Friday, May 15, 2009

I am a writer...

I am a writer because sometimes I weep when I speak and you think that I am weak /

I am a writer because often my voice is not heard, not because I don’t have anything to say but because you haven’t given me the space to be heard /

I am a writer because when I speak, my mind goes blank and I forget what I had organized in my head to say /

I am a writer because I hate the sound of my voice when it is recorded /

I am a writer because at least I’m not looking at you when you shut me down and decide to check out /

I am a writer because I have to, how else will our future know where we have come from if it isn’t documented? /

I am a writer because these pain needs to be documented and it should be remembered /
I am a writer because I’m not invited to all of your meetings and how else do you expect my opinions to be heard? /

I am a writer because I do observe and I will report /

I am a writer because I think, feel, and do and you cannot tell me what to do /

I am a writer because I breathe and then remember that the pen is mightier than the sword, and if more people used one, the world would be a better place /

I am a writer because I can’t and won’t compromise for your feelings, I write what I think and I will not run my thoughts my your first /

I am a writer for her, she has all these amazing thoughts and experiences, and doesn’t speak them because she feels that her daughter is superior to her because of her college education /

I am a writer for her who is always so caring and loving like her name means, but is always misunderstood and judged /

I am a writer for them, the two young soldiers who inquisitively watch what is going on in their world, I see them and I want them to know that I care /

I am a writer for him, my little habibi, who will grow up in the world that will judge him for being a man of color, and a community which will resent him for being mixed and having a different skin shade /

Monday, May 4, 2009

Police, patriotism, and the public...and also journalism

One bright, warm and sunny afternoon I was walking over to my service learning site, Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB), and I thought to myself, “hmmm…something looks very strange here.” I stopped, looked around and saw six police cars, one paddy wagon and even more “boys in blue” just hanging around all calm and collected outside of Walker Church where CUAPB and the supporters of the RNC 8 were congregated. Apparently, right before I got to the church the vice-president of CUAPB, Darryl had been arrested for disorderly conduct – his actions – standing in front of the church, merely surveying the police presence meant to intimidate and scare supporters, protestors and community members. Naomi Wolf, argues in her book (2007), The End of America: Letter of Warning to a young patriot, that the “experience of accountable detention and release is eroding in America. Activists are not being beaten. But they are being watched and sometimes intimidatingly detained and released (Wolf, pg. 95).”

The police presence at CUAPB that day (which was several hours on a Saturday afternoon when there probably were lots of other places they could and should be), did not go unnoticed by people coming and going from the church. Some members were quite anxious as they have had personal experiences with police brutality, while others were upset and angry, muttering “look at these police terrorists,” under their breath as they smoked. Wolf explains that “if you are an activist...your e-mail may be monitored and your phone calls tracked (Wolf, pg. 81).” This makes me a bit apprehensive about my personal activism efforts – I have joked about being watched by “big brother,” but I’m not doing anything violent or harmful to anyone, so why would the government waste its time on a lowly college student like me? All this surveillance seems to be unnecessary and quite scary considering that Wolf says: “If your communications reach a certain level of interest to the government, a human being may be tasked to read and listen in on what you are saying, and you won’t know about it. The White House surveillance program is triggered by certain key words and names (Wolf, pg.81).”

Yikes. I can totally see this off-the-charts excuse for protecting our freedom and homeland as starting out kind of innocent and acceptable – except, I’m sure it wasn’t at all innocent and totally acceptable to those in power who deemed it necessary. In my social justice senior seminar we have discussed this book and the “Ten Steps,” Wolf says forming a growing crisis we face as Americans who are slowly losing our rights and freedoms. I know this sounds a bit paranoid and maybe even a little off-the-cliff-liberal reasoning, but I’m willing to entertain the idea that the government doesn’t always have my best interest’s at heart – sure it’s a little different now that President Barack Hussein Obama is in the White House – but there is still a lot of mending and healing that needs to be done to our civil liberties and rights.

Wolf discusses her ninth step: “Restrict the Press,” via recounting staged photo ops, the history of censorship of the press, and the violence that the men and women of the press face continually at home and abroad, I found myself thinking about bias, and what that words means to someone like me – a journalism student graduating in less than three weeks who has somewhat of a history online and in print documenting her activism efforts and “bias.” What does that mean for my future career if I am surveyed and continually analyzed because of my political and social beliefs? Do I even want to be objective if one side of the story is all we as Americans ever hear? If it at all realistic to expect objectivity from humans who have opinions and beliefs? I heard recently that many popular journalists don’t even vote, or are encouraged strongly by their media companies to not participate in the voting process so that they present their lives as objectivity as possible.

It’s shocking that the one freedom men and women of color, and women of all colors have died for – the freedom to vote – some journalists aren’t using because they want to seem objective? Apparently, I have a lot to think about in terms of what I am doing, where I will be doing it, and who I will be doing whatever it is that I choose to do with. Clearly, my belief system and my passion for social justice will be requiring me to move ever so decidedly outside of the field of objective journalism into something more advocacy related. What exactly? Not sure quite yet, but I’m sure “big brother” will know when I do.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Buying Beauty: The power of color...(pt. 3)

Power is in the technique of struggle or in whatever characteristics make up an individual, but it is important to remember that power and subjectification go hand-in-hand. Power is in countless forms: pastoral, sexual, structural, ethnic, social, religious, governmental, political and philosophical. In this particular case, power is in beauty, media and societies’ standards of what is desirable and what is not. Foucault writes, “…struggles which question the status of the individual: on the one hand, they assert the right to be different and they underline everything which makes individuals truly individual (Foucault, p. 211).”

He argues that the action of struggling is important in ousting humans from being subjects to their individuality quests. The F&L brand strips its market audience away from their dignity and individuality, if anything went wrong before you used F&L it was because you were darker and not attractive, but now after you use F&L, anything that goes right can be contributed to your lighter skin tone.
In her essay, “Bollywood, Beauty, and the Corporate Construction of ‘International Standards’ in Post-Liberalization Bombay,” Susan Runkle discusses Fair & Lovely and the effects skin bleaching have had on Bollywood and Indian women. Runkle writes that F&L accounts for “eighty percent of the fairness cream market in India,” and has an estimated “sixty million consumers throughout the subcontinent. (Runkle, p. 47-8).”

Margaret Hunter argues in her essay, “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status and Inequality,” that “Colorism, or skin color stratification, is a process that privileges light-skinned people of color of dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market (Hunter, p.1).” Hunter talks about all of the different ways people of color try to whiten, by straightening their hair, dying their hair blond, “correcting” big noses and lips with plastic surgery and now skin bleaching – all to achieve whiteness. Hunter’s research has found that this multibillion-dollar industry that is skin-bleaching products “usually contain one of three harmful ingredients: mercury, hydroquinone or corticosteroids (Runkle, p.13).” Hunter uses examples of women dying due to mercury poisoning, and even cites several incidents where children are either born with mercury poisoning due to the mother using it while pregnant (in utero absorption of mercury), or the child suffers mercury poisoning because the mother uses the Fair & Lovely products on her young child.

It almost seems as if many people within the community of color that whose skin bleaching products view the listening creams as a source of empowerment. As with the Fair & Lovely commercial, the woman takes her destiny into her hands, via a skin listening cream tube and then lands her dream job and then a dreamy date. Hunter argues that one of the reason why science is allowed to produce products like skin bleaching creams is because “images associated with white America are highly valued and emulated in the global marketplace (Hunter, p. 12).” Whiteness is the standard because it is seen everywhere and because of that, becomes a marketable product falsely marketed sold as attainable status and privilege to “third world countries” and communities of color.

Menke writes that notwithstanding that cosmetic skin bleaching is a world-wide phenomenon. “It is astonishing that chemical bleaching of the skin, which has become a world-wide phenomenon with negative social implications, is hardy recognized by social scientists to be a serious sociological and psychological problem (Menke, p. 11).” Science, in this particular case is not held accountable as an enabler of racism, instead the scientific community quietly meets the needs and demands of an ever-rising market; creating technology and products which further capitalize on whiteness and skin color.

