What if words matter? Thoughts on “pussy” and “slut” and word baggage

Having just returned from a visit to the Pacific Northwest where I lugged suitcases across Oregon and Washington, I have baggage on my mind. Currently, my unpacked suitcase is swollen with my finds from the Portland Saturday Market and Pike Place Market. And dirty laundry. Ah, if only it were filled with Voodoo Doughnuts, but those don’t travel so well. Alas, my suitcase will be far easier to unpack than the baggage that comes along with words. While away, a lively debate ensued among some feminist friends of mine about the word “Slut” and its usage in the many SlutWalks taking place around the world. As I missed this glorious and erudite debate, I am posting this carry-on- size food for thought about words and baggage.  (For some posts on  Slutwalk, see  here, here, here, here, here, and here)

Before my holiday, I posted on what I saw as the unnecessary (and sexist) use of the term pussy in Super 8 (Super 8 and The Monstrous Pussy” at Womanist Musings and “Super 8’s ‘Super Pussy’” at Ms. Blog). Reading through the comments, especially those at the Womanist Musings thread, which include many claims that the use of the word is “historically accurate,” got me thinking – can words ever truly  be “reclaimed” or, to stick with the baggage metaphor, unpacked? Granted, Super 8 is not trying to unpack the word “pussy” – rather, the film uses it in its common sexist meaning – i.e. pussy=coward=being like a woman.

But, could “pussy” be put in a pleasant new bag, one with nice polka-dots or a furry peace sign? Some think so. Some also think “cunt” could be repackaged into a term of feminist empowerment.

As for myself, I think it is difficult to entirely reclaim words as they cannot be drained of their historical baggage.

Words matter.

In fact, they matter so much that they almost have a material weight to them – a baggage that cannot simply be ignored or erased.

Words are like suitcases, carrying with them all manner of meanings and socio-historical links.

I don’t think we can easily “reclaim” words any more readily than we can “reclaim” lost baggage at the world’s most disorganized airport.

(And, as for Speilberg and Abrams, well, they likely travel first class and don’t have to think about the “baggage” some of us on the other side of the privilege matrix must lug around. And their baggage, is of course, filled with BALLS, not pussy – which, are, I might add, far more vulnerable than the mighty pussy!  Thus, isn’t “Don’t be such a testicle” more apt? I would love to hear that in a summer blockbuster sometime!)

Published in: on July 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm  Comments (5)  
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What if you prefer your monsters fictional? (On violence, war, hate crime, etc as more human than monster…)

(This post originally ran at Womanist Musings. It has since been updated to reflect the comment thread from the original posting and my subsequent rethinking of this topic. As always, I am thankful for those who take the time to comment, to open up the dialogue, and to help me question/refine my own thoughts.)

I am beginning to wonder – have we become less like Frankenstein’s monster, who was horrified by his own monstrous reflection, and more like traditional vampires, who could not see their own reflection? I am in hopes the monstrous acts of violence, war, hate crime, etc will  lead us to contemplate our collective reflection in that largest of mirrors – our society – and to become horrified by our own monstrous acts (as well as our monstrous inaction).

As pointed out in a comment from Sparky (of Spark in Darkness), designating people as monsters and their acts as monstrous allows a distancing — as if what she/he/they did is profoundly Other, not human, not us, not a reflection of our society.  As Sparky points out, this shuts down analysis and allows for the writing off of certain acts as an aberration. “I hate it when we describe criminals as monsters. Because I think it is used to AVOID showing and AVOID examining. It is used as a simple closing word, a dismissal, and avoidance,” he writes. We certainly saw this phenomenon with the Abu Ghraib torture and the writing off of Lindsey England as a “bad apple,” a monstrous women.

We also see it in the labeling of Sarah Palin as a monster (as many pundits do and as one comment in the thread named her). While I am no fan of Palin, I think labeling her as a monster demonstrates Sparky’s argument. Palin is a product of U.S. culture and politics — in fact a creation that mirrors in many senses what is expected of a powerful woman. It is our society that is monstrous, evil, greedy, sexist, racist, etc — humans like Palin are the products of this, the modern Frankenstein “monsters” that SHOULD reveal to us our insanities and injustices. By labeling her a monster we instead Otherize her, discounting how she is a logical product of U.S. empire.

When I posted a few weeks back at my Seduced by Twilight blog on “What does a monster look like? someone commented as follows in the thread:

“I think REAL monsters are those that don’t look like monsters at all. The most innocent looking, quiet ones that wait in the shadows and kill young women are today’s monsters. Monsters are violent and relentless but not always obvious.”

