Alternate Narratives

The Politics of Relationships

bogolis

Storks grazing in suburbs. I want to be a stork. Or perhaps I just don’t like my life right now.

CW: not for little kids

This is going to be some weird shit. I’m fucking a white boy, and you know shit is always weird when I’m fucking a white boy.

Probably not surprisingly, lately, I have been contemplating this question. Should I be with a person whom it makes sense to be with politically, or should I date a person who agrees with my politics? Ten times out of nine (Beyonce Carter Knowles, 2016), these two things do not occur simultaneously in the same person.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m a woman of color, right? I try to praxis in a way that centers marginalized folks. However, I’m also educated and upper-middle class. If I was with a person who politically makes sense for me, I’d probably choose a man of color, probably also someone educated and raised upper-middle class, if we’re going with a traditional partnership which my family would find acceptable. If I’m thinking of personal satisfaction in my romantic and sexual partnerships, I could also see myself with an educated woman, most likely of color as well, though class background may vary (in my experience, I seem to get along with women of color across various class backgrounds).

In a strictly political sense, these categories of people make sense for me to partner with. In practice, partnering with people like this is a whole. Other. Experience. I firmly believe that our first experiences with people of a certain identity sort of “stick” in our brains. They create patterns that we fall into again and again, if we are observant enough to notice. The first men of color I ever dated were very abusive people. There was much behavior-monitoring and slut-shaming in those relationships. Since then, I’m not sure I have rationally been able to trust men of color. The ones I am attracted to seem like surprisingly sub-par people, and I suspect these attractions originate from those early abusive relationships, where my brain now has connections between men of color and abuse. Because that is a familiar dynamic, one which I even romanticized, my brain is wired to be romantically attracted to abusive men of color. This is probably a pattern I need to dismantle if I ever hope to be with a man of color.

With women, while the dynamics are certainly less problematic, they seem vastly more nebulous. There were three women in my life that I ever felt attracted to romantically. For the first, I was so puzzled by my feelings that I never told her. She was a kindly mentor sort of person who I greatly admired in high school. She promptly went off to Harvard, never to be heard from again. The second was quite friendly, though she had a boyfriend and I never told her as well. The third is now a good platonic friend of mine, for whom I do not feel romantic attraction any more. I am not certain what kinds of patterns this sets me up for, or if indeed, a pattern is even in place for women I am attracted to.

This brings us to the second part of the question: instead of a person who seems like my political counterpart, what about people who agree with my politics? Let’s examine that, shall we? First off, very few people seem to truly “agree” with how I see the world. The ones who really do are usually my good platonic friends. I keep those relationships platonic because these people are few and far between, and the relationships are more important to me than some fleeting romantic or sexual experience.

Thus, the options I am left with are varying levels of political compatibility with another person. Even there, the data is somewhat ambiguous, as I have not devised an actual method for measuring how closely my politics align with my romantic partners’. For some problematic reason (and I think this says a lot about how we are conditioned to feel about race in America, as well as how men of different races are conditioned to present themselves as masculine people), the partners I choose are more closely aligned with me around gender politics than around racial politics. This, too, could be inaccurate because I measure the alignment, at least initially, based on what men say, and not always what they do. (The latter usually presents itself later in a relationship, and I find myself disappointed more often than not). Perhaps not surprisingly (again), this means a lot of white men. I speak entirely from experience when I say, the white men I have dated are less defensive around topics of gender. Frequently, they will agree with me about the circumstances of women. Men of color, at least the ones I have been with, are surprisingly resistant to talking about gender. I don’t think this means that men of color cannot be trusted to talk about gender, but it certainly says a lot about intersections of race and gender. I think men of color are usually so targeted with racism that to have to admit they actually have a kind of power in gender structures is actually threatening. After all, it must be confusing to be both targeted and have power. Theorists like Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins do a much better job than I do talking about why this occurs. There are a great number of social and political factors that make men of color defensive. I don’t have much to say on the subject besides, it sucks that these systems take so long to dismantle. It really does.

Anyway, after being told in a rather roundabout fashion by said white boy who I’m fucking that he cares more about the white women in his life than he does about me, I promptly find myself running out of faith in romance once again. I feel I have been swindled again, as I always am, and I become progressively cynical, deadened, hopeless. Stubbornly unwilling. I suppose this wheel grinds rather slowly. Just as I gradually discover what I will not tolerate in a professional setting, and what I am willing to suffer for, it seems that my romantic life must follow the same path. Though, uh, I think in the professional sense, I am the more willing creature. I have discovered I would much rather be in a bad job than in a bad relationship. At least a bad job still pays. A bad relationship is just a lot of bad memories clogging the sacred inner world.

Wonder Woman: A Review

wonder womanDisclaimer: Contains spoilers.

So last week, Wonder Woman was released, and I watched it alone on Monday because my family is too annoying to take with me (which is material enough to fill another entire post). Quite frankly, I’m a little disappointed at the discourse surrounding this movie, which seems to boil down to women squabbling over whether or not Gal Gadot is a woman of color (in my opinion, she is not. She is a racially ambiguous white woman. Racial ambiguity is something that should receive more attention among racial justice advocates. Sadly, I think they have moved in a rather nonsensical direction *cough*monoracism?*cough*, but again, that is for another post).

There are so many more controversial and important things going on in this movie than whether or not Gal Gadot is a woman of color.

I’m going to say my first critique of the movie is that it definitely has pacing problems. I’ve never seen anything else that Patty Jenkins has directed, so I feel like I’m kind of missing a point of comparison, but it’s definitely something she could work on. I found the most interesting parts of the movie to be the beginning, when Diana (Gadot) lives among the Amazonians, and the end, when Diana faces Ares (David Thewlis). But then, there’s this strange and heteronormative middle section in which Diana is sort of coerced to behave like a “normal” woman, and it feels like that part drags on and on. I just didn’t give enough fucks. The beginning and end were far more interesting.

I do love that the beginning contains abundant shots of the Amazonians fighting. They’re, like, badass fight scenes, too. These women train like pros. The one thing I’m a little disappointed by is how skinny most of them are. There is literally one black woman among these Amazonians who actually looks like a healthy human being. The rest, if they actually trained that hard while being that skinny, would probably have premature osteoporosis.

I’m a little disappointed that, with the exception of the ice cream scene, there isn’t a single shot of Diana eating actual food. Wouldn’t that have been a powerful scene to add about a movie about a woman superhero? Think about it, right? She’s a badass warrior. She can swim hundreds of miles. Is really good at hand-to-hand combat. Is a skilled archer. Could run for days. Wouldn’t a person burning that many calories also EAT A TON?? How the hell did the director forget such an obvious part of being a human being?? Realistically, this woman probably ate, like, 10,000 calories a day to keep up her energy! How the hell did they not put a food shot in this movie? (Consider other action movies in which men portray gods/demigods are portrayed, e.g.: Thor (2011)).

Then we’ve got…*sigh*…the middle portion of the movie *cue Leonie’s most judgmental eye roll*. So Diana meets (through some pretty violent interference) Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and agrees to go with him to his world. Not gonna lie, that scene where Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) tells her the world doesn’t deserve her almost made me cry. In some ways, Diana reminds me a lot of myself. Her overprotective mother reminds me of my own; regardless of what she says, Diana will not believe her until she experiences life on her own terms.

But then we run into this weird, heternormative narrative. I don’t get it. If Diana purportedly has only known the female form all her life, and went through puberty on the island with the Amazons, why in the whole fuck would she have sexual feelings for a man?? Would that not be similar to meeting an alien from outer space for the first time and then developing sexual feelings for it? What are the chances of a human being falling for a form with which they are not already intimately familiar? I’m just going to leave it at that.

I’m also a little miffed at this narrative around Maru (Elena Anaya). I feel like making her a villain was a little too ableist and easy. First of all, if she was smart enough to be messing around with chemicals of that caliber in the 1940’s, she was probably a highly educated woman, which was a huge accomplishment for a woman living in the 1940s. Second, it just seemed a little lazy to make her a visibly disabled person. Like, I am pretty sure anybody who worked as a scientist at the time sustained injuries from their craft. It was just a fact of working in that field at the time. For example, Marie Curie sustained some kind of cancer or radiation sickness from her work with radioactive material. Furthermore, what was referred to as “madness” or “hysteria” at the time would today probably be called “depression” or “anxiety,” which are actually highly co-related with genius (can’t find a citation, but there are studies out there). So it seems to me that Dr. Maru is a very intelligent, strategic woman who is just doing a job that will keep her alive during the war (instead of trying to escape from Nazi forces, which was tantamount to treason and would probably get her killed). The “madness” bit seems to be a sad character oversight on the part of the writers.

