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.

[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.)

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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Day 4: High School Hope

Dandy Judy
As my Dandy Judy self today, I sported a form-fitting tee-shirt, suspenders, pinstripe pants and snazzy Oxford shoes. No makeup, my face adorned only by turquoise earrings.

In this get-up, I had no significant encounters at all on the subway. Quite a surprise!

So today's edition will be on hopeful messages from high schoolers (and an elementary school kid too, just for good measure).

The under 18 crowd these days (or maybe it's always?) are a much maligned group. We hear that they are lazy as a result of helicopter parents, apathetic about politics, glued to their many screens. But what I've been so impressed about with this group of 14 high school women is that just like my college students, they enjoy analyzing and critiquing and breaking down concepts and stereotypes. AND many of them also take the initiative to move the discussion to 'given these critiques/problems, what can we do about it?'

Interestingly, this is not always where some of the college students I work with go with their frustrations. Perhaps it's just the difference between idealism and cynicism--that developmentally, many college students move through a cynical phase as they learn that truth is not fixed or static, and authority figures are not necessarily right. And of course, there's nothing wrong with those who remain cynical--we need them to help us see societal ills and need their skepticism around 'easy fixes' for complex social problems. But for high schoolers to recognize that they have agency in addressing how gender functions in our society makes me feel very hopeful.

During a class discussion on stereotype threat readings, one student encouraged the class to think about solutions, asking, how do we break down these harmful stereotypes that are affecting how girls and women do in STEM fields? Hands shot into the air! One student said that girls need to love each other and not shame each other. Another said we need to be gender-, sex- and sexuality-positive. Another said not to put down other girls and not to slut-shame. Another suggested we focus on the positive role models out there, of women doing awesome work in the sciences and in politics. This all warmed my heart so much, and gave me hope that these smart, motivated young women from across the country (CA, TX, IL, MN, NY, etc.) are going to be dispersed into the world to do the work they speak of.

The hopeful feelings I was having in class were rounded out by my subway ride home. A group of three women in their 30s or 40s with four children between the ages of 6-10 stepped on the train with me. The kids were talking animatedly to each other and kid 1 screamed, "I HAVE TWO MOMS!" Kid 2 responded with a melancholy, "I only have two parents." Kid 1 tried to clarify, "SO DO I!" Kid 2: "I only have a mom and a dad." Kid 1: "I HAVE TWO MOMS!"

Some of the nearby passengers cringed from the screaming, while others of us smiled.

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]?"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Day 3: "Do women have to be naked to get into the [MoMA]?"

Sophisti-femme Judy
In honor of our class's fieldtrip to the MoMA, I decided to dress like a NYC curator from the movies--you know, sophisticated (fitted but not too showy sleeveless top, heeled sandals), a little austere (black slacks, glasses), with a little flair (i.e. my lemon slice earrings). I call her my Sophisti-femme Judy.

The only subway exchange I had was as I was about to enter the subway, a homeless man in his 40s or so said, "Good morning." I said, "Good morning" and to my back he said "Have a good day, beautiful." Looking around the subway, I made eye contact with some men, but it felt neutral. The vast majority of the women were engrossed in something else or looking down--it was difficult to make eye contact with any women. But interestingly, the only person to look me up and down was a woman in her 30s. She didn't smile or grimace. Nothing of any substance happened on the subway ride home.

(It might be worth mentioning that last night, dressed in a similar degree of femme-ness in Brooklyn, I headed to the subway around 11pm. At the door to the subway entrance, a man in his 30s who had already gone through the door jumped back through to hold the door for me awkwardly. A few minutes later, an apparently drunk man in his 20s yelled "Looking good!" at me and stopped walking to stare harshly at me as I walked by him. Ugh.)

But back to Wednesday. We started off class with a structured 40-minute debate: "Are gender and sex difference studies harmful or helpful?" With opening arguments, rebuttals and closing statements, the whole hog! The students--who were arbitrarily assigned a side last class--passionately battled each other, citing evidence from the readings and trying to synthesize the lessons of the past few days. Then as the adrenaline subsided, we headed to the MoMA for our fieldtrip, to look at particular pieces of art and analyze what their gendered and psychology implications were.

The students were assigned to focus on two areas: the "Designing Modern Women: 1890-1990" exhibition, particularly the war posters, and to observe Frida Kahlo's "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (1940). If they had time, they could also look around the contemporary floor.

Guerrilla Girls, 1989
For me, one of the MoMA standouts were the Guerrilla Girls's pieces in the "Designing Modern Women" exhibition, including their famous, fabulous piece calling out the Metropolitan Museum of Art (right). The fine print reads, "Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female." The Guerrilla Girls headed back to the Met in 2004 (below right), and their resulting piece shows that not only has there been no real change, it's actually gotten somewhat worse.

Guerrilla Girls, revisiting the Met, 2004
And this stat could just as easily be about the MoMA itself...walking through the 1880-1940 painting galleries (at least 100 paintings) to get to the Frida Kahlo works, I did not see any women's names. Yes, perhaps there were one or two that I missed but the message you still get is that there were no "worthy" women artists between 1880-1940. And before anyone starts to write a "but there weren't any worthy women artists at that time" or a "men are just better artists" comment at the end of this blog, read this ("female artists airbrushed from history) and this ("Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers and Artists of Color) and this ("Women Artists in 19th Century France) and this (on the National Museum of Women in the Arts). Merci.

Frida Kahlo, "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair"
The other standout was the small but powerful Frida Kahlo portrait. The song lyrics in Spanish at the top are loosely translated (by one of the students in my class) as: "I loved you with long hair, but now that you're bald, I don't love you anymore." I love Kahlo's expression, daring you to challenge her decision to chop off her hair a month after her divorce from Diego Rivera. This act is still radical today (i.e. Jennifer Lawrence's 2013 short haircut was deemed "controversial" and I won't link to the awful articles that declare her no longer sexually attractive and proceed to lecture women on how dare we ever not look hyper-feminine for men's consumption). And I can't image Kahlo had any contemporaries in 1940 sporting it. I love her posture, her single earring, the creases in her pants. 'Go ahead, sing that song at me,' she seems to say, 'I couldn't care less.'

Check out the Day 1 post here
Check out the Day 2 post here

And for funsies, here are some other great recent Guerrilla Girls pieces (2009 and 2007, respectively):