While I agree that real monsters are scarier than fictional ones, I am intrigued about the way we use the word monster both to designate creatures of the imagination – vampires, zombies, dragons, etc – as well as to designate people who act in ways defined as monstrous, cruel, and evil.

The etymological roots of the term monster come from “monere” (to warn), “monstrum” (that which teaches), and “monstrare” (to show). As noted in this essay on monsters, “The theme of teaching or guiding is thus implicit in the etymology, with the English word ‘demonstrate’ turning out to be a cousin of ‘monster’ in that the Latin ‘demonstratum’ is a past participle of ‘demonstrare’, which means ‘to point out, indicate, show or prove’.”

These etymological roots indicate that monsters (both those we create in our fictional worlds AND those that inhabit our societies) teach, warn, show, prove, and indicate.

Though I agree with Sparky’s points that labelling some as monsters can lead to a lack of analysis, I do think that the etymological roots of the word provide us with a critical lens with which to examine today’s “REAL monsters” (as they are referred to in the above comment). The daily acts of rape and murder should WARN us that our society condones and perpetuates violence. These monstrosities of war should TEACH as that war is not the answer. The prevalence of hate crime should SHOW as that we are not in a post-racial, post-feminist, or post-heterosexist world. All of these different acts of human monstrosity DEMONSTRATE, INDICATE, and PROVE that our corporate capitalist heteronormative patriarchy breeds monsters at an alarming rate.

Those we generally consider monsters – those that kill/torture/abuse indiscriminately and repeatedly – do serve as a warning – a warning that our society not only allows such monsters, but actively creates them. Are not such monster indicating that our world breeds violence? Do they not point out that the main modes of societal organization – patriarchy, corporate capitalism, militarism – is perhaps the perfect conditions for monsters to thrive? Does not their existence – in exorbitant numbers and in all branches of society – priesthoods, schools, sports, government, media, etc – PROVE that we may be creating more monsters than we can slay or contain, let alone eradicate?

I am focused on such so-called REAL monsters for reasons close to home. Last month, a 17-year-old female from my town was raped and murdered while jogging alone in a local park. This past weekend, on Easter Sunday, the attendance secretary from my son’s school was shot in her home, as was her husband, by a disgruntled neighbor who decided the best way to solve their long-standing disputes over a parking space was with a shotgun.

I am also focused on such REAL monsters due to a slew of hate crimes on the campus where I teach – crimes that have largely been ignored by campus administrators as well as the local media.

I know that such incidents are far from unique. I know such monsters lurk in every neighborhood, on every campus, in every corner of the globe, and certainly in many governments, religious organizations, and law enforcement teams. But, somehow, the warning seems more urgent when such monstrous acts become so common as to be expected – as if daily violence, rape, murder, and hatred – not to mention never-ending war – is par for the course.

What if we made June white-male month?

In an earlier post about Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I included the fairly well known joke:

Question:

If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year?

Answer:

Discrimination.

Renee, of Womanist Musings, expanded on the joke’s answer in the comment thread:

“…having those two months dedicated to women and blacks is discrimination. Deciding that we only need to talk about blacks in February and Women in March means that for the rest of the year it is okay talk about white males. If we truly meant to be inclusive these would be issues that we talked about 12 months a year. “Special Months” are not a sign of tolerance they are a sign of discrimination.”

I, along with Renee, take issue with “special months.” I think they set up a segregationist approach to learning that allows (and even celebrates) learning about “Others” only during appropriate months.

Come February, teachers break out the Martin Luther King Junior picture books or play his speeches for students. If they are really trying to be “multi-cultural” they might also include “extra” curriculum on Black History, ensuring their lesson plans pay homage to the month. The problem is that this type of inclusivity should not be done for a month, but throughout the year.

However, being the white-centric, male-centric society that we are, some claim we should be thankful for such months. I say what we should do is flip it around and make June “white-male history month.” The rest of the year could be all-inclusive curriculum. (Note: I picked June as it is the end of the school year and I think it is high time WM’s came last for once. I think it is also important to point out that I am referring to the normative conception of white-maleness here — or middle to upper-class, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, right leaning, “properly masculine” white males who must, of course, like sports)

It is not that I don’t like white males – in fact, there are quite a few I love. Those that I love don’t see this idea as problematic because they realize their privileges and want to work to dismantle them. They understand it’s time to share the reigns.

I am not saying we need to deny that WM’s have done great things, but we need to give everyone else an equal place in history (and school curriculum).

