How to Deal with Trump-Supporting Relatives at the Holidays

Spoiler alert: I don’t know exactly how you should deal with your racist relatives this holiday season. Every family situation is obviously markedly different, and will call for different strategies. But it will probably be helpful for us to think through this together before you go—don’t you think? With the election behind us and #trumpocalypse looming large, this is more important than ever.

Spoiler alert: I don’t know exactly how you should deal with your racist relatives this holiday season. Every family situation is obviously markedly different, and will call for different strategies. But it will probably be helpful for us to think through this together before you go—don’t you think? With the election behind us and #trumpocalypse looming large, this is more important than ever.  Continue reading “How to Deal with Trump-Supporting Relatives at the Holidays”

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Anita Hill Hearings Sparked National Conversation on Sexual Harrassment

“I think it was something that was meant to happen, actually,” Hill explained. “I had an experience to share that went to the fitness of an individual who was going to be sitting on a Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment. It was important, not only to the integrity of this individual, but also to the integrity of the court itself.”

In the years after Hill’s testimony, the number of workplace harassment complaints to the EEOC skyrocketed as more and more people became comfortable with the idea of speaking up. Though Hill recognizes the role she played in sparking a national conversation about sexual harassment, she stressed the fact that there’s still much more work to be done.

via 25 years after accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, Anita Hill says she’d ‘do it all again’ — Fusion

#FeeltheBurnout: Can We Keep Caring?

Actually, I could care less.

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For those who try to navigate the world from a place of care, life can be exhausting.  Caring as a lifestyle is a recognition of the threads that tether us to each other and to the world; it is an affirmation of our interconnectedness.  But there are so many things to care about, so much suffering, cruelty, and injustice.  Human and animal suffering, the environment, social justice, poverty, hunger, political and institutional corruption—these all seem to be things we have an ethical obligation to care about.  So how do we navigate our whole lives from a place of care without burning out, without retreating into apathy from the sheer inundation of the world’s problems? How do we recognize and meet others’ claims on us?  It can be so much easier to walk a narrower path, to move through the world guided by an ethics of self-interest rather than an ethics of care.  Let me say from the start that I don’t have the answers. 

Compassion fatigue is well-documented among those in what we can call the caring professions, from doctors, nurses, and veterinarians to, more broadly, social workers, aid workers, emergency first responders, and even defense lawyers.  I’ve seen it among activists in documentaries.  For example, the two young women in 2015’s The Hunting Ground (Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark) who have dedicated their lives to helping other survivors of sexual assault, who listen to their stories and sometimes talk them down from suicide, at certain points seem understandably overwhelmed by the responsibility.

Maybe sympathy must be balanced with a measure of detachment.  In another documentary, 2014’s Pelican Dreams, I noticed a technique used by a man who rehabilitates pelicans that have been injured by increasing human interference in their environment.  The filmmaker at one point asks the name of a particular pelican, and the rehabilitator insists gruffly that he doesn’t name them.  He just uses numbers to keep track of them.  But it’s not because he doesn’t care about them; his every word and action shows he does.  The not-naming is a deliberately adopted measure to prevent himself from caring too much, from getting too attached, so that he can still sleep at night after releasing a bird back into the hazardous world.

I have a friend who is a counselor for troubled teenagers.  I’ve seen counselors and therapists who, having been in their profession for a long time, have found it necessary to build a self-protective wall between themselves and their patient’s suffering.  They have to remain detached, to let their patient’s problems go when they leave work, or they’ll be consumed by the suffering of others.  But how do they balance empathy and detachment?  How does one draw boundaries around care?  My friend is still learning; her work still follows her home.    

This same friend uses the metaphor of a bucket: she pours her whole bucket of emotional investment into her work.  In order to replenish that bucket, she has to practice self-care; she has to spend time not thinking about work, or, conversely, spend time talking with people in the same line of work who understand.  Humor helps too, she says; this reminds me that I’ve heard of nurses making jokes about patients in a way that would seem insensitive to outsiders, but really just allows the nurses to stay afloat emotionally. 

