On Being an Activist Even When You Don’t Like Yourself



Activism, by its very nature, involves opening oneself up to scrutiny. In challenging dominant social structures and ideologies we, intentionally or unintentionally, invite criticism and debate from those who wish to maintain the status quo. Sometimes that criticism is fair and is an invitation to examine a piece of evidence that we overlooked or a flaw in our reasoning. Sometimes that criticism is loaded, reactionary, and even abusive. The prevailing wisdom is to just laugh it off, ignore it, and feel confident in the fact that we, at least, are creators of important content while the abuser is just a pathetic troll.

However, the call to activism often emerges from trauma. Within feminist circles, it is common for many women to identify not only as activists, but also as survivors of rape, intimate partner violence, and psychological abuse. Many of us mobilize for causes because of initial personal experiences that are later bolstered by statistics and academic theories. In sociology, we often refer to C. Wright Mills’ concept of “the sociological imagination”, a mechanism by which we explore the relationship between “private troubles” and “public issues.” A single act of sexual violence, for example, could be considered a private trouble that can be managed through therapy and other supportive services for a victim and an intervention of some kind for the perpetrator. The prevalence rate of sexual violence in the United States, wherein 1 in 5 women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, is clearly a public issue. It raises questions about the culture we live in, the perceived consequences of being a perpetrator, and the relative social value and roles of women and men. A woman is raped and applies the sociological imagination to see her individual trauma playing out on a broad scale for millions of other women in her country. She is angry, not only for herself, but for all of her fellow survivors, at the society that is complicit in allowing and advancing this collective gendered violence. This may be her call to feminism.

The world of feminist activism can be a hostile and emotionally dangerous place for a survivor of trauma. Rape and death threats are common, sometimes including brutal details. This is clearly egregious and generally the kneejerk thing that people react to when stories are written about online abuse. But there are more subtle, insidious discouragements as well. There will be people who question your right to speak at all, about anything. They will gaslight you and tell you that you’re crazy. That no one cares about the issue but you. They will calmly tell you that your voice doesn’t matter. That you don’t matter. For a person with a strong sense of self worth, these comments might not be a big problem. But for activists who struggle with depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other mental health issues, sometimes these words matter a lot. Sometimes they will make you stare at your computer screen breathless and humiliated, or go home early from that rally, or hang up the phone and fight the urge to cry. Sometimes they will make you want to give up. Not because you don’t believe in your cause anymore, but because you don’t believe in yourself. Because you have borne witness to violence and abuse against your body and spirit before that left you feeling worthless and ashamed. And then what?

This isn’t just a problem in feminism. Any time we fight for marginalized identities, we are fighting against the current. This is true in anti-racist work. This is true in LGBTQ+ work. This is true in disability rights work. When we own the marginalized identities we are fighting for, many of us are vulnerable. We have lived in a culture that has told us, implicitly, explicitly, and violently, that we are subordinate. We’re all in different places as far as rejecting that message is concerned.

Of course, it’s important to push forward and keep doing the work. There are a lot of people who have had these struggles who keep going. I think that it’s important, however, for all of us who are engaged in social justice activism to be mindful of the residual poison that we and our comrades might carry in our psyches. We need to be open to various ways to participate and refrain from talking down about those among us who are hurt, or need to take breaks, or need accomodations for participation. For an activist with agoraphobia, attending rallies might be out of the question but social media could be a valid way to engage with and promote a cause. For an activist with social anxiety, making phone calls might be unthinkable, but tasks like data entry or painting banners could be a meaningful way to participate. We need to be kind to each other and to ourselves. We need to ditch the idea that there is only one right way to be a feminist or any other kind of activist. We need to accept that although we will not always feel confident and fearless, we are important to our movements. We need to check in and remind each other often that we are doing good work.


Who Do We Want in Our Movement?

Lately, I can’t help but notice that there is a lot of infighting within the feminist community. Generally, people point to this as a bad thing – there’s strength in numbers, after all. Arguing with each other takes time and energy, after all. Shouldn’t we be focusing our attention on the common enemy?

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: saying that we want the same things is not the same as agreeing on the path to take, or even what the ideal outcome looks like. As a general statement, all feminists seem to agree that pursuing gender equality is at the heart of what we do. However, some feminists (particularly those who are privileged) are content to limit their focus to only gender, to the exclusion of issues related to race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and ability. As long as there are eventually equal numbers of men and women in positions of power, they’ll be more or less happy. The structure of power itself is left untouched and unexamined. In fact, the structure is sometimes even endorsed and promoted in the pursuit of their goals.

Obviously, my vision of feminism is much different. It’s not enough that things become equally good or equally bad for men and women within demographic categories. The big picture involves social justice for everybody: men, women, and gender nonconforming people of all classes and categories. Our discussions and our activism need to address the wide net of destruction that patriarchy casts, while also being mindful that patriarchy is just one aspect of kyriarchy. We need to talk about the feminization of poverty AND we need to talk about poverty in general. We need to talk about access to child care AND we need to talk about issues facing child care workers like vacancy chains and low wages. We need to talk about access to safe and legal birth control and abortion AND we need to talk about the abysmal social supports for single mothers, our history of forced sterilization of welfare recipients and women of color, and the need to dismantle ideas about who has the “right” to be a parent. We need to talk about rape culture AND we need to talk about supporting the safety and agency of sex workers. We need to talk about the male gaze and bodily autonomy AND we need to acknowledge the valid spiritual reasons why Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women (among others) may wish to cover to varying degrees. Feminism should never be a bunch of multi-privileged white women controlling the dialogue and calling all of the shots.

