Introduction [Women and Violence, Part 1]

This is a bit of an experiment.

This quarter I’m taking a Women Studies course titled “Women and Violence.” The final project for this class is open to creative interpretation, and so I’m attempting to bring together my academic feminism with my online feminism by using blogging as a part of that project. Over the next eight weeks, until the final week of the quarter, I’ll be making weekly posts on the topic of women and violence. Each post will (hopefully) be inspired by the readings or discussions from class. They will be posted both here and on my LiveJournal, and can be accessed through this link.

The course itself approaches gendered violence as a continuum of behaviors that affect women, from the private to the public, the individual to the institutional, the legally prohibited to the socially permissible. This includes the most commonly discussed forms of gendered violence, such as rape and domestic violence; and also forms of violence such as war, abuse by prisons and other institutions, and indirect violence by the media. My series of posts will cover any of these topics, depending on what strikes me, or perhaps what is most relevant to the feminist blogosphere at the time.

If this all sounds kind of vague to you all, that’s on purpose. I’m actually not sure how these next eight weeks will go, or what kind of writing I will do. I’m hoping to let the writing come organically out of influences from the course and online, so I’m not putting any limitations on this series for now.

Speaking of influences – while I always welcome responses from readers, I invite them even more heartily for this project. Comments or criticism – even if you don’t have anything to add beyond, “I agree with you/Commenter A!” – please do make your voice heard. Part of the reason I’m using a blog format is so I can examine the responses I get, and how other people might connect to what I’m writing.

The impossibility of dialogue

[Happy one two year birthday to the Official Blog! I’m very grateful that Andrea gave me the opportunity to join her site, and I’m glad she’s here doing all the work that she does. Here’s to many more years.]

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently took a class on racism and white privilege. My professor was unflinching in his recognition that some things about anti-oppression work are “impossible.” And while this sounds like a pessimistic view of things, I think it was very important that he acknowledged this concept and repeatedly brought it to our attention.

I chose to write about this subject for the one two-year anniversary of the Official Blog because of that importance, despite the fact that it also sounds pretty dreary. I mean, it is a bit disheartening to commemorate the birth of an anti-oppression blog by talking about everything it can’t do.

But recognizing difficulties can always do two different things: it can bring you down, and it can also help you clarify your path to better accomplish your goals. As you can guess, I hope to do the latter.

One of the “impossibilities” that my professor discussed was about the process of dialogue. Our classroom was multiracial – both white students and people of color, and within the latter group there were black, Asian, Latino, and Native students. And while a multiracial demographic can be very beneficial, it also raises a fundamental question: what was this class for?

I’ll explain what I mean with an example. One of the early and enduring issues raised in the class was the idea of safety. And by “safety,” I mean the safety of the white students – whether they felt like they could safely enter the discussion without being judged, and make mistakes without being punished.

This is an important issue for white people talking about anti-racism, and the perceived absence of safety can be a deal breaker for discussion. I expect that most if not all white people who begin anti-racist work feel a strong concern for this kind of safety.

However, this is not a new issue for people of color. On the one hand, those of us who have spent any amount of time trying to talk to white people about racism have run into this issue time and time again. On the other hand, a lack of “safety” isn’t news to us. It’s a given. People of color go around their entire lives without the assumption of safety – from racism. Whether the threat is immediate and physical, or long-term and mental or emotional, we already know that we can’t expect safety from this world. There are ways of feeling safer – being around certain people we can trust, for instance – but there is never a point at which we can say, Okay, no threat from racism here. Being constrained by white people’s fear about losing the safety they never have to question can undermine our own feeling of safety.

This is the kind of “impossibility” that my professor identified in the class. There was simply no way for him, or us, to address the needs of both groups of students at the same time. If we were to make the white students feel safe, we would have had to hold back on criticisms and make sure to keep at the level of Racism 101. If we were to concern ourselves with the students of color, we would have had to leave many of the white students behind, because they would have felt ignored or insulted.

This is specific example of a wider problem that Shrub, as well as other anti-oppression blogs, run into all the time – the question of Who is this dialogue for?

Addressed with this question, my professor would have called it impossible. There is no good answer to this. As stated above, choosing one party compromises the interests of the other in some way. At the same time, it is vitally necessary that both parties be present. If people of color are the only ones talking about racism, it will result in a lot of knowledge – but the work will be hindered if no white people join in the effort. If white people talk on their own, it spares the people of color from enduring further privileged ignorance – but there is the risk that no one will be there to hold the white people accountable, and keep their learning grounded in the real experiences of people of color.

This blog is for anti-oppression, but not necessarily only for the oppressed. (For one thing, there are hardly any people who only fall into one of the “oppressed” or “oppressor” classifications when all aspects of their social situation are taken into account.) We provide support to those who bear the weight of sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression. Still, we hope to teach and reach out to people on the other side of the privilege divide in the hopes of gaining more allies.

One solution (of the many that are necessary) is simply to have multiple sites for dialogue. Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog and Feminist Allies are two sites that are geared more towards men and/or non-feminists, whereas I Blame The Patriarchy is intended for, in Twisty’s own words, “advanced patriarchy-blamers.” Yet even if both groups of sites did their intended work perfectly, there would still be the problems mentioned above. A blog dedicated to “Feminism 101” would, obviously, not graduate towards more rigorous analyses as it focused on educating the (endless supply of) ignorant people. The “advanced” blogs would make entrance into feminism difficult for those with little knowledge or experience.

One of the reasons that I enjoy blogging here so much is that Andrea’s work occurs in a sort of middle ground, engaging in outreach with those who are respectful and willing to learn, yet not sacrificing the needs of those in the non-privileged groups. This middle ground, however, is constantly in flux, and must be re-negotiated to stay on target.

Sites like Shrub are best aided, not by being told what to do or how to do it better, but by those who are willing to join in the work. That doesn’t mean that these combined efforts will fix the impossibility of dialogue between privileged and non-privileged groups, but they will help the multiple attempts at dialogue be sustained.

On being an ally

Today, for the last meeting of my class on racism and white privilege, we had a panel of guest speakers who do anti-racist work from within the university. One was a white man, one a white woman, and one an African American man, so the issue was raised about allies. Allies, in the context of anti-oppression work, are members of a privileged group who work against that privilege: white people in anti-racism, men in feminism, etc.

Allies have a very different place in anti-oppression work than members of the non-privileged group. They don’t have the firsthand experience of oppression, and so their knowledge of it is incomplete. They constantly risk perpetuating the oppression themselves – which, of course, all of us do, privileged or not – but with the added risk that, when they slip up, they hurt others rather than hurting themselves. However, allies are also powerful and helpful because of their very privilege, because they can use the social power that they have been arbitrarily and unfairly granted in order to work against the power structure.

Being an ally (and staying one) is also difficult and complicated. The panelists’ discussions on what it means to be allies and to have allies (each of them was in a position to address both questions, due to their respective places in various social hierarchies) brought up several helpful points, which can help us as we think about creating and maintaining alliances in our work.

Earn the label, don’t take it

Being an ally means joining the struggle. It does not mean taking it over, or centering one’s own desires, because those things simply reinforce the patterns of privilege already in place. Being an ally involves something more radical than simply saying, I will work against my own privilege (and yes, that’s radical in itself). It also involves saying, The first step in combating my privilege will be stepping out of the position of power.