Kuhn, Foucault, Runkle and Hunter all write about different aspects of power, subject, science and society respectively. Kuhn discusses the cause and effect syndrome that science essentially is – when there is a need, scientists will develop. Foucault writes about power and how the subject becomes objectified, (often as communities of color are), in the quest for knowledge, power and profit, the humans with power will oppress “the other.” Runkle analyzes the powerhouse media of India and Asia, Bollywood, and writes about the impact that the Bollywood has on Indians and Indian-Americans all over the world because of who they hire for which roles, and who gets rewarded because s/he is seen as more desirable or beautiful. Hunter discusses the power of skin color and how status is given to those who are lighter, even within communities of color, the dichotomy of black versus white becomes a light versus dark.

One cannot help but feel angry and blame colonists and those Europeans and white Americans who push their standards of beauty onto every other country, but there is a resentment within the community of color as well – how can people of color expect racism to be eradicated, when we are fighting amongst and between ourselves? Due to internalized oppression, communities of color police each other the way that the dominant identity has policed them, and because there is a culture and society which literally breeds divisiveness and competition due to white privilege, both institutional and systematic racism are so heavily prevalent in our world.

The struggle for justice remains with many people of color and allies working together to eradicate social injustice, but, ultimately, how can we, (people of color or even women of color) fight for justice against those who oppress (us and others) if we ourselves are not united?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Buying Beauty: The lighter, the better...(pt. 2)

In contrast to the skin-bleaching phenomenon, Angelina Jolie, in her movie, A Mighty Heart, played the Afro-Cuban/Dutch wife of journalist Daniel Pearl, critics bashed Jolie on practically going blackface in order to “pass” as a woman of color. While the entire idea of blackface still being done every so subtly from time-to-time is problematic, what is even more troublesome is that thousands of people each day are trying to whiten or lighten their skin because they are told through various mediums that their dark skin is not desirable.

What is it about skin color that denotes power? The dichotomy of white and black is further racialized within the context of worth, especially when power and privilege of a majority is added. How is one “race” is able to tie in status and wealth with tanning, while the other is poor or a manual laborer if they are darker?

Just as how race is a socially constructed identity, beauty is relative and is therefore, another social construction that is heavily enforced and policed by society between racial communities and among different communities of color. The impact of eugenics in the creation of a universal standard of beauty is at times, sometimes not directly referenced, but ever-present. In his research paper, “Skin Bleaching in Multi-ethnic and Multicolored Societies: The Case of Suriname,” Jack Menke makes the argument that “the darker one is the lower one’s position in social hierarchy…’color’ is not something that can be altered in the individuals life, but it is something that can be put right in the next generation (Menke, p. 10).”

Menke’s point making something right in the next generation is especially poignant because after India was colonized by the British, the impacts of racial purification and legalized racism due to one’s caste (and usually color of one’s skin) is still present. White women were seen as more beautiful in the 17 and 18th century India because British women were seen as the most feminine, had class, status and some power (at least over those who worked for her). After India gained its independence in 1947 from Britain, the effects of racism and eugenics had not disappeared. Bollywood still carries out the task of showing lighter skin, whiter-looking celebrities in the favorite and most coveted roles, while darker actors and actresses are rarely if ever seen.

Human beings are the subject in Michel Foucault’s study of power. Foucault argues in his because of three modes of objectification: inquiry, dividing practices and sexuality. He writes that humans are transformed into subjects because they objectify themselves with the work that they do in the name of progress - socially, scientifically, economically and biologically (inquiry). Additionally, humans are subjects because they also constrain themselves to dichotomies (dividing practices). Foucault says humans are subjects because of the lifestyles they have chosen for themselves (sexuality), which inevitably transforms them into a subject. The F&L brand transforms people of color into objects of profitability – by making entire communities of color base their worth on the shade of their skin, is not only an impact of oppression, but of racism and self-hatred as well.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Buying Beauty: Bollywood, Women and Skin

This is part one of an essay I wrote for a Fall 2008 GWSS class.

“Bethany, I used to have skin just like yours, but now look at how fair I am. Really, you could be so much more beautiful…I mean, you are…but just try this cream.”

That was what my aunt said to me as she handed me a tube of Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream. I was 16 years old, and my face felt like it was burning as I thought to myself how much lotion it would take in order make every single part of my skin lighter (and more beautiful). How is such a product still being made and marketed around the world? And how is it possible that an Indian actress is seen as more beautiful just because she has lighter skin? How can scientists develop a safe product, which must contain some sort of bleaching component to aid with lightening the skin?

In his essay, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn argues that science is ever evolving and made from circumstances, which raise a need, and the possibilities of scientific tests, which produce a product. With Europeans and white Americans being in the forefront of the media and being active colonists of the “developing world” or “third world,” the idea of Whiteness being a mark of beauty impacted communities of color so much that scientists came up with a skin bleaching cream in order to make a profit and meet a need. The effects of skin lightening on women of color throughout generations have been devastating, social and cultural stigma of being darker colored reaches from the workplace to marriage. The idea that this cream has become a fundamental part of an Indian, Indian-American, Arab, Arab-American’s daily beauty routine and is found in the drawers of a woman of every brownish skin shade is unfortunate and destructive to the mental and body health of the women who uses it or encourages other women to use it.

Fair & Lovely (F&L) is quite an established line of beauty products, which all use “fairness” in some way to describe what the cream, soap or serum does for the user. F&L, a Hindustani Unilever Limited brand that was patented in 1971, is made in India and then sent to the United Arab Emirates, which stocks the products and then redistributes internationally. F&L used to market solely to women, but with their new Fair and Handsome Menz Active line, the next generation of users are recruited. The women’s line of F&L is sold in almost all pink packing, while the new men’s line is packed in white, black or red. According to Synovate, a market research company, Four in 10 Asian women use a “lightening” cream (Synovate, 2004).

A popular F&L commercial showing a young woman who wants to get a job as a TV reporter begins with her very na├»ve when she was several shades darker. “Four is my lucky number. I graduated after four years, but just before my fourth interview I realized that the obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin.” The scene cuts to her interviewing for a news anchor job, with the interviewers dismissing her with a wave, seemingly because she was too dark. “Fair & Lovely, for total fairness in four weeks.” Now she is lighter, has the job and is reporting to you from Egypt. “Great job, what are you doing at four? Asks the handsome young producer who has been watching her, she glances back at the camera, “I told you that four was my lucky number!”

Commercials like this one are made in Arabic, Hindi, Tamil, English, Chinese, Japanese and so much more, and are played repeatedly all over the Middle East, India and Asia. Bollywood, India’s Hollywood, is a firm believer in the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are thought and action process. Major celebrities are always lighter, or wear lots of body makeup and shoot under intense lightening so that they look whiter. Darker actors and actresses are always the villains, poor people or prostitutes. In another F&L commercial, Shah Rukh Khan, India’s Brad Pitt, helps a darker young man out when he sees that the poor guy is having no luck with women. Khan gives him a bottle of the new F&L Menz Active fairness cream and then after he uses it, the girl’s flock to him. Khan was widely criticized for his role in this commercial, but there are still hundreds of men and women who buy F&L and continue to pass it on to their children in hopes of having lighter, more beautiful family members.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Ethnic drugs"

In his essay, “How a Drug Becomes ‘Ethnic’: Law, Commerce, and the Production of Racial Categories in Medicine,” Jonathan Kahn argues that the claims that BiDil is a drug made especially for African Americans is “built around assertions…[that] hypothesized underlying genetic differences between blacks and whites (p. 3).”

I was surprised to read that such a recent drug was touted by the press as a breakthrough as the first ethnic drug. Here I was thinking that race and ethnicity were social constructions. How is it possible that a drug made originally for general heart disease is repatented with almost nothing changed, other than some studies being done which proved that African Americans have more heart disease than others, and is widely accepted? Shocking. Kahn writes that the studies concluded: "Observed racial disparities in mortality….in black heart failure patients may be due in part to ethnic differences in the underlying pathophysiology of heart failure (p.2)." Really? Or is it just that mostly poorer African American folks have to eat unhealthy greasy food because it’s cheap and readily accessible? Or because they are stressed out because of racism?

Kahn theorizes that BiDil was reinvented as an ethnic drug for legal and commercial reasons rather than biomedical. Legally, every 10 years or so a drug’s patent runs out, so in order for the pharmaceutical companies to keep making a profit off their investment they must remarket the same drug a different way, after slightly modifying the drug in some way that probably doesn’t even change the drug’s effect or intent in the slightest. Commercially, heart disease is a big problem within communities of color, African American men and women are an important demographic that pharmaceutical companies have chosen to market this drug to.