Furthermore, one of my friends has pointed out (and I agree) that this movie had a decidedly Western exceptionalist sort of feel to it. The best example I can think of is the scene where The Chief and Diana are conversing at night around the fire. Throughout the movie, I felt that Gadot did a great job of portraying a character with very high emotional intelligence. Later in the movie, she feels deeply for a woman and child whom she comes across at the front. However, (and I feel this is more a weakness of the script than a weakness in Gadot’s acting) when The Chief explains that his people have basically undergone genocide at the hands of Trevor’s people, there is not nearly a visceral enough reaction for a character that believes so deeply in justice. Furthermore, why would Diana then sustain sexual feelings for Trevor, a descendant of colonizers? I feel like if the script was true to Diana’s character, that point would have been significantly elaborated upon. It was a good opportunity to start a dialogue around indigenous narratives, and of course, it was tossed to the wayside.

Ugh, I’m going to get shot one day for saying this, but I also thought it was a bit on the nose to cast an Israeli actress in this role and then center the plot entirely on World War II. Like, really DC? You needed the tables to turn so literally? It couldn’t just have been a plot about good and evil like all the other DC superheroes? I can’t.

What I do appreciate about this movie, and I’m not even gonna sugarcoat it y’all, is that the white guy dies. I think that was a wise decision because of the message it sends about real-life activism. I was talking to a friend (another woman of color) who recounted that seeing this in a movie reflects what white allies should be willing to put on the line in order for marginalized people’s lives to get better. The truth sucks, but there it is. Fighting for justice is just that–a fight. Sometimes with very physical violence. Sometimes people die in the violence. Considering the number of black, Asian, Native, and Latinx lives that have been taken needlessly and/or senselessly over the course of history, this is the asking price of being a white ally. Know what it takes. Furthermore, it’s a powerful moment of cinematic justice as well. Consider the hundreds of movies in which Black, Asian, Native, and Latinx people die in movies to further plot points. The cinematic deaths of people of color has happened across so many genres–drama, action, horror, comedy even. I’m impressed to see a white death in a major action film–and not just that of a minor character, but the male lead.

I think by far my favorite scene in the whole film is when Diana refuses to listen to Trevor and crosses the battlefield to the village. I swear, I cried. I felt like this scene could be interpreted in different ways, depending on the viewer. I think the danger is if we consider Diana to be representative of white women. If that is how we interpret her character, that sets a dangerous precedent of saviorism that white women are all too eager to follow. In addition, it was also a rather impulsive thing that Diana did, and white women already do enough impulsive things which frequently endanger the lives of people of color. White women should not be encouraged to be reckless. If we interpret Diana as racially ambiguous, however, this entire narrative changes. It becomes this beautiful act of feminine power. It takes a woman (of color) to empathize with the position of women and children in a war (Which country of the global majority has not experienced prolonged wars?), and to furthermore give so few fucks about what men want her to do that she walks into crossfire alone to solve a problem that hundreds of men couldn’t solve. I think that is the kind of world we could look forward to if more women were in positions of power and didn’t keep getting assassinated, undermined, or overthrown. (No, I am not talking about Hillary Clinton. Fuck off, ye meagre Beckies).

In short, Wonder Woman was a fascinating movie. I think, as always, the premise far exceeds the execution. I do think that for her first major role in a film, Gal Gadot did a spectacular job of portraying a stranger to the world, who is both more naive and more knowledgeable than anyone can reasonably guess. I relate to her so much, as a person who was raised around immigrants my whole life and had no idea what The Real America was actually like until I left home. I think that is the mark of a good actress, being able to make familiar the unfamiliar.

The Phantom, Heart-Draining Menace

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*This post is shaped by my ace cis femme brown woman lens

As I’m writing this blog post, I’m looking next to me at (among the rest of the detritus on my desk) a pack of birth control pills. There are two sugar pills left in this month, and then I’m supposed to start a new pack, but most likely, I will not. The new box of pills is small, green and unopened, and sits next to the current pack. My logic is that it will come in handy later if I find occasion to use it before July 2018, when it expires. Fat chance of that happening, though.

A good friend of mine recently told me about this really good sexual experience she had. It sounded to me like it was good because the two people involved actually asked each other what they like, and they did things with each other that they both enjoyed. I was happy for her because this friend hasn’t always had great experiences where sex is involved, and I was glad that this experience went well.

But sometimes, being happy for someone else doesn’t always mean you are happy yourself.

I think, to my great embarrassment, I have to admit that I’m jealous. Which, for me, is shocking because I actually don’t experience being jealous too frequently. Stupid people I know think they can tell when I’m jealous, but they are usually just misinterpreting my anger or sadness. I am jealous so infrequently that I think I can actually remember every single time I have ever been jealous and why I felt the way I did.

It’s not that I’m jealous of my friend, or of the person she had sex with. No, I’m jealous because they got to have that conversation that I have been waiting to have for what feels like eons–the one where someone asks me what I want. You know, without expecting anything in return.

God, it feels good to admit that.

Because now that I have, it’s pretty obvious that the problem is not between me and my friend, but has everything to do with patriarchy.

If I am being honest, at the age of 25, I have never had a sexual interaction in which I did not feel as though I was shortchanged. As I have only ever had sex with heterosexual, cisgender men, this may come as no surprise (at least, it doesn’t to me). Even when sex was consensual (because there are times when I did not consent, but I’m not talking about those), I found myself going through the motions more so to please my partner than out of enjoyment. And I do not think I ever felt as though my partners wanted to give me pleasure. The things my heterosexual, cisgender partners would claim they “gave” me were always conditional; I was expected to give what felt like far more than what I was given in return.

At this point, I have to admit, that sounds, uh, sad. It does, it sounds rather sad, even to me, which I don’t like to admit because I don’t like to think of my life as “sad”. I think it is hard sometimes, and certainly not perfect, but definitely not “sad”. And if this is what all of my sexual experiences amount to, well, clearly something needs to change.

Maybe the sadness comes from shame, which is not logical. This is not an uncommon narrative. I know because other women have written about this same experience again and again. What is it about a patriarchal society that forces women to have to accept really sad sexual experiences? Isn’t that pathetic? We live in a world where, if you are a cisgender, heterosexual woman, you can more or less expect to feel emotionally drained, empty, and hollow after sex.

To preface this next statement, I have nothing against women who have sex with no emotional attachment. If I was capable of doing that, I would. It would make my life so much easier, not to have to think of my past relationships feeling, at best, like I was used as a sex object, and at worst, like I would like to do some really vindictive things to get back at these men. I think it’s really problematic that I have always given both physical and emotional affection in a relationship, and I have only ever received one of the two when I have always wanted both.

This realization has suddenly forced me to contend with how much I value my own heart. How many times has RuPaul told us that if we can’t love ourselves, how in the hell are we going to love somebody else? How many times did Professor Harris say that if there are too many people draining our love, there will be none for ourselves? How could I have forgotten the first rule of being an empath? Everything I do comes with a side of emotional investment. Every person in my life gets emotional nourishment from me without asking. That is the benefit of being friends with someone like me, and also, that is the thing I have to be most careful of. All of my good friends know this about me, and they also know not to take advantage of me.

So you never know, maybe I will start that second pack of birth control pills. But I feel like the better choice would be to hold myself accountable so that I don’t need them in the first place. I’m a little sad that I live in a world where I have to be this cautious. I wish I could have had a great experience with every partner I had sex with. But the fact is, straight men aren’t expected to be like me at all, and thus are usually incapable of giving me what I need unless I explicitly tell them. I’m waiting for that person who asks, and not just because they want to get into my pants. I’m waiting for the person who is willing to take responsibility for this tender and giving heart that is drained all too easily by careless, unfeeling people.

 

Impressions of Custer Died for Your Sins

cdfysThis week, I finished reading Custer Died for Your Sins (1969, 1988) by Vine Deloria Jr. My reading coincided with our newest presidential administration’s violations of land rights and first amendment rights in the #NoDAPL protest at the Oceti Sakowin camp. White supremacy is rearing its ugly head in the worst ways because of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and people of color are feeling it on every front. Deloria’s book gives me much to consider on how to fix these problems, and whether or not Deloria’s solutions, which he wrote in 1969, still apply today.

