Saturday, June 16, 2012

Seeing Yourself

I came in on the tail end of HBO’s “The Latino List” and had the pleasure of hearing Marta Moreno Vega share a story from her childhood. To keep it short and simple, she saw her drug addicted brother in the street one day and did not respond when he spoke to her. She “kept it pushin” as they say. And like any true sibling he ran to their mother and tattled on her! When Vega’s mother questioned her about it, and Vega admitted that she didn’t speak to him because he was dirty and so on, her mother said “…that could be you, that could be your brother, that could be your sister, that could be me. Don’t you ever… don’t you EVER not recognize yourself in somebody else.” Vega ended her story with “that’s being spiritual. My mamá taught me that.”

Of course this story gets added to the list of things that made me want to cry this week because I thought of two things – how powerful that statement is and how many things our parents teach us that we go on to share with the world.

Could you imagine if we all took the time to see ourselves in someone else? In the homeless, in those addicted to drugs, in the brown-skinned innocents that US sanctioned drone attacks kill, in the young black men being profiled (and stopped and frisked and harassed and violated and, eventually, killed) in our streets every day? Would we stop and help them?

Could you imagine if every single child saw him or herself in not only those people, but in our business owners, our president, our politicians? If our politicians saw themselves in the poor, in women, in we “voiceless” marginalized folk, in those brown-skinned innocents that they voted to kill? What a world that would create - politicians that actually begin to care about people rather than their own agenda, their own beliefs, their own hatreds and bigotry. We’d have children that would grow into adults who see themselves in every single person. Those adults would run our country and I’d like to believe they’d run it better. But, I digress.

Of the things that I learned from my parents, and still learn every day – never take any shit off anyone. They probably didn’t say it in exactly that way, but that’s how I’m taking it.
Never stop writing.
Never stop caring.
Never let anyone silence you.
Always treat others with the respect and dignity that you yourself deserve.

And, now, I add to their list – always see yourself in others; always recognize yourself in others. I’d like to believe this will make me a better person, someone that has greater drive to help others inside the classroom and out. I’ve made a real stink over women’s issues and minority issues (in television) lately and I just know that it is my singular goal in life to bring multicultural literature, film and television to students. I want them to see themselves in those people – in those actors, actresses, directors and writers.  And maybe, just maybe, they’ll leave my classroom and enter the world thinking about more than themselves. When someone says “this is a race/racial issue” they’ll be more inclined to not only listen, but understand. When someone says, “this is a women’s rights issue” they’ll be more inclined to not only listen, but understand. When they enter the workforce and go on their paths to run our country, be businessmen, police officers, etc, they’ll see a brown face and see their own. They’ll see the poor and see themselves. They’ll see brown-skinned children gunned down in the streets and they will see their own.

Think of the world we could create if something as simple as “recognize yourself in others” was taught alongside the golden rule. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true, people don’t want to care about an issue until it affects them personally. Looking at the world this way, it does, doesn’t it? 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kenyetta, Brianna and me.

I’ve been on the feminist bandwagon for a few weeks now and let me just say – or type, rather – that I am so glad I finally found something that I can truly sink my teeth into. This world where race, sex, gender, class and so many other things collide is quickly becoming my happy unhappy place. I think about it constantly – how to make people understand, how to make it better, how to teach it. Never been happier that I left biology for bigger, brighter and better endeavors.

Margaret Bowland, Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna (2008)
Margaret Bowland: Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna

I saw this on the internet today. It brought that itch to the back of my eye that foreshadows tears. But they didn’t come. One, because I’m at work. Two, because – dammit – I will not shed another tear over this.

I’ve focused a lot on identity and intersectionality over the last year in my coursework – examining the layers of black identity and how they are embraced, quelled and/or misunderstood. This image brought back all of my own personal struggles with those very things. How can I be “more” black? How can I be more…authentic? How can I be less me and more who you want me to be? How can I not be the “little white girl” in my family and the “black chick” amongst my friends? How can I be a strong, self-reliant and self-sufficient woman without being the “black woman that doesn’t need anybody?”