So, I say enough with the “special months” – let’s make the whole damn year reflect the true diversity of this planet and let’s stop making it ok to be racist, sexist, and homophobic year round. Let’s stop making it ok to only care about cancer in October or only be aware of transphobia on transgender remembrance day. How about instead if we tried to be human(e) every damn day? How about if we revamped our conception of history to include everybody – not just white male heterosexuals? And while I’m at it, how about we paid as much attention to social injustice and what we can do to make the world a better place as we do to friggin’ Super Bowl Commercials? That would truly be a time worth celebrating.

What if Mr. USA made some New Year’s resolutions?

If I had to characterize the contemporary USA as a single person, I would have to say the US would be a hyper-masculine white male intent on proving to the world he is god’s gift to the planet. He is the type of guy that talks really loud, brags incessantly, and thinks all women love him. Like most men of this ilk, he is all talk. He uses his brawn to smash others, doesn’t use his brain near enough, and sucks in bed. He needs to make A LOT of changes.

Here, in honor of the New Year, is a list of resolutions for Mr. USA:

  1. Lose the cis privilege. (Or at least lose the hypermasculine shtick)
  2. Get off the sauce. (Particularly the oil.)
  3. Exercise free speech. (Which will require de-corporatizing the media)
  4. Stop smoking out the planet. (I.e. quit with the toxic dumping, chemical burning, air polluting…)
  5. Curb the language. Give up the words “terrorism,” “enemy combatant,” and empty uses of “change.”
  6. Give peace a chance.  Stop using fists and guns and bombs so much.
  7. Eat better. Get off the high fructose corn syrup and factory farmed foods.
  8. Kick the (legal) drug habit. (Which will require revamping the FDA and nixing the Bio-Pharm Industrial complex)
  9. Change it up with a new color scheme. Forget the whole “terror alert” color chart and focus instead on erasing the color/class lines plaguing the country.
  10. Stop procrastinating. Do things to make the world a better place! Get your own country in order and give up on the empire plan!

Yeah, so these are lofty, but resolutions are meant to be…

Happy New Year everyone!

Published in: on January 1, 2009 at 9:15 am  Comments (2)  
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What if the satirical was more common than the stereotypical?

 

Comedy often utilizes broad generalizations and relies on an extreme, in your face approach. However, some comedy does so in order to critique and undercut problems within society, some does so in order to bolster and promote sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.  Satire falls in the former category. It aims to show society its foibles, to mock them, to subvert norms. The latter type of comedy, however, does not have the aim of changing people’s minds, let alone society, but merely is out for laughs. It is the difference between Jonathon Swift and Andrew Dice Clay, between South Park and The Howard Stern Show, between Margaret Cho* and Esther Ku

Swift railed against racism (spefically of the anti-Irish variety) and classism, South Park satirizes homophobia, religious fanaticism, racism, Cho criticizes heteronormativity, gender essentialism, body image norms. Conversely, Clay and Stern promote and encourage sexism as fun and funny, Eshther Ku perpetuates racist attitudes and indicates stereotypes are TRUE, rather than problematic.

Yet, recognizing the difference between comedy that aims to shine a light on negative aspects of society in order to encourage those laughing to do something about injustices verses comedy that shines a light merely to suggest “ha, ha, isn’t injustice funny” can be tricky…

Take as an example ‘fat humorists’ – both those that are fat and those that do ‘fat jokes.’ Some fat comedy is satirical and aims to reveal our obsessions about bellies and everything else are inane (Joy Nash’s Fat Rants and Eve Ensler The Good Body come to mind), while some encourage the audience to laugh AT fatness and fat people rather than at our stupid societal bodily norms (John Pinette).

Sadly, the type of comedy/entertainment that does not aim to change our thinking or better society is the more common. Stereotypes ooze from every type of popular culture, suggesting that all black men are criminal, all Latinas are maids, all Indians work at mini-marts, all Middle Easterners are terrorists, all fat people are dumb, all gays love fashion, all poor people are lazy, etc, etc.

While stereotypes can be used in a satirical manner in order to try and reveal to the audience that their ways of categorizing the world are not only laughable, but dangerous, most popular culture bolsters stereotypical thinking rather than subverts it. Disney comes to mind here.

As the “man in chair” character of the post-modern musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone quips, “Audiences today are too sophisticated for broad racial stereotypes… Those have been banished to Disney…you know… for the kiddies to sort out.” As this line indicates, many like to think they are ‘beyond stereotypes’ or living in a post-racist society. Yet, as Disney (and every other MSM output machine) reveals, our entertainment is overflowing with racist/sexist/classist/homophobic stereotypes. The Arab thugs who will cut off your hand for stealing an apple (Aladdin), the backwards Asians who enforce arranged marriage and are war-mongers (Mulan), the black people as apes and whites as heroes (Tarzan), the Latino as lecherous, scroungy mutt (from Lady and the Tramp to the forthcoming Beverly Hills Chihuahua), the Native American as incoherent and backwards (Peter Pan) or as loving those who commit genocide on their peoples (Pocohantas).