As a participant, but not leader, of the struggle, you are under someone else’s authority – the non-privileged group who is fighting for their own survival. It is those people who judge whether you’re an ally or not, whether you are successfully working against the oppression or not. While you should, of course, be learning how to judge your own behavior, you must be willing to cede to the authority of others’ judgment. The members of the non-privileged group are the ones who have the knowledge and experience that allow them to navigate power hierarchies better.

This is not to say, by the way, that people of color are inherently more intelligent or perceptive than white people, or that something like that is true of any other combination of oppressor/oppressed. As Zeus Leonardo writes in his essay “The Color of Supremacy,” this acknowledgment of people of color’s epistemological authority “is not to go down the road of essentialized racial subjects, be they black or otherwise, or an equally essentialized white subject.” Rather,

[C]ritical analysis begins from the objective experiences of the oppressed in order to understand the dynamics of structural power relations. It also makes sense to say that it is not in the interest of racially dominated groups to mystify the process of their own dehumanization. Yet the case is ostensibly the opposite for whites […]

My professor for the class, a self-proclaimed “straight white boy,” takes this respect for oppressed groups’ epistemological authority to a high level. He refuses to take the label of “feminist,” “anti-racist,” etc., upon himself. As he puts it, he is not in the place to make the determination of whether he is any of those things. If the people he works with, the women and people of color, judge his work and say that it is feminist or anti-racist, that is the evaluation that matters, not his own.

I don’t altogether agree with that; I don’t think it’s inherently arrogant or overweening to adopt any of these labels if one is a member of the privileged group. Indeed, it can be beneficial to use the label to announce that white people do care about, and have a stake in, anti-racist work. What’s most important, I think, is to be aware that you must earn the label, and never take it without respecting the judgments of the people you want to be an ally for. They are ultimately the ones you must be held accountable to.

Being an ally is a process, not a goal

Accountability is an ongoing process, not a single instance of evaluation. The dynamics of oppression are constantly in motion, and it’s not like we can win a single victory of enlightenment and never fall into an *ism again. But the problem with being on the privileged side of the power divide is that you can easily overlook these slips.

One of the most important aspects of being an ally is being willing to accept criticism. No matter how much you’ve learned, no matter how long you’ve been getting it ‘right,’ no matter how much of a ‘good guy’ you are. We’re all fallible, and thus must be aware that we’ll end up disappointing the people we’re trying to be allies for.

It’s hard for those people, too. Obviously, when allies mess up, the other people are the ones who get burned. But also, the prospect of criticizing an ally can be daunting. As one of the panelists put it, we want to keep the allies we’ve got – especially if we’re in an environment where there aren’t many members of our group (such as a professional workplace, which tend to be white-washed and primarily male), and allies are our only support. We fear hurting their feelings or angering them, and driving them off. After all, few people respond well to criticism, and there’s always the risk that an ally will think, I don’t have to be doing this work. I can just ignore it, and my own life will be fine.

So, allies: remember this fear. Don’t make it come true.

And, yes, on the part of the allies, it can also be scary to know that you can mess up. If we’re invested in our anti-oppression work, we really care about fighting our own privilege as a good, true mission. The thought of screwing up and perpetuating oppression, of committing a real wrong, is frightening.

However, consider this passage from Sharon Sullivan’s book, Revealing Whiteness:

One white feminist asks, “Does being white make it impossible … to be a good person?” The answer to this question, while understandable, is that it is the wrong one to ask. This is because it is a loaded question: it contains a psychological privilege that white people need to give up, which is the privilege of always feeling that they are in the right.

This “psychological privilege,” of course, is not limited to those who have white privilege. The gist of the quote is that worrying about being the good/right person is beside the point. Being a perfectly pure anti-oppression person is not the point; doing anti-oppression work is the point. The latter does not require the former, and the latter is what is what is most important in being an ally.

Make your support known

Another huge part of being an ally is being a visible, vocal supporter of anti-oppression work. That means more than just agreeing with non-privileged members while you remain silent. You’ve got to join the struggle yourself.

This is not easy, right? For male allies of feminists, speaking up against sexism can generate adverse reactions from other men, because it threatens the collective performance of masculinity. Allies risk accusations of being feminine or possibly even gay. As for white people, bringing up racism is taboo in ‘polite’ conversation. They can be chastised for bringing up problems, ‘making waves,’ being ‘divisive,’ getting ‘stuck on the past’ of racial inequities. Straight people who speak up in support of queer rights are accused of being gay themselves (as if it were a bad thing). In all instances of challenging privilege, you carry the risk of social disapproval, ostracization, and even hostility. Of course this stuff isn’t easy.

Now imagine what women and people of color and queer people, and everyone else who faces oppression, have to go through all the damn time.

It’s so important for allies to spread the messages of anti-oppression themselves, because they have a credibility in mainstream society that non-privileged groups, unfortunately, lack. Women complaining about sexism are seen as self-interested, and thus biased. Men who complain about sexism, while still faced with other criticisms (like being oversensitive), are more often seen as objective observers (as if sexism didn’t affect them, or they didn’t have a stake in gender inequality). Society still engages in the devious practice of portraying dominant groups as the neutral, default, objective position, and non-privileged groups as the subjective, self-interested ones. The least that allies can do is use that unearned credibility for an anti-oppression message.

One of the most frustrating denials of sexism or racism I hear is that it just doesn’t ‘mean anything.’ Like, sure, maybe a group of guys talking will use violent, demeaning sexual language about women they’ve slept with. Or some people will throw around racial slurs in a casual manner. But it doesn’t mean anything, see, people just talk like that.

First of all, that’s complete and utter bullshit, of course. We don’t ‘just’ say things that we don’t mean, to at least some extent. But secondly, there’s a reason that this happens, and it’s that the people who engage in these practices feel safe to do so. They don’t think anyone will call them on it. Guys are expected to let sexist language slip; white people are expected to ignore racist comments (especially the subtle euphemistic language about ‘those people’ or code words such as ‘affirmative action’ and ‘welfare’).

Don’t let those people claim that safety. Don’t let this sort of language pass by without calling it out and making it known that it’s not okay. In short, don’t be a bystander.

This can get more complicated in situations where you are with members of a non-privileged group, and both of you are capable of speaking up. Do you speak for the other person, and risk acting in a paternalistic (read: privileged) manner? Do you stay silent, and risk abandoning the person?

There is no easy answer for this. There may not even be any answer that is completely correct. Sometimes it is very empowering to be able to speak up on your own behalf, and challenge your own oppression head-on. At other times, the silence of your allies can be disheartening and disappointing.

My best advice is to take your cue from the people you are being an ally for. Respect their agency and let them convey their wishes to you, rather than trying to decide for them. Of course the context of the situation is also relevant, such as if one party has greater authority or power due to the environment you’re in. You might also be the only member of the privileged group present, in which case it’s probably okay for you to keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, if the non-privileged person is largely alone, it might be the time to step up and be a vocal supporter. Use your best judgment – and no, it won’t always provide you with a correct answer.

In the end, it all comes down to what I said previously: be willing to be imperfect, be willing to receive criticism, and, most of all, keep on doing the work.