The risk of using race as a scapegoat to explain differences between populations is dangerous. Not until recently has there been a movement to discredit old ideas that people of color were genetically inferior – these laws influenced laws, policies and built structure that are still in place which accept race as a biological instead of social identity. Kahn argues, "Ethnicity may be leading the federal government improperly to endorse the use of race as a biological category in classifying its citizenry (p.4)," and this is just what happened all over again, for the millionth time.

It’s so disappointing to see that scientists are so stuck in their field that instead of looking at an issue as a social inequality, they just see flawed DNA or bad genetics. This is even represented my class sometimes, the IT students make me feel like us GWSS majors and minors are reaching for explanations, because obviously, they study this field and know what really happens – this feminist theory shit and is not backed up by science at all…how convenient.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"The White man's disease"

In his essay, “Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge,” Steven Epstein argues that some part of homosexuality has always been medicalized resulting in AIDS becoming “the gay disease.” Epstein writes about the extent to which society used homosexuality as a scapegoat for the AIDS and HIV by making gayness the “other.” “…the issue was framed in particular ways that influenced medical perceptions of homosexuality…such stereotypes obscure the fact that researchers…characterized with rather sweeping generalizations. (p. 51).”

Instead of figuring out how to treat or cure AIDS and HIV, early doctors focused most of their attentions on cementing what lifestyles spread AIDS and that promiscuity amongst gay men was the “lifestyle choice” that led to AIDS some sort of punishment. The media, the medical community and society bought into the “idea of a linkage between homosexuality, promiscuity, and illness…(p. 55),” thereby increasing the stigma of AIDS and forcing doctors who had any inkling of opposition to keep quiet or risk guilt by association.

The media is one avenue of information spreading that I really am so disappointed in. Now, I realize that the relationship between the media and the medical community was reciprocal: one gave information while the other disperses it, but the knowledge that “the academy” and the media injected so much confusion and misinformation into society is just so sad. “Scientists and reporters in the West picked up on the notion that Africa ‘could have been the breeding place’ for the epidemic. (p. 56).”

I think about the stories about AIDS that I heard growing up: the fear that people stab random people with HIV-positive needles in crowds, Africans having sex with monkeys, Africa being the source of AIDS and that it was their problem – so much of this I grew up hearing, and I’ll bet my parents still believe a lot of this. I guess it’s interesting for me to learn about all these different viewpoints on this topic, and really, when I see what the media and the medical community has done in the past, is it so far-fetched for Reverend Wright to claim that the C.I.A. had some hand in the creation of AIDS to kill off Africans or Black Americans? Maybe….or maybe not.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The bell curve and talking about race effectively

Henry Giroux and Susan Searls argue in their essay, “Race Talk and The Bell Curve Debate: The Crisis of Democratic Vision,” that the analysis of race in “The Bell Curve” by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray was inaccurate, racist, socially unjust and was a major contributor to the rise of racism after the study was published in 1994. Giroux and Searls state that the popularity of the study increased the justification of racism in the minds of privileged White America and added to the misconception that people of color were the lesser breed of humans due to genetics and natural law.

Giroux and Seals make the argument that The Bell Curve is completely detrimental to the progression of democracy and the formation of a socially just society. In regards to the extent that The Bell Curve had on educational policy and practices, Giroux and Seals said: “In the name of excellence [administrators and politicians] argue that public schools simply waste their resources on those subordinate groups, especially blacks, who are too dumb to be educated (p. 19-20).” This way of thinking is unforgivable, but yet not unbelievable.

I have heard people tell me that they think that African Americans and Black Americans obviously have some kind of genetic inferiority because the majority of “them” are not succeeding on standardized tests, not getting in or going to college and working blue collar jobs…and there is a scientific study to back them up! The revelations of this so-called “scientific study” really makes me remember to question science always and not forget that it wasn’t too long ago that science was also used as a justification of slavery.

I agree with Giroux and Seals that The Bell Curve is not the problem, but it is rather “symptomatic of a larger and more dangerous crisis of democracy in the United States (p. 24).” I actually think that the privileged, White America is a big part of the problem in regards to racism and social injustice.

I find it to be problematic that now that the American people (read: White people) are more comfortable about talking about race, it’s still under very strict and unprogressive terms. “Race Talk,” as defined by Toni Morrison, has now come into the public sphere as an important topic, but it’s still presented under the premise that race is an explosive dichotomy which is unpleasant and uncomfortable. If we cannot talk about race correctly and effectively, we are doing the same amount of damage of not talking about it at all.

Monday, April 27, 2009 the elevator

Haha. This made me laugh! But, seriously. This is so true. I sent this to an old friend from high school and we had a good laugh, but when I ran into him on campus on our way to class, we had a quick reflection about how true this is before we parted ways.

My friend, who is a young Black male, told me that he gets this feeling all the time when he is in an elevator with a White woman, and I thought that was so surprising, especially in a college setting - a man with a backpack on a university campus - probably a college student and has more to lose by robbing you of your belongings.

Also, just in deconstructing this stereotype of Black men who commit violence and take what is not theirs. Does this happen to White men who get in an elevator with a woman of any color? Probably not as often, I would think. This also brings to mind issues of sexual assault and feeling safe - it sucks that our world has become this way.

I am not innocent by any means. I continually struggle to remember that I have brothers who are men of color, and I hope that other women aren't afraid of them because they would never hurt a woman. At the same time, I sincerely hope that as I try to remember authentically as I can that these men are brothers, I hope that these brothers remember that I am a sister.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Social Justice Leadership Retreat

When I first attended the Social Justice Leadership Retreat in the spring semester of my first year at college, it seemed as if that was when foundation crucial to my now full-blown passion for social justice activism and education began to form. I learned the term “white privilege,” about isms, homophobia, met a transgendered person for the first time, how to be an ally and deconstructed my Christian identity.

I remember talking about it with some of the community advisers in my residence hall before I left for the retreat and I felt really apprehensive. I could tell from the somewhat vague description that it was going to be a challenging retreat for me, one because it was semi-camping, and two, because I wasn’t going with anyone I knew. I arrived and got placed in a cabin with random people and although I don’t keep in touch with many of the people who I was on the retreat with, I do remember a lot of their stories and run into them in unexpected places.

The Social Justice Leadership Retreat was a great place for me to start my social justice journey, it was the first time I was heard “ally” and saw White men and other white folks who were strong anti-racist activists. I was struck by the men and women that I met, and that understood racism, and for once in my life, I wasn’t met with resistance and denial when talking about white privilege and racism. Instead there was a safe space, an all-inclusive community of people who and listened and cared enough to work against injustice and oppression.

At first, I didn’t really think about how all connected we are, and I thought the white men were so brave and progressive for being feminists and that the white folks so understood because they were anti-racists. Now, after some education and thinking I understand that injustice against one identity will come back to harm another identity in some way, and I am constantly being reminded of this thought process.

Thinking back to the three years I dedicated to the Social Justice Leadership Retreat I don’t view my time spent facilitating, creating, organizing, and attending retreats as activist experience – but I am sure that the skills I have learned will come in handy in the future. I learned how to listen and really hear what people are saying, I got better at public speaking and talking about my personal stories and to make myself vulnerable and trust others.

The retreat really was a great place for me to start my social justice journey, and while have critiques about it such as – it’s put on by an organization that is comprised mostly of White folks, and the main organizer is straight, white, male, married and as he likes to say it, “holds all the cards,” there is a lot about the structure and facilitation of the retreat that at times can be very problematic. Attendees have told me before that it felt like a forced emotional experience, that the retreat was purposefully designed to break you down before building you up – it was – and that the intensity of the retreat almost felt disingenuous and designed to bring out the most intense emotions from participants.

Being in the room, at the table so many times when the retreats were being designed sometimes this comments did come up, and sometimes we as the steering committee addressed them, and other times, it was acknowledged and then passed over, because it was argued that the intense environment must happen for the emotional tone of the retreat continue and grow – that way the participants are in a better place to contribute and be a part of a life-changing experience.

The malleability of the retreat, participants, facilitators, and the politics surrounding the entire thing was interesting for me to observe, participate in and eventually be pushed out of. Politics and bureaucracy is something that I definitely came to know more about after spending a summer in New York as a community organizer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan

Ever since I was a young girl, I was infatuated with the Walt Disney Corporation princesses, I loved the theme song that opened every movie and I especially grew fond of almost every one of the feature films that I grew up with during the 1990’s. I would not wish for a princess that looked like me (yet), no, I was content to day dream of what it would be like if I had beautiful porcelain white skin and blond hair. It wasn’t until the release of Aladdin (1992) when I personally could identify with an animated character that looked like me and had some the same culture as I did.