I was probably halfway through college before I stopped trying to be everyone else’s conception of me.  Before I stopped trying to figure out how I could be a little bit of this definition and a little bit of that – an all-you-can-eat buffet of identities.  But, dammit, those little girls in that picture. That *woman.* They bring it all back. They are me. I can’t take my eyes off of them, off of the me that I see in them. And that itch is back again.
That woman is who those little girls will become. We don’t grow out of or away from our identity crises. We either overcome them or let them overcome us. My heart breaks over this image, this “whiteface” and the shame (and shaming) that it represents. The idea that being a different color or a different shade of brown will make that shame – and the sense of pain and ugliness that it breeds – go away.  Who among us hasn’t though that life would be easier if we were rich, white men? That’s the shame I speak of. And the more I think about that shame, the more I think about bell hooks’ analysis of black women being at the bottom of the totem pole. She believed that we were the most marginalized of them all, having no community of people to other in order to make ourselves feel superior. I expand this concept to women of color in general. In my mind, because we have no “other” of our own to hate, we turn it on ourselves and on each other – denigrating other women (of color) when we really should be reaching out to them and embracing them in solidarity. We point fingers and make crass jokes about each other’s hair when we should really be saying, “hey, I may not like it – but I love that you love it.” We order ourselves along some arbitrary system – too black, not black enough – when each and every one of us is enough. We fall victim to new school twists on old school light-skinned/ dark-skinned stereotypes and classifications.   

And my heart breaks every single damned time.
It breaks every time I think about how many of my own experiences have been marred by these very things because I didn’t look the part or didn’t fit the role. How can we rally against a society that promotes a finite definition of beauty, damning those that do not fit, when we are doing the same thing to each other? How can we continue to engage in this double standard where it is unacceptable for society to tell women who they should be and look like, but acceptable for individual woman to place those same constraints on others?

I want all women to wake up and understand that I don’t have to tell you that you are beautiful. *You* have to tell you that you are beautiful. You don’t need to go outside of yourself to find beauty – it’s already there.
I want those little girls, that woman…I want to tell them that. I want them to understand that.
My natural/permed hair, skin, thick/thin/in-between thighs, my eyes, my feet, my toes, my big/small/in-between butt, my small/large/in-between breasts, are beautiful regardless of what black, white, [insert ethnicity here] men or women say. Period.

And there’s that itch again. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

When your choice is no longer your own

So, in my morning perusal of tumblr I came across this, which made me say this:

(Read it and you’ll understand why. Don’t worry. I’ll still be here when you get back. I’m just that kind of dependable.)

I, of course, just had to respond. The post has been excerpted for your benefit. I don’t who this girl/woman is, or how much traffic her page gets (not that it matters), but I do know that sentiments such as those highlighted below pervade our society. As a budding feminist, this both saddens and frustrates me.

“[…]the quickest way to set me on the warpath is to tell me you want to be a stay at home mom for the rest of your life and not get an education and mooch off your husband/partner completely by choice (ie: You have the ability/funds/everything else required to attend school and better yourself) BUT THAT’S NOT BECAUSE IT’S AN OPPRESSIVE FEMALE ROLE, it’s because it’s a waste of a brain[…]”

Going to college and having a career is indeed a wonderful opportunity that countless men and women should be proud/thankful to have. But, what you seem to be missing is the fact that white men have *always* had that opportunity. What you’re failing to consider, or are just blatantly ignoring – I’m not sure which – is that people of color and women as a whole were historically denied the choice of getting a decent education and following that up with a career. But, for now, I’ll shelve the class/race element for the sake of brevity and focus solely on women.  Feminists fought for a woman’s right to attend college, graduate school, etc and eventually pursue careers because women did not previously have the option to do so.  Our role was to grow up, go to finishing school if our culture dictated, find a husband, have babies, cook, clean and shut up and look pretty. We could not choose to operate outside of this role. (Again, shelving the class debate, because Black women were definitely working and raising families before white feminists began fighting for a woman’s right to have a life outside of the home. This, of course, informed a large portion of the debate between early feminists of color and early white feminists.)