My yellow face

Body Outlaws, published by the woman-friendly Seal Press, is a collection of essays by women attempting to rewrite body image outside of conventional beauty standards – and not just white, middle-class, straight women, but women who experience all forms of oppression, including racism.

The first essay is “My Brown Face,” by Mira Jacob, an Indian-American woman who constantly finds herself fetishized by white men. Most women of color are familiar with this experience – the ‘positive’ counterpart of racist degradation – when men tell you how ‘beautiful’ and ‘exotic’ you are. This can be accomplished either through ebullient and chivalrous praise, or through crude and fetishistic verbal harassment; Jacob describes instances of both. These anecdotes are presented as contained sections of the essay, without direct commentary – and yet her indignation and disgust towards her ‘suitors’ is palpable.

I love this essay for the clarity and energy of the writing, the juxtaposition of caustic anger and humor, but also for the personal nuances that Jacobs provides, which are so gratifying to read because they echo my own experience. Very few voices from women of color are heard in the mainstream conversation on body image, and it was comforting to read things that were familiar to me, but so often overlooked by standard (white) analyses.

Living in the U.S., Jacobs is not a native to India, and when she visits relatives there she is reminded of the divergence in their experiences, the fact that her “bones and flesh hold the precious truth of a history I can claim more in blood than experience.” I, too, have spent my entire life in the U.S., away from my ‘native’ country of China – and beyond that, I have lived outside of Southern California, where the majority of my relatives live and where the Asian-American culture is strongest. Raised in primarily white, upper-class suburbs, I find myself ignorant of things even my younger, U.S.-born and bilingual cousins know. I don’t speak Chinese, which many of my relatives do; or Burmese, which most all of my relatives do. My life has been largely white-normative in many ways.

And yet. This fact is rendered invisible by white people all of the time, white people who ask, “What are you?” to my face, or white men who silently ogle me because I’m an ‘exotic’ Asian woman. Jacobs captures this perfectly when she says, “Funny that some men can latch on to a part of me I’m still trying to locate.” Most of the time I doubt the ‘authenticity’ of my Asian-ness – while many white men believe they can pinpoint my racial identity by the color of my eyes and skin. Not to mention the resultant, assumed shape of my vagina.

Further on, when Jacobs talks about “the puzzle of how to let myself evolve in a world that will never stop assuming my identity,” I think about this same issue. Self-change is a question that is always asked within the context of cultural meaning; how I respond to and shape my racial identity is informed by how the outside world interprets the meaning of that identity. Do I want to do more Chinese/Asian activities – learn the language, wear the clothes, study the history – because it’s part of my ‘real’ identity, or because this is what the outside world defines as ‘true’ Asianness? Am I really interested in that aspect of my cultural background, or do I merely want to use it as a way of expressing solidarity with Chinese-Americans against white racism?

Of course, the answer is not going to be one or the other; there is no ‘pure’ individual racial identity, nor is racial identity wholly defined by outside forces. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to navigate these choices I face in the constant, ongoing construction of myself as a Chinese-American woman.

One final topic that Jacobs mentions, which might not seem as important in light of the overall essay and yet stuck out in my mind, is the notion of silence. She opens the essay with a description of her own silence, her inability to respond to the sexualized, racist verbal harassment she faces on her daily commute to work. Further on, she presents silence as a powerful tool, wielded by her mother to express disapproval to her children, as effective or perhaps moreso than noisy anger.

Silence is not commonly considered the weapon of the powerful – thinking of influential politicians, business moguls, the socially popular, I imagine people who are vocal about their opinions and desires (and, relatedly, male). Jacobs knows this, too, for she notes that “the intent behind my mother’s deadly quiet, a calm I’ve seen replayed across the features of many of her other female relatives, isn’t often recognized by American men.” Often it’s interpreted as acquiescence instead, because “that’s what we’re known for, we Indian [and I could insert here ‘Asian’] women: bent heads and shut mouths, quiet grace, the Eastern-girl works.” In one of the most powerful lines of the essay, Jacobs says, “I felt my body turn into a dark country, my silence permission to colonize.”

How often, I wonder, is my silence understood as the conscious refusal, the stubborn exclusion, that I intend it to be? When I am assailed with verbal sexual harassment on the street, when I feel anger at racist ‘jokes,’ when I am surrounded by racist and sexist ignorance and choose to reject it – is that recognized? Or, instead, do people interpret my silence in the common manner: as weakness, as acceptance, as defeat?

How many times, when I shut my mouth as a way to express, No, absolutely not, is this interpreted as, Yes, I accept it?

Jacobs doesn’t offer an answer to this question, or the more pressing one of how to solve the problem. Any attempt would have been inadequate and condescending. Instead, she talks about “My Indian woman,” and how she is “a work in progress.”

That’s the best answer she could give, I think: an acknowledgement of the constant process of constructing her identity as a woman of color. And, of course, the sharing of this knowledge with other women experiencing the same, the value of which should not be underestimated.

Sex does not determine racial identity

You know what’s sexist? White guys who see Asian women as exotic sex objects, something they can use in their porn-based fantasies about “sideways” vaginas. Why? Because everything about me is obscured by my sexual utility for them – they are attempting to define my identity through their penis.

You know what’s also sexist? Asian guys who think that Asian women aren’t “Asian” enough if they don’t exclusively date Asian men. Why? Because once again my identity is being defined by a man’s penis.

Take a look at this post by Jenn at Reappropriate, where she criticizes a new webcomic called Single Asian Female. While she mentions the good points about the comic (mostly its good art style), she worries that it attempts to portray the Asian-American women (AAW) experience as centering primarily on sexuality: white guys who try to date them, and the Asian-American men whom they should be dating.

Lo and behold, one of the first comments attempts to discredit Jenn’s perspective through – you guessed it – bringing up her sexuality.

(And again.)

Another comment attacks Jenn for criticizing AAMs – it’s the “What About the Mens?” Phallusy, except in a racialized version. These instances are harder to recognize than most examples of non-racialized (read: white) male privilege, because it’s true that AAMs do face oppression as well. All men of color experience a male privilege that is intertwined with, and undermined by, racial oppression – AAMs in particular are often viewed as feminine and therefore not even ‘male’. They face racism based on both the challenge that their skin color presents to white people in general, and the challenge they present to white men in particular.

However, this fact should not be used to re-direct their animosity toward AAWs, or to obscure the ways in which AAWs face both racism and sexism – and yes, that includes sexism from AAMs. Imposing a ‘duty’ upon AAWs to date AAMs, and criticizing those who don’t, is belittling and disempowering. It minimizes the contributions of AAWs to anti-racist efforts (have these people even read Jenn’s insightful blog?), reducing the importance of AAWs to their bodies and sexuality – to what they do for AAMs. It also treats racial identity and solidarity as something tied to sex – specifically, who the women of color have sex with – instead of theory and activism.

It also reproduces the attitude that caused problems for women of color in the 1970s during the U.S. civil rights movement, when men of color excluded them from political activity and reduced their contributions to producing babies for the sake of the race.

Look. I don’t hold with the fringe view that women can only be feminists if they’re lesbians, as if having sex with other women was the only way to be in solidarity with them. This is because women can have meaningful and supportive relationships with people that aren’t characterized by what goes into their vaginas. Asian-American women can also have meaningful and supportive relationships with people – like AAMs – without having sex with them.

