Monday, January 5, 2015

Let's Require All College Freshmen to Read "The New Jim Crow"

Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow"
Why? Because "The New Jim Crow," by Michelle Alexander, more than any other book I know of, describes our times, our predicaments and our society's greatest tensions (an understatement, really): race, the prison industrial complex, socioeconomic class, oppression, indifference, and how they are all so intertwined.

A professor at my college has proposed it to be the incoming first years' required reading book for multiple years now, and I am hopeful his advocacy will be successful this year, and that the incoming class of 2018 will all read Michelle Alexander's searing, brilliant, researched-to-a-T book. Especially given everything that has happened in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and in other towns across the country--Alexander, writing in 2012, shows us exactly how and why the lives of black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner are so devalued.

I want all white first year students to take in this paragraph:
"...[T]he drug war could have been waged primarily in overwhelmingly white suburbs or on college campuses. SWAT teams could have rappelled from helicopters in gated suburban communities and raided the homes of high school lacrosse players known for hosting coke and ecstasy parties after their games. The police could have seized televisions, furniture, and cash from fraternity houses based on an anonymous tip that a few joints or a stash of cocaine could be found hidden in someone's dresser drawer. ... All this could have happened as a matter of course in white communities, but it did not. Instead, when police go looking for drugs, they look in the 'hood. Tactics that would be political suicide in an upscale white suburb are not even newsworthy in poor black and brown communities (p. 124, emphasis mine)."
Perhaps the student readers would do as I did--smile a little at the absurd visual of SWAT teams dropping into the white 'burbs to break up high schoolers' parties or busting down frat doors for small amounts of marijuana. And then perhaps, as I did, they would re-read the paragraph and realize--well, that it is exactly what is happening regularly in low-income brown and black neighborhoods. The same list of Drug War "interventions" that are absurd, unreal when applied to white middle and upper class communities are exactly the norm in poor black and brown ones.

Although white people are more likely to use and sell illegal drugs in the U.S. (data here, here and here, for examples), our country imprisons a greater percentage of our black citizens than even South Africa did during apartheid (p. 6), mostly for drug-related crimes. And these are not the heads of drug cartels, they are often first-time offenders and overwhelmingly non-violent crimes.

The statistics that Alexander shares throughout the book are astounding, but (as the title of her book indicates) more powerful still are the clear patterns and connections she reveals, showing how our criminal justice system is most of all, a tool for the social control of black and brown people. She lays out her argument historically:
"Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable. The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged. (p. 21)"
For although the criminal justice system is on paper "race neutral," it functions in just the same way as past forms of racist social control, like slavery, sharecropping, and the Jim Crow Laws, just with a new tune: "A new race-neutral language was developed for appealing to old racist sentiments...demanding 'law and order' rather than 'segregation forever.' (p. 40)." People with criminal records of any kind--even when they serve no jail time and immediately go to parole, even when their crimes are non-violent--are deeply oppressed in our society, not even eligible for public housing! "Criminals...are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In 'colorblind' America, criminals are the new whipping boys (p. 141)."

And who makes up the vast majority of America prisoners and parolees? Who makes up the vast majority of the people we are allowed to hate and legally discriminate against? Alexander demands that we as a nation need to talk frankly about the answers to these questions. Who better to delve in than incoming college students, our supposed future leaders?

What's particularly important for college students (and all of us, really) to discuss that Alexander so brilliantly writes about, is that racism can occur even when people honestly don't think they are being racist. And if it weren't a library book, I would have underlined this sentence multiple times because it comes up in so many of my conversations about race with white students:
"The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial (p. 182)"
Rather, "This system of control depends far more on racial indifference...than racial hostility (p. 203)." It is the avoidance of talking about race and racism that allows systems like the criminal justice system to function, thrive and grow. Alexander's book (in addition to the other resources she provides here) is one tool in the long fight ahead, so if you're with her, let's promote her book. I know many of you work in colleges and universities. Can you propose it as summer reading to your Dean of Freshmen or Dean of Studies? Can you incorporate it into a workshop or class that you teach? Can you read it with a group of your friends and discuss?