So it’s been really disheartening to see the kinds of ridiculous fights that have been erupting, big and small. A couple of weeks ago Ani Difranco scheduled (and later cancelled) a songwriting retreat at a former slave plantation that serves today as an opulent hotel and museum that actually glorifies slavery. Instead of coming together to acknowledge how thoughtless and disrespectful it is to profit off of a place like this, lots and lots and lots of (primarily white) mainstream feminists rushed to Ani’s defense. Instead of ceasing to be fangirls for like, a minute, and showing some human decency, they mocked and vilified the people who were hurt and angry. While they were doing it, they bemoaned our splintered movement, and blamed women of color for racial divisions. Every day, trans-exclusionary radical feminists misgender, harass, and exclude transwomen. Sex worker exclusionary radical feminists alternately vilify or infantilize sex workers. Privileged feminist women engage in “respectability politics.” A Ukrainian feminist group called FEMEN recently mocked Islam and insulted Muslim women worldwide in their incredibly offensive “Topless Jihad” demonstrations. A Politico writer called Michelle Obama a “feminist nightmare” for making motherhood a serious priority. All of these conflicts could have been prevented, or at least resolved, with sensitivity and humility, two traits that are oten noticeably absent in the mainstream feminist movement.

And honestly, I don’t want solidarity with those “feminists”. I don’t. Not until they get their acts together, or at least learn how to self-reflect and say “I’m sorry” when they’re wrong. I wish the divide was even bigger between feminists who openly uphold various elements of the kyriarchy and those of us who strive not to, because I’m sick of people assuming that they represent me. I’m sick of them driving people away from feminism by bolstering an image of religious intolerance, classism, racism, and general disregard for others. This isn’t a call for perfect feminists, it’s a call for feminists to stop using other women (and children and some disadvantaged men) as stepladders on the way up to their goals. In doing so, they are actively hurting our movement and dragging feminism’s name through the mud. A recent study from the University of Queensland demonstrated that when activists promote a cause while degrading marginalized others, even when they get more attention, they garner less new supporters (the study in question observed the effect of sexist images in pro-vegetarian advertisements). I am not content to sit idly by and allow the people with the most privilege have the loudest voices as they trample the marginalized. If that means more infighting, I’m fine with that. We’ve got issues. We’ve got history. It’s time to start addressing that.

A Year in Review: The Top 10 Most Racist/Privileged Things White Feminists Did in 2013

The only caveat I would offer is that many feminists (including women of color) were disturbed by Jay-Z’s Ike/Tina Turner line – a full explanation is here: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/12/defending-beyonce-black-feminists-white-feminists-line-sand/
Otherwise, this is a terrific article.

Emphatically Black

In honor of the #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity hashtag (started via this Huffington Post article penned by the delightfully clueless Adele Wilde-Blavatsky) I’ve decided to put together a top ten honoring the many interesting methods white feminists employed this year to promote unity between themselves and feminists of color.

From refusing to defend feminists of color against attacks from the patriarchy (or from other white feminists for that matter), to deriding feminists of color for not being feminist enough, to blaming feminists of color’s oppressions on their own cultures (instead of, you know, patriarchy) white feminists sure have a funny way of expressing their desire for unity with feminists of color.

10. When 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress and Oscar nominee, was called a cunt by The Onion in a poorly thought out satire attempt, white feminists decided that not defending her made sense because cunt shouldn’t be a bad word…

View original post 1,171 more words

A Late Introduction

Despite my usual reluctance to discuss personal matters on the blog, it feels necessary to address the fact that I haven’t written a new post in 3 weeks. The reason is pretty straightforward: this blog is a labor of love and I was following a somewhat crushing schedule while trying to complete all of my final essays for the academic semester that just came to a close. Thankfully, everything went well enough that my lowest final course grade was an A- and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief and move on. This should also mark the end of my undergraduate career, which feels quite surreal, and unless some kind of grave error was made in the advising department, I will soon be the proud owner of a bachelor’s degree in sociology. UPDATE: no grave error was made, the diploma is now in my possession.

My second order of business is that I was recently approached by a staff member of the Bangor Daily News with the offer to have Feminist Nonfiction hosted on their site. This is still entirely non-profit on my end unless I get a very, very large number of monthly hits in which case I will receive a very small amount of money (I don’t recall the specifics, but it’s multiple tens of thousands of hits for something like $25. I’m not super worried about it). My intention is to continue cross-posting on WordPress because I enjoy the community here, so most posts will show up in both places. The BDN staffer has requested that I write an introductory post. Without further delay, here is that post:

Feminist Nonfiction is a blog about the role that feminism can play in the real lives of people in the US. It’s also a blog about what feminism is, what I want it to be, and what it just plain isn’t. Like a lot of people, while I was growing up I cobbled together a working knowledge of feminism in disparate, inaccurate images absorbed primarily through media. I knew about the Spice Girls and “girl power”; I knew that women had (historically speaking) only recently gained the right to vote; and I knew that some people were angry about beauty magazines allegedly causing eating disorders. In high school, I encountered young women who didn’t shave and referred to menses as “moon cycles”. I briefly considered joining their ranks, then brushed them off for the time being as quirky eccentrics. I didn’t call myself a feminist, because it seemed unnecessary and I had not yet realized how much gender was shaping my life or how much it shaped the lives of the people around me, other than to know that I felt alienated around other women and to be fairly sure that I preferred the company of men.