In other media, we see Latinas as maids only (Will and Grace, Weeds), transgendered people as serial killers (Nip Tuck), fat people as stupid, lazy, and incompetent (Wall*E), Eastern Europeans as human traffickers and mafia thugs (Crash, Dark Knight)… We don’t tend to see disabled people at all… (except in those feel good narratives that frame disability as a plight to be overcome…) And, in general, anyone deemed as “Other” in any way are rendered either invisible or, if shown, are depicted in a negative way.

Due to the pervasiveness of comedy that aims only for laughs and not for any higher form of satirical catharsis, lots of people don’t even seem to recognize satire when they see it. For example, in their papers analyzing popular culture, my students often apologize for liking South Park, The Family Guy, Borat, Dave Chappelle… (and, to be fair, there are instances where these examples border on the merely comedic rather than the satirical). What these apologies indicate is a failure to recognize the satirical intent of shows like South Park. Yet, if the satirical intent is not recognized, does the comedy truly work as satire? If the audience doesn’t ‘get it,’ is the satire then only perpetuating the very norms it critiques?

I am particularly worried about this given some recent comments from students. For example, after watching Mickey Mouse Monopoly (a great documentary that takes Disney to task for not only its corporatism, but its perpetuation of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc), one student said (in reference to the ubiquitous representation of Mexicans as little, irritating dogs), “But Chiuahau’s are a Mexican dog! I don’t see the problem.”

When discussing racial stereotypes, I get the usual, “But they are true, all Asians are bad drivers” (by the way, this was said in one of my classes by a male student who had an Asian female student sitting directly in front of him). I asked her in jest, “So, did you nearly run him over on your way to school today?” He was embarrassed, as he should have been, and turning the tables allowed this student and others to talk about how hurtful such comments/beliefs are. Just yesterday, a student again argued  racial stereotypes are true and offered the example “all Indians really are cheap.” The audacity with which people share such blatant racism scares me deeply.

What I wonder is this:  if the satirical were more common than the stereotypical, would audiences (and my students) more readily be able to tell the difference between that which is offensive for laughs and that which offends in order to prompt analysis, rethinking, change…? If there were more entertainment that leaned towards the satirical, would we, as a society, lean more towards changing our problems rather than just laughing at them?

*Margaret Cho certainly walks a fine line between the satirical and the stereotypical. Lately, some of her comedy has leaned a bit too far towards promoting existing inequalites (woman as sex object) and racist stereotypes (Korean parents as overbearing). For two recent post that discuss Cho in this vein, see here and here.

What if the 4th of July was matriotic?

I wouldn’t call myself a patriot. Don’t know if it’s the mega huge flags waving out of the big-ass pickup trucks where I live or flags saluting from so many houses year round, but I am more than burned out on the whole patriotism trend. It was one thing when flag waving was reserved for certain days of the year, but now it seems like every day is flag day. I know there is a lot more to patriotism than the flag, but the gesture of wearing or flying a flag seems to have come to embody the contemporary conception of patriotism. It is this contemporary version that bothers me in particular-the one touted by Bush and co where patriotism is defined as being pro-war, as in “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” As the button on my jean coat questions, “Since when did blind allegiance to corporate interests become patriotic?” To be fair though, my dislike of patriotism far precedes the whole flag fest of the post 9/11 era. I wasn’t a fan of the Pledge of Allegiance as a kid. Justice for all? Yeah, right.

It seems to me patriotism and its sidekick, nationalism, are, for the most part, a way to celebrate disdain and oppression. The whole “my country is the greatest country on earth” rings of extreme egotism to me. Do I love my country? Well, there are lots of things about the USA that are wonderful — lots of people, traditions, cultures, natural beauty, and attitudes that I love. But, there are many things I do not love about the USA as well. Am I proud to be an American? Well, no, not really. I don’t think pride in accomplishments has to do with one’s country, but with one’s actions, attitudes, and beliefs. I am proud of many people who are American – but not because they are American. Do I love my country? Well, I don’t consider it “mine.” I was born within these borders and raised within this culture by luck of birth. This country is no more “mine” than is the planet. Do I think this is the “greatest country on earth”? Hell no. While many of us may have it very good within the confines of our militarily maintained US borders, this comes at the expense of others labor, land, freedom, etc. I think our imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist, Zionist agendas disqualify us to be in the running for “greatest country on earth.”

