An argument for feminism

I just had an attack of the 500-line comment, so I decided to turn it into a blog post instead. On her blog, Angry Black Woman has a post up called On Feminism, part 1 where she quotes from Why I am Not a Feminist, or “My Anti-Feminist Manifesto”. The author hits on many of the problems that have plagued the feminist movement since its birth. Namely, she takes issue with the rampant white, middle-class, Western privilege that exists in many parts of the movement.

She isn’t wrong.

I’m only a fledgling when it comes to participation in feminist activism, and I have a whole heaping of privilege to boot, but I’ve seen the issues that she points out crop up more than once in the feminist blogsphere. My “Check my what?” post isn’t just for non-feminists, but it’s also there to try to help feminists, who already understand gender oppression, understand how to acknowledge and deal with their other privileges. So, yes, I understand (insofar as I can) her choice.

But, I can’t help but wonder why feminism has to be defined by the privileged. There are plenty of strands of feminism that I vehemently disagree with (most of them having to do with feminists who want their gender-based oppression acknowledged but refuse to acknowledge their white, class, cisgendered, etc privilege), but I don’t let them define feminism. And if I did — if I refused to call myself feminist because there are people out there too busy naval gazing to see the big picture — then who will be there to show others that there is a different side to the movement? Who would be there to further my particular interests?

As someone who has a whole heaping of privilege — white privilege, class privileged, able-bodied privilege, and cisgendered privilege in particular — I am in no position to pass judgment on women who feel the movement has failed them. Mainstream feminism has a long, long way to go in recognizing and redressing the rampant unacknowledged privilege, and I can’t blame someone for not wanting to walk into that battlefield. But at the same time there is a part of me who sees the, “I’m not a feminist, but…” argument that has done so much to keep us from forming solid relationships with each other. Every time a feminist woman — especially when she has very good reasons — says that she doesn’t use the feminist label, I feel it as a loss.

Which, I guess, brings me back to my first question: why do we have to define ourselves based on what other feminists think? Why can’t feminism be about connecting with other women and discussing the subjects that matter to us (talking about our own issues; listening to the issues of others)? Why can’t feminism take care not to engage in the deplorable behaviour that has been outlined in the Manifesto?

In the end, the only thing I can do is to be the one working towards building a feminism that people like Ms. Hernández would be proud to be a part of. I know that I, alone, don’t have that kind of power, but I know that I’m not the only ally. I’m not the only feminist working towards a feminism that understands that women come in all shapes, sizes, colours, religions, from all different cultures. And I can only hope that one day it will be enough. That one day when people think “feminist” it will conjure up a positive image of women coming together to fight for diversity, rather than the negative one of an elitist movement of middle-class white women.

Continuing the cultural appropriation discussion

So, a bunch of thoughts have been percolating in my mind since the last discussion on cultural appropriation. Specifically pertaining to two discussions about costumes.

The first comes from one brown woman of woman of (an)other color blog: Halloween: Day of Dead, Day of Red.

The second costume I want to talk about is one that I seem to have seen a lot on websites and over the weekend: the Pocahontas/ stereotypical Native American costume. With regards to the argument “Pochontas is from Disney and I was dressing up as a Disney character” my response is that Disney has racially problematic representations of individuals and helps to perpetuate many stereotypes about particular groups of people. So hiding behind Disney isn’t really going to help justify your costume.

And then from Sara of Sara Speaking: costume appropriation

Since she’s covered in blue paint I can’t say with certainty that this is an example of white privilege, but I definitely think it falls under a more generalised Western privilege, that is, the privilege that says we can pick and choose from the cultures and religions of these other peoples of the world without regard for how the practitioners of those religions and inhabitants of those cultures feel about that appropriation.

All of which furthered my thinking on cosplay, art, and the fine line between homage and appropriation.

And it is with that in mind that I want to talk about cake.

“Cake?!” you say, unable to fathom what my sweet tooth has to do with discussions of cultural appropriation. Yes, dear readers, I want to talk about cake, and I promise to you that it is very relevant to this discussion. Pictures and discussion after the cut. Continue reading

On NPR, diversity, and responding to criticism

So, ABW wrote a post about NPR and their apparent lack of diversity and NPR responded. While I know that ABW is planning on discussing her own response, I read over the letter and was pretty much floored that a company that purports to need pledge money to survive would allow such a letter to be sent. It was certainly not the worst response to criticism that I’ve ever seen, but it definitely wasn’t the best.

Now, I’m sure most of you are going to be like, “What the heck is tekanji talking about?” (you have read the letter, right?) because there’s nothing obviously unprofessional about it, and in fact it does include a lot of important and valid information in it. But if you hear me out and read the rest of this post, hopefully you’ll be able to see why I think that the letter was more unprofessional than it first appears.