A few things happened in my early twenties. I fell in with a new social circle shortly after becoming pregnant with a baby girl. For the first time, I was exposed to meaningful ideas about gender inequality that made sense to me and were commensurate with my own experiences. This may or may not bode well for my feminist credibility, but those earliest messages came from men. Intelligent men whose friendship and opinions I valued. In a world where women and our voices are so often dismissed, men who are feminist allies can be a bridge that helps newcomers get over those first barriers to thinking critically about gender. It would be nice if things had been different and my feminist consciousness had blossomed naturally out of close friendships with other women and feelings of sisterly solidarity early in life. However, that’s just not my story. My path to discovering feminism began when a man said to me, “Of course I’m a feminist. You’re not? Why?”

Why, indeed? I had accepted a lot of regrettable cultural scripts that I had never bothered to stop and analyze. One of my university professors would later introduce the trope of the mythical feminist as an “angry, ugly dyke”. I had dated misogynistic guys who would blame my emotional responses to their bad behavior as my “being crazy” – and I believed them. I had befriended girls and young women who later disappointed me or were disappointed by me – and I rationalized these problems as being symptomatic of the inherent difficulty in maintaining relationships with women, rather than normal hiccups in maintaining healthy friendships. I had read articles in magazines about how annoying feminists are and had seen them caricatured on television. Honestly, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. Obviously, I was wrong. But a lot of people are in this spot. They hang out here, possibly indefinitely, until someone makes that bridge. I want this blog to be a bridge – or if it can’t be a bridge, I want it to be a board in that bridge. I want to challenge the way that the media represents feminism and also the way that it represents women. Finally, I want to challenge the way that feminism represents itself: especially the ways in which mainstream feminist outlets sometimes dismiss or outright slander women of color and people with non-conforming gender identities. There is a lot of good in feminism, but as it is a complicated movement with many strains, there is a lot of junk, too, that comes in  the form of ignorance and bigotry. It’s something that we need to talk about.

Finally, I wanted to distinguish this body of work as “nonfiction” because, while analysis of fictional narratives in books, televisions shows and movies is often useful, it’s not my focus. Other people are already doing that work and many are doing it quite well, so I don’t see a need for my voice in that arena. For that reason, my writing is fundamentally centered on the way that feminist theories apply and interact with real people, from the individual level all the way up to broader institutions, government, and society.

As a person who is flawed and does not have deep roots of longevity in the feminist movement, I’m still learning about it myself. I have read quite a lot of diverse feminist theory and am always looking to grow and see new ways that feminism is defined and interpreted by people of different backgrounds. I will happily share my reading list with all of you as it evolves. I welcome and encourage respectful dissent and sharing of ideas. However, I also want to make sure that when sensationalist and clearly false representations of feminism make their way through mainstream media outlets that there is a voice to answer back. As of right now, that voice is mine. Let’s see what happens.

Are Trans* People Obligated to Come Out?

Symbols by Athope Wicked Designs

My opinion on this is pretty straightforward: it’s an unequivocal “no.” There are no qualifiers, no exceptions, it’s simply “no.” Here’s my logic: it is terrific when people who are living with marginalized identities (including but certainly not limited to trans*) decide to come out, celebrate their differences, and show the world that they are unapologetic about who they are. It’s brave and it leads to progress that changes minds and makes life better for others who have similar or related identities. However, there is a very real risk of violence and harassment that can come to anyone who decides to make that leap. No one, and I mean no one, is obligated to compromise his or her personal safety for the sake of a cause. Coming out into a violent world can be an act of literal martyrdom and as such should be chosen by the individual, not forced or pressured by the group. Trans* people have no special obligation to promote the group they were born into, especially considering the amount of suffering so many of them have to face either way. It is wildly unfair to pretend that “you have this problem” means “you need to fix this problem” while everyone else gets to continue with their merry lives. When trans* people make the choice to come out, they should be supported and acknowledged. When they choose not to, they need to be respected and understood.

There is one group of people who I think do, under most circumstances, with few qualifiers, have an obligation to “come out” as supporters and advocates of trans* rights: cis people. The exception is when that support would cause risk of physical harm because of the simple association, which I’m sure is the case in particularly regressive communities and spaces. People have the right to assess whether or not a space is safe for advocacy and act accordingly. For the rest of us, on the other hand? We need to say something. Even when we’re the only people in the room saying something. Even when it makes us awkward at parties. Even when we think no one will take us seriously. That “something” should not be our personal opinions about what trans* people are doing right or wrong or how they can “fix” their movement.

