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.