Deloria is quite the writer. I really appreciate his crass, part comedian-part philosopher style. He and Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian, which I reviewed back in July 2016, write about similar material in very different ways. These differences I attribute to a number of things, of which the first has to be sun signs. Laugh if you must, but that King is a Taurus and Deloria is an Aries is quite striking in their writing. King treats writing as an art; as I said in my post, he is like a poet. It felt as though he revered the process of creating the work almost as much as he did the content. His book also came out in 2013, a time when many of the predictions that Deloria made in his 1969 book could be evaluated. Deloria, on the other hand, unapologetically bashed the United States government, Christianity, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), whiteness, white people’s accounts of history, anthropologists, and a great number of other things with a signature coarseness. His writing is more utilitarian–a way to clearly state ideas in a way that is credible and easily distributed.

King, while born in California, most recently resides in Canada, a nation of relatively liberal, friendly (albeit, super white) people who say “eh” a lot and are a lot more sympathetic to Native folks. Deloria resided in America during his life, a place where white people consistently tell other people to “go back to their country,” even though this land clearly wasn’t theirs to begin with.

To preface my analysis, I’m going to say here that there is no way in hell I will do this book any justice because there is so much in it that is so, so important. I’ll do my best with the parts I liked.

First off, I really appreciate how fucking funny Deloria is. His opening chapter is filled with too many good witticisms on the relations between American and Indian (Deloria uses the word “Indian” to refer to the indigenous people of America). Within the first ten pages, Deloria makes fun of both American values as well as old country music:

Like the deer and the antelope, Indians seemed to play rather than get down to the serious business of piling up treasures upon the earth where thieves break through and steal (1969, p. 6). 

The implication here is that perhaps piling up treasure in a capitalist frenzy is a folly after all, since all it does is attract thieves. Or perhaps the thieves exist precisely because there is an uneven distribution of goods?

Another gem was Deloria’s comment on the “paternalism” of whiteness.

Whites have always refused to give non-whites the respect which they have been found to legally possess. Instead there has always been a contemptuous attitude that although the law says one thing, ‘we all know better’ (1969, p. 8). 

Probably any non-white understands this sentiment. Deloria doesn’t say “the respect that non-whites possess”. Rather, they are “found to possess,” as though even the existence of the damn respect is dubious until white people say it is so. Thus white people think they are the arbiters of law, what people are worth, and basically everything and anything. In truth, white people know little to nothing of the lives of people of color and how different racialized minorities relate to one another.

I also appreciate how little Deloria does to shield the scholar-reader from poverty. For some reason, in more recent books, these descriptions are glossed over, though I can’t imagine why. Oh wait, yes I can. It’s to make sure Millenials don’t have a proper class analysis. Consider his description of the Wisconsin Menominees.

The Menominees had been so poor in comparison to other Americans that the only experience Watkins [a senator] could relate his reservation visit with was his visit to refugee camps of the Near East after World War II. (p. 68). 

This was in Chapter 3 on “The Disastrous Policy of Termination”. Termination was the process in the late 50’s (p. 60-71) by which the United States government tried to end government funding of Indian entities. This is not unlike the constant conservative backlash against providing welfare. The logic is, the government gives the tribes money over a certain period for things like healthcare, building schools, and constructing homes (p. 71) until the tribe’s economy stabilizes and it can support itself. It seemed an irony at the time that the United States was concerned with “keeping its promises” in Vietnam when it hadn’t kept even one promise to the Indigenous people of America (p. 76). If anything, it continued to break those promises.

Like King, Deloria talks a great deal about land. In chapter 5 on “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum”, he states,

Most mysterious [to the missionaries] was the Indian reverence for land. When told to settle down and become farmers, most Indians rebelled. For centuries they had lived off the land as hunters, taking and giving in their dances and ceremonies (p. 103). 

In Chapter 8, “The Red and the Black”, he continues,

No movement can sustain itself, no people can continue, no government can function, and no religion can become a reality except  it be bound to a land area of its own…So called power movements are primarily the urge of peoples to find their homeland…(p. 179).

Most beautifully, in Chapter 9, “The Problem of Indian Leadership”:

But when they attempt to articulate what they are doing so that the white society can understand them, unity dissolves into chaos…Indians simply cannot externalize themselves. Externalization implies a concern for the future. Indians welcome the future but don’t worry about it. Traditionally the tribes had pretty much what they wanted…The land had plenty for everyone. Piling up gigantic surpluses implied a mistrust of the Great Spirit and a futile desire to control the future (p. 221).

While each of these three quotes alone serve their own purpose in the chapters where they are written, as a whole they also put forth a philosophy on land. Perhaps more, even, than a philosophy. The way Deloria talks about land reminds me of the way Desis talk about Hinduism or Hawai’ians talk about their religion. They are things appropriated by white people that simultaneously, white people will never understand. Even if they study these things for years in their classes on anthropology and human evolution, even if they devote their lives to these things, white people will never be descendants of the people to whom these things belong. Deloria talks about land as though it is a living entity, one that should be developed, but not in the way that Americans think. It should be developed the way a child is nurtured to grow older. Dividing up land for different purposes is as futile as claiming your arm does not belong to the same body as your head. Function does not determine entity.

Custer Died for your Sins is organized into 11 chapters of which my favorites, without a doubt, are chpater 4, “Anthropologists and Other Friends” and chapter 7, “Indian Humor”. In the former, Deloria scolds academia for its futile attempts at being useful. In the latter, Deloria comments on the many entities, human or otherwise, that plague Indian existence, though he makes them sound more like mosquitoes bothering a large creature rather than the life-threatening things they are. Arguably, that is the beauty of humor. The unthinkable and inhumane can be reduced to entertainment that Americans then actually pay attention to, hell, even pay money for.

While Deloria undertook an important task in writing this book, he is not without his faults. Although he gives ample commentary on the relations between white and black people, he gives little in the way of how Indian men and women relate to one another. Gender is not given a chapter, a weakness that King incidentally does address in The Inconvenient Indian. Deloria also has a tendency to generalize, claiming that “Indians” all feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, or behave a certain way about a great many issues (see the last of the three land quotes above). I do wonder if this is not so much a fault of Deloria’s as it is a symptom of the times in which the book was published, when identity politics did not dominate so much of academia and people were not yet compartmentalized into their little individual tribes. In 1969, divisions were still quite simple: you were either a woman or a man, a person of color or white (yes, I am aware that that is a generalization as well). These days, you must specify that you are an able-bodied, black, cisgender, heterosexual, working class, right-handed, woman, or not. If you are a person with the same social identities but you are left-handed, academia now dictates you have nothing in common with your right-handed sister.

In addition, Deloria seemed to have been very optimistic about certain outcomes when this book was written. On the revival of religion in the Northwest, he appears to have been right (p. 115). Upon rekindling their connection to their ancestral religions, the tribes of the Northwest are some of the most active at the moment (at least, it looks that way to me. All the Native activists I meet on the East Coast are from there). On how whiteness has endured (and I apologize, I can’t find my tab for this citation), he  was rather optimistic. I do wonder, though, if that is also a symptom of the times. The end of the Civil Rights, while tumultuous, was also a period of great leadership and uprising among many marginalized peoples. While we also see activism today in the Black Lives Matter movement and the #NoDAPL protest, both of the current organizations seem to be throwing pebbles at a fortress, where perhaps in the 60’s, organizers may have had flamethrowers. The playing field is not as even. I feel the actions of the movement are not making as much of a dent in the machine as they used to. Then again, I am still just discovering the whole picture, and may not be fully informed.

 

In spite of its shortcomings, Custer Died for your Sins should really be a requirement for college liberal arts degrees. There is far more in there that I did not talk about (the challenges of uniting people of a single group! The commentary on how Black and Indian relate!) that provides so much insight into community organizing and environmental justice. I now understand why this is considered a landmark of a book.

Works Cited

Deloria Jr., V. (1969, 1988). Custer died for your sins. New York, NY: University of Oklahoma Press.

On Healing

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Skies over Hillsborough Community College, Tampa, Late October. For some reason, all my good photos come from work.

CW: abortion

I have read so much bullshit on healing from trauma. So. Fucking. Much.

So for those of y’all who don’t know, I got an abortion about 14 months ago. It was difficult and sad. My partner at the time pretty much left me to fend for myself. With no one else to go to, I had to go home and tell my mother, which was neither pleasant nor something I really wanted to do. My mother is an anxious, overprotective Indian immigrant, and I knew this would break her as much as it broke me. This woman learned to drive just so she could take me to this middle school with a science program that I wanted to attend. She has never held it against me when I ate beef (we’re practicing Hindus) or got my father’s car towed (has happened twice) or done a number of other stupid things when I was growing up. Even though my pregnancy was an honest mistake, something that happened because I made a bad decision, even though it wasn’t rape, I knew the way she thought of me would fundamentally change, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it but allow her to deal.