Then again, perhaps my aversion to nat/patriotism is due to my femaleness. The Webster’s dictionary defines a patriot as “one who loves and defends his country.” Maybe as I am not a him, I don’t get the whole patriotic mindset. Women are not really coded as full citizens or “true patriots”–women are not meant to be active citizens but symbolic one’s. They are supposed to symbolize patriotism through the birthing of future citizens, through revering national law, and through acquiescing to the mandates of the (male-run) nation state. As symbols of nationalism, they are to function like Lady Liberty or Lady Justice–as beautiful, inert icons representing the nation’s ideals-but not, goddess forbid, as peace activists or truth seekers (otherwise known as conspiracy theorists).

I wish instead of all the flag-waving and singing of lyrics such as “we’ll put a boot in your ass it’s the american way…” the 4th could be a matriotic holiday. Cindy Sheehan uses this term to redefine patriotism/nationalism into a “new paradigm for true and lasting peace in the world.” Sheehan argues “A true Matriot would never drop an atomic bomb or bombs filled with white phosphorous, carpet-bomb cities and villages, or control drones from thousands of miles away to kill innocent men, women, and children.” I like Sheehan’s conception of matriotism because it implicitly emphasizes the need to personalize the political-to realize, for example, that the bombs we drop from afar have very real, personal consequences on individual bodies. Unlike patriotism, matriotism emphasizes individual embodiment and inter-humanity rather than the depersonalized allegiance to a nation-state that patriotism calls for.

In her meditation on the implications of the word matriotism, Sheehan calls upon the mothers of the world to “never send her child or another mother’s child to fight nonsense wars,” and, in so doing, she turns the power over ideology of patriotism into a solidarity with paradigm for peace. Sheehan reveals a profound understanding that in order to change the world, we must change not only the words we use but also the ideologies they represent and perpetuate. Her birthing of the word matriotism coincides with much contemporary activist mothering wherein women are delivering the radical message that allegiance to any nation-state is problematic and that not only sons, but also daughters, lovers, animals, and the planet itself deserve protection. Sheehan’s concept of matriotism calls for action rather than compliance, for being critical of the government rather than reverential, and for actively protesting societal wrongs. Now, that’s an idea I can be proud of.

On a similar note, I was relieved the other day when Obama said “I will never question the patriotism of others,” as this gives me hope that he, unlike Bush and co., does not define patriotism as blind obedience. Perhaps his more complex understanding of patriotism and its limits comes from the fact so many have questioned his patriotism. Putting the racism and anti-Muslim sentiment of these attacks to the side (this post is already too long!), the questioning of patriotism serves all to easily as a catchall way to discredit someone. For me though, this has the opposite effect-those that question/complicate mindless worship of a nation/flag goes up in my estimation, not down. So, thank you Obama for refusing to wear that flag pin in the run up to the invasion of Iraq! (For more on the attack against Obama’s patriotism, see Keith Olbermann’s “Questioning Obama’s Patriotism” here.)

So, on the 4th, as I watch fireworks from afar (can’t stand to be amongst throngs of people decked out in red, white, and blue or the inevitable pro-America music), I will take pride in the work of people like Cindy Sheehan and give thanks for the many matriot activists that are trying to make the globe a better place for everyone – not just for Americans. I will also hope that perhaps we might see someone as president next time around that understands patriotism should not be used to justify US imperialism.

Happy 4th to all you peace-loving, anti-imperialist matriots out there!

What if ‘Q’ was a true color?

I went to see the True Colors concert in San Diego last night. It was fabulous. Joan Jett and Cyndi Lauper were the highlights for me. (Damn if I have not been listening to Jett’s “Crimson and Clover” over and over and over today…) Both Lauper and Jett are fabulous performers with excellent voices. Why oh why are they overshadowed (then and now) by the likes of the not-too-vocally-talented (re: Madonna)?

Despite the great music lineup, the emcee of the night, Carson Kressley, was far from stellar. Damn, I wish it would have been Rosie!

One thing I noticed in particular about Carson’s stints trying to fill the time between musicians was his failure to ever mention the Q word. Seeing as his fame was made on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” I imagined he might at least throw in the Q with his repeated use of the acronym LGBT.

Of course, “Queer Eye” was hardly queer–more like mainstream gay assimilationist–but at least the tour itself could expand its focus to include a queer perspective. Instead, most of the comments made throughout the evening seemed to be focused towards the ‘gay community’ or ‘gay rights.’ What about transgender issues and queer politics?