The letter started out really good by answering the challenge with an upbeat and positive, “Look at all the great people we already have!” response. I was reading along, nodding my head, and overall feeling positive about the response. Then I hit the second paragraph.

The tone takes a sharp turn with the opening sentence [emphasis mine]:

Your assumptions about our staff diversity are incorrect. In the last seven years, NPR News alone has more than doubled its staff of people of color – by 106%. That includes 118% increase specifically in on-air diversity staff, 116% in editorial and 92% in production. Currently, the combined diversity staffing in these three areas represents 22 percent of our total news positions.

Was it necessary to say “[y]our assumptions… are incorrect”? It takes her positive and turns it into a negative — instead of focusing on what NPR is doing right, it focuses on what ABW said that was wrong. And, while I can’t speak for ABW, I can’t imagine how that’s a tactic that’s going to make her, or anyone who admires her, think, “Gee, look how swell NPR is, they really do deserve my money!”

In fact, that whole paragraph would have had a lot more impact if it had kept up the positive throughout. If I were to rewrite it, I’d probably go with something along the lines of:

I definitely agree with you that visible diversity in companies like ours is very important. Which is why I’d like to take some time to address the part of your post where you said “I suspect that, if one were to check, 90% of the reporters would be not-black. If we include all PoC in the count, then NPR is probably 75% white.” In the last seven years, NPR News alone has more than doubled its staff of people of color – by 106%.

It starts out by acknowledging the point that was behind ABW’s claim — that visible diversity is important, and that when diversity isn’t visible that it creates the feeling that the viewpoints of POC aren’t properly represented. Then it further acknowledges what she said as important, by emphasizing that the point is important enough to get its own paragraph. All of that primes the reader to be in a positive frame of mind and therefore the following information is seen as a helpful clarification, rather than a grown-up way of saying, “so there!”

The problem continues with the beginning of the next paragraph:

Finally, your description of News & Notes does a disservice to both the program and the African American Public Radio Consortium, the dedicated group of stations that co-created it with NPR.

Again we have the same problem of the negative focus on what ABW is doing/saying in terms of it being wrong instead of focusing on what NPR is doing right. And, I might be alone in this, but the whole, “you’re doing a disservice to these black organizations” kind of reads as the, “you are making other black people look bad” which, as an argument style, tends to put the blame on black people for being discriminated against, rather than on the systems that are allowing/encouraging the discriminating.

Personally, I think the entire letter would be stronger without that paragraph, because the whole paragraph looks like a vendetta against Tavis Smiley the way that it’s worded. Also, it takes the focus off of the positive things that NPR has done and puts it squarely on the negative side, both with what was said to ABW as well as the accusations made against Smiley (which, whether they’re true are not, are certainly not appropriate to discuss in this venue).

The next paragraph is generally a good one, as it’s about acknowledging that there’s room for improvement, but it reads as kind of cold and antiseptic. My suggestion here, then, would have been to have directly engaged with the underlying message of the post. Talking about the generalities of improvement does nothing to reassure ABW, or her readers, that their concerns, in particular, are being addressed. But doing something such as acknowledging that one of the ways that NPR could improve would be to be more clear and transparent about their current diversity and continuing efforts to improve it, so that listeners like ABW could feel more represented in the future, would have really helped to make a connection.

The last paragraph would need a complete overhaul. It comes across to me as if it’s rubbing it in ABW’s face how wrong she was about the diversity issue and how she should be ashamed of herself. The whole tone is so blatantly passive-aggressive (I mean, come on: “I know how hard they work to bring different perspectives to journalism and I would appreciate them being recognized for their efforts.”? Guilt trips are not high on the “ways to treat your consumers to make them want to give you money” list) and it completely undermines all of the positive points that were made earlier in the piece.

All in all, I have to say that I’m disappointed in NPR. I’m disappointed that they would let such a letter be sent, and I’m disappointed that they made activism look like some sort of petty contest (where there are people who do it “right”, ie. NPR, and people who do it “wrong”, ie. ABW). I’m not a business major, and I have very little practical experience in this area, but even I can see that sending such a letter to someone who is clearly a listener who thinks about donating is bad for business.

I, myself, do not particularly listen to NPR but I have family members who do. And you’d better believe that I’m directing them to ABW’s post, then this one, and then letting them know that NPR may be committed to “diversity” but it sure as hell isn’t committed to treating its listeners, and their concerns, with respect.

Resident Evil: White people killing white people?

As a fan of the Resident Evil series one thing that’s been rather amusing about the race wank surrounding Resident Evil 5 is the claim that the rest of the series was all “white people killing white people”. I wonder if the complainers have actually played the games in the series, or if they’ve bought so much into the white normative culture that “protagonists, the majority of whom are white, killing zombies, the majority whom are white” is the same as saying, “the previous games have been all white people”.