They can also have sex with non-Asian men without being “sell-out AF trash”, because for the love of all that’s holy, a woman’s personhood is not defined by her vagina.

I am not defined by my body, or what goes into it. I am defined by my mind, and what I choose to do with it. I can have meaningful and supportive relationships with people, I can be an anti-oppression theorist, and I can be an anti-oppression activist. And none of that hinges on whether or not I sleep with someone of this or that gender or race.

Get it? What I do, who I am, and what I believe are not determined by whom I choose to fuck.

Oh, wait – that would be who fucks me, because clearly these perspectives treat women as passive sexual receptacles that can only have sex happen to them.

Stop exerting male privilege over me to make yourselves feel more important. Just stop. I don’t care if you’ve got layers of privilege coming out your ass and this is just one more way for you to oppress people; I don’t care if you’re disadvantaged because of your color or class or whatever, and penis-privilege is all you’ve got. You do not have the right to lift yourself up by taking advantage of the power society gives you over me.

I have the right to define my identity in the way that I want. That means who I date, but that’s just a tiny part of it. It also means: who my important relationships are with, how I spend my time, what I learn, how I challenge the power structures around me.

I also have the responsibility to be aware of how my choices about my romantic relationships – among all the millions of other important choices in my life – affect me. That means negotiating the power dynamic of dating someone who holds privilege that I don’t, whether that’s white privilege or gender privilege – or someone who lacks privilege that I have, due to my class or ability. This is not even considering the everyday difficulties of having an intimate relationship, based on the fact that people are complex and inevitably conflict with those who are close to them.

What all this doesn’t mean is doling out my sexuality based on the color of a man’s penis. Or lack of penis. Or anything else.

I am not defined based on which men do what to me. I am defined based on my mind, not random parts of my body. My body is not the important part of me and my activism. MY VAGINA DOES NOT CONTAIN A MAGIC WELLSPRING OF POLITICAL SOLIDARITY, THANK YOU.

A conversation on body image

When I was growing up, I didn’t wish I was white. I didn’t look at my Barbie dolls and ask my parents why I didn’t look like her. I didn’t envy my white friends and think, “If I was their race, my life would be better.” Of course not.

It was never that obvious.

Here’s what I wished: I wished that my eyes were blue and not so narrow, because the ideals of beauty I saw and read and heard about had wide, sky-blue eyes. I wished that my nose, which is wide and flat like my father’s, was more narrow and perky. Even though I loved my long hair, and I felt flattered when all the girls would ask to play with it, I wished it weren’t so stick-straight, and that it would fall in waves or curls like theirs. I wished that my lips weren’t so full, that my smile would be more of a thin, dimple-inducing curve (oh, and I felt left out because I didn’t have dimples). I worried that my voice sounded like a boy’s, and I wished it could be high and cute like other girls’.

I didn’t wish I was a white girl. I just wished I was exactly like a white girl.

I still do, sometimes. I have to catch myself at those times when I try to compare myself to the racialized beauty ideals I see – on TV and magazines and all those expected places, but also in less obvious ways. For example, even if a makeup counter doesn’t have a (white) female model pictured somewhere prominent, you pick up pretty quickly what their model woman is when the “flesh tones” are all pinkish-beige, and the lipsticks are all about plumping up your lips (which assumes that your lips aren’t already full). Or what about fantasy novels that overwhelmingly feature European medieval settings, or draw from Western folklore, thus effectively whitewashing their characters even if the author doesn’t intend to exclude people of color? (That’s changing lately, but it’s still hard to find non-European derived fantasy novels that don’t Other dark-skinned people as savage or evil, or rely on “wise old samurai” Asian stereotypes. I would actually really appreciate recs, if anyone has them.)

Not long ago, I read a response to Pam Noles’ essay on the whitening of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, in which the (white male) writer said that consciously adding racial diversity to fantastic fiction was unnecessary, and implied that it was the fault of people of color who simply couldn’t imagine themselves in the place of the protagonists.

There’s a lot to be said about the assumptions and privilege behind that kind of attitude, but let’s bring it back to my original topic: body image. It’s easy enough for someone to tell women (and girls) of color to just imagine themselves in place of the women whom society gives the title of the ideal, to find our own beauty amidst the cultural images. But it’s hard to ignore the bombardment of images in our culture – which is not only visual media-centered, but also disproportionately relies on female bodies as the visual object. Furthermore, the subtler messages still push us toward a white-centric ideal: pale skin (or a golden tan, which cuts out black women), long and smooth hair (not kinky), wide eyes (not slanty or with Asian-style eyelids), high-pitched voices. Even the women of color who are lauded for their beauty often fit these criteria – think of how we tend to focus on light-skinned black women more than dark-skinned, such as the biracial Halle Berry. I don’t have to think “I wish I was white”; instead I just find myself wishing that I was like white women.

This is how I got the message about what’s pretty, even when I was in elementary school and uneducated about race issues. It’s only as I’ve grown up that I’ve realized what kind of racist biases underlie these ideals, but it’s been easy for me to learn about them, because they aren’t new concepts – just new names for ideas I was already familiar with.

I’m yellow-skinned and squinty-eyed. I don’t fit. But I do win back a few points, due to the fetishization of Asian women. We’re “exotic.” We’ve got that mystical “Oriental” beauty. We’re passive and pliant and all “me love you long time,” right? And if you haven’t heard the myth of Asian women’s vaginas being smaller, sideways, or otherwise especially fuckable – well, lucky you.

Oh, and let’s not forget – we’re especially hungry for white men, because yellow guys are effeminate/small-dicked/old-fashioned and sexist (yeah, they’re the sexist ones …). We’re the exotic Other, open for sexual plundering by vanilla guys looking for something exciting. I know the attitudes; I’ve been the target. I also know that I can be used to feed them because I’m with a white man. There isn’t a single thing in the world I would trade my relationship for, but god if I don’t wish I could tear it free from all the racist bullshit baggage.

I’m talking about this now, not because I have a solution, but because … well, because I want to talk about it. It’s something that we all know – POC or white – even if we don’t think about it consciously or know the name for it.

The power of identifying it, however, is that it’s easier to reject it – I can see how false these ideals are.

Also, I’m talking about this because I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t fit. None of us do. If it isn’t because we’re the wrong color, it’s because we’re those “freaky” trans who break from gender traditions and aren’t feminine enough, or manly enough. Or because we like girls – but, dammit, not in that pseudo-bisexual way that’s all about getting a guy’s dick up and not about actually having relationships with women (and, of course, having sex with him in the end, and only being with women if he’s there to watch). Or because we don’t have the able body that society likes to pretend is the only kind that exists, conveniently forgetting that almost a fifth of us don’t have “normal” ability. Or we are white, female, and feminine – but too “fat” to fit a size 2, or don’t have surgically enhancednaturally gravity-defying cleavage, or aren’t six-feet and 110 pounds.

I just want to talk about this. We don’t talk about this nearly enough – we all see and know and absorb these impossible beauty standards, and we hear some lip service from the media about how yes, they are impossible, but we don’t get actual attempts to fix it so we’ll stop being dissatisfied with how we look. So we end up detached from our own bodies, looking at ourselves from a critical distance and hating how they’re shaped and being dissatisfied with what color they are and wishing we could change them instead of just. You know. Living in them.