Three years later Pocahontas (1995) was released and I found myself, once again, feeling more connected to a heroine who needed to be independent, but I still stayed loyal to Jasmine (to this day) in that she was my favorite princess of all. When Mulan (1998) was released a few years later, I thought that Disney was on the right path, showcasing a new breed of independent and strong multiracial and multicultural women helped introduce a young impressionable audience with images, albeit some stereotypical images of these foreign, exotic characters and their stories. Each of these characters of color is presented in their own unique ways, each embodying a different race/ethnicity and a different culture, however, the extent to which each portrayal is accurate is debatable.

Princess Jasmine, the love interest of Aladdin is portrayed as quite exotic. With her big, wide eyes, foreign jewelry, two-piece silk outfits (that do not ever manage to cover up her shoulders and stomach), and her satin flat slippers are lovely, but foreign. For many families and their children Princess Jasmine was the first Arab character that they were introduced to via mainstream media, and the stereotypical images that were created then has lasted until this day. Princess Jasmine is a free thinking young woman, who refuses to be married off to someone she does not want or love. She is clever, witty, and is not afraid to break some traditions.

Princess Jasmine’s character is not your stereotypical Arab woman, but her fashion (dress) and her environment is straight out a Persian fairytale. Princess Jasmine is still portrayed as what Kathleen Reedy theorizes as “the harem girl,” Reedy makes the observation that “these women rarely exist as individuals, but almost always belong to someone, either a relative or a master.” Because Jasmine is dressed in revealing clothing and is shown as an exotic, beautiful woman that is meant to be put on display, Reedy says that Jasmine’s behavior completes the stereotype that Arab women are subservient and inferior to the their men.

In the opening song of the movie has a slightly racist undertone with the lyrics stating: “I come from a land…where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” The lyrics were later changed to “where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense. It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home (Maio 1999)," because the Arab American community protested the stereotype that Arabs are barbaric and violent; the image of the angry and brutish Arab man who barely speaks English is present in the minds of many, especially after watching how the minor characters in Aladdin such as the soldiers, sheiks, and thieves.

Princess Jasmine is also used to illustrate a point about pressure from parents to get married as soon as a woman is of age. Even though her father is a fairly jolly character and spoils his daughter, he foolishly persists that she gets married which ends up doing more harm than good. The notion of the stereotypical Middle Eastern custom of arranged marriage is tip-toed around, but it is still there nevertheless. A pressured marriage is also evident in Disney’s next movie which starred a woman of color.

Pocahontas, which was released in 1995, and was the first Disney heroine to be based loosely on a real person, and her story based on some factual events. Before watching this movie as a young girl I had no other interactions with Native American people other than the few that were featured in Peter Pan. I thought that Pocahontas’ character was very noble and intelligent, and I loved that she wasn’t made from the same mold as Cinderella or Aurora, by this time I was looking for a free spirited role model and the fact that Pocahontas was unconventional in everyway appealed to me. I watched Pocahontas character development with interest; the theme of respect for “Mother Earth” gets wrapped up in everything Pocahontas does. Her role as the Native American girl who can speak to nature and has immense respect for the plants and animals is a positive one, but still stereotypical of Indigenous Peoples.

Another stereotype is one that life isn’t complete until one is married and Pocahontas, like Jasmine, is pressured by her father to get married. Her father, Chief Powatan, is a strong, but safe presence throughout the film, reminding Pocahontas of her duty to her people and that she needs to be married and start a new journey with her betrothed warrior Kocoum. While I wouldn’t say that this obstacle to our unconventional princess is stereotypical of Native American culture, I will say that it is sexist to suggest that a woman isn’t complete without a man. Another stereotype that was dominant throughout the film was the idea that Native American Indians are savages.

In fact the song from the movie “Savages” is poignant in describing what some of the White settlers thought of the American Indians when Ratcliffe, the villain of the movie sings, “What can you expect from filthy little heathens? Here’s what you get when the race are diverse. Their skin’s a hellish red; they’re only good when dead. They’re vermin, as I said and worse, they’re savages! They are not like you and me, which means they must be evil.”

Fortunately, Pocahontas isn’t all stereotypes; there are more positive representations of the Native American culture, partly due to the fact that Disney hired American Indians to work on the film and act as consultants during the making of the film. The detail the Disney animators put into the characters and scenes were right on with their background drawings and storyboards, so much so that I also was taken away by this sudden exposure to “authentic” representation. Remember other than Peter Pan; I hadn’t had any other American Indian or First Nation influences. Christopher Finch states that “Pocahontas is notable for historically accurate settings (Finch pg.334),” and I drank every detail in as best I could. I loved each one of the animated full-length feature films my parents bought me and I absolutely loved the next Disney film to portray a major character that was a woman of color.

Mulan, the thirty-sixth animated feature film to be released from Disney was an instant hit. This particular movie addressed a host of topics included the in-group prejudice between the Huns and the Chinese; sexism, by exploring the double standards of marriage commonly applied to women, but not men and touched a little on xenophobia – a fear of the foreign outsiders. I didn’t really catch any stereotypical slips, if anything Mulan defies gender norms and the image that Asian women are passive, instead, she changes out outward appearance to match her inner strength of being a woman warrior who is an independent outsider, resolute and aggressive in her efforts to institute correct order (Berry pg.68).”

I also found it interesting that the alias Mulan takes on as “Ping,” which according to “Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Stories and Sketches” by Maurice Baring, "Ping" in Chinese means soldier-man, and it is a derogatory termed used to reference one’s contempt for a man. So even though Mulan’s character fights very hard against double standards and sexism by almost winning the war single-handedly, she is still not really accepted after all of her efforts until recognized by the alpha male – the Emperor of China and even then when she returns she is romanced by the now love-struck captain of the Chinese army.

Mulan, as well as Jasmine and Pocahontas struggle under the pressure her parents put on her to get married and start the traditional accepted life. This motif is common across different races, but it seems that it is especially important in these three character’s cultures respectively. Each protagonist deals with this life changing recommendation of marriage in their own way. Jasmine escapes behind the palace walls to “slum it” with Aladdin who is the epitome of “the bad boy,” Pocahontas covers up her feelings by hiding them all-together from her family and friends until it is too late, and Mulan runs away and changing her outward appearance to become more respected and bring her family honor.

The positive and accurate multicultural representation of the different races of Disney’s heroines has steadily increased over the years, and with the coming of the first African American/Black American princess in the “The Frog Princess” due in 2009, there is hope that even more characters of color will be made a part of the Walt Disney Corporation’s famous legacy.

It is Disney’s best interest to portray more positive images of People of Color in their fairy tales as “these images…have particular important of children in the internalization of White privilege (Hurley 2005).” Disney movies are a fundamental staple in the foundation of almost every child’s experience and with that much influence, Disney needs to continue working on reinforcing positive and non-stereotypical images of their characters, and adding more major characters of color into the elite Disney Princess group is a good place to start.

Monday, April 20, 2009


The first time I remember hearing the word “welfare” was when I was about 8 or 9 years old: my father used it in regards to a little girl who had stood in front of him in the line at Lunds who had tried to buy some candy with her food stamps. He didn’t talk about welfare in a negative way, but he seemed to find it unfortunate that the girl tried to buy, what he thought was unhealthy junk with her food stamps, and couldn’t. He dryly wondered aloud if she even knew what money was, and asked how she could not have a few coins of change in her pocket. In the end, he bought her the bar of chocolate that she wanted, telling her to save her food stamps for “real food,” and then sitting down at our kitchen table, started in the big plate of food my mother had just set in front of him. My first encounter with the word left me puzzled. Were food stamps green lickable postable pieces of paper that looked like money? It was a mystery to me.

In her book, Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States, Mimi Abramovitz writes that, “welfare reform has wreaked havoc with women’s lives and the wider welfare state… [it has] intensif[ied] the regulations of womens lives….increased economic vulnerability of many poor women…[and has done] little or nothing to help poor women and children escape poverty, and undercut the entire welfare system (p. 49).