On the trailer thread I raised issue with the assertion that Resident Evil 4 fit into that category, and now I’m going to bring Exhibit B into play. The above movie is the opening to Resident Evil 3 and does, in fact, feature both non-white humans and zombies. The ratio isn’t representative of most American cities, but they’re there and that’s enough to make my point for now.

So I just finished reading the Runaways collection Vol 1…

I bought the first volume of the Runaways collection when I was down at WisCon and I just wanted to make a short post on my initial feelings after reading it. Once I finish my WisCon writeup for Cerise I might return to the subjects I touch on here and do a better analysis (oops, I got my rant on by accident… I think I’m almost incapable of doing short posts).

So, first off, I’m definitely buying the next two volumes. I have no idea where I’ll put them, as my bookshelf is filled to the brim, and that’s not counting all the books I bought at WisCon, but, that’s life I guess. The first story arc was fun, the art was overall pretty cool, and I think I have a soft spot in my heart for rebels with a cause. Or maybe it’s just a soft spot for a team that’s mostly kick ass women, or girls in this case. I also like the clothing, and if I knew how to tie a tie I would so be wearing the shirt and tie getup that Nico was in for a bit.

That being said, I had two major issues with what I read. But since they are spoilers, especially the second one, I will put them behind the jump. SPOILERS AHEAD. You have been warned. Continue reading

On air Privilege in Action

Maybe it’s a little unfair to be using FoxNews as the subject of a PiA post, since that station seems to go out of its way to defend and perpetuate bigotry, but the methodology is exactly the same as people with good intentions use, so I decided that it was worth using the material.

The Hannity and Colmes section starts out with Alan Colmes giving an overview of the issue and asking president of the Organization of Chinese Americans in New York, Vicki Shu Smolin, some questions about why the Asian American community feels that the Doghouse jocks and the show’s producers should be fired. Despite the biased slant on the questions, Colmes only interrupts Smolin once, and it is during a pause in the sentence and for the purpose of segueing into the Q&A with Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers magazine. During this part of the show, Sean Hannity takes over the role of questioner.

Privilege #1: The Right to Offend

Hannity: Michael, I’m getting concerned here… like for example, both of my parents came from Ireland. If someone tells an Irish joke, am I supposed to get offended? Are we at the point where we can’t–this isn’t my type of humor, but I’m getting very nervous about the type of environment that’s being created here.

What Hannity here is concerned about is that free speech will be curbed if we put social pressure on comedians and other well-known personalities to practice self-censorship in terms of bigotry. This is actually a common argument, and the reason I put it in with “privilege” is because in this case “free speech” is being used to mean the right to insult, a “right” that is exercised disproportionately on non-privileged groups and with a disproportionately heavy impact.

When people try to use the “free speech” argument to caution against groups calling for action when they are the victims of racism, sexism, or other forms of bigotry, it’s not just about potentially curbing one’s ability to speak one’s true mind, but the collateral damage is that it implies that one should not be held accountable for one’s words. As earlbeck says, “But freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism, and freedom of speech is also responsibility for the words that one uses… People need to take responsibility for their actions, and that includes their words.”

What groups like the Organization of Chinese Americans are doing isn’t asking for these men or companies to be thrown in jail for what they’ve said, but rather making a statement that they, and all Asian Americans, have been subjected to racism (as all women have been subjected to sexism) by the show’s content, and that the show is responsible for its content and that it must face the consequences of its free speech.

But Hannity is skillfully using a rhetoric that erases that responsibility, a usage enabled by privilege. Privilege is being able to be free from responsibility in many encounters that involve a non-privileged group. Especially in cases like these, where the offense is “minimal” — meaning it was “only” words, or some other non-violent incident — the personal responsibility we have for our own words, and the corporate responsibility that companies have for the content of their shows, can be neatly swept under the rug of “free speech”, because no one wants to “walk on eggshells” or worry that maybe sometime, somewhere, they will face real consequences for a casually bigoted thing that they have said.

Privilege #2: My experience speaks for all

Harrison responds in agreement to what was said about the restrictive environment, then Hannity cuts him off to say the following:

Hannity: Anyone can make fun of me, I don’t care. By the way, Michael, as you know–we’ve been friends a long time– they do.

I hear this one a lot in real life. “People make fun of me all the time,” say the wealthy, white, heterosexual men in my family, in my school, and online. As if their experiences are universal. Privilege is assuming that your experiences give you the authority, and the knowledge, to rightfully speak for the experiences of others.