So, if you’d care to, talk to me about how you don’t fit. What kind of messed up things society tells you about being female (or not) and having a body, because for some reason those things aren’t good enough on their own, even though they should be. Feel free to share whatever you want. I’d like to listen.

Ellison digs himself deeper into the hole

Aaaaaaand there’s more! Via , we have another response by Ellison regarding his groping of Connie Willis. And no, this isn’t him dropping all sarcasm and misguided attempts at humor in order to make a straightforward, sincere apology. (We can only dream.)

Since jfpbookworm did such a great job deconstructing the first “apology”, I think it’s only fitting that we subject Ellison’s newest offering to analysis as well. One, because he’s so spectacularly idiotic – but more importantly, because of the unexamined privilege that drips from his words alongside the expected arrogance. He may be a talented writer, but that skill does nothing to save him from his underlying sexist assumptions.

The format of Ellison’s message board makes it impossible to link to a specific post, but as of now you can see the message I’m referring to at the bottom of the first page. Ellison is responding to this post from “Mark”:

I could go on, but let me share how I have dealt with guys who grab boobs without permission. I’m an out gay man. Four times now I have been witness to “playful” unwanted boob grabs. Each time, I have “playfully” reached over and cupped the guy’s crotch. Each and every one–including the one gay guy–were horrified and offended–including two I’ve known for years. Familiarity has nothing to do with it. It’s an invasion. All you guys here who think it’s no big deal, please stop by so I can hold your balls. All you women here who think it’s blown out of proportion, get some self-respect.

Which, I’ve gotta say, I really like.

Anyway, let’s get started with Ellison’s response:

– Thursday, August 31 2006 21:21:38


Would you be slightly less self-righteous and chiding if I told you there was

NO grab…

there was

NO grope…

there was

NO fondle…

there was the slightest touch. A shtick, a gag between friends, absolutely NO sexual content.

Immediately, we have frantic backpedaling. In his original “apology” (see jfpbookworm’s post for the text), Ellison states that touching a woman’s breasts without her permission is “way over the line in terms of invasion of someone’s personal space. It is crude behavior at best, and actionable behavior at worst.” But now he’s trying to introduce qualifiers, as if a “slight touch” is somehow less of a violation than grabbing with a cupped hand. (It might be a briefer contact, or less painful, but that has nothing to do with how much it qualifies as sexual harassment.)

Also, a “gag between friends” generally involves permission, explicit or implied. Ellison already admitted that he had none.

Would you, and the ten thousand maggots who have blown this up into a cause celebre […]

‘Nuff said. I think we know what his opinion is of those who would dare malign his character in public – never mind that he voluntarily performed the objectionable action in public.

[…] be even the least bit abashed to know that I apologized WAY BEYOND what the “crime” required, on the off chance that I HAD offended?

And there you go.

Ellison has gone from saying that the criticizers were “absolutely right” to putting “crime” in quotations marks, as if he doubts his behavior was even wrong. He even seems to think that being offended at his behavior was just an “off chance.” Clearly, those with rational capacities would conclude that he only might have done something wrong, and, in fact, probably didn’t.

Furthermore, he believes that his apology goes “way beyond” what was required. Certainly he used a lot of hyperbole; but are we to believe that this counts toward what actually matters, which is his true sincerity and remorse? I’ve seen far too many anti-feminists and MRAs couch their venom in pretty words to believe that politeness in speech means anything about your true intention. There has to be more to back it up.

Ellison then goes on to scold Mark for commenting on an incident that he didn’t witness. To some extent, he has a point – there’s always the risk of distortion in second-hand reporting. However, I (and everyone else I’ve discussed this with) is going off the simple fact that Ellison grabbed Willis’ breast without her permission. He admitted it. There were hundreds of witnesses at Worldcon. There was even photographic evidence, though this has since been hidden away (as described here). Those who are using this incident as a springboard for criticizing Ellison as a person are not my concern – and not the concern of those who are calling for an evaluation of the acceptance of misogyny by the SFF community.

Does not anyone READ WHAT I WROTE within fifteen minutes of learning of this?

Well, yes. That’s part of the problem.

Does not anyone wonder why, if it was such a piggish thing I did, as one of those jerkwad blogs calls it, Connie Willis hasn’t, after twenty-five years of “friendship,” not returned my call on Monday … or responded to the Fedex packet of my posting here on Monday, which Fedex advises me she received at 2:20 pm on Tuesday?

No, Mr. Ellison, it is not the responsibility of the victim to do something about the perpetrator. It is your responsibility to apologize and make amends as possible. Whether she chooses to accept your apology is her choice, and no one should blame her for it.

Can the voluble and charismatic Connie not even pick up a phone to tell the man whose work she “admires deeply” that he has gone a bridge too far? Is she so wracked by the Awfulness of it that she is incapable of saying to his face, you went too far?

The purpose of an apology is not, primarily, to appease the apologizer. “Making Harlan Ellison feel better” should not be the motivation behind Harlan Ellison’s apology. This reminds me of convicted criminals who suddenly come forth with heartfelt apologies at their sentencing trial.* If you really mean it, then you don’t care what benefit you get out of it; you’re more concerned with the person you’re apologizing to, and how much it helps him or her.

*Don’t worry, I’m not trying to equate Ellison with convicted criminals.

No one EVER asked her to “bell the cat.” She decided that was her role toward me, long ago. And I’ve put up with it for years.

Here we go shifting the blame to Willis. As if, had she not been concerned with moderating his behavior, she somehow wouldn’t have been bothered by the fact that he groped her.

Also, by saying “I’ve put up with it for years” in the middle of a paragraph about apologizing for what he did, he implies that their burdens are equal. That, since he’s had to tolerate her policing for so long, this is somehow comparable to the fact that he violated her personal space, and the trust she had for him, by touching a private area of her body against her will.

Reminds me of people who think the “burden” of having to be politically correct is somehow comparable to the oppression faced by those whom political correctness would protect.

Ellison then goes on to reference more of his history with Willis. As I am unfamiliar with their relationship, I can’t comment on the accuracy of his characterization. However, I will say that describing her faulty treatment of him implies that the grope was some sort of “revenge” – a justification that can become downright frightening when applied to other, more violent sexual actions.*

*I’m not trying to equate Ellison with rapists, okay? Chill.

am I even a leetle bit entitled to think that Connie likes to play, and geez ain’t it sad that as long as SHE sets the rules for play, and I’m the village idiot, she’s cool … but gawd forbid I change the rules and play MY way for a change

Playing? Fine. Joking performance? Fine. There are always boundaries to maintain. One of the things that happens as you get to know a person is that you become familiar with their boundaries; you learn if someone will allow things that would otherwise be unacceptable, such as insults, joking about one’s family – or sexual humor. Ellison can’t pretend to so socially inept as to not understand this. Unless he and Willis had established that they were okay using sexualized humor with each other – something I imagine he would have been eager to point out, if it were true – then she has every right to consider his action a violation.

Because it’s her body. Despite what a lot of people would have us believe, it is still a woman’s prerogative to “set the rules” for what happens to it.

I’ve sat here for four days, quietly, having done as much forelock-tugging and kneeling as I feel — as I — I — not you — not fan pinheads in far places who jumped and bayed and went after me in a second — but I –who is responsible for my behavior — as I feel is proper.

