in question very likely was discriminated against because of his race, because bosses 'worse' then him were promoted. Colorblind racism is the systematic listing of examples of times when one was racially enlightened in some way without noticing the myriad examples of privilege which smoothed one's path. Colorblind racism is using "ghetto" instead of "black" and not liking it when the blacks outnumber you, but saying you're not racist.

Colorblind racism makes being named a racist worse than racist acts.

Colorblind racism is gaining merit badges on diversity and sewing them onto a dress inspired by Native Tribes who were destroyed by the country I live in, and not even noticing that it might be wrong to take a phrasebook of Native words to pick an "Indian Name" as a part of the same program.

That is what colorblind racism is. I'm going to indulge in one of the more self-indulgent leavings of my liberalism with some quality navel-gazing in the hopes that it will help others to give up their colorblind racism, or at the very least stop precursing racist statements with, "I'm not racist, but..." This form of navel-gazing can be seen as, and used as, an insulation against actually doing the hard things, but I'm hoping here it will serve as something educational in addition. We all know white people LOVE to be educational. ;)

My road from colorblind racism to what I am now (whatever that is; I don't consider myself an ally yet) began with what seems like a simple act, but which in retrospect seems to be a surprisingly rare one for liberals to mention. I approached black women as my superiors.

The seed for this was set in my teens, when many of my wisest supervisors were black women, and some of my wisest friends were Latinas. In watching white liberals hit the shoals of Angry Black Bitch (my gateway drug to the feminists blog-o-sphere), Angry Black Woman, or Having Read the Fine Print and disintegrate into waves of denial, shame, rage, and suddenly pathetic logic, I think I've found that the pattern in general seems to be that they all approach these women as if they were neophytes to their own life experiences - that is, as if the white liberals were the experts, and the women who lived the lives were ignorant of the deeper implications of their lives.

In contrast, I had developed a pattern with presumed whites which I continued into a non-white context; when you are the visitor, your host is the expert. I may eventually disagree with them, but the assumption is that they are the experts and I am the neophyte, so the cues should be taken from them not from my life experiences up until that point. So I would read articles about dumb white people, or racism, or how bias played out in the media, and my ground floor assumption would be that they were accurate.

It helped, I think, that Angry Black Bitch types exactly as my supervisor and peers had spoken when I was a teenager; I found how she turned a phrase and the language she used to be familiar, and I could hear the voice in my head as an echo of those days where I wasn't once of the group, but I was tolerated and possibly even liked. It also helped that Angry Black Woman uses an intellectual language I was comfortable with, and regularly indulges in one of my favorite pastimes - analysis of media - and that she likes many of the same shows I do. Both of these facts eased me into weighing their other statements, the ones I was not aware of or comfortable with, more heavily than I might have otherwise. Because it's all about me. (Actually, I think that both of them were explicitly not writing for me was a feature, not a bug.)

By the time I hit the wider blog-o-sphere and such challenging and brilliant minds of Sydette on Having Read the Fine Print, Donna on The Silence of Our Friends, Nezua at Unapologetic Mexican and Field at The Field Negro, I was well primed to see things which made me defensive as a necessary suffering for the purpose of being able to hear their voices clearly, instead of through a fog of racist assumptions about them (a topic Nezua covers explicitly and extensively in his La Lente Blanca (The White Lens) Series).**

A lot of my assumptions, both about myself and about the world, had to be rethunk. One of the places where I have felt these shifts the hardest were in the media I preferred to consume. Most, if not all, of my favorite books, tv shows, movies, and music are racially problematic (a euphemism for fucking racist). As someone who develops extreme attachment to these things, and who uses them for self-soothing***, this has been the most life changing aspect of this process so far (like I said, I'm not an ally yet), and the part which provided the largest incentive to embrace my privilege and let all of my new knowledge unexist somehow.

Obviously, I haven't done that, but I couldn't be completely honest if I didn't say the thought crossed my mind more than once, especially at 3am when I couldn't sleep and every book I tried to read screamed 'racism, racism, racism' in my face.

More recently, though, the initial wash of guilt and rage and inarticulate stress, I found my brain doing something new. Reading one of my longtime favorite books, one of the millions set in a future that is implied to be all white despite the minority reality of whites worldwide, I began consciously shifting races for each of the characters. Very few had their skin color actually specified (one reference to guards - one light, one dark - and a mention of alabaster which seemed tied to the skin of one of the main characters), and I found it was surprisingly easy to imagine the calm, career cop Director of the largest, space-floating prison as a calm, unflappable, intuitive, Asian man and the narrow, grieving, top class cop as a wiry black man. The remarkable musician who played a piano in an age when most of the instruments will be unknown to us now, who was psychic, and who skillfully entered the Labyrinth and exited again changed but unscathed, could easily be an Australian Aborigine, and the French-speaking gutter-rat singer in the band could, through the magic of imagination, be Latina.