I had to allow myself to deal as well, though my mother and I did not agree on how that should be done. I wanted to take a semester off from grad school to take care of my mental health. It did not bother me so much to think I might have to spend another year in graduate school. That seemed like a small price to pay for being healthy. I was distraught and incapable of concentration. My mother, on the other hand, was probably thinking of the amount of money it cost the family to support me while I was in grad school. My parents basically took care of rent for me because my assistantship wasn’t covering it. At the time, I selfishly thought she was being harsh, but looking back, her concern made sense because my brother was still an undergraduate going through school (with his own costs). My mother harangued me to the point that I didn’t want to be at home any more.

So I did one of the hardest things I, or literally anyone (I’d like to see anyone go through this level of shit and come out the other side with a master’s degree), have ever done. I went the fuck back to grad school. I went back to that place where enough bureaucracy goes on that even mentally healthy, hardy, and/or charismatic people want to leave. The best part is, I told almost no one about the abortion. There were maybe 4 people I trusted enough with the information. I told none of my professors, none of my co-workers, my supervisor at work, my staff, or my colleagues. It just didn’t seem like something they needed to know, though I know they probably noticed how tired I was, how lacking in emotion, how little I wanted to engage with human beings. Perhaps my entitlement is showing, but I think I ought to be given a medal of honor for having given enough fucks to finish graduate school in that condition.

My therapist has told me that people who are allowed to grieve openly usually have an easier time of overcoming grief. I wasn’t open at all about what I was grieving, so you can imagine the kind of complex shitstorm I am in now.

On healing from trauma, the one thing I might respect about the literature is that it consistently claims that everyone heals differently. That might be the only part I agree with.

The other things written about healing from trauma are so sugarcoated as to be irrelevant to my life. The literature consists of either Tumblr-tier, hippie, self-love bullshit that prescribe things like bubble baths, getting your nails done, and lighting candles (don’t get me wrong, if that works for you, do you), or it’s got this underlying narrative of “treat this poor, tragic person with kindness because they need it”. (My apologies for not being able to come up with examples at the moment. I might have rooted out all the offending articles from my newsfeeds and thus have none to show you).

The fact of the matter is, healing has not been some fun process of chillaxing and spoiling myself. It has been incredibly frustrating to feel as though I have to take time off from regular activities to heal. This is difficult to admit because it’s not as though I am some workaholic who drowns her pain in work all the time. Even before trauma, I was a person who liked to have fun. I would drop everything to hang out with friends. I would skip studying to go to a party or go on a snack run in the middle of the night. I would splurge on expensive shoes. I would buy plane tickets to some far off state at the drop of a hat. I loved the freedom of being impulsive.

But I find I am not impulsive any more. I have become cautious and guarded. While I think that has been a necessary process, I also know my life looks very different now as a result. I resent having to take time off from being social. I resent having to ask for help, and how weak it makes me feel to do that. We are surrounded by incredibly ableist narratives that dictate that a person in their mid-twenties should be at their physical peak, and should also be financially independent. Thus, it pisses me off to no end that I am not either of those things.

I am not enjoying my healing process. Perhaps this is due to a number of other things that coincide with this time, like the fact that getting a job takes forever these days, I am living with my parents again, my job pays me in bread crumbs, and I have enough bills that I have forgotten what life without debt looks like. Maybe I would fucking light a candle if I felt I had any time or energy. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to go through healing at this point in my life. In an ideal world, I’d have a community and financial support and a job that gives me fucking paid leave! But the fact is, I am healing, and I wish I didn’t have to. And that’s probably why this process is taking so long.

Thoughts on The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Content warning: Sexual assault, abortion trauma, domestic violence

You know, before I go into talking about the book, which is commendable even as I critique it, I will say it’s been a hard week. In the United States, there have been a number of really depressing developments, which I wrote about in a previous post. The newest is the #MuslimBan. I cannot overstate how dehumanizing a move that is. At the same time, though, it has sparked some pretty spectacular protests all over the country. While I personally doubt the administration cares much about why people protest, I do think protests hinder normal operations. I think this is actually where our strength lies. Hinder the normal operation of things. Throw a wrench in the gears. If things are slowing down, that means the effects of capitalism and colonization come to at least a temporary halt. That means we can buy time to do more strategic planning.

tsbuSo I recently finished The Space Between Us, published in 2005which could actually provide some insight into the turmoil that is under way. If I’m being really honest, the plot is not unlike that of The Help, except the role of Skeeter Phelan is played by Umrigar herself. That is probably my biggest critique of the book; Umrigar’s role is not unlike those of well-intentioned anthropologists who think they are “saving” Native Americans by collecting data on their lives and presenting it to the world. In reality, they take from the community without really giving anything in return. Just as Skeeter plays white savior to Aibilene, Umrigar plays upper-middle-class hero to Bhima. Umrigar claims that the character of Bhima is based on a real person who served her family when she lived in Mumbai. If that is the case, did the Bhima of Umrigar’s life ever receive any compensation for basically being her inspiration? Was she given any credit for providing the details to fill the pages of this book? While I can understand Umrigar and the person she is writing about may not keep in touch due to social taboos in India or because of the passage of time, nothing is explicitly stated about the process by which this story was told in the interview that follows the text. I prefer a little more transparency.

In addition, the “message” of the novel is a little heavy-handed if you ask me, though perhaps understandably so. The experience of poverty (which, it should be noted, is neither mine nor Umrigar’s) is to have the effects of sexism and classism compounded in everyday life. Thus, Bhima’s family experiences AIDS, an industrial accident, alcoholism, separation and displacement, sexual assault trauma, and abortion trauma. The character Sera Dubash also experiences domestic violence. You’ll notice a lot of these are phenomena that disproportionately impact women. It does feel like every few chapters, Umrigar hits us over the head with the message “INDIANS NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE STATE OF ITS WORKING CLASS WOMEN.”

By contrast, what makes this book radical is Umrigar’s descriptions of Bhima’s thoughts. The process is frequently laced with a humor that only the Previously or Currently Colonized will understand. In one example, Bhima describes her encounters with white people:

Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies…She felt sorry for them then and, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them some money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying…one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor. (2005, p.93)

Bhima has clearly never been around white people before, and her worldview reflects this reality. The beauty of her lack of (Western) education is that she does not think that structures of power apply to her (and in fact, they don’t!). Thus, she does not follow the narrative of being “less fortunate” or inferior to the white people she encounters. If anything, she truly believes she could be of help–to them! In spite of Bhima’s stubbornness, Umrigar’s description of her won me over with this passage.

Furthermore, Umrigar’s greatest strength is her ability to describe rare moments of humanity, especially those shared or experienced by women. The strength with which I relate to some of these moments is eerie. For example, this is a moment when Bhima is massaging Sera’s arm, after Sera has been beaten by her husband:

Sera recoiled. Bhima had never touched her before…Although Bhima’s thin but strong hands were only massaging her arm, Sera felt her whole body sigh. She felt life beginning to stir in her veins…Even at the sweetest moment of lovemaking with Feroz, it never felt as generous, as selfless as this massage did…When you got right down to it, sex was ultimately a selfish act, the expectations of one body intrinsically woven into the needs of another. (p. 108)

I am bemused by how Umrigar seems to know the inner workings of my head. Perhaps this is a common experience among Desis? Among women of color? Among all women, even? I am not sure, but this moment embodies the eroticism described by bell hooks, the kind that is not sexual, but life-giving. It is a kind of human connection I have only felt with other women. My tendency to intellectualize causes me to connect with people on more of a conversational level rather than a physical one. Even then, my discussions with other women make me feel more connected to them than I ever have during sexual encounters with men.

Bhima is capable of giving life with her hands. Moreover, Bhima seems to symbolize those whose humanity is still in tact to give this kind of care. She is a simple person–not stupid, but uncomplicated. While she massages Sera, her only concern is to keep the arm from scarring and to make Sera physically better; to stop what she is doing because of class divisions does not even cross her mind, though it crosses Sera’s. This seems indicative of how deeply Bhima, and people like her, knows her own and others’ humanity.