Misogyny, of which sexual harassment is only a part, is a public problem. It isn’t something that can be settled by Ellison himself, or even between Ellison and Willis – Willis can decide when and if she’ll forgive him, but his actions are open to scrutiny. As a public figure who made a sexist action in public, he affects us. Most especially, he affects the women who have come to expect and try to adapt to misogyny, especially within geek communities.

So when you commit an action that violates a woman’s body, in a place where she has rightly earned the highest respect, in front of hundreds of witnesses, and within a community – my community – that currently struggles with its treatment of women, and then act as if you are far more wounded than anyone else has the right to be – don’t you tell me that this is none of my concern.

And for four days I’ve waited for Deeply Outraged and Debased Connie Willis — an avowed friend and admirer of my work for more than a quarter century –to get up off her political correctness and take her pal off the gibbet.

Don’t pull that shit, Mr. Ellison. Don’t try to use that “If you cared about me” guilt-trip that so many men use in an attempt to weasel out of the anger they trigger through their sexist behavior. You made the mistake here. You owe her the apology. Connie Willis does not owe you anything.

Ellison is the one who committed the action, who has sunk to openly insulting her on a public forum. That, if anything, is a violation of their relationship. The fact that Willis is maintaining silence in the aftermath of his degenerate behavior, which shows no sign of alleviating? Hardly.

He acts as if she owes him – beyond a response, beyond an acceptance of his dubious apology – as if she owes him help. Not only is she obligated to withstand his self-serving attempts at reconciliation, she must actively defend him from the criticism he has rightly earned. He’s trying to shift the weight of obligation on her, so that the guilt and blame can leave him.

A sexist jerk gets called on his actions, and expects a (semi) apology to fix everything. Oh, and the victim of the action is the one who owes him the fixing. How many times have we seen that scenario? Of course, as we see here, he follows this up by acting offended that he hasn’t received forgiveness, or even praise for his apology, because by god that’s his right.

I spent more hours traveling this benighted country, for eight years, state after state after state, lecturing in defense of women’s rights and passage of the ERA than any of you have spent mouthing your sophomoric remonstrances.

If you’re the “support” that feminism’s got, then I think we ought to complain.

Seriously, he thinks he can fix this with his political credentials? Lots of people use pretty language about women’s rights and hide their underlying sexism. Lots of people actually mean what they say about women’s rights, but still screw up. The real feminists I know are the ones who admit that and work to improve, rather than indulging in misogyny and then trying to cover it up.

I’d also like to ask, what has he been doing since the 1970s, when the ERA had its heyday? Does he think that, since he put in his time, he’s earned carte blanche about the treatment of sexism? That he’s won the right to tell other women how they should feel about his sexist action?

My last word on this clusterfuck.

So we can hope. I won’t even say anything about his vulgar language – like I said, polite words can amount to a whole lot of nothing when it comes to what you’re really thinking. That sentence is quite possibly the least offensive thing he’s spewed thus far.

You know, I was prepared to shift the focus away from Ellison and turn my attention to the real problem, which is the response of the SFF community. (If we had evidence that the community didn’t tolerate this kind of behavior, it would have just been an isolated incident, objectionable but not cause for concern from the public.) I have the feeling that many people, especially those who weren’t previously familiar with Ellison and his behavior, felt similarly.

When I first saw mention of this additional message, I thought, maybe I should ignore this and focus on the real problem. But if the real problem is rampant male privilege and unchallenged misogyny, then Ellison, as a prominent and influential member of the SFF community, is a big part of that problem.

Remember, Mr. Ellison, you only brought this on yourself.

The Harlan Ellison Incident

A few days ago at the Hugo Awards ceremony at Worldcon, Harlan Ellison groped Connie Willis on stage. The primary source of the news is Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though Ellison himself confirmed it in the (ostensible) apology on his message board. (Text provided here by Elizabeth Bear. Also see her post on the original incident.)

He wrote the “apology” yesterday, even though the event occurred a couple of days ago, because he had no idea that there was a problem until he saw the reaction online. In other words, he didn’t know it was wrong until someone else told him. This is the kind of behavior that you would expect out of children developing their sense of politeness and ethics, not a grown man (especially one with as inflated a sense of self as Ellison apparently has).

Connie Willis is one of the most respected science fiction authors writing today – certainly one of the most well-known women in the field. She did not invite the groping, nor did she give him permission. Ellison calls it “intendedly-childlike,” and supposedly it came as part of a comedic schtick. However, Willis was not previously informed about his intention, and since she immediately removed his hand and continued on without comment, it’s obvious that she didn’t feel inclined to join in on the “comedy.”

His behavior – the fact that he even thought that this was an acceptable action (or at least funny, maybe “cheeky little bastard,” but not reprehensibly sexist), and furthermore, had to be told that it wasn’t – speaks to a deep disrespect for women. A disrespect that, really, isn’t all that uncommon.

An opening caveat

First, let’s be clear about what I’m not saying:
-Ellison is the oppressor of all women
-Ellison is the personal cause of oppression for Willis
-all men are horribly sexist
-touching = the root of sexist oppression

So anyone freaking out about how I’m attacking Ellison/blowing the situation out of proportion/hating on teh menz can calm down. Okay? Okay.

The acceptance of sexual harassment

This is what Ellison did: he invaded a woman’s personal space, and furthermore, touched a private body part (at least, it’s private in Western society since we sexualize and obsessively cover up women’s breasts). He did something similar to another woman at the same convention. Groping Willis was not a freak incident, but an indication of his disregard for personal space – the personal space, it appears, of women.

I’m not saying that Ellison took a moment, thought, “Boy, I disrespect Connie Willis! Let me show her who’s boss!” and grabbed her breast out of malice. The point is he didn’t have to stop and think. He simply assumed that it would be all right to grab a woman’s private body part without her prior permission, on a stage in front of a massive audience.

That’s the whole point. That assumption. The general attitude that makes people believe, without consciously thinking about it, that it’s okay to touch a woman without asking. (See George Bush’s invasion of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal space at the G-8 Summit.) The assumption that goes along with that belief is that, somehow, women just don’t get as much say over what people do to their personal space. Over who touches their bodies.

How many times have you seen a man touch a woman without asking: pat her head, pet her hair, grab her arm, put a hand on her waist? How many times have you been that woman? Both men and women do it – both genders absorb the idea that it’s somehow okay to do it. Women are expected to put up with it – to speak up and refuse a touch would be considered rude, heaven forbid. We’re expected to allow our personal boundaries to be blurred on a normal basis. This is one of the reasons why it’s so goddamned hard to recognize and react to sexual harassment. You don’t want to be the rude/uppity/bitchy one who says no; you think this kind of behavior is normal; you don’t know where to draw the line, how to tell when someone is trying to mask sexual invasion under acceptable “polite” behavior.

On the other hand, you very rarely see men being the receiver of this kind of unwanted contact. Especially from other men. (“Oh, but that’s different!” people say. “That would be weird and gay.” Well, if men touching men without asking is a sexualized violation, what does that make men touching women without asking?)

People don’t actively think this, think “touching women is okay!” when they do it. Of course not. You don’t have to. It’s just assumed.

When good authors suck as people

One thing I’m (shallowly) glad of is that I never read any of Ellison’s work. It’s frustrating and disappointing when I find out that authors I like are actually jerks.