After World War II, women of all colors and socio-economic backgrounds and their allies lobbied Congress to support the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Another important policy change to keep in mind is evolution of the Mothers’ Pension Act to ADC: “The campaign for Mothers’ Pension sought greater government responsibility for the well-being of all poor women and children, but especially widows…(p. 62).”The mothers, according to Abramovitz, who were deemed worthy by the supporters of the Mothers’ Pension Act were overwhelmingly white, widowed and native-born.

An unfortunate problem in regards to welfare is how poor mothers on welfare as distrusted by American society, these women, according to Abramovitz, are seen as not fit to take care of their own children, but interestingly enough, are appropriate nannies and hired babysitters. “Some welfare reform provisions also target poor women’s parenting. The view of single-parent families as ‘broken’ or ‘deviant’ reflects the long-standing distrust of women who raise children without men, especially poor, nonwhite, or foreign-born women (p. 42).”

Poor, single women and their children are most affected because women already make less than men do, and since women comprise the majority of “homemakers,” they suffer the most from socio-economic inequalities and failed welfare reform. “A ‘deserving widow’ might be allowed to keep one or two of her children, but deserted wives, who were often suspected of colluding with their spouses to get aid, were treated more harshly. Officials reserved the severest response for unmarried mothers...(p.60).” Women of color and their children are also highly affected because racial inequalities that were systematically and institutionally oppressive, not only because these recipients of welfare were women, but because they were women of color. Abramovitz explains that the “two-tiered structure of the welfare state also reproduces the inequalities of race found in wider society because the more disadvantaged members of society – those who are more likely to be deprived of an adequate income by racial discrimination – are relegated to the stigmatized and locally administered public assistance programs (p. 105).”

There is still plenty of welfare resistance institutionally, in the media, by the government, from the middle class, and within the communities of underprivileged recipients of welfare. Institutionally, the structures that are set up are supposed to allow every person to pursue happiness and success, but not everyone achieves these dream. Economic differences have been completely divisive in what is supposed to be a democratic country, and the media has a large role in how welfare is ultimately portrayed.

Media coverage has perpetuated the stigma of the “free-handout” ideology that many Americans subscribe to, the media’s portrayal of the war on the middle class, the war on drugs, and the war on poverty does nothing to unify the masses to work towards social justice. The war on the middle class, as some news anchors have termed it, has divided the middle and lower class against each other for the benefit of the upper class. This strategy of divide and conquer is one that the government is especially skilled at – right wing politicians their constituents vote and pass through bills that really only have their own best interests at heart, not the greater good.

There is also a lack of diversity in the government in terms of advocacy, poor single women with children and people of color are often times not invited to the boardroom table to discuss policies that directly affect them. Even in this election year, welfare has not been a widely publicized agenda item for the Democratic candidates. Those who speak out for true welfare reform usually are not taken very seriously and have inadequate resources and not enough power.

As the structures are set up to be systematically and institutionally oppressive those who have the power are sexist, racist, homophobic, heterosexist and classist – all of these identities that are being oppressed under welfare reform and welfare recipients that internalize the stigma perpetuated about them suffer. Those who need welfare don’t go on it because they are ashamed, those who probably have some hope to get off don’t try because they have lost all hope – all of these recipients unfortunately limit themselves because they feel worthless or ashamed.
Welfare reform is a social justice issue because history as shown that the reform hasn’t really been positive change. If politicians are still willing to call previous changes to welfare reformed than they must be able to explain why the system isn’t working. They must be able to detail what the future look will like for recipients of welfare under the current economic recession. What is Obama doing about this?

Welfare is a social justice issue because women of all walks of life are being treated unfairly and unequally and their children are paying the price; the consequences of socially unjust community carries on to a socially unjust world and breaks down the unified strength of all people. Welfare is an issue that is everyone’s business – everyone benefits from a better system and justice what we should demand for all.

Friday, April 17, 2009

History class failed me

By the time, I finished reading Project South’s History & Popular Education: Critically Remembering Our Past, I wasn’t very proud to be an American citizen. I was shocked at some things I read; honestly, I had no idea that America had committed some of the atrocities against other countries and nations that were listed there, and I thought, “If these are true, then why haven’t I heard of them before?”

I took AP U.S. and AP European History in high school, so why are many of these events news to me? How could the exact details of my college textbooks be absent from the pages? My ignorance was perhaps what scared me the most, I didn’t know what to make of all these authentic news, and I’m still thinking about how to translate my thoughts into action.

One of the first events that struck me was the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which essentially divided the lower class of people into two groups – White and Black. This act was so strategic for those who were in power that they were able to conquer both groups by making one-half of the lower class think that they were better than the other half. It’s not as if the ‘divide-and-conquer’ method of oppression isn’t used anymore – it is most definitely still practiced and has done incredible harm to America and numerous other countries in terms of social injustice. The Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 also caught my attention because it played a crucial part in the Jim Crow laws and Black codes of that era, which also added to the division of poor white and black people.

I was surprised to read that the Berlin Conference of 1884 was responsible for dividing of Africa into the war zones that it is today. I have several friends who are refugees that have fled Africa because of all the bloodshed and war - due to rival tribes being forced to coexist together. The fact that these lines of division still exist today and are still the cause of African conflict really is surprising, the extent of European colonization never ceases to amaze me. The British and Dutch control of South Africa, which led to legal discrimination and eventually the apartheid, is astonishing and the implications that in 1994, people were being racially discriminated against legally is so hard to believe – a thought that I realize is quite privileged.

Another interesting revelation was the fact that William Randolph Hearst, THE newspaper standard for journalists, actually had a part in the 1898 Spanish American War by contributing false sensational information as news to the American public. In the School of Journalism here at the University of Minnesota, I have never heard anything negative about Hearst. In fact, there are many awards, scholarships, grants, internship opportunities and libraries named after him. Even though I vaguely knew about topics such as yellow journalism and Citizen Kane, (the lead character of which that is loosely based off Hearst), I still don’t ever hear about his involvement with helping push America into a war.

One specific part of American history that actually isn’t too long ago, was the internment of Japanese-Americans during 1942. The very idea that the Department of Justice forced people of Japanese descent to be secluded is ironic – how can a department that is dedicated to justice commit such grave acts of human rights violation?

I finally learned how the term, “Third World” was formed when I read that in 1955, activists from countries trying to separate themselves from the Soviet and the US/European philosophy became the third way, or the Third World. Now, the term Third World means (in general terms) uneducated, uncivilized, not as sophisticated as “us,” them over there, Africa, India, nations where the people are brown-skinned, Mexico, and so many other negative connotations. Even in our class this specific term of thrown around so much, I get really frustrated with the nonchalant use of this term when really, many of these so-called “Third World countries” are actually not less sophisticated than we are because without them, America wouldn’t be half the country it is today. I also finally made the connection between the terms “Global South” and “Third World,” I hadn’t really been introduced to that term before, and upon further research I found W.E.B. Dubois’ famous quote, “As the South goes…so goes the Nation,” and it all clicked for me.

I also found it interesting that in 1976, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations can give unlimited amounts to political campaigns. I know that campaign finance is an issue that many liberals are trying to change, and so I thought that the Supreme Court was reaching in their justification that private contributions equaled free speech. Campaign financing by large private corporations is unethical to some activists, and the fact that the government has been so lenient on corporations by allowing them to have power and rights, as a human individual is still true today.

I know I disapprove of (almost) everything President George W. Bush touches, but Project South really hit on a few sins and statistics that I hadn’t known before. For instance, 50.5% (Today’s Globazation, pg. 49) of the US budget is reserved for the military? No wonder we are in a recession and America has been in debt since 1994! What is wrong with the men who lead our country, and why do they continue to make the same mistakes that ultimately harm everyone? With 35.9 million Americans living in poverty (pg. 49) it is a mystery to me why the government will not make some much-needed change instead of scapegoating welfare and poor people for their stupid mistakes. I also was angry when I read that while 1 in 6 American children live in poverty, that the top 1% of Americans received a tax break averaging $78, 480 (pg. 49). Bush even pledged $15 billion to the AIDS pandemic and didn’t follow throw on it, I guess he decided to use that money to fuel his war. No wonder Americans are so apathetic, a majority of our votes didn’t even count in the 2004 presidential elections, and the fact that Bush won with only 30.8% of citizens voting for him (pg. 50), is ludicrous, especially considering that he stayed president even after the truth came out.