Kressley in particular traded in familiar jokes reinforcing the gay/straight binary insinuating “if your straight, you won’t get this joke,” or, “this one is for the gay bottoms.” Call me queer, but I don’t see the benefit (or humor) in constantly reifying this binary. Heteros can be ‘bottoms’ too (as can every other sexual stripe) and I don’t see how enforcing a gay/straight split is any different than a black/white or female/male one. Jokes like these that act as if you are either in the “gay club” or you are not are likely to annoy allies and other sexual creatures who think the parcing out of sexual identities into distinct categories is problematic all around. This is where queer needs to come in.

Queer theory is far more politicized than ‘gay rights’- and it is, I think, a lens that the True Colors tour needs to adopt. As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore argues in the introduction to That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation*, the ‘gay assimilationist’ stance is threatening to normalize LGBTQ politics. In the same book, Dean Spade uses the phrase “LGBfakeT movement” in order to emphasize that trans issues are included only nominally. Seems Spade’s coinage could be extended to LGBfakeTsilencedQ as of late…

So, Cindy, I love you, and the show was phenomenal–your comments about the importance of inclusion were illuminating and uplifting–as was your voice- but might you consider adding queer into the mix next time around? And Carson, since you are known as a “queer eye,” how about living up to the title and showing some queer theory know-how rather than mere fashionista flamboyance?

* Sycamore, Mattilda Bernstein, ed. That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2008.

What if one is not born, but rather becomes, a non-feminist?

As Simone De Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, notes, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” But, in the case of feminists, I think they are actually born and then ‘unmade.’ I doubt girls are born feeling they are ‘naturally defective’ as Aristotle argues they are. Likewise, I doubt boys are born feeling they are the superior sex. Rather, one is ‘made’ into a woman (and distanced from being a feminist) via a constant onslaught of messages that define one as the Other. One is ‘made’ into a man via living and breathing in a society that perpetuates male privileges. (for more on male privilege see here and here) Thus, this making into ‘woman’ and ‘man’ is societally constructed and maintained.

Bodies do not come in only two varieties although we like to act as if they do. Nor do they come in only feminine-women and masculine-men versions. If we did not learn before we even left the womb that woman are the secondary sex, perhaps we would not have to talk about ‘click moment’s’ with feminism because we would all still be feminists!

Although I am a card-carrying social constructionist, I think being a feminist may be one of the most natural identities – perhaps that is why they try to beat it out of us so hard! Is it such a stretch to think that humans might be born feeling they are not better or worse than any other human but equally deserving?

I have long joked that I was born a feminist as I can’t recall any one click moment, but a series of battles, arguments, and feelings of “what the f is wrong with this world” as I grew up. From questioning the unfairness of class inequality and the exploitation of migrant workers during elementary school (I lived in a migrant farming town divided along class/color lines) to wondering why I wasn’t supposed to play with ‘those Mexican kids,’ I was already flaunting my feminism cred in grade school. I refused to have a different curfew than my brother in high school – didn’t seem to me just because you had a penis you should get to stay out later. To the dropped jaws of my college professors, I wrote feminist essays in every single class, asking why anthropology acted as if the world was made of men only, why literature focused on DWMs (dead white males), and why psychology acted as if the female brain was substandardly different. To the chagrin of my family, I balked at the suggestion that mothering was more important than an academic career and refused to buy into the ‘women are meant to nurture’ crapola that culture hawks at us all the time.

Today, I frustrate my children’s teachers (and my students) by asking them to stop saying ‘you guys’. I hunt down principals and tell them they need to put a stop to the use of homophobic language on the playground. I annoy gym instructors by asking them to change their music selections (call me crazy, but I don’t like to work out to songs glorifying gang rape.) I call out people for their sexism, racism, able-ism, body-hating, xenophobia — and guess what? They don’t like it. I am ‘too opinionated.’ I need to ‘mellow out.’ “Do you always have to talk about feminism” they whine. Well, yeah. It’s like a religion. I live and breathe it every day. It is like nourishment – I would starve without feminism.

There are so many definitions of feminism that I love, it is hard to pick just one. Many of my favorites comes from The Feminist Dictionary by Paula Treichler and Cheris Kramarae.

I agree with Nawal el Saadawi’s claim that “as a radical feminist…you should oppose imperialism, Zionism, feudalism, and inequality between nations, sexes, and classes.” Feminism is not just about sex/gender but about all forms of social inequality and oppression/privilege.