I have no doubt that Hannity is made fun of. I also have no doubt that there is some pretty vile stuff about him said in person, in the internet, through letters, and any other medium that people can communicate through. He’s a TV personality, and one on FoxNews at that. But three things are going on: 1) he’s implicitly conflating good-natured teasing (through his nod to Michael as a longtime friend) with actual verbal attacks on his person; 2) he’s erasing the distinction between receiving jokes as a person in power versus receiving jokes from a person in power when you are a person/group without power; and 3) he’s assuming that his potential feelings on this matter are the only valid ones.

Those three tactics both minimize the acknowledgment of the damage of racism, sexism, and other bigotry, while providing Hannity with a safe cocoon of rationalization in which to feel justified about his stance. The root of his argument is, of course, that he (and others) should be allowed to say whatever bigoted things that they want without being censured, but if he were to state it like that, then he would be called a racist, a sexist, and an all-around bigot.

By playing it up in the, “Well, that kind of stuff happens to me, too, and I don’t react so strongly!” He paints himself and his argument as rational, logical and correct and the non-privileged group’s reaction as emotional, illogical, and wrong. This is probably not even cold calculation on his part, but rather an honest attempt to understand the issue through his own experiences. But, when you are the one with power, you cannot assume that the situations you’ve faced are comparable to similar ones that people without power face. This is because, as I’ve stated above, the power dynamics are completely different and therefore, even taking out the differences between individuals, the situations, though similar on the surface, are in fact fundamentally different.

Endnotes: Bigotry in Action

This has already turned into a long post, but I would like to point out one thing. There is a point where Hannity’s privilege turns into actual bigotry when he addresses Smolin for the last time. Now, keep in mind, Hannity interrupted Harrison once, and that was about the time when he segued to his thoughts on the issue and began, well, the way it came across to me as a viewer, was that he began lecturing Smolin.

He interrupted her no less than three times, all of them when she was in mid-sentence, trying to answer his questions and assertions. He talked over her twice, one time of which she refused to stop what she was saying and kept talking until he gave her the floor, the other time she let him interrupt her. I can’t speak for the racism aspect (although I would suspect that it’s similar), but I know that men have a habit of interrupting women and women have a habit of letting them. I, myself, have been in a couple situations where I have literally said, “Let me finish,” and “You’ve interrupted me,” to a man and had him not let me finish what I was saying.

While this does stem from the privilege of feeling that you have the right to be heard anytime, anywhere, what Hannity did — and what was done to me, and continues to be done to countless other women — is sexist. It doesn’t matter that, since it stemmed from privilege, he probably wasn’t aware of it. It doesn’t matter that he probably intended to treat Smolin with the same courtesy as Harrison. The facts are that he blatantly and obviously silenced a woman and that passes privilege and goes straight into sexism.

The reason I bring it up here, beyond the fact that I think it needs to be discussed, is because this is a perfect example of how privilege enables bigoted behaviours to escalate. If Hannity didn’t have the privilege of speaking up anytime and anywhere nursed by our society — as a white person, a man, a TV personality, etc — then he would have a harder time casually silencing another human being.

I write this series to bring more awareness about what privilege is and why it’s important to understand the kinds of privilege that we have. I have not even touched on all of the elements of privilege that were displayed in that 6:12 minute news spot, and this one instance is only a drop in the bucket of the kinds of privileges we take for granted in our own lives. People — real people — have been hurt by not only the likes of Don Imus and the Doghouse DJs, but by the sheer number of people who have rationalized the behaviour as normal an harmless while pathologizing the responses by the non-privileged communities and their allies as anti-free speech, censorship, and emotional and therefore wrong and dangerous. And, well, if that’s not Privilege in Action, then I don’t know what is.

Via reappropriate.

What's wrong with this picture?

Asiaphilia laptop style
Feel the cultural appropriation around us

I swear I don’t go looking for these kinds of things, they find me all on their own. I went to VoodooPC’s website to check their tech support hours (in the hopes of me getting my laptop back this century…) and I saw the above image.

When you mouse over it you get this lovely text:

Feel the harmony?

Do I even have to do an image and textual analysis of this for everyone to understand what’s wrong with a North American company (recently bought out by HP, mind you) capitalizing on the fetishization of Asian culture in order to sell its product? Okay, then.

Honestly, if I didn’t have so many things to do already I’d be sorely tempted to make a satire of the above ad using Christianity. The laptop as Jesus, anyone?

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.

Kenji Yoshino: Who wants to be a stereotype?

When discussing what he calls “covering” (the pressure to assimilate into the privileged “default” ways of acting, thinking, etc), the Harvard law professor and queer theorist Kenji Yoshino makes this observation:

Who wants to be a stereotype? Who wants to live in a box? But, of course, right, I mean if we just live our lives inverting stereotypes about our group, we’re just as controlled by those stereotypes as a photograph is controlled by its negative. Right? If we just reverse every single term of the stereotype then we’re just as controlled by the stereotype.

Hear the entire lecture over at