It’s so hard to not be depressed about our current political, economic and social climate, and it could be easy to be apathetic and shirk any kind of privilege I have to do something about the way things are – but I cannot do that. If I do, then I will just be relinquishing my power to those who will not think twice about speaking for me, but definitely not on my behalf. I know I’m not alone in my activism efforts and I realize that by fighting for a more socially just world I am acting out of some degree of self-interest (which I am okay with), because if my world is better, then your world is better, which means that our world is better...yes?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Radio show: The Keffiyeh

I wrote, interviewed, recorded, edited, scored and produced this radio show for my social justice class last semester.

Find the mp3 file, transcript, bibliography, and artistic statement here.

New York: A Cultural Experience

This video was made for my Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Class -- Feminist Media Making.

If the video is too small or doesn't work. Watch it on YouTube.

Reflections on the keffiyeh

“Not just an anti-war scarf”

Western media over the last several years has misappropriated the keffiyeh, resulting in the checkered “scarves” in all sorts of colors being spotted everywhere from New York Fashion Week to your local university campus. The newest hipsters are sporting a military-chic look that Urban Outfitters tried to capitalize on in Spring of 2007, by selling what they advertised as “anti-war scarves.”

How is it that this “thing” gets from off the face or head of a freedom fighter in Palestine and then make its way to the U.S. and onto the neck of the newest generation of trendy hipsters? And, is this process of appropriating another’s culture for fashion problematic because it further stirs up anti-Semitism or Islam-o-phobia?

Yes, the keffiyeh was a trendy in the 80’s for a bit, but the first place I remember seeing the keffiyeh making a comeback as a fashion trend was on the 2007 Balenciaga catwalk. Spanish fashion house Balenciaga exhibited several different styles of a scarf worn around the necks of his models, and all them harkened back to the checkered patterns of the Palestinian keffiyeh, and since then the keffiyeh has become so popular that one can find them on,, and even urban outfitters before they pulled their “anti-war” scarf.

Meghan McCain, John and Cindy McCain’s daughter, even Lauren Bush, niece of President Bush, Ricky Martin and a host of other celebrities have been photographed wearing a proper keffiyeh , and all of this celebrity news just made me curious to how this piece of fabric has come to represent fashion, terrorism, anti-Semitism and Palestinian solidarity.

One important clarification to make with the keffiyeh and all the colors they are made in is that the black and white keffiyeh is associated with Fatah and the red and white with Hamas. The Hamas, which is the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a radical political party and organization which is notorious for its violence and is recognized as a terrorist organization by many countries, but not often recognized for the many social programs that the Hamas has created on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Alternatively, while the Fatah is not officially categorized as a terrorist organization by any government, there is a long history of political tension due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Fatah is the Palestinian National Liberal Movement and is the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasir Arafat, president of the Palestinian National Authority, was one of the founding fathers of the Fatah movement that was formed in 1954, and supporters of Arafat and Palestinian nationalism and resistance identified themselves by wearing a black and white checkered keffiyeh.

After Balenciaga’s 2007 fashion show, the next time I saw the keffiyeh in the mainstream media was when Kanye West premiered his new music video, Homecoming, in which he wears a keffiyeh for nearly the entire video. After that, checkered scarves were seen on everyone everywhere. TV personalities wore the, celebrities wore them, activists dug out their old ones, Arab-American students bragged that their keffiyeh was actually from the Middle East and not from Urban Outfitters, and hipsters clung to their new fashion accessory in 90 degree weather so tightly that it caused a few raised eyebrows .

Dunkin Donuts pulled an ad in May that featured TV chef, Rachel Ray who was wearing a black and white checkered scarf. The ad apparently was scandalous to the conservative right wing media blogger, Michelle Malkin, called the scarf that Ray wore, “jihadi chic.” Malkin blogged that “the keffiyeh…is the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad.”

Amahl Bishara, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Chicago who specializes in media matters relating to the Middle East, said in an interview with MSNBC, that complaints about the scarf’s use in the ad demonstrate misunderstandings of Arab culture and the multiple meanings that symbols can take on depending on someone’s perspective.

Bishara says: “I think that a right-wing blogger making an association between a keffiyeh and terrorism is just an example of how so much of the complexity of Arab culture has been reduced to a very narrow vision of the Arab world on the part of some people in the U.S.”

In a Feb. 11th 2007 New York Times article, Where Some See Fashion, Others See Politics, journalist, Kibum Kim, wrote that older generation of Arabs still wear the keffiyeh as u-til-i-tarian headwear, but the younger generation in the Middle East may wear it expressly to show support of the Palestinian cause, and it is also used by militants to disguise their faces.

The stigma that the keffiyeh is linked to a violence or terrorism is “a result of how they have been portrayed in the mass media,” says University of Minnesota student Dan Garon, who identifies as a Zionist Jew.

Ricky Martin has been photographed wearing a red and white keffiyeh, and rumor has it that his scarf was embroidered with the words, “Jerusalem is ours.”

Garon says: “I don’t have anything against the garment itself, but if you are trying to wear something that symbolizes death to Israel, then I have a problem with that.”He said that “Jews don’t really care what you wear as long as you don’t have a bomb in it.”

Although Balshe recognizes that while some freedom fighters may wear a keffiyeh when they commit acts of violence, she does not wear it for that reason. “As a Palestinian, “Balshe says, “When I wear a keffiyeh it doesn’t mean that I want destruction to Israel, I wear it to honor my heritage.”

At times, the keffiyeh seems to be just another accessory in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, as an outsider, I’m not sure there is much I can say considering that I’m not there in Palestine or Israel fighting for my survival or beliefs, but rather, I am across the sea in my room and somewhat sheltered life, but I still recognize that this item is personal and very political for me because I am an Indian-American, Arab-American journalism student, and I have Jewish and Arab friends and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a big source of tension. I support Palestine, but am in no way anti-Israel. After doing all this research and talking with people I have decided that it’s not someone’s fault if she doesn’t know the history of the garment she has around her neck, but once she is educated, she should make the decision on whether or not she supports Palestine – and if she doesn’t, then she shouldn’t wear a keffiyeh.

In reflection, I understand that the keffiyeh symbolizes different ideals, emotions, hopes and fears to different people, and I guess I don’t see this scarf as symbol of terrorism. I mean, think about who says that it is a symbol of radical Islamic terrorists, and what it means that entire group of people gets branded with the label terrorist or another group - freedom fighter. Who really can say that one group is militant or rebel while the other is a soldier or peace keeper, not me, and probably not you.

When I began thinking about the keffiyeh, I tried to just focus on the keffiyeh has a thing, but in talking with Palestinians and Jews, I quickly realized that it would be impossible and unfair to separate this “thing” from its history – both in the creation of Israel and in the fight (literally) for a Palestinian state.

No matter who is dying, blood is being spilled for some reason or belief. The keffiyeh is part of a larger picture and we cannot forget that as it is on a fashion runway here in America, some are wearing it in Palestine as they fight for what they believe in…many of whom end up paying the ultimate price for their freedom – their lives.

MLK, Homosexuality and Race

“A Gay MLK?”

In his essay, “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays,” Allan Berube discusses a privilege that is often forgotten or ignored. Berube uses many examples of how within the GLBT community, Whiteness is heavily rewarded, while those who are “non-white” are severely punished. Berube used the term “gay whitening practices” to describe an incident he witnessed in San Francisco, where the gay club was requiring three forms of photo ids from men of color in efforts to limit their entrance. I just thought that the club example was such a good illustration of how within any given oppressed community, the privileged group feels like they have to or can oppress another.

Berube argues that within the gay community there is a disconnect between people of color (gay or straight) and gay white men; he used the example of gay white navy veteran who had said that activist David Mixner “could be our Martin Luther King…(p.245).” That quote was jarring for me, why couldn’t MLK be for everyone? Because he was black? Because he wasn’t gay? I am always so disappointed when a member of any given community doesn’t see how his or her liberation is tied to mine. The fight for justice is ultimately for all, and if people of color are over here doing their own thing and not worrying about women’s rights or gays, and then the white folks over here aren’t bringing up race because it’s not their thing, then of course we aren’t being productive in achieving social justice.