Of course, "The New Jim Crow" is no panacea. But if people of all races who care about social justice could work to share language, to see through assertions of colorblindness, to share understandings of our country's racist history, and to challenge ourselves to learn more and do better, we will be in a stronger position to make it even a little better, a little more just, for the next generation.

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Michelle Alexander's NYT 11/26/14 op-ed on Michael Brown's death: "Telling My Son About Ferguson"

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Women, Sports and Power

I <3 Maggie Ruden of Fury (photo credit: USA Ultimate)
Some of the times I have felt most powerful in my life have been on an ultimate frisbee field. Faking out my defender and sprinting hard to the endzone for the score. Marking up against a fierce competitor and frustrating her with my ever-presence on her cuts. Locking eyes with a teammate who knows just where to cut for my forehand huck, and then completing the play perfectly together. It's a full-body feel-good feeling, like electricity starting in my chest and surging outwards to my fingertips, to my toes.

This weekend I was reminded of all that, playing with a small and scrappy alum team at our alma mater's tournament (winning the tournament, of course). It was two days, six games of playing against various college teams from the northeast, and each game I was thinking how wonderful it was that there were six teams of women completing against each other. The players ranged from first year students who had only touched a disc starting in September, to seasoned seniors with beautiful throws and impressive vertical skills, to some of us who have continued playing after school on elite club teams and have lived and breathed ultimate for up to a decade.

The community of women this weekend brought me so much joy. To see all of us out there, with no men in charge, was glorious. Because, how often does that happen? In our workplaces? In our local and national government? In our schools' senior leaders? Rarely, rarely, rarely. Yet there is so much value in complete self-determination for women, as when we are playing on a women's sports team. You have complete control over your body, and this is no small thing, when we live in a culture where women's bodies are policed, critiqued, picked apart by the media, by passerby, by families, by friends. On the field, my body is completely mine.

I bow at the feet of the women's groups who not only got Title IX to Congress's door, but fought for it once it was passed but being poorly instituted. Despite being passed in 1972, the federal Office of Civil Rights was not enforcing the law, and it took lawsuits and advocacy until a full 15 years later, women's rights groups were victorious in passing the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which made Title IX stronger, clearer, and more enforceable (sources here).

The gains have been huge. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation's fact sheet, before Title IX, girls represented just 7% of the students playing sports in high school. In 2001, girls made up 41.5% of students playing sports in high school--from 300,000 to 2.7 million girls playing. That translates to 1 in every 2.5 girls playing in high school in 2001, versus just 1 in every 27 girls playing prior to Title IX.

In college, women represented just 2% of student athletes prior to Title IX, whereas women made up 43% of college athletes in 2001.

Me playing for NYC's Bent v. TX's Showdown, Nationals 2013*
But let's not get complacent. Taking the micro example of the ultimate frisbee world, many women join in college, but after their four years in school, never play again. Most women's club teams, who compete regionally and nationally (and are very badass, I can tell you from experience--one example here), know that part of their work is improving the pipeline to get women to keep playing. We--like most women's sports--have not hit the critical mass that men's divisions of the same sports have. There are so many men who play ultimate, that for example, the co-ed winter league I played in in San Francisco accepted all women who signed up, but always cut a good number of men purely because the ratio of men to women who wanted to join was so skewed.