This is how I think we should do it: we need to read things that have been written by trans* people. While we should be open to talking to trans* friends and family members about their experiences if they choose to share them, we should not feel entitled to their emotional labor. They have no obligation to educate us. We need to do the legwork to find out what’s already been written and get answers to our questions. This includes reading blogs and books and websites that are authored by trans* people, in a high enough volume that we can get a diversity of first-person accounts. Then we need to do what we can to amplify their voices: by repeating, by sharing, by re-blogging, by quoting, by whatever means necessary. Their perspectives are the most important as they are the experts of their own oppression.

In the absence of immediately available trans* voices, as is often the case in person, there is more we can do. When we hear a trans* person being misgendered in coversation, we need to correct it. When we hear offensive cissexist or transphobic jokes being made, we need to tell the joker to knock it off. We need to inform them of the destructive power of their words. We need to talk about the high rates of suicide and homelessness in trans* youths. We need to explain the toxic culture that leads to hate-based beatings and murders. We need to criticize the media, write letters, and sign petitions. We need to make transphobic people feel as ignorant as they are and as outnumbered as they should be. Because cis people don’t have anything to lose by doing this, while trans* people may have everything to lose. This is our job. This is my job.

Systematic Silencing

Unfortunately (yet unsurprisingly) a college professor who happens to be a woman of color was recently reprimanded for teaching about structural racism in her classroom in a way that made some white male students feel “uncomfortable.” While the subject should be fairly uncontroversial, particularly at an institution of higher learning, three white males interrupted her lecture to ask defensively why she was teaching this subject matter. As one might expect, she gave an explanation of why it was relevant to the course material in addition to telling them explicitly that she was talking about systemic issues and that nothing she was saying should be taken as personal attacks.  However, this was somehow inadequate for these young epicenters of unexamined privilege, and they continued to protest to the extent that they filed complaints with the school alleging racial harassment.

The way this story unfolds is incredible to me, as a student, because I can imagine in my mind exactly who these young men might be. Over the course of my college career, I’ve taken a whole lot of courses, and many of my classes have included these kinds of antagonists. It’s not always about issues of this sort – it could really be about anything. They derail and disrupt to lead  the class on tangents, to complain that the material is boring, to play the devil’s advocate for no apparent reason. I have never seen them taken for anything other than what they are: annoyances that ruin the classroom environment. Generally, all that is required is a little professorial flexing to get things back on track, and if they continue to disrupt, they are asked to leave. I’m not talking about people who don’t understand the material or who ask thought provoking questions. I’m talking about students who get bored and try to “have fun” with the lecture to kill time. I would imagine that these students exist to some degree at every college campus in the US.

With that context in mind, it is extremely distressing to know that these students were the presumed victims when it was their word against a faculty member’s. It’s difficult to imagine that their status as white men and the professor’s status as a black woman was totally unrelated to the reversal of the power dynamic that should have existed between a professor and her students. Meanwhile, in a communication from the college’s administration, the professor was told that she had “led a discussion on the very important topic of of structural racism [that had] alienated two students who may have been most in need of learning about this subject.” Instead of taking into account the very real possibility that these were just a couple of knuckleheads that didn’t want to learn, her instructional style is called into question.

This shouldn’t come as a shock, but it is not the responsibility of marginalized people to make members of dominant groups feel more comfortable. Some discomfort is necessary in acknowledging the status of reality. Confronting privilege is never easy, but that difficulty should never be blamed on the marginalized person who brings it to light. If those students weren’t ready to learn about racism, there is nothing (short of dishonesty) that could have made them more open to the topic. They don’t have the right to talk over her. They don’t have the right to derail her lectures and undermine her authority. They don’t have the right to shoot the messenger.

Meanwhile, as this professor is being reprimanded for having the audacity to perform her job, high school teachers across the US are assigning The Help as an example of period-accurate historical fiction, wherein white people triumph over the evils of racism in 1963 Mississippi. This is obviously a dangerously unethical way to teach young people about racism in the US, but for some reason, teachers have accepted this unfathomably sugar-coated (white-narrated) version of revisionist history as a means to connect white students with the topic.

These students deserve better than that. If they are allowed to believe that racism is not a problem in the US and that whites are situated as the benevolent caretakers of racial minorities, they lose the opportunity to really think about how their society operates. They lose the opportunity to examine themselves and grow their humanity. Confronting privilege is not just something that members of dominant groups are compelled to do to be “nice” to the oppressed. It is necessary for informed and meaningful participation in our communities, our nations, and our world. When we are “protected” from the knowledge of our unearned advantages, we are unable to develop the empathy that makes us fully human. Recognizing privilege is not a form of self-abuse or an internalization of guilt. It is something that we need to learn so that we can be better. And the only way that we can learn is by listening to what others have to say, including and especially when you feel that they are “beneath” you.

Emile: I always thought that you were very single-minded about your dreams and that that would help you through life. But now I see that you skipped the struggle and went right to the end.

Megan: It’s not the end, it’s the beginning.

Emile: This apartment, this wealth that someone handed to you. This is what Karl Marx was talking about. And it’s not because someone else deserves it. It’s because it is bad for your soul.