I ran each character through a kaleidoscope, noting where aspects of their character sparked resonances with my internalized biases about what "each race" was like, and which ran contrary to it, and the why wasn't far behind, and suddenly this story I loved so much for it's representation of mystical symbolism became at once more realistic and more rich - suddenly my favorite book didn't have the whitewash of my own brain.

And in my own writing, I notice the shifts. Even when a series I'm basing my stories off of ignore entire continents of the planet Earth, I can re-introduce them. When creating my own worlds, I can make them complex with racial and societal tensions. When thinking about the psychology I love, I can include a wider range of people - I can stop trying to treat me in all of my individual peculiarity, and try to treat us with the plurality of methods needed to actually meet the needs of a wide variety of people. When meeting people, I can try to understand their racial and cultural backgrounds as a part of getting to know them instead of ignoring it as a distraction.

And I find myself increasingly impatient with people who say, "I'm not racist, but..." or who bring up 'reverse racism' as a serious problem that not enough people talk about as their first response to me saying that I want to help create a psychology that is multicultural and anti-racist. And when I notice the fucked-upness of privilege lurking, I speak up about it, I point it out, I teach Racism 101, and frequently I drive people to change the subject or leave altogether. I'm also seeing more on my own, instead of waiting for a member of the group being discriminated against to point out the problems. I've noticed this awareness spreading out from racial awareness to awareness of how disabled people are discriminated against, or the mentally ill, or lesbigaytrans individuals. An increased sensitivity in one area has made me a better person overall in terms of my own ethics, even while those ethics remain essentially unchanged.

Someone recently (if anyone remembers whom, I would love the name, my sieve-like brain is unhelpful Two people who touched on this are Ilyka in this comment thread at Creek Running North about being an ally and Donna at The Silence of Our Friends) brought up the problem that by portraying becoming an ally as something difficult or painful, it gives privileged people (by any of the measures, not just racially) an excuse to not be allies and to justify it. I think that it can be used that way, and will be used by people who want to have their ethical cake and eat it to - i.e. who want to say they are anti-racist without internalizing any of the awareness of racism or changing their world-orientation and actions in accord with their ethics. But I would argue that those kinds of people would find excuses one way or another to avoid walking the walk that they talk.

The pain of becoming aware of how unjust and wrong the world is, how skewed and unnatural, how powerful people have twisted everything good for their own ends, is a true and honest pain, I think. The ability to ignore reality is a gift that is given to very few people, and those few people can do an enormous amount of damage in their blindness, but there is pleasure to be found in ignorance and giving up that pleasure, however unearned and world-damaging, is painful. I personally think the warning that it will be painful may help the honest ones of us, the ignorant and privileged, to keep going even at 3 AM when all the knowledge of the world we ignored for decades is beating down our bedroom doors.

I'm only a few steps outside, though; my ability to be wrong is legion.

* I am aware this term is somewhat problematic depending on the individuals who I would place under this umbrella term, but I find the phrase "non-white" even more problematic. If anyone has a better turn of phrase, I'd love to learn about it.

** The rest of my link list came later, in some cases much later; this is mostly chronological, so some of my best links, like brownfemipower (whose blog has been removed due to it not serving the community in the manner she wished it to) came much later.

*** For those who haven't gotten psychological phrasing bone deep like I have, self-soothing is the process of diminishing one's anxiety through tasks which bring one pleasure or comfort. In my case, this was often reading a particular section of abook, or watching a movie which was deeply meaningful.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Racism - It happens today and it SUCKS

Sylvia has a wonderful blog post on this. The down low - a white blogger makes a very minority-conscious post, which is massively out of character. People notice because hey - out of character - and notice that said white blogger attend a conference where these issues were presented by a wonderful woman who covers immigrant issues regularly, who has subsequently taken down her blog - which is a loss for the internet as a whole. An excellent roundup of the issues is at Smackdog Chronicles (which I had lost the link for - thank goodness for tracebacks!).

What I want to underline is this - not only is this sort of nuanced handling out of character, it also doesn't jibe with said white blogger's subsequent behavior - which is to go around making the issue all about her AND still not linking to the woman who has been covering these issues for years.