What we have now, in the 21st century, is the ability to choose what we want to do.  A woman that chooses to stay at home and take care of her husband, wife, significant other, [insert term of choice here] is no less intelligent than a woman that chooses to pursue a career. And they are no different than women who choose to pursue careers and take care of their families. There is no difference between telling a woman that she has to go outside of the home to be considered worthy and telling a woman that she must stay at home, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, to be considered worthy. Why? Because both claims deny her the right to make the choice for herself. They strip her of her choice. And that’s what feminism is truly about – giving the women the authority to govern their own damned lives. Got it?

 Now, if you think that being a stay at home wife/mother would be a waste of your personal brain space, then that’s fine, but do  not seek to extend that belief to all other women in the country, or on the planet. Such a job (and please believe it is a job, an often thankless one at that) is a waste of brain FOR YOU.
Don’t get me wrong. The last thing on earth I want to be is a stay at home anything, least of all a stay at home parent. But I would never look down my nose and tell a woman (or man) that chooses to do that that s/he is somehow inferior and stupid.

“You want equality? You want to be respected? Well then, the best solution is clearly to just lay on the floor and whine about how disrespected you are. You wonder why women are seen as weak? Do I really need to explain why? It’s because your response is to whine and complain rather than getting out there and eating stereotypes for breakfast. Go out there, get an education, and take over the freaking world..”

I agree that people simply whining about being disrespected and marginalized does nothing to implement change. However, you seem to think that “eating stereotypes for breakfast” is going to somehow show men that women are equal to them.  I see two problems with this assessment. First of all, stereotypes persist because they make the privileged majority (in this case bigoted men) seem superior.  In fact, they are a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations about a group that allows others to categorize them and treat them accordingly (thank you Stereotypes continuously marginalize othered groups, making claims such as “women are the weaker sex because they lack testosterone” and “women earn less because they are less aggressive” seem normal and therefore acceptable.  Secondly, you either forget or simply do not know that a stereotype persists regardless of the evidence mounted against it. Women don’t have the drive, don’t have what it takes to be scientists/engineers/politicians/pilots/[insert career of choice here]. And yet, there are countless women who are scientists, engineers, politicians, pilots and so on. And there are just as many stories by women in those professions that detail how much sexism they’ve had to deal with on their way to the top. Having a career and being educated does not automatically mean that sexist men will no longer be sexist. “Herpderp, she has a career now. I guess I have to stop thinking she’s a lesser being.” No. That’s not how it works.

Suffice it to say – negating the stereotype does not destroy the stereotype. So, the onus isn’t upon women to prove to men that they are equal, the onus is upon bigoted men to stop thinking they are superior just because they were born with a penis.

“The harsh reality is that if you want respect you’re going to have to show men you deserve it. Yes, just like any other human being. Oh, you thought men just walked into a business environment and everyone respected them?”

So, all of those women who are groped or on the receiving end of disgusting sexual invitations when walking down the street (including myself) need to show those men that they “deserve” respect? Or perhaps all of those women who are CEOs, COOs and CFOs of companies both big and small and are still treated like they are “just” women? Or maybe you mean those women who are legal partners in major law firms, top surgeons in their medical field, or those women who stay at home and raise the children that will become our future. What you fail to understand is that imploring women to show men that they deserve respect places them squarely in a man’s world and thereby at the mercy of what men think a women should be or do. And it makes the fact that they aren’t respected their fault. That’s like telling a black man that someone hurled the ‘N’ word at him because he had the audacity to have black skin. Let’s not play this “blame the victim” game.  It’s tired and oh so boring.