But, you know, it is possible. The seriousness of this incident doesn’t negate the fact that Ellison is a well-known author of many admired works. You can be a good writer and still a social jackass – I greatly admire Margaret Atwood’s writing, but I hear she’s a very unpleasant person (which I can neither confirm nor deny, not having met her, but I am open to the possibility). Despite the horror stories I hear about Anne McCaffrey’s treatment of fans, I still look back on her books with affectionate nostalgia. And Anne Rice – well, okay, Anne Rice apparently fails at both literary and social skills, but whatever. XD;;

Beyond his writing skills, these incidents don’t even negate the fact that Ellison could be an otherwise good person – as I like to emphasize, you can be a good person and still be sexist/racist/whatever. But in many ways, your goodness is irrelevant. You still have to own up to the *ist behavior. If you’re a good person who’s also sexist, you’re just as sexist as the irredeemable asshole who’s also sexist.

Which is why it pisses me off to see that Stephen Brust decided that now was the time to post a paean to Ellison’s virtues and discourage attention to the groping incident. Now? Before most people in the SFF community have even heard what happened? Before (to my knowledge) there has been any sort of official response? Before we’ve even heard from Willis herself?

It smacks of trying to wriggle out of dealing with the incident, of trying to calm the rocking boat without even seeing what huge-ass boulder fell into the water in the first place. It also strikes me as a small – very small – version of the “but he was always such a good boy” defense of rapists, in that the perpetrator’s previous good behavior is used in an attempt to gloss over the objectionable action. Brust isn’t trying to deny what happened – there’s a large audience of witnesses and Ellison’s own admission, all in addition to what Willis says – but he is trying to minimize the censure directed toward Ellison, to hurry us on ahead by (ironically) emphasizing Ellison’s past good deeds.

Easy for you to say, Stephen Brust, a man who’s never been a recipient of male-on-female sexual harassment within a society that largely normatizes the behavior. (Now, I’ve actually read his stuff – but only one novel, and I didn’t like it that much, so that makes me less disappointed.) Something tells me his reaction wouldn’t be quite so detached if circumstances were different – maybe he can’t ever be a woman who’s harassed by a man, but he could know one. What if Ellison’s victim had been a relation to Brust, his wife, mother, daughter, sister? Would he be saying the same thing? My guess is, even if he still didn’t abandon Ellison, at least he wouldn’t be saying, “Sure, this was bad, but let’s make sure we remember the good that Ellison has done.” Instead, it would be more like, “Sure, Ellison has done good, but let’s make sure we acknowledge how bad this was.” In other words, the emphasis wouldn’t be on sweeping the incident under the rug.

In conclusion: Ellison is not an evil man. But.

As I said, I don’t find that Ellison is an anomaly – his action might have been outrageous, but his attitude is one that’s largely accepted. I’m not going to call him an evil sexist monster any more that I would call every man (and woman) that who shares his attitude toward women’s personal space. The point of my criticism, of all feminist criticism, is not to point fingers and declare this or that person evil, or to target someone for attack. The point is to reveal sexist attitudes and beliefs – attitudes and beliefs that we all fall prey to, to some degree – so that people can refuse to accept them.

But Ellison’s actions do need to be recognized – and criticized. (Especially since I find his “apology” lacking; you can read it and judge for yourself, but I get the impression he’s more enamored of his literary cleverness and bad-boy image than what Willis feels.) A lack of response to this incident – by fans, authors, and perhaps officials from Worldcon itself – would only reinforce the “boys’ club” impression of SFF.

Immature side note

Now I’m doubly amused by his run-in with the Penny Arcade folks last year.

Anger and Educating the Privileged

I realize that, lately, I am an angry person.

I read the news, I get angry. I read my blogs – most of which are political in nature – and get angry. I see things in my daily life that make me angry – hateful misogyny, self-serving racism, ruthless economic exploitation, and on and on and on.

On the one hand, I think that’s a good thing – “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” is a truth I live by. While I’m not glad that I’m angry, I’m glad that I have some sort of response to the oppression and mistreatment that goes on every single day in this world. I’m glad I notice at least some of all this, and that I have a visceral response that this world isn’t right. If I can still feel outrage – and thus, a desire to change things – then I know I’m still human, and not totally numb or complacent.

The world pisses me off …

On the other hand – well, constant anger isn’t good. It’s a stressor (and I stress enough already). I feel unhappy about the state of the world, whether that’s from reading about horrific, wide-scale atrocities in the news, or encountering the entrenched yet subtle *ist (sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.) attitudes in people I interact with. I find myself avoiding things that I want to do – I read my blogs irregularly, because the ones I follow most have content that pisses me off, in either the news they share or the fuckwit trolls who comment. I also tend to avoid non-political, high-traffic websites (comic book messageboards, video game news sites, etc.), because the accumulation of people almost guarantees privileged ignorance. I have to tailor my behavior so that I don’t have a negative physical reaction – like raised blood pressure, or just really tense muscles – in the course of pursuing my hobbies.

I don’t like being unhappy on a daily basis. I want to enjoy my life.

… But do I have the right to complain?

Still, I think we all have the obligation to make ourselves at least a little uncomfortable in order to improve the state of the world. At least, I do, if I’m going to complain about it. 😉

But how much? How much should I use the theory I’ve learned and try to change the world around me? How much should I try to educate people and reveal the truths of oppression and privilege? When I’m so tired by reading the latest harangue on how feminists are horrible/man-hating/stupid/mean, or why people of color are just whiners who blame white people for everything, how do I have the energy to extend myself? (And when I can find people who think like this on blogs such as Pandagon and Reappropriate, which are for feminists or people of color, I get very tired.)

“To educate or not to educate” is one of the toughest questions I face in regards to anti-oppression work. I’m an impatient person; in some circumstances, I have an extremely short temper. To be honest, I’m not very good at educating the ignorant. Talking face-to-face, or even keyboard-to-keyboard, to people who refuse to educate themselves on privilege, quickly gets me frustrated and – you guessed it – angry. I’m going to be selfish again and focus on me: I don’t like feeling this way, and I don’t want the responsibility of educating people.

The benefits of diplomacy vs. the right of radicals

But let’s face it: we need to educate. Certainly some men turn to feminism on their own, and some white people turn to anti-racism on their own, and some rich people turn to anti-classism on their own. But not all of the privileged will do this. And no matter how much work we do, we’ll never get rid of privilege without the cooperation of the privileged – so outreach and education are vital.

People need resources to educate themselves, and books won’t cut it. They need people willing to answer their questions and guide them. For those sitting on the fence, they might even need persuasion and patience. Some people will use personal excuses to rid themselves of social responsibility by saying things like, “Some feminists were mean to me so I won’t fight sexism.” In cases like these, diplomacy is necessary to maintain alliances.

Of course, the non-privileged do not owe anything to the privileged. They do not owe patience, ego-stroking, forgiveness. A black woman does not owe patience to ignorant white people who try to touch her hair like she’s an animal in a petting zoo. A woman does not owe a second chance to a man who thinks leering is a compliment. The non-privileged do not even owe the privileged an education. The education is ultimately for the sake of the non-privileged group.