I also like Peggy Kornegger’s description of feminism as “A many-headed monster which cannot be destroyed by singular decapitation.” Guess what crazy feminist hating trolls? You can’t kill feminism! It’s a hydra – as soon as you cut of one head, another will grow back. This ‘multiplicty of feminisms’ is another thing I love about feminism. There are so many varieties feminism puts 31 flavors to shame. From anarcha-feminism to eco-feminism to womanism to third wave feminsm to radical feminism, each flavor has something yummy. Try them all, pick one, or rotate! Hell, get a quadruple cone of feminism and delight your feminist taste buds!

The Combahee River Collective’s argument that feminism must be “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and seek to develop “integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that major systems of oppression are interlocking” is another classic. The intersectional approach to feminism is one flavor I cannot live without – it’s my mainstay.

Charlotte Bunch’s argument that feminism is “an entire worldview or gestalt, not just a laundry list of ‘women’s issues’ is another favorite of mine.” As Bunch argues, “Feminst theory provides basis for understanding every area of our lives, and a feminist perspective can affect the world politically, culturally, economically, and spiritually.” Yes, it certainly can. And once you re-place your feminist lenses stolen from you by the culture/society/history/institutional white supremacist heteronormative imperialist patriarchal matrix that defines ‘reality,’ you will never look at the world in the same way again.

See, you were born a feminist, we all were, and if haven’t already done so, please find your way back.

*This post was inspired by a call at The Feminist Underground for feminism definitions and musings. Thanks for the inspiration Habladora!

Published in: on June 19, 2008 at 11:29 am  Comments (11)  
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What if analogous to the term ‘person of color,’ we used ‘person of white privilege’?

It seems the more disenfranchised a group is or the more s/he differs from ‘normative identities,’ the bigger a mouthful that person will have to use to describe her/himself. When we unpack what I like to call the ‘suitcase of our identity,’ if our suitcases contain all the social positions favored by society (i.e. white, male, wealthy, heterosexual, Christian, patriotic, etc) then we get to call ourselves simple things like ‘man,’ ‘guy,’ or ‘male.’ However, the more our identity diverges from these normative categories, the more words we must string together, as in ‘bi-racial queer working-class undocumented transwoman.’

With one word descriptors like ‘male,’ all sorts of assumptions come in to play. For example, when you describe someone as a ‘woman,’ many people will assume you are referring to a white woman as white is the ‘normative category’ in our racist society. This is especially true in the mainstream media where you only here racial/ethnic descriptors when the person is not white (and especially if that person is living up to the pervasive, socially sanctioned stereotype of being a ‘criminal’ – hence the phrase ‘driving while black’).

Now, in terms of linguistic equality, it doesn’t seem fair that some identities are (assumed to be) summed up in one word, while others require a whole string of complex descriptions. Let’s call it being ‘linguistically oppressed.’ In order to counter this oppression, I suggest a first move would be to begin calling ‘white people’ ‘people of white privilege’ instead. Just as the phrase ‘people of color’ nods to the system of racism that works against all of those without white privilege, the term ‘people of white privilege’ (or POWP), would own up to the fact that white skin, to borrow a phrase from the famous “Got Milk” add campaign, ‘does a body good.’ White privilege, as Peggy McIntosh and many others have so thoroughly elucidated, bestows one with all sorts of perks. The closing points of her widely anthologized piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” are well worth considering more closely:

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Although systemic change takes many decades, there are pressing questions for me and, I imagine, for some others like me if we raise our daily consciousness on the perquisites of being light-skinned. What will we do with such knowledge? As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.

Her linkage of obliviousness to white privilege as being analogous to obliviousness to male privilege is worth unpacking further. (For a full article examining male privilege, see here.) These two modes of obliviousness seem particularly resistant to dying. In my women’s studies classes, one of the units each semester that seems to put people on the defensive most is the unit in which we examine racism and white privilege. The people of color, due to systemic racism, are generally hip to all the injustices having skin that is not white confers upon them. However, white students are most often not correspondingly aware of the privileges their skin color affords. In fact, many become highly offended at the suggestion they are privileged and attempt to list out a whole host of ways they are not privileged via reference to their class, belief system, appearance, sexuality, etc. Here, they miss the point that just because one has white skin privilege does not mean one cannot lack privilege in many other areas (it’s called intersectionality, people!). Rather, white privilege refers to the doors having white skin opens – that door might be slammed again when, say, your easy ride securing a rental lease becomes more bumpy when your landlord discovers you are a lesbian.

People also seem reticent to own up to white privilege as they seem to think doing so is akin to admitting they are racist. What many fail to realize is that NOT owning up to white privilege is in itself a racist act. By ignoring or silencing the many societal perks that white skin brings, one is participating in what McIntosh terms “unearned privilege” – a privilege which has its base in institutionalized and internalized racism.