The eeriness does not stop there. Many of Maya and Sera’s experiences are ones that I relate to as well. After her abortion, Maya is described as

…stone-faced, as if the abortion doctor has killed more than her baby, as if he has…scooped out her beating heart, just as Bhima scoops out the fibrous innards of the red pumpkin that Serabai puts in her daal. (p. 129)

Maya refuses to go back to school or take a job after her abortion. Again, I question whether or not this is a universally Desi experience. It cannot be some mistake that I remember this feeling after my own abortion. I was told I would feel relief afterwards. I waited for days, weeks, and months to feel anything. I did not feel anything, and it was not until I found a therapist 9 months later that I understood why. My therapist said that a person who is allowed to mourn publicly will feel relief. This is how people move on after someone they love dies; they grieve, and their community comes together. But for many women who get an abortion, we are not allowed to grieve publicly because we do not want people to know that this is what we have done. Thus, we grieve alone and internally. No one comes to our side to comfort us. People treat us as though nothing has happened, as though we should be the same. It is not the same. Knowing I could have had a 5-month-old child right now is sometimes unbearable. My only consolation is that perhaps if I am lucky enough to give birth in this life, it will be under far better circumstances than the ones I’m in now.

Maya’s experience with sexual assault is also strikingly familiar to me. Viraf asks her to give him a back massage somewhat flirtatiously, but she is unaware of how powerless she truly is.

It felt good to be giving him so much pleasure. As her hands kneaded and caressed Viraf’s back…Maya felt important and strong–and powerful…But then he spun around so fast that for one confusing moment, her hands strummed air…and somehow [she recognized] she was the cause of that tension…And her awe turning to pride and the pride turning to panic…She protested; she did not protest. It did not matter, because it was inevitable what was about to happen…(p.277)

I admire Umrigar for the ambivalence of this excerpt. Sexual assault is rarely the violent, horrific act that Alice Sebold describes in The Lovely Bones. It is frequently much more gray. This passage is immensely complicated. On one hand, Maya seems to discover for the first time that she possesses an immense bodily intelligence–one that people who are more embedded into society’s upper crust or positions of privilege hardly know. I have a theory that because of capitalistic consumption, people in the upper strata of society cannot easily know that kind of intelligence. They listen too much to propaganda about what they are “supposed” to be doing, instead of listening to The Gut, which operates on a far more physical, sensory frequency.

At the same time, Maya’s discovery is not an invitation, and Viraf takes advantage of this moment when she is incredibly vulnerable. This is something men have done to me again and again. The power to unfurl the human body is terribly dangerous, simply because it puts one in close proximity to another person. When I was a much more naive person, men I hung out with asked if I would mind cuddling or if they could sit next to me when we watch a movie in their apartment, and somehow I never saw sexual assault coming. The word “sex” was never explicitly said, so I was never even given a chance to say “no”. And in the end, it was always me who walked away with a reputation for being “easy”. This is the power that men have–with the skills of a lawyer, they trap me in situations I cannot escape from, and then act as though it was my fault.

Sera’s experience with her abusive husband, Feroz, also reflects the hypocrisy of sexism. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she and her husband shared many friends, and these friends knew very little about the reality of her life. When her best friend asks her if she is missing her “dear husband”, these are Sera’s thoughts:

Sera looks at her oldest friend, unsure of what to say. She envies Aban her innocence, her simple way of dividing the world into love and not-love; good and bad…Does she miss Feroz? She is unsure of the answer. She does not miss the shame-inducing beatings…In fact, what she misses is not the marriage, but the dream of the marriage. (p. 160)

Sera has to deal with a complicated grief after her husband dies. Her friends and family remember him fondly as “loving husband” or “loving father”. She knows a very different reality, and is not able to share this with the people she knows because she has hidden the truth from them for the duration of her marriage. Arguably, the only person who actually knows what has transpired in her marriage are Dinaz, her daughter, and Bhima, her maidservant.

This is also a feeling I can relate to. Abuse can be convoluted when community is involved. I have avoided events, blocked people on social media, and blocked phone calls from people because of the abuse I experienced from men I used to date. I was stupid enough to choose men whose parents are friends with my parents or whose social circles intersect with mine somehow. On rare occasions (because I have mostly left these circles behind at this point) those people come up to me and tell me things like “You and that person seemed like such a great couple! Why did it end?” or “Why weren’t you at this event? We really missed you!” And I know I never give them a satisfying response because dragging the truth out in the open means defending myself against an onslaught. These people would feign confusion, defend my abusers and rapists, or tell me to get over my feelings before they admit to obvious facts–that sexism is a violent structure, that women are frequently abused by the people closest to them, and that I tell the truth.

On a last note, I think my favorite thing about this novel is the Pathan. This is a character from Bhima’s past, a man who used to twist balloons at a stall on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. A Pathan is a person of ethnic Afghan descent, and the word is synonymous with the Pashtun people. Bhima and Gopal would frequently encounter the Pathan when they were younger and went for walks together at the beach. This was one memorable exchange:

Gopal had said, “Compared to our Bombay, with the monsoons and all, your Afghanistan must seem as dried up as an old woman, no? All hills it is, dry as a bone, correct? I saw a picture of it once.”

She had expected the Pathan to be insulted, but he laughed, “Nahi, sahib,” he said in his low, dreamy voice. “My Afghanistan is very beautiful. A hard land, yes, full of mountains, but toughness has its own beauty.” (pp. 199-200)

I think it is no mistake that Umrigar evoked the image of a woman with this exchange. I think it is no mistake that the earth has always been called “Mother Earth”. Just as the Pathan defends his homeland as beautiful, I would like to think this exchange alludes to, in Warsan Shire’s words, “women who are difficult to love”.

I also think it is no mistake that the Pathan symbolizes a number of things, of which the most important are perhaps God (or a Creator of some sort) and diasporic people. He is depicted as a creator of beautiful, colorful things (his balloons) that give children joy. Yet, his life was probably not easy, as he says:

“Everybody in my homeland is a poet, sahib. The country makes you so…That is, everybody was a poet. Now the country is broken. Too many people fighting over the poor land, and the land is sick in its heart. Night and day it is weeping. Now it cannot take care of its sons and daughters…There is a saying in my community…They say that when something is very beautiful, the Gods of Jealousy notice it. Then they must destroy it. Even if it’s their own creation, its beauty begins to make them jealous and they are afraid it will overshadow them. So they destroy the very temples they have built.”(pp. 200-201)

This excerpt made me cry the first time I read it. I’m not sure I can even convey what it means to me, but I can tell you what images come to mind. I think of Natives fighting for their land, and for the right to live, and for a chance at creating a more meaningful life than the one the American dream offers. I think of all the immigrants that come to this country under the illusion that life is going to be better, only to find out being successful in this country is a pipe dream, and perhaps even to be turned away at the doorstep. I think of the land we live on being ravaged for its resources, in order to keep feeding a capitalist existence that allows for a select few to live in luxury that the vast majority of people will never know. I think of the wars of this century and the last, almost all of them started over colonial feuds, and which only colonizers have any hope of “winning” (what does that even mean? To “win” a war? At what cost are wars won? How inhuman do you have to be to want that?).

In short, I admire the depth and reverence that Umrigar gives to her characters. While I wrote a pretty lengthy post here, I still have a great number of thoughts on this novel, things I am still grappling with because I struggle to find the words to describe them.

The Creating Change 2017 Review

I got back Sunday night from my first ever Creating Change conference! To give you all a brief roadmap fo this post, I’ll be talking about the experience by first evaluating how accurate my predictions were from the Preview, and then evaluating the conference itself.

For the evaluation, I have devised a system of 5 categories that I will use to assess my experience. The categories are Venue, Crowd, Workshops, Logistics, and Utility of Experience. I find that venues are really important for conferences. It can become obvious very quickly if a venue is not equipped to accommodate a conference. Venue is closely tied to Logistics, though it gets its own category because the venue and conference logistics are handled by two different sets of humans. The venue is sometimes more closely tied to the community, whereas the conference may not be. Crowd just means who attended the conference. As in, what kind of human beings were there? I know it’s super judgmental to make this a category, but to be honest, it’s the make-or-break category for me. A lot of my enjoyment comes from the people I meet. Workshops are undeniably important as well. The topics of workshops tells me what is relevant to the community at the moment. It also tells me who the conference thinks is worthy of attention. Lastly, Utility of Experience refers to what practical information I can take from the conference. Basically it answers the question, did I get something out of it that I can apply to my life? After all, when I’m paying money to go, I do want some useful information.

I will evaluate each category on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the lowest score and 10 being the highest score. I am aware of the problematic nature of quantifying what is arguably a qualitative experience, but I find that quantifying gives people some idea of my own standards so I don’t just seem like a needlessly critical person.

Implicit Biases

I will acknowledge here that there are certain biases with which I approached this conference. The first and most obvious one is that I am a cisgender femme person of color, so I don’t necessarily look queer and might therefore be treated differently than people who are visibly queer. I am also bisexual/pansexual/asexual, which frequently impacts my ability to find community of any sort.