-Mad Men, “At the Codfish Ball”: Episode 7, Season 5

The Commodification of Girls

So, everybody’s heard about the legal drama going on between toy company GoldieBlox and the Beastie Boys, yeah? In case you haven’t, here’s a quick synopsis. GoldieBlox took a misogynistic Beastie Boys song, changed the lyrics to something that was less soul-crushing, then used the modified version as the musical track for a commercial. In the commercial, some guy named Brett Doar had built a super-sophisticated Rube Goldberg machine out of pink toys and cute little girls ran around in front of it while wearing safety goggles. While I am definitely in favor of encouraging kids of all genders to play with whatever toys they want, there is no mistaking the fact that this is a clear and obvious commercial meant to sell a product: some purple, teal, and yellow science toys because I guess GoldieBlox wants to make sure that they are identifiable as “girl toys” without making them pink because… uh… GoldieBlox has an issue with the color pink itself, not what it stands for in terms of gender segregating children’s toys? I’m not really seeing the sense in being like, “Hey girls! You can play with toys that aren’t pink! Here’s some purple ones too!” Whatever.

So the Beastie Boys had their lawyer send a letter to GoldieBlox essentially saying that they did not grant permission for their music to be used for a commercial purpose and, you know, knock it off I guess. Naturally, GoldieBlox decided to respond to this reasonable request by filing a lawsuit. Terrific.

Somehow, this has people pissed off at the Beastie Boys. This is not something I can get behind. I agree that the message behind the original song was gross. And, this part is worth noting: so do the Beastie Boys. They have made an explicit point of apologizing for their sexist and homophobic lyrics and have dedicated time in the spotlight to talk about important social issues like protecting women from sexual assault at concerts and music festivals:

The feminist goodness starts at 3:00.
If you wanna watch that fuckin’ GoldieBlox video you’re gonna have to Google it I guess because I have no interest in posting it here.

The Beastie Boys have been outspoken advocates for marginalized people for a long time now. While they certainly have made missteps in the past, they’re essentially every activist’s dream: people who saw the error in their ways and made a point to do better and be better. If we want to get people to change their minds about the things that matter to us, we need to stop being so shitty to them long after they’ve crossed over to our side. What is the point of continually rubbing their noses in past mistakes that they have already distanced themselves from and sincerely apologized for? Even though the lyrics are screwed up, GoldieBlox had no right to take music that someone else had created and use it to sell a product. Being mad about some problematic attitudes someone expressed in their creative work does not give anyone the right to steal that work and use it for their own financial gain.

And let’s talk about what’s GoldieBlox is actually selling for a minute. Like I said earlier, I want all kids to grow up feeling like they can play with whatever toys they want and pursue whatever they’re interested in without getting hung up on gender. I also believe that marketing has a powerful influence on the gender socialization of children. But girls always have, and always will, play with “boy toys”. I don’t know if I know any women who didn’t play with blocks and Legos and K’nex and Tinker Toys when they were children, even though toy companies didn’t start making purple ones until pretty recently. I agree that advertising for kids should be more gender-inclusive and encouraging, but can’t that be accomplished by putting more girls in the commercials and on the boxes without making a huge fuss about it? And without mocking the kinds of make-believe play that lots of children love? If the only reason why girls want to play with dolls and tea sets is social conditioning, then why do so many boys want to do it too, even when it means parental freakouts? I definitely think it’s a problem if we are sending girls the message that they should only play with toys like dolls or tea sets, but there is nothing wrong with kids engaging with those kinds of toys some of the time.

This circles back to an ongoing annoyance of mine. I’ve heard a lot of feminists talking endlessly about how we have to get more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, & math) careers because they’re challenging and they pay well and they’ve been kind of a guy party for a long time. I am fully supportive of removing any and every gender-based barrier from the path of anyone who wants to pursue a STEM career. However, I’m uncomfortable with the insistence/ “strong encouragement” that more women and girls have to pursue those careers, because I don’t like the insinuation that the gender pay gap has anything to do with women choosing “less valuable” or “less important” occupations. Fields that are typically dominated by women, like social services and care giving, yield terrible compensation because they are dominated by women. Society has devalued these essential services but that does not mean that they are any less crucial. It doesn’t mean that they are unskilled or easy. There are important things in the world that have nothing to do with math, science, or sales. When we start acting like it (and quit cutting funding for programs that benefit children, the poor, the elderly, and really everyone if you look at the big picture) then maybe we will start to see men moving into “women’s jobs” and women will have an easier time entering “men’s jobs” without the hostility they face right now.

In the meantime, maybe GoldieBlox can stop exploiting our discomfort with the gender segregated labor force (and the Beastie Boys’ creative property) for their own financial gain. The dreams of girls are not commodities.

UPDATE on 11/27/13: After posting this last night, I watched an interview with the GoldieBlox CEO, who claims that her products are the result of “research” into the ways that girls and boys play that yielded findings indicating that girls are more interested in stories and reading than in building. This is the same bullshit that Lego fed us when they came out with their Lego Friends line, also known as “easy Legos for girls that come in a purple box”. This is gender essentialism in feminist clothing. To make things worse, apparently the “stories” from the GoldieBlox build along sets involve shit like helping princesses build parade floats to compete in beauty pageants. Way to go, GoldieBlox, please continue to do whatever you can to advance the narrative that you can be a princess or you can be a smart girl, but you can’t be both. While you’re at it, make sure you’re letting little girls know that beauty is a competition and that pageants are acceptable and worthwhile rather than toxic and degrading. Fuck off, GoldieBlox.