But you don’t have to be someone who specifically works in a field that alleviates suffering to experience compassion fatigue.  You can feel it as someone who nurses your aging parent or your sick child, who volunteers at a shelter for the homeless or a shelter for animals, who has a friend with PTSD, or who just reads the news daily.  So many of us are in some sort of constant contact with the suffering of others, and need to find the balance between apathy and taking all that suffering on ourselves.  Caring is hard emotional labor—the kind that, in many of its forms, has been most often demanded of women, and is rarely renumerated.  Given this, new demands on our care can leave us feeling resentful.

I have an email account specifically for the emails I receive from animal welfare or environmental organizations.  Once or twice a day I check it, sign countless petitions.  Occasionally—not often enough—I send money.  Sometimes stories or images in those emails, or in mail sent to my house, will haunt me for days, weeks, longer.  I feel angry at the human cruelty and ignorance they often expose, and frustrated at my own helplessness.  But that anger and frustration irrationally redirects itself at whatever organization is giving me this information, and thus asking me to recognize another claim on my care.  (Did you really have to include that graphic image, PETA?) It’s the same with ASPCA commercials; I have to change the channel immediately.  See me. Care about me.  That’s what the eyes of starved dogs and cats in cages plead to the strains of Sarah McLachlan.  I do care.  I don’t want to see.

Guilt and irrational anger also merge in the discomfort I feel when faced with human needs I can’t adequately meet.  In the warmer months of this past year, I used to see the same homeless woman begging on the sidewalk every time I drove to my nearest pharmacy.  I rarely carry cash, and I would always feel relieved when the traffic light was green, so that I had no chance to stop for her in any case.  But I remember she would stand with her arms outstretched, the universal gesture of supplication.  See me. Care about me

It’s easier not to really see, because then you have to care.  And then you have to help.

The temptation to turn a blind eye, to be willfully apathetic, stretches from small personal decisions—like my looking away from the homeless woman—to ones with much broader social implications.  For example, I find myself increasingly seeking out apathy when it comes to politics.  We have a responsibility to care about politics because the election of those in power affects every aspects of the lives of those most in need, as well as the welfare of the planet we inhabit.  I was fiercely passionate about re-electing Obama in 2012; I thought the election of Mitt Romney would be catastrophic.  I even (temporarily) unfriended a cousin on Facebook because of his pro-Romney postings.  But now, with far worse potential presidents in the running, the election season hurts too much to think about.  I find myself avoiding reading or listening to the news.  In the search for a “leader of the free world,” it may (sadly) be too much to expect a public servant of moral wisdom and practical integrity.  But to be forced to accept that such a bullying, blustering, buffoonish, narcissistic blowhard as Donald Trump could actually be president almost makes me want to throw in the towel on caring about my country.  Trump and his almost equally ridiculous GOP opponents, all preying on ignorance and fear, expose not only the moral bankruptcy of the Republican party but the seemingly irresolvable division of American society into two sides that can never see eye to eye. Given a problem so seemingly insoluble, the temptation to slip into apathy is all the greater. 

It’s easier to think of reasons why something or someone doesn’t really deserve your attention or help, to justify to yourself why it’s not your responsibility to care.  But I am afraid each time I find myself doing this, afraid I am burying deeper and deeper a voice in me that matters.  Afraid that someday I won’t be able to hear it at all.  I don’t want to let it fall silent.

What We Mean When We Talk About Choice

…my point is that there is no easy choice between choice and social determination — that choice itself is not the solution to the oppressive pressures of racism and patriarchy because the choices we have (and the fact of choice at all) are constructed by the very systems we wish to use them to undermine.

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Let me tell you something. My feminism doesn’t much care about Beyoncé. My heart may beat to the beat of “Partition,” but debates about the potential feminism of Yoncé’s lyrics, ass, or marriage leave me cold. Bey’s choice to make her body and sexuality central to her persona is held up against the fact that such displays are always filtered through white supremacist patriarchy. We can only ever think of her as fully in control of her performance, image and body, or totally and abjectly victim of a system that uses women’s bodies against each other. Her self-determination is always besieged by the fear that she might have been working for the male gaze all along. But no, we shudder, the male gaze is foiled and frustrated just so long as we can convince ourselves that this was Bey’s choice.