This is not a matter of, 'oh well, men just like ultimate frisbee better!' It means that many good and excellent college women ultimate players have not gotten the encouragement or the opportunity to keep improving out of college. There are not women's teams in every city, so many women have to play in co-ed leagues or on co-ed teams if they want to keep playing. But when you are a woman playing in a co-ed league game and a man calls another man a "pussy" when he messes up; or a co-ed team and you get constantly looked off on open cuts you are making; or when men dominate the email chains a co-ed team is using to fire everybody up (all of which I experienced just in the last couple of weeks), the incentives for women to stay playing get fewer and fewer. (And don't even get me started on the impact of "professional" men's frisbee teams having women cheerleaders at their games. The short version: the impact is that girls and women watching get the message 'your place is not on the ultimate field.' This is a huge detriment to the development of particularly girls playing ultimate, and if you're a man on one of those teams--you need to realize you are part of the problem, and you have the power to change that. Men on teams with all-female cheerleaders and all-male players should refuse to step on the field until their manager promises there either will be no female cheerleaders or there will be female players on the field. Preferably the latter.)

The winning team this weekend--Boxing Nuns Alums!
And none of this is trivial. There are countless, proven benefits to women and girls persisting in sports. Women and girls who play sports have higher grades, lower drop out rates, lower pregnancy rates, and lower drug usage rates than those who don't. They also are more likely to graduate college, and sports significantly increase women's self-esteem and confidence. The next studies I want to see are the impacts of women playing sports past college. I would posit that women playing sports are more confident at work, ask for raises more, and are more willing to speak up when something unjust is going on in their workplace and in their relationships. I know sports has instilled all of that in me.

So women readers, I ask you--when was the last time you did something with only a large group of women? And what did it feel like?

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*Second photo credit: William "Brody" Brotman

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Who's Afraid to Talk about Michael Brown?

Michael Brown
This afternoon I decided I needed to take some time and click on every Facebook link I could about Michael Brown, his murder, and the aftermath in Ferguson, Missouri. I decided I needed to do that because I am white. Because I don't have a black brother or cousin or best friend or partner, I can disengage from thinking about unprovoked violence against black bodies. I can decide the moments that I want to learn about the black experience in American and the times I don't. I can choose to hear short updates on NPR about the National Guard being called in, and decide that that can suffice for my knowledge of what's going on.

As Janee Woods so poignantly put it in her piece this week, "Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder":
"I am challenging white people to consider carefully whether failing to speak out or act because of... [their] fears is justified when white silence and inaction mean the oppression and death of black people. Let’s talk about an active role for white people in the fight against racism because racism burdens all of us and is destroying our communities."
It's not acceptable to check out of the outrage, the sadness, the fear, the conversation that Michael Brown's murder has brought if I or any other white person ever wants to think of ourselves as doing anti-racist work. If you have ever said or thought to yourself, "I'm not racist," then tell me, what have you been doing this week? I am not saying this to mock or shame anyone, but really truly asking myself and my white friends, what have we been doing? How many more young black people have to die before we are ready to admit that if black people and other people of color are less valued in this country, that inherently means we white people are more valued in this country. And the legitimacy and value given to our bodies and our voices means that we must, we MUST be loud, active voices in the fight for racial justice. Which is also called justice.

Since Michael Brown's murder on August 9th, I have learned a lot from my friends on Facebook. But true to Janee Woods' point, they were almost entirely my black friends. They linked to videos of reporters getting tear gassed and the terrifying use of police force, and militarization of local police forces. They cited the silence of celebrities who love to appropriate black culture for their financial gain, but have nothing to say about the violent realities of being black every day. They shared Melissa Harris-Perry's tribute to Michael Brown, Oscar Grant and the hundreds of other unarmed black people killed by police. (One shocking statistic she shared: "From 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.")

Renisha McBride
I am ashamed to admit that today, I had to stop reading and watching footage after just 30 minutes. It was painful. But that's the point, right? It IS painful and terrible and unacceptable that black people can be killed so callously and so frequently. We white people need to find ways to hear and see and feel the pain that is the reality for people of color in our country. If I walked up to a stranger's house to ask for help, no one would ever shoot me in the face like Theodore Wafer did to Renisha McBride, murdering her in November 2013. But black and brown parents all over this country have to deal with the reality that their child could be shot in the face if she asks for help, and that their unarmed child could be shot six times including twice in the head like Michael Brown.