In some cases, we need the unyielding, take-no-prisoners approach of radical theorists. We need people who won’t take sexist or racist bullshit and will call the privileged on their ignorance. It’s true that, without allies, we’ll never get far; but if we spend all of our time coddling and hand-holding, we won’t get any of our actual work done.

It’ll burn some bridges – those who aren’t granted tolerance or pats on the head might turn against the movement in the way I described above. But sometimes it’s necessary for catharsis and sanity. Sometimes, the “rude,” “offensive,” “unattractive” radicals have it right.

But they aren’t the only ones who are right. The Happy Feminist talks about this concept briefly in the latter half of this post, as do some of her commenters. As j0lt puts it, “While it important to have diplomatic missionaries speaking to those who fail to see the benefits of feminism, it is also vital to have people rallying the troops.”

As for me …

I read both Happy and Twisty, depending on my current mood, because I fall somewhere in between. I myself can be both extremely impatient, having no tolerance for *ist stupidity; yet also a borderline apologist who values alliance between the privileged and non-privileged. Luckily, there are places like this blog that seem to match my position on the spectrum pretty well.

I wish I had a more comprehensive answer, a better strategy for avoiding anger while still facing up to my responsibilities. But there’s no way to nicely and neatly tuck this problem away. I guess what I’m trying to say with all of this is: I don’t like being angry like this. I don’t deserve to be made angry like this. But I also have the right to be angry about the way the world is.

Fighting Words

[Hey everyone! My name is Dora/Sigel Phoenix and Tekanji recently invited me over here to guest blog. I have a personal/political blog on LiveJournal. I’m a college student majoring in English and Women Studies, and my interests include gender, race, and all things geeky. Nice to meet you all!]

I’m lucky in the people I geek out with, because it’s a mixed-gender group, mostly socially aware, and made up of generally good people. I don’t have to worry about guys telling me I can’t play something because I’m female, or looking down on what I’m interested in.

But I never hear the word “bitch” so often as in the middle of a tense battle in a game.

I hardly have the worst gaming experience, I know. Even the language I hear isn’t the worst – it’s nothing like the “cocksucking whores” or “stupid cunts” I’ve heard, and heard about, in the more anonymous forum of online gaming (yes, Counter-Strike, I’m looking at you). And most of the people I encounter while gaming actually try to not be sexist.

But there’s something about gaming that inspires honesty. I’d guess it has something to do with adrenaline, stress, and excitement – triggered by things like a major boss fight when you forgot to save, or that moment when you really really need to roll a 20. In any case, gaming tends to make us drop our pretenses – to help us shed our social niceties and polite talk. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t engaged in some violent smack talk during particularly exciting battles, never mind how you normally speak. I hear it in groups of any size, whether the medium is tabletop or electronic, an FPS or an RPG. And in such a fast-paced and high-stress environment, people often resort to the lowest common denominator in language, words that are fast and simple in getting your meaning across.

So when I hear people use “female” insults like this – words that refer specifically to women or characteristics of women – I can’t believe that they’re “just” words. Saying a word means that you believe something about it – something about what it means, and what a listener will understand through its usage. That’s why we usually don’t swear in the workplace, or reference inside jokes with people we don’t know; why we make our vocabulary more or less complex depending on what we’re trying to do (make an argument versus giving directions, etc.). I wouldn’t use “geek” with mundanes – at least, not in the same sense as I do with my friends – because it means different things to different groups of people.

So when we use words like “pussy” or “cocksucker” to describe the on-screen boss or our opponent in a fighting game, what do we mean? What do we believe the words mean? What kind of impression are we trying to give a listener?

I can tell you one thing: we mean something different than when we use non-gendered or even “male” insults. Sure, “asshole” and “dick” are often insults. But I often hear these words used in a light-hearted manner to describe people of any gender. That’s because the connotations of these words are somewhat positive – being a dick means that you’re rude and inconsiderate, but that’s because you’re assertive, you take no shit, you’re “ballsy.” And those characteristics are good. People will call themselves these terms – shrugging, maybe sheepish but usually laughing, admitting their own insolence and boorishness with little remorse.

In contrast, take a look at the tone of “female” insults. What makes someone a “pussy” or a “bitch,” or any other similar terms? Acting scared, or maybe being sneaky and cheating. Being underhanded instead of confronting something face-to-face “like a man.” In another sense of “bitch,” it’s being “hysterical” (which is another gendered insult, though less easy to recognize) and “overreacting,” usually because of “hormones.” Or it could mean that you were made into someone’s “bitch” because you got beaten in the game. In all senses: it’s about being weak.

How many people do you know who let others call them these words? Who consider these a source of pride? (The reclamatory usage of “bitch” is something different, and doesn’t count here.) I certainly don’t know any. I especially don’t know any men who would accept them. That’s because these identities lack the desirable characteristics of, say, an asshole. “Asshole” is almost a title, because of the way we revere aggressive (read: manly) behavior. It can indicate respect, or inclusion when it’s used among a group of peers. But “pussy”? That’s not a title; it’s a label. It’s a way of subordinating someone and showing your disdain.

Yes, this is misogynist. Even though these terms are used on people of any gender – often by people of any gender – there is a real, sexist power dynamic at work. Regardless of who says the words, the message that everyone gets is that it’s bad to be called them – and because these words are associated with female characteristics, it’s bad to be like a woman. These insults are simply shorthand versions of the common admonishments, “Don’t be such a girl” or, “Take it like a man.” Both versions maintain the old hierarchy of manly = good, girly = bad, which go beyond the game or whatever social situation in which they’re used.

The damage isn’t equal between men and women. Certainly these insults can hurt men, especially when they’re used as a method of social ostracization – something which geeks are all too familiar with. The message to men is: You’re acting like a woman, and that makes you bad. To women, however, the message is: It doesn’t matter how you act, what you are is bad. For women, these words tap into deeper and longer-standing rejection, degradation, and humiliation – into a sexism that spans social status, that spans history.

It doesn’t matter how many men are also insulted in this way. Under the current system, in which men and masculinity are valued more than women and femininity, “equal” treatment in this arena hits women harder. Would you bet the other two Little Pigs went to Mr. Brick House and said, “Oh, it’s okay, the Big Bad Wolf is blowing just as hard on your house as on ours”? Nah, it was more like, “I’m tired of vulnerability, and I want in on that protection!”

Maybe people who use these words don’t think about all of this. Certainly they don’t go through a detailed analysis like this one, every time they throw out a word. To bring it back to gaming, I know that people focusing on a video game aren’t taking the time to dissect the meaning of their language. However, like I said, people in these situations are looking for fast and simple – what will express their thoughts quickly and easily to whoever’s listening. So when we use these words, we know full well what they mean, and how other people will hear them. We’re searching for an insult, and we know exactly where to look. We can’t pretend ignorance. We can only profess conformity to the status quo, and what it says about gender and power.

So what’s left for us to use? What do we say when we’re gaming and we want to express frustration or anger?

Well, we have to say what we mean. We can’t resort to the easy shorthand when it’s destructive like this. Yeah, it’s hard; we might have to pause and think, or even (gasp!) use more words. But there’s no point in whining how difficult political correctness makes life. It’s always harder to think and break out of society’s ingrained biases. In this case, all we have to do is drop a few terms from our vocabulary. In doing so, we might start to make the point to those around us that we don’t care for the sexist value judgments that try to insinuate themselves into everything we do.