 

Choice, we pant fiercely. Choice will keep Beyoncé safe — choice will save us all.

Continue reading “What We Mean When We Talk About Choice”

Halloween’s Cultural Appropriation Problem

It’s almost Halloween, and that means we’re all once again trawling costume shops, thrift stores, closets, and (god forbid) Yandy.com for disguises. Thinking about being a sexy pineapple this year? Mildly alluring scrabble board? Whatever, be my guest. But I’d think twice if I were you before putting on that Native American headdress you picked out of the bin at Party Central. There’s more to it than you think. Continue reading “Halloween’s Cultural Appropriation Problem”

Bonus Weekly Dance Break: Back to Back (Barack Obama!!!)

Ok, it’s not really Barack Obama. But in keeping with our Drake theme today, I just had to share this video because if you haven’t seen it, you are not living your best life. It’s “Barack Obama” rapping Back to Back as a Trump diss track. I’m serious. This dude’s Obama voice is great and so are his political jokes, all wrapped in a beautiful Drake beat.

Just….please. If you value our friendship, you will do yourself this favor. Watch this and cackle along with glee. Continue reading “Bonus Weekly Dance Break: Back to Back (Barack Obama!!!)”

Suffragette Ad Campaign: You’d Rather Do…What Now?

Feminist films, you can do better.

The new film Suffragette will be released next weekend, October 12. Starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, the film is receiving a lot of buzz as a raw and “unfeminine” depiction of the women’s suffrage movement in WWI-era London. As an Americanist and African-Americanist, I do not have the knowledge to say much about the historical accuracy of this film. But as a smart-ass female grad student of color who has read and re-read enough slave narratives and who is consumed by the issues of race, gender, sex/sexuality in media representation, I’m bound to inject my opinion into an ad campaign like the one below.

Id-rather-be-a-rebel-than-a-slave

My immediate reaction:

Rich white women donning t-shirts with the word “SLAVE” on them = hell no. Meryl Streep GRINNING like a fool wearing a t-shirt with the word “SLAVE” on it = double hell no. On a purely visual level, the whole thing bums me out.

Hmm, I’m also having issues with the wording.

When I take the word “slave” to its most obvious (for me) referent, that of a black person abducted from Africa and forced to work for free in American plantations, the phrase makes no sense. Why can’t one be both a rebel and a slave? There were plenty of slave rebellions that prove that one could. Does a rebellious slave cease to be a slave? Does resisting the status quo remove your legal status as property of another person? To whom exactly is this t-shirt referring?

Ok, let’s back up. Why is this my reaction? Well, I have a friend…

One time a black female friend of mine told me a story. She has told me lots of stories over the years, but this one is relevant: she went to a white female friend’s house for dinner. As other women complimented the host on the food, she laughed and yelped, “It better be good. I’ve been slaving away in the kitchen all day!” My friend repeated that line and my stomach immediately tensed. I knew that feeling. TFW you are the only person of color in an all-white space and someone makes a joking reference to slavery and you have no fucking idea how to react. Do I frown? Do I pretend I didn’t hear it? Do I laugh? Do I get on my soap box? Do I make an awesome clap back joke in response? I’m sad to say that I’ve responded with silence more times than I can probably remember. The moral of this story is that if you are a white person, unless you are presenting a well-researched paper on slavery or quoting a black person, avoid analogizing yourself to a slave at all costs.

But it’s not just personal. This phrase raises important historical questions about the relationship between white men, white women, and black people pre-and-postbellum that a t-shirt cannot answer.

It is irresponsible to publicize this image without a nuanced historical context. I may not know much about British history or the suffrage movement in England, but I know that there is a long history of white men and white women in America using the word “slave” and slave allegory/analogy to promote their own freedom movements. And people in England would have been all too familiar with this trend. The forefathers of the 18th century referred to themselves as ‘slaves to the King’ during the American Revolution, white women in favor of temperance (which was closely bound to anti-domestic violence activism) wrote about alcoholics as ‘slaves to the bottle’, and white American women fighting for the vote certainly spoke of themselves as ‘slaves to men’, bound to a system in which they had no political stake. But they weren’t referring to themselves as black slaves. Shudder to think!