So that is why I'm writing here. I want to hold myself accountable for going back to the news (especially non-mainstream), to social media, to people in my communities, over and over to learn and speak up and figure out what role I can play. I am committing to educating myself, my white friends and my white students on these particular series of events yes, but also the larger contexts that contribute to the unchecked murders of people of color in this country. I am asking all white readers to also reflect for yourself, how can you not be silent too?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Extra Points for Defiant Pits

Hairless/hairy/hairless/hairy students in Prof. Fahs's class
I am giving a huge virtual high-five to Professor Breanna Fahs at Arizona State University. Since 2010, Fahs has offered students in her gender and women's studies classes extra credit to go against the gender grain. For the women, they get extra credit if they don't shave their armpits, and for the men, they get the extra credit if they do shave their armpits. The students have to persist through their gender experiment for the full 10 weeks of the class, and they have to keep a journal about the experience and people's reactions.

According to ASU News, the women in the class had more backlash to deal with than the men. Student Stephanie Robinson explained, "Many of my friends didn't want to work out next to me or hear about the assignment and my mother was distraught..." And her classmate Grace Scale had the experience of "One of my dearest friends--at the time--compared my underarm hair to 'the sludge at the bottom of the garbage can,' and continued on a rant about how growing body hair had a direct correlation to challenging men's authority and position in society."

As you may have noticed from my recent week of gender play at Barnard College, I am really interested in gender experiments. Fahs's assignment lets students take a chance at challenging one of our most pervasive gender norms and letting them see for themselves how untrue it is when people insist, "But people can do whatever they want their body hair." There are absolutely repercussions for 'violating' a gender norm like this one, especially one this country has had in full force since the early 1900s.

I know this because during college, I wrote a paper on the history of women and shaving. Let me just quote my 21-year-old self a little bit (footnotes included):

"Women’s hair has long been a loaded concept. For the Victorians in particular, “it became an obsession. In painting and literature, as well as in their popular culture, they discovered in the image of women’s hair a variety of rich and complex meanings, ascribing to it powers both magical and symbolic,” explains historian Elizabeth Gitter.[1] Contemporary shampoo and conditioner ads feature women swinging their voluminous locks in the camera frame, the ads’ narratives congratulating the brand on its thickening and smoothing qualities. The hair featured is luxurious and never short. We are meant to gather that hair is a coveted good, to still accept the Victorian standard—but only if it exists on the head.

"Hair on women’s armpits and legs, which has the same density as scalp hair, is not admired for its thickness or smoothness, nor its luxurious softness, despite growing from the same genes. Suffice to say there is a major inconsistency within the status of women’s hair. Hair is lovely and “magical,” but with the strict stipulation that it is only so on female’s heads. But who’s stipulation is this? Historians respond, “the norm itself was initially fostered by depilatory marketers, who saw that money was to be made from convincing women that body hair was a flaw.”[2] Through pervasive advertising and framing body hair removal as a necessity rather than a choice, razor companies have successfully make a physiologically arbitrary action a socially necessary habit: Approximately 85 percent to 90 percent of women have unwanted body hair.[3]

"... Corporate gain is a direct result of classifying body hair as shameful. No matter how brightly colored the ads or how cheerily the model smile while holding a razor to their tanned leg, ads for razors at their most basic telling women there is something wrong with one of their natural functions, hair growth. 

"... “I shave because I like it” is a frequent assertion, but a historically inaccurate statement. Women shave because Harper’s Bazaar arbitrarily told them to in 1915."

Through the process of researching and writing this paper, little firebrand college student me actually convinced myself that shaving, waxing and lasering body hair was unnatural, harmful, and a waste of time. But if I had never had a chance to really think long and hard about why we value women's shaved legs and armpits as a culture, I'm not sure I would have questioned my own practices.

The brilliance of Fahs's extra credit assignment is that for students who opt to, they can actually make a choice, and do so along with a cohort. Having your classmates provide solidarity for those inevitable times where people give you disgusted looks or tell you that you look ugly is important. Because that's how gender norms work--they get policed by those who are invested in it, and it takes a bit of grit and friends beside you for you to choose a different way.