Some POWPs will also claim they too are discriminated against, that there is ‘reverse racism.’ Not fans of being picked on for their ‘whiteness,’ they take offense when cites like Stuff White People Like try to humorously dismantle the erroneous attitude that ‘race’ refers to people of color, not to their own white selves. Yeah, cuz its funny when you make racist jokes about other racial groups, just not when they are aimed at your own white ass.

Another common reaction to an analysis of white privilege includes ‘white guilt’ – or feeling guilty because you are white. When I was lucky enough to see Peggy McIntosh speak at USD in 2006, she made some great points about this, noting that feeling guilty about racism does nothing to solve the problem. What is required to stop racism and eradicate white privilege is action, not guilt. Liza at Anti Racist Parent discussed this today in her great post “Is Privilege Offensive”:

Having privilege does not equal feeling guilty. However, owning the fact that I experience privilege forces me to open my eyes to the ways in which systems of oppression and institutionalized -isms keep others from achieving.

As McIntosh and Liza both point out, feeling guilty doesn’t achieve anything. We need to open our eyes (as Liza suggests) and then begin to take actions in our everyday lives to dismantle white privilege and call it out when we see it.

One small step I suggest is to think about how it would change our perceptions if, instead of using the term white (or caucasian), we used ‘person of white privilege.’ Now, I know this won’t catch on – can you imagine Chris Matthews or Anne Coulter describing themselves as POWPs?!? But, even thinking about this linguistic possibility is edifying. If society were forcibly reminded each day that whiteness equals privilege maybe, just maybe, this might begin to crack the fortress of racism that poisons our world.

Owning up to white privilege and working to dismantle that privilege must be a priority – not just for people of color who know all to well about having the burden of dismantling racism put at their doorstep, but for people of white privilege too. The onus to dismantle this crazy-ass ‘master’s house’ needs to be taken on by people of white privilege. So, all of you POWPs out there, pick up your activist tools, grab your social justice hammer, and own up to your white privilege if you have not done so already. There is still lots of work to be done…

*For a list of links to various other privilege lists, see this page at Alas, A Blog. Thanks also to this blog for linking me to Liza’s “Is Privilege Offensive” with this post.

What if we had a national makeover?

Makeovers are perhaps more omnipresent than ever thanks to reality television, the ever-growing beauty industrial complex, and our collective failure to say “enough already” to participating in the Appearance Olympics. Traditionally, makeovers start at the top – with the head and face. I think it’s high time we forgot about Ashley Simpson’s new surgically sculpted nose or Madonna’s unnerving ability to keep making herself over into a more muscular, taught version of herself.* Instead, let’s focus on a national makeover.

Starting at the top, we really need to do some cutting – cut out the dead weight of corruption and greed and add in heavy highlights of progressive thinking with penchants for social justice. The face of the nation needs help. We could squeeze out our imperfect obsession with consumerism, even out our tone about immigration, and get rid of our blotchy imperfections that result in huge pustules of military bases all over our visage. We definitely need to get our breakouts of racism, homophobia, and sexism under control.

Our shoulders need help too – they are slouching under the weight of the world, attempting to carry burdens they have no business carrying. We need to shrug off acting like Atlas, and put down the damn world already until we have our own little corner figured out. (Plus, we are hardly ‘lifting’ the world, more like knocking it around in our misguided exercise regimen of “spreading freedom and democracy.”) Speaking of exercise, our arms could really use some true reaching out. Rather than trying to heft more profits for bio-pharm, the military industrial complex, or world bankers, we should focus on sculpting some new muscles – muscles that don’t rely on the momentum of patriarchy or the false strength garnered via the economic steroids hawked by the Federal Reserve and World Bank.

Our mid-section is shrinking, our core could use some work. While our head gets bigger and more inflated by the day, our middle is on the verge of collapse and our legs have to do so much darn work they can barely walk, let alone run. The working majority, the legs of our country, are given short shrift. We need to stand on our own two feet and give a much needed pedicure to the base of our nation – slough off our addiction to oil, rub in some nourishing education, clip our tendency to be so blindly patriotic.

Finally, our overall image needs help. Rather than allowing it to be tarnished by the same look all the time–corporate driven media–why not try something new? Perhaps mix in some truth seeking, some independent news, some sense of social justice. With dedication, we just might be able to makeover our nation into something decent–something that we could face looking at in the mirror each morning.

*Madonna recently dissed on her “big fat thighs” on Nightline interview. See, for example, this post at Jezebel.

Published in: on June 3, 2008 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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