In addition, my experience of this conference is impacted by my past experiences. The most recent conferences I went to were the New England QTPOC Conference (2015), East Coast Asian American Student Union (2014), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (2013). If you can’t tell from the titles, all of those conferences were by and for people of color. Of those three, Advancing Justice was by far my favorite. I attended that conference as a senior undergraduate. Most of the workshops at that conference were panel-style, so we had access to many working professionals who came from a community organizing background. These were people who are passionate about what they do, and eager to encourage young people to find their voice, so the Utility and the Crowd factor were very high (I did, in fact, find an internship with Advancing Justice in 2015). I must concede, I judge most conferences based on my experience at Advancing Justice (neither ECAASU nor NEQTPOC compared even remotely).

Furthermore (and I will most likely talk about this further in the Logistics section), I actually ended up not going to about half the workshop sessions of Creating Change. This was partly because I wanted to explore Philadelphia, a city I have never visited before. It was also partly because as a person who works evening shifts, I just can’t be awake at 9:00am. At least 2 days of the 5 days that I attended, I slept in so that I could recover from the early schedule of the day before, and to avoid becoming sick.

Evaluation of Preview

Reading my preview is really funny now because I seem to know myself quite well. All of my hopes were accurate. I did nearly all of my processing with one of my friends from graduate school. I’m so thankful she was present or this conference would have been a hot mess for me. As it turns out, the Racial Justice Institute was one of the high points for me. Being in spaces exclusively for POC was a great way to start. Exploring Philly was another high point. My friend and I ate a lot of good food and saw the entirety of the Philadelphia Art Museum during the course of our stay.

My concerns were equally accurate. As it turns out, I did sleep in on a number of days. I think pacing myself the way I did helped with processing, as does writing. As it turns out, there was one solitary caucus group for asexual/aromantic people. It was on an evening when I was out with a friend, though, so inevitably, I didn’t go (which tells you something. That was the one intentional space for aces. There are some identities in the queer spectrum that were given 3 or 4 workshops/caucuses). I did get to connect with Bi/Pan/Fluid folks, another set of identities that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, so that was nice. The conference did feel like it was geared toward students, though. With the exception of one hour-long caucus group at the end of Thursday, there was very little to help young professionals connect with mentors or one another. There were a lot of workshops to help community organizers increase outreach, but not a lot for helping people gain jobs with those organizations. Thus, it was difficult for me to feel involved with the community at times.

Evaluation of the Conference

Venue: 8

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The Philadelphia Marriott Hotel on the foggy morning of Saturday, January 21

This hotel staff was unbelievably friendly. I didn’t think it was possible to find people in the north who meet my Southern standards for hospitality, but these people did. It probably doesn’t hurt that the city of Philadelphia is like, 44.1% Black (US Census Bureau, 2014, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/00) and therefore doesn’t feel as northern as, say, New England. The hotel staff of the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown was excellent. They would greet me the second I walked in, and they were very helpful with directions to places both within and outside of the hotel. And the hotel is beautiful, too. While it was somewhat labyrinthine at times, it was very accessible, with elevators and escalators to all the conference floors. The only thing that keeps me from giving the conference a 10 in this category is that a lot of the time, the bathrooms were not too clean. Honestly, even just a little air freshener would really have made a difference. In addition, there was not too much space to lounge. The lobby only had two small sitting areas for a conference of some 4,000 (number may not be accurate) people.

Crowd: 5

I’ll start with the good. I think the workshops that intentionally attracted POC did a great job (both with regard to facilitators as well as audience). Those were definitely the spaces where I actually had fun and felt like I could talk to people in the room. This was regardless of the social identities of the POC in the room. Across the board, the spaces that were exclusively for POC were more comfortable for me. I’ll give you an idea of how I felt the rest of the time at Creating Change. While I was there, I did present almost exclusively feminine; so lots of sweater dresses and makeup and boots. If I’m being honest, from what I could observe, there were very few people (feminine, masculine or otherwise) who presented feminine at all (with the exception of people in the POC spaces. So if I could put an emoji here, it would be the “hm…I wonder” one.) Across the board, the “uniform” for this conference seemed to be some variation of jeans, combat boots, sweatery things, and maybe a beanie if folks were feeling real adventurous. Perhaps this is a little cissexist or classist of me to say, but it felt very high-school. And in the same breath, the femmes I did see were so unapologetic, which I love. They wore things like off-the-shoulder dresses or magenta pants or badass red nail polish. If you are one of those people, I salute you.

There were also very few fat people except, again, within POC spaces. Somehow, I’m thinking none of these things are coincidences. In short, this crowd did not impress me. There are some exceptions to this rule, but it seemed really white.

Workshops: 5

The workshops at this conference were very hit-or-miss. I think my Friday morning workshops had a big impact on this score. I felt like I wasn’t finding my mojo. I came late to my first session (BPFQ: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, Queer Interesecting Identities on College Campuses), which had been moved to a different room because there were a lot of people in attendance. I didn’t think to ask until about 15 minutes after I got there, and then I moved to the actual session. It seemed like it had been really good, but by the time I got there, the room was in small groups for the last activity. I was still able to join a group, and they were having a great conversation, but I didn’t get to see much of the workshop. My second session (Confronting Islamophobia in the LGBTQIA+ Community) was hard to watch. It was clear to me that the facilitator was wildly nervous. They seemed to cater to people who had never before engaged with Islamophobia. It seemed very introductory. Also, the audience was not woke at all. There were a handful of about 5 people basically carrying the conversation, but a lot of the (white) people there refused to speak at all, probably out of fear of their own racism. I left about halfway through and found another workshop (Faith and Family Acceptance in the API Community). The facilitators in this one were more comfortable and had created a welcoming space by putting the chairs in a circle. But by the time I got there, they were on their last story and were really in the closing stages. I think after those first few sessions, I was not too enthusiastic about more workshops, and I chose instead to explore Philadelphia. I didn’t attend another session until Saturday night, but those were the better ones I attended (Not Your Respectable QPOC, and the South Asian Caucus). In Not Your Respectable QPOC, I received very little practical information, but it was great to find a community of individuals who empathize with me when I describe racism. The South Asian Caucus was interesting. I don’t think any of us necessarily agreed on what was most important, nor could we agree on how to talk about the issues, but I thought that was a good thing. It is an indication that a space like that is needed to figure those things out.

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Participants at the Not Your Respectable QPOC Workshop

Logistics: 3

I do wonder if this is the real reason why the workshops were not quite what I expected. The logistics of this conference were strange. On one hand, I did appreciate the 90-minute sessions. It was long enough to really delve into a topic. However, if it was a boring session, it also took a while to figure it out so I could go to one that I actually cared about. I didn’t attend the lunch plenaries or the keynote for this reason. If they weren’t fun, who knows whether or not I would be comfortable leaving. In addition, there were SO. MANY. WORKSHOPS. According to the website, there were 250 in the course of about 2 days, not counting the day-long institutes or Leadership Academies. There were 4 sessions a day, so for any given session, a person had to choose one of about 30 workshops. THAT. IS. RIDICULOUS. I understand this allows for a large variety, but I think a better screening process is badly needed, especially when some topics are getting 4 workshops and some are getting just one. (Granted, I do understand that some queer identities urgently need that kind of visibility, and I don’t think that should be overlooked. But also…why the hell do we need to talk about atheism and faith communities so much? Is that really a pressing issue?! I would think more about getting jobs or applying for healthcare is in order!). But then again, what do I know.

I feel like this problem could be solved by making sessions or lunch shorter and spreading workshops out over 5 sessions a day instead of 4. At least then, we don’t have this ponderous dilemma of choice. In addition, I would definitely advocate for starting later. Maybe one session before lunch and more after lunch.

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This is the schedule for only half the Friday workshops. The entire schedule looked like this. SO MUCH STUFF.

Utility of Experience: 5

As of right now, it’s hard for me to tell whether or not the experience was useful. I did get to meet a few student affairs professionals, and many of them said they were going to NASPA, so I look forward to seeing them again and possibly building more community. I do feel lucky to have found people in my field of work who identify the same way as I do.

However, they’re so far away! Everyone is up north or way out west. I’m always the only one in the South. *Sad face emoji*

In general, I feel like my interests don’t match the community’s, and perhaps that is why this conference didn’t really serve my needs. I have no interest in being out to anyone. I feel like the healing that could happen for me occurs mostly around QPOC, who don’t seem to care as much that “queer” is much further down my list of priorities than my more visible identities as a brown person and a woman.

I do think that queerness needed to be talked about more explicitly. I know I should probably take a gender studies class if that’s what I want, but I don’t like school, or more accurately, how much money school costs. While I could read a book, I also like the process of externalizing my thoughts, and I wish I had had more opportunity to do that at the conference.