Bringing up race is such contemptuous subject it seems, and the formation of organizations, clubs, work places and structures by and for White folks makes it even harder for race to be talked about. Berube’s example of the all-White, HIV-negative group that struggled with the lack of men of color present was hard for me to sympathize with. How do they expect gay men of color to be comfortable enough to join a group that wasn’t started with the expectation that men of color would be crucial? I see this happening all over campus where a room full of white students and maybe one or two students of color, and the white students don’t know where the other students of color are. You can’t just throw open the door and expect people to just walk right in, it doesn’t work like that.

Berube writes about his isolation as a gay white male and how he questions his dedication to antiracism. He asks the question: “do gay white men as white men (including myself) have a lasting interest in fighting racism or will we sooner or later retreat to the safety of our gay white refuge (p. 258-9)?” This question was poignant to me and really gave me a lot of insight into the white antiracist activist. I know that it can’t be easy for any white person, regardless of sexual orientation, to struggle with the politics and feelings that antiracism brings up, but I hope that there are more people who are willing to be uncomfortable and do the work that must be done. In my own life, I see many of my gay white friends who think that they are so far removed from racism, and because they are gay, they are the new minority and that racism and gay rights are two different things. Is it really? I don’t think so, because ultimately, we all want justice.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Brief thoughts on history and Black Nationalism

I really enjoyed reading Kelley Robin’s essay, “ ‘When History Sleeps’: A Beginning (2002).” I felt very connected to her descriptive writing and imagery, and I loved Robin’s motto: “dream of a new world (p. 3).” I loved reading this essay because Robin made it personal and very relatable, and I respect her for reopening “a very old conversation about what kind of world we want to struggle for (p. 7),” and I’m glad that my time has come to take part in this important discussion.

When I first heard about Black Nationalism, it was in reference to Malcolm X and how “different” (read: Minnesota’s favorite passive aggressive way of saying ‘bad’) he was from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which led me to believe that Malcolm X was bad and was not the sort of role model one should follow, especially because he was willing to do what he had to and “by any means necessary.” Robin’s mentions Black Nationalism with such nostalgic hope, and I wish that I had not dismissed such a great leader and movement for a better part of my life because it somehow during my education Malcolm X and the Black Nationalist Movement got labeled has undesirable.

Education is power, and the elite who have full access to it often abuse their power - using their educational privilege as a tool to widen the dichotomy gap of power between the people and the elite. I agreed with Robin’s criticism of the “intellectual community” that thinks that they can save “them over there” or help those less unfortunate people, and I definitely see how education is a privilege that once obtained sometimes is used as an elitist tool with which to prop oneself up on. That’s a lot for me to think about as I am now a college-educated student of color who is essentially going to go out into the world and “save" it…or at least try.

Racism and gentrification in New York

“Oh, New York…”

In his essay, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy,” Neil Smith uses several examples of the rise and evolution of gentrification in New York that I found to be poignant.

Smith’s first example of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s $900 million “geobribe” to keep the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan was completely shocking. Of all the people to benefit from $900 million, it should not be the investment bankers and traders on Wall Street. This example reminded me of Governor Patterson’s current campaign to give filmmakers huge tax credits to film in New York City; while these tax credits increase exponentially each year, it is true that only the biggest names in the show business get access to all of the benefits.

New York has such a diverse population, that at times it seems that international diplomacy must take place within each borough. Smith discusses how Giuliani threatened to tow illegally parked cars with diplomatic plates because they were parking without thought all over the city - to the dismay of citizens and police alike. This example resonated with me because I can remember thinking about how United Nations diplomats run all over the city doing whatever they want sometimes, they really do park anywhere they want to, even though they have access to some of the best parking in Manhattan. Patterson was even threatening that he would kick them out of their Upper East Side and Midtown parking spaces and deny them foreign aid if they didn’t pay their $18 million bill in parking tickets.

The effect gentrification has had on the formation of cities and how it affects commuting was astonishing in Smith’s example of the commuting time in Sao Paulo. I was reminded of how Manhattan as an island is not sustainable or self-sufficient, and of all the commuters, who without the subway would be putting so much more stress on our environment. The effect commuting has on our environment is already too much, and because people who can no longer afford to inhabit the city that they work in – they must commute and pollute our earth further.

Gentrification is taking over New York, from Harlem to Brooklyn, realtors are advertising urban housing as the trendy new hip scene. The problem? Now, like Soho and Tribeca, Washington Heights and just past High Street on the border of Brooklyn and Manhattan is the newest place long-time residences are slowly getting kicked out because they can no longer afford to live in their community.

I often thought about gentrification in New York when I passed by Bill Clinton’s office in Harlem, or saw the population of who is heading where in the subway trains change over the years. Smith wrote on p. 444 of how the rebuilding of European cities of World War II was impacted by gentrification on a much larger scale, this is true in New York.

The formation of Levittown, NY took place after WWII in efforts to help the G.I.’s who were returning to their civilian lives, one of the biggest problems is that the government legally redlined areas and discriminated against African-American G.I.’s so that they couldn’t move to Levittown, while White American soldiers got loans, cars and the housing they wanted.

Smith discusses what has happened after the period of “White flight,” which is when White families left the city, moving farther and farther out into the suburbs in efforts to not mix with the newly “urban” community. Now, there is “the appeal to bring people back into the city,” which is a “self interested appeal that the white middle and upper-middle classes retake control of the political and cultural economies as well as the geography of the largest cities (p. 445).” Now that the privileged are returning to the City – where will everyone else go? Where can they go? And, with all the new trendy Fair Trade coffee shops and organic Whole Foods Market’s popping up all over New York, where will the residents who cannot afford to life in their newly repossessed communities go? If everywhere in New York is rapidly being gentrified, where are all the “poor” people living?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Social justice education

The first social justice minor class I took nearly made me quit the official social justice education. I seriously contemplated not declaring the social justice minor, and I actually didn’t until a few months ago. Maybe it was the teacher or the class, but something really didn’t seem right. Months into this class that I had expected so much from and my classmates were still in denial of white privilege. I was absolutely shocked. How could a class with the title, “Introduction to Social Justice,” skip simple definitions and an essential discussion on privilege? While the class wasn’t totally worthless, (I was able to read some books and learn about a few authors that I hadn’t heard about before), I did leave that class rethinking if I wanted to continue with the minor, but thank goodness that I did.

My first experience with an education focused primarily on social justice was disappointing, but a good reminder that I have to make the best of every situation and if I don’t like something, speak up. I didn’t really speak up much in that class, which was a first, because in a class that is focused on something that I am so passionate about, one would think that I had a lot to say, but I didn’t feel comfortable or like everyone was on the same page. Of course, it is not feasible that everyone be in the exact place as the person next to them in terms of where they are in their own personal social justice journey, but the classroom politics got to be too strained for my liking and unfortunately, I checked out after a while.

My second social justice class was amazing and I felt critically challenged which is how I grow the most. My teacher was unconventional – which totally makes sense for a social justice minor – and she gave us the space and time to get our stuff done. I felt like an adult and really took charge of my education, at times it was really stressful because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, but by the end, I realized that the rewards was that I intrinsically learned about what I was most passionate about and I had done by best on my final project.

Activism? Now what?

I wouldn’t consider myself a veteran activist by any means, and I wish that I could say that I was more experienced, but after doing three years of service learning for a different organization each time, I just feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.

In fact, I am pretty I got more out of the volunteer work that I did on my own, than doing service learning that was required for a class. After reading Ivan Illich’s article, “To Hell With Good Intentions,” my social justice senior seminar class deconstructed service learning into a model of “us vs. them,” but yet we still are participating in the service learning part of the class, after the one class discussion about our volunteering at various nonprofit organizations, I still feel like we didn’t reach a conclusion in whole deal. We talked about how we needed to be mindful of the “us vs. them” way of thinking and our privilege as college students to go into an organization, serve for a semester and then check out, no strings attached, obligation free; but after that, we were done ready to move on.

Sometimes I feel disconnected from the word activism, because I’m not marching and shouting, or chaining myself to something in protest. One major reason why I feel so conflicted about the word “activist” is because I feel like my journalism major has really contributed to this internal ethical and moral conflict that I really struggled with for several years. I still am uneasy about my role as a journalist, and how I feel about the journalism commandment to be objective, but I think as time goes on, I move away from journalism and more towards social justice – and I am at peace with that.