I do not think men just walk into business environments and immediately garner respect, but I do think women sometimes walk into business environments and immediately get even less respect – from both sexes. Think about what women who like to wear high heels and have their nails done often have to face in the work place – in other words women who are conventionally pretty. The stereotypes persist even then – you’re pretty so you must be dumb as a rock. You assume that success (both academic and professional) somehow affords women respect. It does not. When a person believes himself to be superior to another human being, he will find a way to prove his point. Period. It does not matter if I stay at home or if I go out and join the work force. I’ll still be a woman dealing with real woman problems at the end of the day.
So get off your high horse and make decisions about your own life and encourage other women to do the same. But do not tell them that your way is the right way and that their’s is wrong. I mean this in the best way possible - before you go on a rant about a topic such as this – perhaps pick up a book and educate yourself. If you choose not to, that’s fine. But that’s counterproductive and, dare I say it, lazy.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Because anger doesn't preclude rationality. Irrationality, however, does.

“As ‘objects,’ we remain unequals, inferiors. Even though they may be sincerely concerned about racism, their methodology suggests they are not yet free of the type of paternalism endemic to white supremacist ideology. Some of these women place themselves in the position of ‘authorities’ who must mediate communication between racist white women…and angry black women whom they believe are incapable of rational discourse.” bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

The double standard here drives me up a wall. Literally. I’m typing this from the ceiling. It’s cozy up here. I know this book is “old” by today’s standards (even though it looks young enough to be 20) but that makes it no less relevant. I read those words and my blood pressure immediately shot up. We (all women, perhaps especially Black women) have been raging against this idea that emotion negates rationale for decades, centuries even. The hormones, oh the hormones, preclude our better judgment. (It’s why the War on Women is seeking to limit our access to birth control.)

Rather than arguing that I’m/we’re not angry – I’m choosing to embrace it. I’m calling upon my non/anti-feminist counterparts to cease invalidating my feelings/opinions/thoughts/ideas/existence on any issue just because of my emotional, Black or (ugh, the horror) vagina-ized state. I’m calling on my feminist compatriots who are melanin-deficient to help bring an end to this “angry black woman” stereotype – and help everyone recognize that there is nothing wrong with being angry and there is everything wrong with using a powerful tool of the patriarchy against other women. What is wrong is the marginalization of one socially, politically and economically "inferior" group by another, (slightly less) socially, politically and economically "inferior" one. I see this now not only as it pertains to the differences between black women and white women but the west and the non-west (i.e. Muslim women and non-Muslim women seeking to free Muslim women from their “shackles,”).  

Of course I'm angry. All the damned time and about so many things. But, I can be angry and know that 2 +2 = 4. I’m done asking other people if I have the right to be in such an impassioned state.  I'm embracing the fact that I do indeed own the right to live and feel as I choose. And I own that right in the face of men who think me inferior because of my impressive set of ovaries, and women who think me inferior because my hair is kinked and my skin has a year-round tan. 

Our myriad struggles with the perfect body, control over our baby-making and sustaining machinery (both before and after giving birth - breastfeeding anyone?) our varying battles with Darth Patriarchy (Vader’s distant cousin), our fight against gaslighting and so on are points of unity, not division. Unity, of course, does not mean minimization of difference. It means creating a world in which women have the authority to govern their own lives, wear their own clothes and be angry any time of the month they damn well please.

When a man got angry some time around September 2001, he launched an entire war that cost us countless lives. But his act was “rational.”

When I get angry, I’m PMSing, I’m irrational and my thoughts on the issue are thereby irrelevant.
Do you see where I’m going with this? 

I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said before, I know this. But I guess this post is really more for me and for those other women like me that get angry and then second guess their anger as though there is something wrong with it. God gave you anger. That’s how you know something is WRONG.
Now, I’m not saying that we should all go bat-shit crazy and run over our significant other’s because they stole our twinkies and that made us angry. I’m not saying we should all morph into Hulkina or Lady Hulk or whatever the hell her name is.

What I am saying is that the next time someone tells you that you’re “just angry” you should reply “And? Your point?” Because anger, or any other emotion for that matter, doesn’t preclude or disrupt rationality. Irrationality, however, does.