Our forefathers and all of these groups knew that if they used the “slave” analogy as a way to demonstrate for their own freedom they might imply that this same rhetoric held true for African slaves. And then white people would be forced to reckon with the wild hypocrisy of asking for rights while enslaving and disenfranchising an entire group of people! Of course, some of them were forced to do such reckoning. White men panicked plenty and publicly about the possibility that they might not be so different from slaves. White men like Thomas Jefferson, who devotes almost all of Query XIV “Laws” in his racist-as-all-hell Notes on the State of Virginia to the topic of slavery. In this Query, Jefferson explains how America is establishing laws that will be different from the ones that they lived under as subjects of the British empire. Jefferson must insist upon the overall inferiority of black people in order to solidify his place above them :

“…among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists… But they were the race of the whites. It is not [African slaves’] condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.” (237)[1]

Ugh, fucking Jefferson. Anyway, white women took note of these exclusionary tactics when raging against the patriarchy.

During slavery, white female suffragettes in America used abolition to equate their position under men with that of slaves under whites. However, this was always a fraught relation. Once black people were freed, white women largely changed their tune. After slavery ended in 1865, white women fought for the right to vote on a strategy of exclusion like that of Jefferson. During Reconstruction, the brief period in which black men gained the right to vote, white men and women played upon racist fears of the mythical “black beast rapist” invading white homes to miscegenate the population. Similar myths about “black nature” were disseminated about black women as hypersexual prostitutes. Although these racist myths worked to erect a public image of white women as helpless victims—and therefore maybe not the best candidates for voters—they also, directly and/or indirectly, worked to raise the public profile of white women. The rhetoric went, ‘If white women are getting raped by black men, white men may need a woman’s touch in the voting process to prevent such things from ever happening again.’ In other words, white women found opportunities to gain freedom on the backs of black men and women.

Editor’s note: Don’t forget, white women also made the argument that they should be enfranchised to overwhelm and “cancel out” the black vote, since there would be more white women enfranchised than both black men and women combined. 

Alright, that’s a lot of stuff. But one more problem: I don’t need an intellectually complex context, but can I get any context at all?

Where did the phrase, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” even come from? According to the few news outlets who reported positively on the ad campaign, the quote is from a speech that Emmeline Pankhurst (leading suffragette played by Meryl Streep in the film) made at a London rally in 1913. This speech is nearly impossible to find online so I do not know how anyone has verified this information. As someone who likes to have a full text to work with, I want to find the actual speech and see what the context may have been for this phrase.

For now, let’s do some math and add up what we know about the impact of this ad in the present:

  • There’s a movie about a largely white movement for the right to vote coming out called Suffragette
  • White celebrity women (who may or may not identify as feminists) wear a t-shirt that says “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”
  • Most white women for whom the ad is probably intended, who may not know the context of the quote, embrace the obviously intended “badass” message as in favor of girl power and all that jazz, just as this blog thatsnotmyage.com did:

‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,’ is what Emmeline Pankhurst said at a London rally in 1913. ‘Emmeline Pankhurst chained herself to the railings so you could vote,’ is what my mild-mannered mum said, when at 18 and first eligible to vote, her lazy, idle, good-for-nothing daughter couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed, to do so.

Even a generous reading such as this leaves me cold. It still doesn’t address the modern-day racial ties of the word “slave.” Given the subject of the film being advertised, it is likely that “slave” means “woman as slave of man.”

Let’s not forget that as this film comes out, riding a wave of support for feminism in pop culture, the conversation is still really exclusionary. Celebrity white women have been speaking out about the gender wage gap in America in ways that continue to shut out women of color (see: Patricia Arquette’s Oscars speech  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-EmDy3w1X8 and post-Oscars speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhlYwwRY96c)

MATH: Uncomfy visual + poor phrasing + lacking historical awareness or nuance = a thoughtless ad campaign

Will I see this damn thing?

A promotional campaign for a film centered on the rights of women that fails to take the perspective of people of color into account is not exactly making me want to run to my nearest movie theater on October 12. But, I will probably still see Suffragette for research purposes. Or… maybe I will torrent it for being-petty purposes.

[1] http://jefferson-notes.herokuapp.com/milestones/laws