Also, to clarify, I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the fact that women who do want to be in STEM careers are being excluded and pushed out. However, I think this has a lot to do with discrimination, discouragement in higher education, and workplaces that are hostile to women. GoldieBlox toys address none of those issues. By making a case about girls playing with the wrong toys, GoldieBlox’s advertising sends the message that the exclusion of women in STEM is somehow their own fault, and that if they just loved it more they could knuckle down and tough it out while they wait for more women to join their ranks. For more information about how we can address gender representation issues in STEM at an institutional level rather than an individualist level, check out this article by Erin Cadwalader and Janet Bandows Koster of the Association for Women in Science. Fun fact: none of the suggestions involve encouraging parents to buy more shit for their kids.

Racist PB&J? (Alternate Title: Shitty White People Playing Dumb)

I usually only write about stuff that directly pertains to feminism , but this one is too stupid and the conversation is too one sided to not comment on. So, this one is going to just be about race/ethnicity.

Apparently, about a year ago, the Portland Tribune ran an article about a Portland, OR elementary school that was taking some specific measures to help teachers be more sensitive to the needs of children of color. One of the things that was mentioned as an example of “subtle racism” was a classroom activity involving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Instead of explaining what the activity was or why it would be considered racially charged, the author, Jennifer Anderson, decided to just throw that in there without context and then include a bunch of decontextualized quotes from the principal, Verenice Gutierrez, to make her sound kind of anti-white and crazy.

So, here’s the thing. Apparently, a fairly popular writing activity/assessment is to have students describe, in as much detail as possible, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Gutierrez pointed out that some of the schools students are first generation immigrants, and most countries outside the US don’t eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The activity is supposed to involve taking something that all of the kids know how to do and have them describe how to do it. If you’ve never eaten a PB&J sandwich because your parents never make them at home, you’re not going to be able to explain how to make one. This is an activity that has an unnecessary obstacle built in for kids with different cultural backgrounds. Some people are arguing that that doesn’t have anything to do with race or ethnicity, because it’s a cultural difference, and that would be true if we were talking about a classroom with a bunch of recent immigrants from Europe, in which case the activity would probably be modified pretty quickly because white European kids don’t have the same stigmatized expectations attached to them. When Mexican or Somalian kids fail, it’s assumed to be caused by something else, not bad teaching – it’s a crappy, baseless assumption, but you know that there are people, even well meaning people, who think that way. We’re talking about something that all of the white kids in the class can do, and likely some of the non-white children can also do, but the ONLY ones who are adversely affected are children of color. For something to be racist, it doesn’t have to affect EVERY SINGLE PERSON of that race. It is racist because it exclusively disadvantages children who are not white.

Anderson also speculates that the school is running a drumming class going on during lunch periods that is exclusively available to black and Latino boys. The basis that it is discriminatory apparently came from an anonymous letter saying that girls and children of other races had tried to sign up but were not allowed to join. It’s hard to piece together what’s going on there, since the original article is so poorly written, but what’s most likely going on is that it’s an intervention for at-risk students, as group drumming lessons have lead to positive outcomes for kids with behavioral issues. Considering the fact that 65% of the student body at the school in the article is black or Latino, there is only space for 30 students in the class, and girls at the elementary school level are known to have less behavioral issues, it doesn’t seem unbelievable that  the kids who need the class the most happen to be black and Latino boys. Anderson wrote a year ago that a teacher had reported this drumming group to the ACLU, who apparently decided not to pick up the case. Considering the fact that the ACLU takes discrimination pretty seriously, I’d wager that if they don’t think this drumming class is a problem, it probably isn’t one.

Predictably, a bunch of shitty white people are working themselves into a frenzy over this whole thing. The article somehow resurfaced over the past couple of days and people are responding as though it is recent news. They’re storming the school’s Facebook page to give reactionary 1-star reviews and idiotic commentary is spreading like wildfire across conservative outlets. Particularly offensive to these shitty white people is the fact that Gutierrez made several references to white privilege, or in other words, she pressed the panic button for shitty white people collectives across the US. Somehow, there are people who live in the US, the same US that I do, and claim not to have noticed the fact that some things are a little easier here for white people than they are for almost everyone else. More specifically, white culture is the dominant culture in the US, so when little white kids go to school, they’re likely to encounter lessons and expectations that were designed by people who share their cultural background. It’s not always intentionally discriminatory, it’s just the way things happen. That makes a difference. It doesn’t mean that no white person has ever had a hard time with shit (duh) or that no person of color has ever had an easy time with shit (obviously that happens sometimes too). It just means that most of our institutions are designed with white people in mind. It’s an advantage: one that isn’t earned, isn’t based on merit, and isn’t based on general ability or intelligence.

So when that teacher at that school decided to use the PB&J activity, their white privilege prevented them from being aware of the fact that it was an activity that wouldn’t make sense to some of the students. They likely had not had the experience of being in a classroom where things that were expected to be “universal” knowledge were not part of their personal background. Things that are problems for people who are outside the dominant culture are invisible to members within the dominant culture (until someone brings them to light). That doesn’t mean that the teacher is a racist bigot or anything like that. But it does mean that being informed and aware about that privilege will make the teacher more sensitive to the needs of students with different cultural backgrounds. Why would that possibly be a bad thing? If you don’t want to level out the playing field to help disadvantaged kids succeed, there’s something broken in your brain and I don’t know what to tell you.