The School of Journalism at the University of Minnesota has been a place where I have learned a lot of about the history of the media and the role it has had in the formation of ideas and opinions, so I’m not really sure why the need to objective and inactive has always been the rule of the house. The way I justify my activism is that for so long, one side has been presented and now, it’s not just a matter of being balanced or objective, it’s simply presenting the other side. Here I am thinking about the other side of justice for Palestine, in-group prejudice and oppression. After the other side hasn’t been given a voice, I still struggle with the feelings that I should take a side in the first place.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Reflections on social justice

I have always had strong thoughts and feelings about violence against women, women’s rights, racism and oppression, among others, but I didn’t really label myself as an activist or a feminist until my sophomore year in college.

The lack of my social justice awareness during those crucial times of when I was a teenager is definitely something that I regret. I wish that I was able to use those four years of high school to be more productive and join a G.S.A., a multicultural group, or create a space where I could talk about homophobia and racism with my peers, but instead I tried to tip-toe around these uncomfortable subjects – well, no more.

Now, I talk about privilege and social justice all the time. I thrive in bringing up these uncomfortable conversations and learning more about what my peers think and refining my thoughts by bouncing them off others in debates or discussions.
After four years of learning and evolving, and with 3pm on May 17th, creeping up on me the question is asked: “So now what? What are you going to do?” I don’t have an answer, and I’m not really looking for one. Right now I’m just trying to figure out what I need to get out of the last few moments of my undergraduate experience and what I want to do, what I am passionate about, what my hopes and dreams are.

I do see myself of a 21st century movement for social justice. I just have to figure out what exactly I see myself doing and figure out the agency by which I go about doing whatever that is. I would love to take the opportunity to use my photography for social justice and my journalism skills to encourage folks to talk about race and not pretend that they are colorblind.

Most of my peers in the journalism field are white and most of the notable photographers are white and male, so where does that leave me? I am going to have to fight to have a place at the table, and then if and when I get accepted, I’ll have to continually justify what I do and how I do it so that my peers can respect me-- that way I can get paid, get credit, attain security and stability in life and live happily ever after. Sometimes I wish I was 30 and had everything figured out, I feel like I have no idea where I am going in life right now, and it’s really hard for me to write an activist essay, much less an autobiography.

I am still trying to make sense of the pieces of events and experiences that make up my life. Maybe this uncomfortable unknowingness is all part of growing up and maybe will be a foreign concept when I’m 30, but what if, in seven or so years, when I remember how old I am (actually, at this moment, I do not remember how old I am. I stopped counting when I turned 21), whatever shall I do if I haven’t figured life out? Whatever I am doing, I hope that I have a deeper, richer passion for social justice, and I hope that I am not burned out or disillusioned, disenchanted or disenfranchised by the social justice activism movement.

Intro to my social justice journey

My social justice activism journey didn’t start until I was a first year student at the University of Minnesota. Before then, I knew how I felt about racism, social injustice, and privilege, but I didn’t have terminology or education to back up my feelings and I didn’t really have the words to make complete thoughts about how I felt.

My family is socially conservative and usually votes Republican; I labeled myself as a moderate during high school and my first year in college because for those years I wanted to act and pass as white as I could. My goal was to fit in and to try and be seen by my peers to be just like them, all the while knowing that it was impossible because I was so dark and would never be able to pass.

I didn’t identify with Democratic candidates because I didn’t fully understand where they were coming from and I didn’t want to be lumped in with what my friend Andrew told me in our AP Psychology class, “Bethany, all minorities vote for Democrats.” Back then I’d rather vote Republican and (hopefully) be seen as a part of the majority and as elitist, rather than vote for a Democrat and be a minority.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Unpacking White privilege

Cliche, I know. But, seriously..."Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," by Peggy McIntosh was one of the first things that I read about White privilege.

My favorite paragraph: "As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege,which puts me at an advantage."

That's key! When talking to my White friends it is often difficult for them to realize that it's not just about people of color being at a disadvantage for different reasons, it's about being privileged and that being an advantage.

Whiteness is a concept that I believe I am addicted to. Ever since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by it and I have learned how to behave and "act White," but am unable to pass for White because of my skin color. I have explained White privilege so many times to so many friends, and I think that the modifier "White" really puts them off. It's like they don't like that there is a special term that is negative because they "worked for everything they got" or their "family pulled themselves up by their bootstraps." It's almost as if the problem is not that they are offended that they are causing others to be disadvantaged, but that their pride is insulted because I am offering up another explanation to why they are so successful or are doing better than some other people of color. That's it I think. Pride. How dare I say that they didn't get to where they are by their own meritocracy. Well, I am. Deal with it.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

So, tell me about White privilege...

I was home last night for my brother Nathan's birthday party. My entire family was there plus some other people and during dinner I shared with everyone that I was going to Memphis for a conference.

A asks me, "so tell me about the White privilege conference." I look at her and thinking, "oh, shit...this is going to open up a can or worms." I answer her question, telling her about social justice, White privilege, the focus of the conference, etc...and then it happened. Everyone (of course) has their opinions about privilege and racial politics, so people start talking and long story short...I just got home a few hours ago because the "conversation" went on for so long and because people like their "happy juice" a bit too much and no one was sober enough to drive me back to my apartment.

Le sigh.

Friday, March 6, 2009


Our group is collectively raising funds to go to the conference, and one of the travel grants that I am applying for is from the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence at the University of Minnesota. MCAE is awesome and I really hope that they give me money.

Here is essay we wrote and sent in:

"On April 1, 2009, the 10th Annual White Privilege Conference will convene in Memphis, Tennessee. The conference provides a forum for examining issues of white privilege, white supremacy and oppression. The workshops provided at the conference not only inform participants, but challenge and engage them to question privilege as well as provide practical tips and strategies for combating inequality. The theme of this year’s conference, “Taking Responsibility,” is to increase awareness of White privilege, start healing the scars of oppression and create social change.

We are six students from the social justice minor — a program in the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota — and we are fundraising to attend this conference. The social justice minor provides students with a basis for becoming effective social justice activists as well as for creating a socially just vision of the future.

The White Privilege Conference falls perfectly within the mission of the program, and we feel that by attending the conference, we would be upholding the University of Minnesota’s commitment “to sustain an open exchange of ideas in an environment that embodies the values of academic freedom, responsibility, integrity, and cooperation (and) that provides an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance.”

In order to make this trip possible, we must raise the funds to cover cost of airfare and other expenses, and we need your monetary support. If you are able to sponsor our trip, we would love to share the knowledge and experiences we gain through this amazing opportunity with MCAE upon return. Please consider a sponsorship to support our social change efforts."

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Flight details

Wed, April 1
Flight: Northwest Airlines #448
Depart: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, MN (MSP) Wed. April. 1 @ 6:15 AM
Arrive: Memphis International Airport, TN (MEM) Wed. April. 1 @ 8:23 AM

Sun, April 5
Flight: Northwest Airlines #3675
Depart: Memphis International Airport, TN (MEM) Sun. April. 5 @ 6:00 AM
Arrive: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, MN (MSP) Sun. April. 5 @ 8:19 AM

So exciting!

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There have been discussions amongst my group if we should go to Graceland or not. It would be interesting to go, but honestly, it's just a house correct? Meh. I remember hearing a story when I was little that Elvis' toilet flushes by itself because it's haunted, but now, with the invention of the automatic motion sensor toilet flusher...I'm not as interested or enchanted.

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The Lorraine Motel

I am so excited to finally visit the National Civil Rights Museum. I have read so much about it and seen historic photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from back in the day, and even during the 2008 campaigns when the reporters and tv anchors swarmed itduring the anniversary of MLK's assassination. We are flying into Memphis around 8:23am, dumping our luggage off at the Hilton Memphis and then getting to the Lorraine Motel as fast as possible. I am bringing the DSLR so I hope to snap some sweet pictures.

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I'm visiting the South...


I am going to Memphis, TN for the first time ever! 5 other students, our professor and I are going to attend the 10th Annual White Privilege Conference at the Hotel Memphis. For four years, I have heard about the WPC and have wanted to go, and now that I am a senior, I finally get to go!

My classmates and I are collectively fundraising to and I hope to document all that I can.

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Learning about Memphis...

They have a Piggly Wiggly, which is a supermarket chain grocery-type store. I love it! I really hope I at least drive by one so that I can snap a picture of it. Hahaha. I love saying Piggly Wiggly....Piggly Wiggly...Piggly Wiggly...Where have I heard that before?

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