This is not feminist. This is treating another woman as if she is not a person.

This is racist.

It's also fucked in the head. And really, really, really pathetic.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Two Strangers in a Lobby

He sat hunched over a coffee cup in the corner of the theater lobby, still wearing a puffy, army green coat. His hair and beard were neatly trimmed, and his clothing was worn, and he stood out against the backlight of the well dressed patrons at the theater not due to the color of his skin, which was dark and warm, but due to the curve of his shoulders which spoke of trying to be invisible.

I was fairly certain he was homeless, or at the very least a shelter resident. I was fairly certain he had some sort of mental disorganization. I was fairly certain that he was proud and very cold and feared security sending him from the heat of the lobby into the freezing weather outside. The patrons, myself included, moved around him in a silent, careful pantomime, cautious of the incongruity of he and his battered styrofoam coffee cup.

He looked startled when I spoke to him, asking if I could sit at his table, but assented quickly. I studied the bits of program I had picked up – not really interested but adrift without a book in my purse. His voice was low and had a quaver in it; memories of clients from years ago washed over me – that same hesitancy; that same fear that I would somehow render them nonexistent, and again I felt clumsy in my unspoken and unwanted power.

He introduced himself. I returned the favor, offering my hand.

"I don’t shake hands, I never shake hands," he told me. I got a sense from him of a mingled fear to offend and fear to be pressed to acquiesce to a common practice he found deeply disturbing, and lowered my hand. "It tells too much, hand to hand," he added, trying to explain it to me.

We spoke a little about intimacy, about touch, and I told him about one of the origins of hand shakes in Rome, when it was a way of showing you weren’t holding a weapon and thus weren't a threat. Our interaction skimmed over the depths within him – within me – a brief and cordial meeting of strangers in a theater lobby. As the crowd of people grew thicker, he grew more anxious, and finally he excused himself.

"It was nice meeting you," I said to him, not holding out my hand.

He flashed a smile, hesitancy and anxiety writ large within it, bowed his head slightly, and moved off through the crowd and out again into the cold.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Media, and Whites in General, haven't moved beyond 1981

Fire Fly has a post up about a speech given by Bernice Johnson (linked by Black Amazon, from which the final two links came, too). The stuff about the elections is paraphrases from NPR's discussion of it yesterday and this morning.

"Now if we are the same women from the same people in this barred room, we never notice it. That stuff stays wherever it is. It does not show up until somebody walks into the room who happens to be a woman but really is also somebody else." - Bernice Johnson

This happens everywhere and goes unremarked on. In the recent presidential race, the question of whether Obama was "black enough" has been openly debated in the (white, male, straight, Christian) media since mid-2007 at least, and yet people are saying THIS WEEK that Clinton's comments about Martin Luther King, Jr. suddenly "brought race" into it.


Race has been in the presidential race since the first one, when not only couldn't a black person run but black people couldn't vote. Race has been there with multiple races, since the Native Americans were killed off or pushed into Reservations (which, I will note, frequently don't give them actual control of the land) and since Asians were objectified and killed off in the name of "progress" and railroads and since Mexicans were attacked for their land and since Latin@s in general were told they were good enough to pick food for the (white) Americans but not good enough to get the protection of the government or even be treated like human beings. Gender's been there too. Overt gender, in the form of the exclusion of women and the use of race to turn some women into "good" guiding angels and others into "bad" whores and even just good old "ball and chain" language, and covert gender, in the form of using terms for females as insults against males and targetting anyone, male or female, who dares to be "too much" like the other.

It's all there, in the room, elephants stomping on people's feet while they pretend it's their shoes pinching. It doesn't get brought it by those who are different from the people in the room. It's there waiting, an unspoken rule about who is allowed and who is not.

And yes, this happens in minority populations too, but minority populations aren't dominating the media and the government, so anyone who wants to derail this into "white people have it bad too" and "sometimes straight people suffer", fuck off.

P.S. "And there are people who prioritize the cutting line of the struggle. And they say the cutting line is this issue, and more than anything we must move on this issue and that’s automatically saying that whatever’s bothering you will be put down if you bring it up. You have to watch these folks. Watch these groups that can only deal with one thing at a time." - Also Bernice Johnson. Yeah, I'm looking at you, too.

P.P.S. Anyone know if there's a link floating aorund to her giving the speech? I'll hunt YouTube tonight, but I'd love to hear it. The cadences of speeches like this are often a second speech in and of themselves.