This is why efforts for “equality” shouldn’t always involve treating everyone exactly the same way. As an analogy, let’s say you and all your friends are going to a movie that starts at 8pm. Your friends all have the evening off, so they decide to meet up for dinner beforehand and then walk to the theater together. You have to work until 7:30pm, so you can’t join them for dinner. Let’s say your friends demanded that you need to be treated “equally” and insisted that after you get out of work, you have to go to the same restaurant and eat dinner and then walk to the theater alone. You’re going to be really late to the movie (or maybe even miss it altogether). Would that demand make any kind of sense? Of course not. Assuming your friends aren’t totally unhinged, they’d have no problem with you just driving straight to the theater from work and maybe buying a hot dog at the concession stand or something. Because it isn’t a contest. Because it doesn’t hurt them for you to be on time for the movie. Because it’s more fun for everybody when you all get there on time.

There’s nothing wrong with making exceptions so that the system works for everybody.

It doesn’t hurt anyone to use an example other than peanut butter sandwiches in writing class.

Unless your definition of “hurt” is that you and your kids don’t get an unfair advantage anymore. If that’s your working definition, I have some advice for you: suck it up.

George Zimmerman & Interlinked Oppressions

I am so angry right now, I am actually considering deleting the photo off the top of this post because I can’t stand looking at this awful human being’s disgusting face. As many of you know, George Zimmerman, the dude most famously known for murdering an unarmed black teenager and getting away with it, is in trouble with the law again. Shocking, right?

This time, it’s for violence against his (hopefully now ex) girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, who called 911 after he smashed a glass coffee table and pointed a shotgun at her. Those of you who are big fans of his will be happy to know that he has already posted bail and is back in society! Originally, bail was set at $4900, but was raised to $9000 after the judge became aware of another allegation: that he had tried to choke Scheibe a week ago. In spite of all the horrifying information available about this situation, the judge initially was going to clear the newly bailed out Zimmerman to drop by Scheibe’s address to pick up belongings he had left there. Thank god, someone with capacity for rational human thought convinced the judge that this was a really bad, really dangerous idea and the decision was reversed.

How many times is this shit going to play out before the justice system decides to get real and protect society from Zimmerman? I’ve seen some snarky comments online already about how Zimmerman ended up in jail this time because this time his victim is white. While being white in the US is obviously a position of privilege, we need to bear in mind that he’s already out on bail and he also has, at this point, got a LONG and DETAILED history of victimizing women while remaining essentially untouchable. Just as far as known reports go, we have this awful case, just a couple of weeks ago he nailed a bulls-eye filled with bullet holes to the side of his estranged wife’s parents’ house (this is after he punched her dad and stabbed her iPad with a knife, for those of you keeping track at home), he has been accused of molesting at least two women for over a decade, and he stalked and assaulted his former fiance in 2005.

And EACH TIME, he pulls the same morally bankrupt, downright sociopathic, absolutely delirious excuse: he tears down the victims’ credibility, frames them as hysterical liars, and pretends that THEY VICTIMIZED HIM. In the most recent conflict, he made a 911 call after the police had already showed up at Scheibe’s apartment (in response to her initial call), wherein he refused to open the door to the cops that were already there and told the dispatcher that his “pregnant” girlfriend had gone “crazy”.  Oh, by the way, Scheibe is not pregant. Similarly, Zimmerman spun a wild yarn about ex-fiance, Veronica Zuazo, saying that the true story behind the stalking allegations was that she had called him because he was coincidentally “in her neighborhood” and that she had instigated physical violence against him because he wouldn’t spend the night at her apartment.  In fact, he filed a counter-claim against her and they both ended up with equal punishments: a restraining order against each other and a one year bar against possessing firearms. This really isn’t a he said/she said thing if totally unrelated women independently keep making the same claims about him over and over again.

Similarly, Zimmerman painted Trayvon Martin as the aggressor in their totally unnecessary encounter that lead to Martin’s death. Never mind the fact that acquaintances and colleagues of Zimmerman’s have stated openly that Zimmerman and his family are super racist and that he has an explosive temper. Or the fact that over the span of the previous 8 years, Zimmerman had made nearly 50 batshit calls to his local police department, often to report the “suspicious activity” of people of color, including a “suspicious” black child estimated to be 7-9 years old. Despite self-identifying as Hispanic, Zimmerman also has no qualms about making bigoted statements about Mexicans, so while he is also technically a person of color, he clearly sees himself as being set apart from them.

Let’s be clear here: these are only the things we know about. Considering how wildly under reported crimes like sexual assault/abuse and domestic violence are, the fact that Zimmerman has this much easily accessible public dirt on him should probably have everyone worried about all the awful things he’s likely done without getting caught. Shellie Zimmerman has described her estranged husband as seeing himself as being invincible and above the law, which sounds delusional until one considers the fact that it’s actually kind of true. How many times is Zimmerman going to waltz through the criminal justice system before we take his guns away for good and figure out a way to get him to stop committing acts of violence against marginalized people?