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[1] Elisabeth G. Gitter, “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination,” PMLA 99.5 (1984): 936.
[2] Merran Toerien, Sue Wilkinson, and Precilla Y.L Choi, “Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity,” Sex Roles 52. 5/6 (2005): 404.
[3] Marika Tiggerman and Sarah J. Kenyon, “The hairlessness norm: The removal of body hair in women” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 39.11-12 (1998): 873.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Day 5: Bending, Stretching, Conforming, Queering: My Genderplay Week in Review

Barnard Camo Judy
Today I sought to match my surroundings, so dressed as Barnard Camo Judy. This consisted of brightly colored heels, a pencil skirt, a bright floral shirt, makeup and earrings. I blended in quite well with the dominant style of campus--I'm sure at times it rendered me totally invisible given the volume of people walking around campus in similar garb.

And again today the subway was uneventful--so sorry dear readers! But not being harassed or stared down by anyone gave me some time to reflect on my week and the implications of my experiment. Key things I drew from my NYC subway lab (scroll down for the full photo gallery) that I'm continuing to chew on are:

  • Men displayed more ownership of public space. My experience was that men readily made eye contact with me regardless of my gender expression, whereas far fewer women met my eyes. No doubt there is a safety component to this--women have reason to be more guarded in public space, and that itself is a major problem.
  • Two of the three times I wore unambiguously feminine dress, I was hit on and frequently evaluated by mens' eyes. My gender expression in that case "entitled" those men to look at me and talk to me in an objectifying way. None of them considered that I might not be attracted to men, that I might not be attracted to them, or that I might not appreciate being hit on.
  • Dressing androgynously but with strong feminine signals (i.e. the form-fitting shirt I wore on Thursday with suspenders) seemed to protect me from the prolonged staring and discomfort I experienced on Monday and Tuesday in a very androgynous-to-masculine gender expression.
  • I felt more afraid and more tentative in androgynous-to-masculine gender expression than in any of the other gender expressions. While I dislike being hit on by men when dressing stereotypically femininely, I can better anticipate what strangers' behavior might be towards me. In contrast, I could not always read strangers' behavior or eye contact in the androgynous gender expressions. Where they aggressive? Curious? I was much more on guard.
  • What role does my whiteness have in how people responded to me this week? Men of a variety of races spoke and stared at me. Would that have been the same of different for a woman of a different race? Would a genderqueer woman of color experience similar levels of staring? We know that LGBTQ (especially trans) people of color experience far more violence than white LGBTQ people, so I wonder if that would play out in her experiencing more overt harassment on the subway than I did.
Throughout the week, I thought a lot about how in doing this, I need to be conscious that I not trivialize the experiences of trans, gender non-conforming and genderqueer people. To not treat my week as a joke, or my andro outfits as ridiculous get-ups, which could be read as mocking people whose dress and gender presentation do not conform with the sex and gender they were assigned at birth. Rather, I chose gender expressions that are all a part of me, all different versions of myself. I did not buy any new clothes or accessories for the week. This was me, all week. 

Part of my findings was that I am not brave enough to be my androgynous-to-masculine self on the regular. Since I enjoy many different gender expressions, I do tend towards the one that don't give me as much public backlash. My androgynous-to-masculine self mostly only emerges when I am hanging out with a group of queer friends, at my house with my partner, at the Creating Change conference, or sometimes with small groups of my family.

Thanks to all of you who joined me in this week-long series! I would love to hear your thoughts on gender expression, your gendered/raced experiences of public space, and if there are clothing items or gender expressions of yourself that you wish you could try on. (I know this has experience has definitely inspired me to incorporate more suspenders into my life, for instance.)






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Check out the other posts in the series:
Day 1: Gender Play at Barnard
Day 2: Lipstick, Loafers and Labels
Day 3: "Do women have to be naked to get into the [MoMA]?"
Day 4: High School Hope