~*~

In short, I do think either my expectations might have been too high, or Creating Change is slightly overrated. Frankly, the experience leaves me wishing there were more regional conferences for people like me. I know in Tampa, there are a huge number of queer clubs, but I’m not a night life person. I’d much rather meet in the day. Right now, besides student organizations, I don’t see a whole lot of opportunity for that. Here’s to hope for the NASPA Conference.

The Monolith Myth

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Light in the night. Source: Leonie

I’m going to tell you all a little story. So I work in a tutoring center in a library at a community college. I work on a relatively tightly knit staff. All ten of the writing tutors know each other, and the younger ones frequently socialize outside of work. I remember this was a conversation I overheard one day, between two of the tutors, one a multiracial Asian man (MM) and the other a middle-aged white woman (WW). It should be noted, the story being told is, if I remember correctly, the story of how the multiracial man’s parents met.

MM: …at that point, my mother was thrown out of the house by my grandmother. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because my grandmother was a pretty abusive person.

WW: Oh…how horrible.

MM: She used to do things like beat my mother with a broom. So she [his mother] needed a place to stay after being kicked out of her house.

WW: I used to know a Korean girl whose mother would beat her, too.

This was the point at which I removed myself from hearing distance of the conversation because I knew exactly what was happening. It’s something that happens a lot to people who belong to racial minorities. I suspect that, as a person who is multiracial and who has been raised by and befriended a lot of white people, the Asian man telling this story is a little naive to the intrusive and often dangerous assumptions white people make about marginalized people. Thus, he did not edit out the details that people of color usually do around white people to protect the collective that is their community.

As for the white woman, it was as though I could see the little gears turning in her head. I could see her trying to connect dots which are not meant to be connected. She hears one story about an abusive Asian mother. Her memory is jogged to another time when she encountered an abusive Asian mother. Just like that, a stereotype is born! Now she believes all Asian woman are abusive to their children.

And this is not some new occurrence in my life. I went to a graduate degree program that was dominated by (bless their hearts) white queers. Because I am obliged to (and only because I liked my program adviser), I will say here that there are a small handful of white people in my program who genuinely try and are doing the work to recognize their role in a racist society. And then, there are all the rest.

Their judgment came every day like the morning news. Black men? Too aloof, militant, very sexist, not worthy of attention. Asian women? Scary, too opinionated, emotional, incapable of restraint. Black women? Think too highly of themselves, standoffish, stingy, secretive. Latinos? Clannish, always hungry, annoying, not prepared for the academy. The only way you won approval as a person of color was if you were queer and you outwardly showed more commitment to the queer community than to any other marginalized community.

In front of that group, where we were so frequently asked to talk about our social identities and our upbringing as part of classroom participation, I found myself hiding the truth about my family. I was not about to give these Northern white people any other reasons to look down upon me, my family, or the community of brown people that raised me in a Southern city. So I did not tell them about how hard it actually is for me to go home, to live with a mother who constantly comments on my weight and how I dress, who thinks that using a vibrator leads to becoming a prostitute (like a gateway drug), who always has to know where I am going and who I am with, even though she never gives my brother the same constraints. I did not tell them because I could not. How could I express the truth without throwing my family under the bus? How could I tell the truth without allowing white people to think my mother is an uneducated, backwards, primitive person who suffers greatly from internalized sexism? How could I give voice to my individual experience without having white people conjure the image of the Starving Brown Child in India, just waiting for their help? How could I say those truths without sounding as though I was inviting white people to save poor little brown me from the clutches of my medieval South Asian parents?  These are things I only ever talk about with woke people of color.

Instead, I only acknowledged the good things about my community in front of my colleagues–the parts about how, as children, we were basically raised gender-neutral until we reached puberty, and how radical that was. Or how arranged marriage was actually a financially and socially radical thing to do because it gave us kids the social capital we needed to survive in America. Or how the sex-negativity of Asians is also a radical concept because it precluded queer people from being ostracized from society. They only got to know the radical stuff. They were only allowed to see my community in a good light. I would not expose my community and my heart to the degrading nonsense of a bunch of people who think meals can be made out of oats and kale. Or worse, a bunch of people who think that because they understand Foucault’s theorizing, they are somehow the designated saviors of the Previously Colonized World.

You’ll notice, of course, this left (and perhaps, still leaves) me rather isolated. I present one truth to the world, and that is the only way I allow them to perceive me, and I know another, very different truth. This is not a strange or even rare practice. For people of color completing graduate degrees, compartmentalizing in this manner is a commonplace tactic.

If I’m being honest, I do not know that I have yet come across anything that feels like a solution to this problem, the problem of white people lumping people of color into monoliths, in which no one person of color is discernible from another. I also do not think I am obliged to find one. I think, before I even jump to solutions, it is worth proposing, to all communities, actually thinking about what this implies for our realities. What does it mean for people of color to constantly be protecting their communities? What kind of toll does it take on us to never tell anyone the whole truth? What are the implications when communities of color frequently don’t have access to things like mental health counselors because these are not critically conscious institutions and/or because counselors are too expensive? What does it say about the still-predominantly-white country we live in that we have to protect our communities when we are in the academy?

And for white people, what does it mean that communities of color go to this length to make sure you don’t interfere with their affairs? What does it mean when people of color are not comfortable telling you the truth about their upbringing? What does it mean that people of color try to protect their communities from you? What does it mean when people of color do not trust white people whose gender analysis is stronger than their racial analysis? What does it mean that in Massachusetts, a place that claims to be pretty liberal, a person of color can feel unimaginably lonely?

 

I don’t really have answers. I’ll end on this note. A few days ago, I went to the wedding reception of an old friend. All the people there were brown, and they acted like it, with moms feeding kids with their bare hands and people shoving people out of the way with absolutely no manners. I was going to post a funny status on Facebook about how you know you’re at a brown party when you feel like you’re surrounded by barnyard animals. It was just people having a good time. If it was a wedding reception full of white people, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. But I thought about how a post like that might come off to people who only know one brown person, or none. I thought about the mile-long list of stereotypes that already exists for my community. Did I want to add “barnyard animal” to that list? No, I didn’t. So I decided not to.

On the Women’s March on Washington

What you’re about to see is an excerpt from several posts I made on Facebook in response to a status I posted. In the status, I posted a, more or less, rhetorical question. I asked “Did anybody march on Washington when Shirley Chisholm lost? When Patsy Mink lost?” (Leonie, personal communication, December 22, 2016). Someone responded to the post with a rather ahistorical argument about why a women’s march on Washington today is different from a march that would have happened in the 70’s (as opposed to a continuation and/or appropriation of historic events).

Anyway, they posted an article, to which I posted this response. The article link is listed below, followed by my response.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/women-march-on-washington-organizers_us_58407ee8e4b017f37fe388d1

My response:

Fair enough, let me back up for a minute. So I read the article you posted. The women of color who they are talking about are legit, have been doing community organizing for a long time, and the facts check out thus far. But I’m also noticing some inconsistencies. The article does a great job of articulating the exact concerns that I have mentioned, but has an interesting way of addressing them. It starts right off the bat by mentioning Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour. They go on to explain the perceived shortcomings of the march–the lack of inclusion, the appropriation of work done by women of color in the past. Mallory, Perez, and Sarsour are purportedly taking part to show that the march is inclusive of women of color, and they are fully committed. However, and here’s the first red flag for me, the writer never really specifies in what capacity. Are they included in planning? Are they speaking? Are they doing logistics? Are they planning the agenda? It doesn’t really say. In fact, the headline says the women are “leading”–not necessarily planning, and I don’t even really understand if they volunteered, or if they were asked to participate by others. The article repeats over and over again that they are great activists, but says nothing about what they are contributing to this march. Does that not seem a little suspect to you? Almost as if they were brought on board only to hide how white this group is?

I clicked on the link from the quotation “almost all white”. It takes me to a Facebook post from the March on Washington event page, written by one of the co-chairs (who is definitely white, btw) and she says their first step was “to engage” Perez, Mallory, and Sarsour. This was on 11/20. The article you posted is from 12/1. It’s just interesting to see how the semantics change in that period. They go from “engaging” the activists, you know, a friendly little inclusion thing, to having them “leading” the march. Maybe I’m reading into things, but this is what it sounds like to me: “yup, this was not started by 4 white women named Bob Bland, Evvie Harmon, Fontaine Pearson, and Breanne Butler at all. Not at all. We pinky promise. It’s all the women of color. All them.” Like, is that not kinda weird? Does it not smell to you like they are overcompensating for the overwhelming whiteness of the group planning this?