This isn’t just about Zimmerman being racist (which he is) or a misogynist (which he is), it’s about a person repeatedly exercising his social power to victimize members of oppressed groups.  We live in a culture where having plenty of money and being socially/politically well-connected delivers near-immunity from being held accountable for bad behavior – especially if that bad behavior is targeted at our society’s undesirables, especially the poor, women, sexual and gender minorities and people of color (multiply that effect by orders of magnitude when those categories overlap).

George Zimmerman is a shining example of why we need coalitions, alliances, and intersectional goals. While we all feel the effects of inequality differently and to varying degrees, it’s more important to address who does have power rather than who doesn’t. Making a few things better for one group is not going to cut it. The powerful are the ones who benefit from infighting between the disempowered: as we stand divided, we stand conquered. Dismantling institutions like white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, and class privilege is a big job – one that will take all of us. As long as any of us are being beaten, raped, murdered, starved, humiliated, or degraded because of our ascribed statuses, our identities, it affects us all. Or, in the immortal words of MLK Jr., whose eloquence and bravery I could never approach: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So, let’s start talking. What does justice look like and how are we going to get it?

On Electing a Woman President

Hello Kitty for President by Christian Lau, on Flickr


The New Republic ran a much discussed story this week, titled, “Hillary’s Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies with Elizabeth Warren”. As one might guess, much of the focus lies in pitting the politically powerful women against each other in the event of a (for now, just hypothetical) bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Author Noam Scheiber compares the two as potential candidates, concentrating most heavily on their respective involvement with and ideologies regarding the financial sector. Fair enough, but why exactly was Warren, who has not expressed any intentions of running so far, cherry-picked out of any number of other potential Democratic hopefuls? Well, here’s at least part of his reasoning:

“In addition to being strongly identified with the party’s populist wing, any candidate who challenged Clinton would need several key assets. The candidate would almost certainly have to be a woman, given Democrats’ desire to make history again.”

This is an incredibly problematic attitude. First, it reduces the desire for a woman president to a “desire to make history,” as though this is an issue on comparable footing to getting in the Guinness Book of World Records. There area a few reasons why a woman president might be meaningful:
1. It would demonstrate that the barriers that explicitly and overtly forbade women from filling this role have been lifted. Okay, so that’s been the case for a while though, right? Margaret Chase Smith ran in the Republican primaries all the way back in 1964.
2. Ideally, it would demonstrate that women have achieved equality with men in general and that they have the same life chances that could lead them to political power. This is NOT something that could be demonstrated by electing one woman president. This is something that would be demonstrated when women are generally filling positions of power commensurate with their membership in the population: roughly half the time. We already know that this is not the case at the given moment. Women currently hold 4.5% of Fortune 1000 CEO positions and 18.3% of seats in Congress.
3. Theoretically, it would mean that the interests of women were represented in the nation’s highest political office. It doesn’t take much critical  thinking to observe that this is not necessarily always the case. Remember the undeniably anti-feminist platform Michele Bachmann ran on back in the 2012 ? Even Phyllis Schlafley endorsed her.

It remains to be seen whether or not a 2016 Clinton presidency would benefit women overall, but there is plenty of reason to feel skeptical. As Scheiber notes, Clinton is deep in Wall Street’s pockets, as exemplified earlier this month when she accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars to give speeches at Goldman Sachs. She was an ardent supporter of her husband’s 1996 welfare reform, which wrought havoc on single mothers living in poverty. While she has an impressive voting record on issues like abortion, she has a deeply unsettling history with victim-blaming when it comes to sexual violence. Comparatively, Warren does seem to have a track record that indicates her theoretical presidency would be more beneficial to women in a “big picture” sense. However, as previously stated, she has not expressed any interest in running. While Scheiber’s premise may well be correct, that Warren would be better for women, his overstatement of the relevance of that information is troubling. Does Scheiber really believe that, at this point in U.S. politics, woman-friendly policies are of critical importance to the majority of voters? That pro-woman credibility is sought after to the extent that a wildly popular politician like Hillary Clinton should be worried that a non-competitor will out-feminist her?

Scheiber’s assertion that Democrats want to elect a woman just for the sake of doing it reduces women in politics to mere tokens. Given the theatrical nature of mainstream politics, this actually might be truer than one would want to believe. But, if that is the case, does it really matter which woman would be the best advocate for women’s interests? We don’t have to look very far back to be confronted with Sarah Palin’s VP candidacy in the 2008 election, wherein she described herself as a feminist during an anti-abortion speech, and famously also gained her nomination shortly after publicly admitting that she didn’t even know what the vice president does. Around that time, Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed addressing the qualitative differences between a candidate like Palin and a feminist candidate:

“This isn’t the first time a boss has picked an unqualified woman just because she agrees with him and opposes everything most other women want and need. Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”

I’ll never pretend that I see eye to eye with Steinem on every issue, but on this one in particular, she nails it. As a little girl, I used to tell anyone who would listen all about how I was going to be the first woman president. I abandoned that aspiration about 20 years ago, but I haven’t lost my passion for the subject. As a person who would love nothing more than to see women gain equal power in our society, I have little enthusiasm for efforts to artificially promote the image that we have achieved it prematurely. Whether Warren runs or not, we still have an awful lot of work to do.