Furthermore, in the article, there is absolutely nothing about what these women hope to achieve, talk about, or envision for this march. Sure, it is a march for women. We get it. But what does that mean? Does it mean equal rights in the workforce? Does it mean economic equity? Does it mean protection from harassment? Does it mean communicating with law enforcement about protection for women? Does it mean reproductive justice? Does it mean building strong coalitions among women of all racial backgrounds? (Don’t give me that crap about “it’s about all of the above”. How many movements have we seen start like that? (I’m definitely thinking of the Occupy Wall Street movement) Every successful action has always stated clear and precise goals). And that’s the thing. Admittedly, my experience with community organizing is amateur at best. But from what little I know–and from what I know as a human adult, if this was an event that had a lot of intention behind it, it would have been planned a little more thoroughly. This does not seem like something that has been given careful planning and thought. In fact, later in this post, I’ve included a link to an article that says this march was started precisely because Hillary did not win the presidency, and is being held on Jan. 20 precisely because Trump is being sworn in that day [edit: It is being held on Jan. 21, to the same effect]. So I am going to have to disagree with you; this march is ALL about Hillary, and from what I’m seeing of an agenda, little else.

If you still don’t believe me, here’s the last point I’ll make. The Huffington Post article says the organizers STILL–as in, on 12/1, 7 weeks before this historic march thing is supposed to happen–don’t even have the permit that says “yes, these women are allowed to march at the National Mall”. Sure, this seems like a minor detail. They can march somewhere else. They might have gotten the permit by now. But doesn’t it seem a little strange to you that these women are putting together a serious action, calling women of color to their side to defend their actions, telling hundreds of thousands of women on Facebook–but they still don’t even know whether or not they can hold it in the place where they want it to be? Isn’t that a little careless? Doesn’t it seem as though they are using the labor of an awful lot of women of color for what seem to be rather flimsy ends?

And like, that’s not even to mention this group that supposedly was part of the planning for this march but has apparently degenerated into a joke: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/panstuit-nation-is-a-sham_us_585991dce4b04d7df167cb4d

Sorry, can’t resist, there’s just one last point I wanna make. Does it not speak volumes about the depth of white privilege that this white woman in Hawaii apparently called for a march, and then magically, one is happening? http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-women-idUSKBN13U0GW

So yes, Travis is probably right in saying the two situations are very different. But look, if you want to go to this march, and you think it will help women in America, and you think it is the right thing to do in this moment, then I absolutely support you. I hope it achieves everything you hope it will. I really do. I hope it is a great march. But if something goes wrong, and I cannot understate this next part, do you understand how awful–AWFUL–it will be? Do these women understand that they will be accountable for EVERYTHING and ANYTHING that happens during this march? That it will absolutely be on them? I just don’t think they do. That’s why I’m not supporting this thing. I’m not trying to scare you, but I hope you are thoroughly informed about the possibilities of what could happen. But if you honestly think the march will make a difference, then I absolutely support you, and I hope you are right. I hope you are right.

My Impressions of Female Masculinity by Judith Halberstam

femalemascI was a little dubious when I borrowed this book from a friend I made at work. My first exposure to gender theory was literally only two years ago when I started my master’s in education, from the perspectives of women of color, specifically Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress. These women take a rather unorthodox approach to gender theory in the first place, discussing not only both gender and race, but also dedicating significant space to eroticism and emotion, subjects that are to gender theory as mysticism is to religion. I had never read anything from the white queer canon, let alone anything on masculinity. As a feminine woman, I find it a little difficult to warm up to conversations about masculinity at all, since it seems to me that the written word in nearly every field is dominated by men.

(Admittedly, these recent posts have digressed from my comfort zone of Asian American feminism and critical race theory. I think this is actually for my own good, as I’ll explain as this post progresses. I notice I seem to parenthesize a lot in my posts as well. Clearly, I have not yet mastered this Western concept of linear thinking.)

To give you an idea of the potential of Halberstam’s work, I’ll start with a personal experience. While I was a student at UMass Amherst, I remember there was a department known as the Men and Masculinities Center. A lot of people from my program were involved with the programming in that center, so I never felt entirely comfortable critiquing it while I was at UMass. From my understanding, the center was created for men to have a space to deconstruct their masculinity away from the prying eyes of…gee, I don’t know, women? And that’s what annoyed me so much about it. Why the fuck do women’s community centers on college campuses always have to act as though men are allowed, no, invited even, into those spaces, but men are supposed to have their own “private spaces” away from the mean, nasty gaze of feminists? In fact, theirs are justified in not allowing folks of other genders in? Especially when men dominate literally every public space available? How was that fair? How were we paying tuition for that space to exist?

It should be noted, queer masculine people are rarely comfortable entering the Men and Masculinities center even now. Across the board, people I knew at UMass who identified as gay, transgender, butch, or just not as cisgender, heterosexual-passing men, did not ever go to events at the Men and Masculinities Center. I know a part of that is perhaps marketing and misunderstanding, but doesn’t it say a lot when queers actively avoid a space?

In contrast, Halberstam introduces this concept that, far from causing me disgust, actually wins my admiration. She talks about masculinity without men (1998, p. 1), a possibility that is radically simple, yet I had never conceived of it before I read this book. I still can’t say I can define masculinity, but I can commit to this much–the crusading feminine queers who go around demonizing everything that is masculine are, uh, kinda wrong. Yea, I said it. I think we have to consider the likelihood that there are many kinds of masculinity, that as a matter of fact, there are people who firmly identify as women but also identify as masculine, and that not everyone who identifies as masculine has access to the institutional benefits afforded to masculine people.

In the book, the three chapters after the introduction are admittedly rather boring for me (though I understand Halberstam is probably required to lay down this very thorough foundation in order to gain credence in the academy). I did appreciate the history, since I’m still quite new to queer studies. I’m guessing the literary subjectivities were also a necessity for Halberstam’s academic legitimacy, though if I’m being honest, I really wish the academy would do away with this requirement. With the exception of analyses based on journals, most literary analyses literally just seem to me like the author’s way of saying they read a book about this subject at some point in the past. I’m sure you’ll remember this opinion of mine reflected in my reflections on Ingratitude by erin Khue Ninh.

But shit hits the proverbial fan in chapter 5, when Halberstam talks about butch/FTM border wars (p. 139). I especially liked her caustic commentary on Amy Bloom’s interviews of transsexual men. This sentence kind of sums up Halberstam’s opinion of this super-misinformed journalist, “What a relief for Bloom that she was spared interaction with those self-hating masculine women and graced instead by…men!” (1998, p. 158). Bloom didn’t seem aware of her own internalized sexism. As though people who are masculine are not worthy human beings unless they convincingly pass for men. Here, I would insert the eye-roll emoji.

But I also genuinely appreciate Halberstam’s introduction of intersectional politics in this chapter. One comment of note is when she draws attention to the one black FTM transsexual man, who admits he does not expect to be accepted just because he is convincing as a man. Halberstam states, “as in so many other identity-based activist projects, one axis of identification is a luxury most people cannot afford” (p. 159). In my experience, oppression can never be distilled to just one identity. I love that Halberstam is more complicated and experienced than many white queers who scream about pronouns all the time (or whatever the 1998 version of “pronouns” was), but rarely show support for communities of color or the poor. Halberstam has a comprehensive understanding of race and class politics. Maybe I just hung out with the wrong queers (let’s be real, New England is pretty white), but until now, I hadn’t read a whole lot of queer white theorists who were this legit.

She keeps it up, too. She calls out (hard!) people’s ability to afford transitioning, to move homes, to have no home, and even to use metaphors (p. 173). Halberstam points out that there is a reality that exists for white men–one that is highly coveted, and that anyone who can will try to access–where doors magically open to the academy, to jobs, to housing, to health care, and to a great many institutions. Other people cannot even pretend they can gain access to these things because they have to deal with the realities of survival.

The other two chapters talk about butches in film, and drag kings. While neither quite compares to chapter 5 for me, I do think the sheer amount of research Halberstam did is worth mentioning. She cites enough film and literature in her book for me to receive a whole damn education. I can’t imagine how many years it took to watch/interview/read/compile all of these sources, but it’s an incredible repertoire, and one that I definitely plan to tap into.

(Is it rude of me to state here that erin Khue Ninh should take note?)

In spite of some shortcomings, I’m genuinely impressed. While Female Masculinity does suffer at times from the density of analysis (a critique I have of all books on gender theory), I did actually learn something, which tells you there’s enough in there to keep a broad interested.