What if “Columbus Day” was given the more accurate name “Celebrate Genocide Day”?

 (originally posted at this link in 2008)

Today is “Columbus Day,’ a day that has been celebrated in various ways since at least 1792 and was declared a federal holiday by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934. Currently, elementary schools around the nation combine the ‘holiday’ with learning units about Columbus and his “discovery.” The ways in which this portion of history is taught consists of a massive lie.

To start with, most history books claim Columbus “discovered” America. Well, forgive me  for asking, but when there are already anywhere form 10 to 45 million inhabitants living on a land mass, why does one conqueror’s greed induced voyage equal “discovery”? (Not to mention Columbus was lost and thought he was in Cuba when he first landed in the Caribbean and thought he was in India when he landed in North America.)

Teaching children Columbus “discovered” American obliterates the history of the indigenous people’s of this continent, it ignores the genocide that ensued, and it suggests that greed-driven imperialism is something to be celebrated.  It equates being a “hero” with being racist, violent, power-hungry, and arrogant. Woo-hoo.

Many websites offer teachers lesson plans to help kids “celebrate” the wonderful imperialist genocide Columbus’ “discovery” made possible. You can make tiny egg cups to represent the ships. Neat! You can make your own “discovery map.” (Do teachers encourage children to note the numbers of indigenous people massacred at each of Columbus’ ‘discoveries’?) Or, you can download pictures to color. (I wonder if these include native people’s being eaten alive by dogs – a popular way to ‘kill heathens’ by our hero.)

What if students learned a less glorified version of the not-so-great CC? Perhaps they might benefit from knowing some of the following:

  • One of CC’s earliest boasts after encountering the peaceful Arawaks was “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (Zinn, 1)
  • Columbus was on his ‘discovery mission’ for gold and power – he was a power hungry zealot – so greedy in fact that he denied the promised yearly pensions to some of his crew and kept all profits for himself (Zinn, 3)
  • At the time of Columbus’ quest for gold, power, and conquest, indigenous peoples numbered in the multi-millions in the Americas (Zinn puts the number at 25 million; Gunn Allen notes the number was likely between 45 million and 20 million and further points out the US government cites the pre-contact number at 450,000)
  • Indigenous people’s were not “primitive” but advanced agriculturally and technologically with complex societal systems (so advanced in fact that the notion of democracy was stolen from the Iroquois)
  • The majority of indigenous people were not war-like but peaceful and did not have a concept of private ownership – hence the term “Indian Giver” – which became a pejorative rather than a compliment in our ownership crazy society
  • Many indigenous societies had far more advanced sharing of power between the sexes/genders – or, as Zinn puts it, “the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent” (20)
  • “Contact” with Columbus and the conquerors that followed resulted not only in mass genocide, but continues to have negative effects on the small percentage of remaining indigenous peoples. For example, in the US, 25% of indigenous women and 10% of men have been sterilized without consent, infant mortality and unemployment are off the charts, and many existing tribes face extinction – hundreds of tribes have already become extinct in the last half century (Gunn Allen, 63)

These widely unknown facts (that are certainly not part of most public schools’ curriculum) are vitally important. As Zinn writes, “historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” (8). The distortions surrounding Columbus serve to bring about “the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” (Zinn, 9) – an acceptance the USA is practicing today with its imperialist occupation of Iraq. This approach to history, in which the conquerors and corrupt governments shape both how people view the past and how they interpret the present, consists of a massive propagandist campaign to justify greed and power.

In terms of the way Columbus is historically represented, the whole “discovery narrative” not only problematically glorifies (and erases) genocide, but it also passes off lies as truth. Students are led to believe that Columbus came upon some vast and nearly wilderness, when in fact many places were as densely populated (and ‘civilized’) as areas of Europe (Zinn, 21). More prosaically, many people often mistakenly believe Columbus actually set foot on US soil (he never did). Moreover, US inhabitants are encouraged to lionize the man who not only precipitated mass murder of indigenous people’s, but also brought slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. Even ‘revisionist history’ fails to condemn Columbus, arguing he needs to be read in the context of his times. For example James W. Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me,refers to him as “our first American hero.”  Well, if he is a hero, I certainly don’t want to be one of those, nor do I want to encourage my children, or my students, to look up to this version of heroism.

If you ask me, Columbus Day should be voided from the Federal Holiday calendar. Instead, perhaps we should institute an “Indigenous People’s Day” or a “Native American Day” to celebrate the true discovers of this continent. Columbus was an arrogant asshole, a murderous bigot, the cause of history’s largest and longest genocide. Who the hell wants to celebrate that?

Works cited:

Gunn Allen, Paula. “Angry Women are Building” in Reconstructing Gender. Ed. Estelle Disch. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006) 63-67.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).

For further reading:

Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminism in American Indian Traditions.

Jaimes, M. Annette. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance.

La Duke, Winona. The Winona la Duke Reader.

Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.

 

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What if Twilight’s Representation of Inigenous People Matters?

The following post  is an abridged version of a talk I delivered at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Denver on November 12, 2010. The title comes from Judith Butler’s use of the word “matters” (from her book Bodies that Matter). In her theorizing, Butler emphasizes that we need to analyze what and who is constructed as “mattering” and that the issue of who “matters” is shaped by dominant ideologies and norms. At NWSA, some participants felt that the following analysis didn’t “matter” and that analysis of Twilight and the surrounding cultural phenomenon is not worthy of feminist attention. To those who disagree and see the importance of such analysis, thank you. To those who wish to police the boundaries of feminism and women’s studies, I encourage reflection on how such a move goes against the very tenets of the discipline and the movement.

*

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga romanticizes white privilege and the continuing rule of whites over “the Other” – which, in Twilight’s case, is the Quileute. Further, while the series has been complimented for depicting Native Americans in the modern day rather than in some mythic past, the saga nevertheless ignores present realities and injustices

Read as a racial allegory, a white, working class woman chooses between an ultra-white, ultra-privileged vampire and a far less privileged wolf of color.
The franchising of the phenomenon has capitalized on the Native American angle in a way that is culturally and morally dubious, much like the way we might question Meyer’s inclusion of Quileute legend for her own purposes – an inclusion that was done without extensive research or scholarly inquiry, let alone (it seems) with permission from the Quileute people.

We can thus read the story of Twilight as grounded in older tales of conquest and imperialism – and in the tradition of white authors appropriating native stories and voices – though instead of the whites and Native Americans that populated the Western films that re-enacted this conquest, we now have vampires and werewolves vying over land as well as women.

Yet, if we examine Twilight in relation to the decimation of indigenous people, and with an awareness of how Christianity generally and Mormonism more specifically are related to larger colonial and missionary projects, it is no stretch to see that to ignore race in the saga is a glaring omission.

This history cannot be ignored if one is to offer a full analysis of Twilight and the cultural work it is doing. Literature historically played a huge role in the framing of Native Americans as uncivilized and savage. Meyer’s texts carry on this project.

The saga’s failure to re-work damaging representations of indigenous peoples places it within a long line of white-penned narratives that variously appropriate and/or misrepresent Native culture and legend.

As noted in the introduction to Ward Churchill’s Fantasies of the Master Race, “Literature crafted by a dominating culture can be an insidious political force, disinforming people who might otherwise develop a clearer understanding of the struggles for survival faced by an indigenous population.”

The texts indeed “disinform” people about the Quileute, leading them to believe on the one hand that their legends include werewolves and, on the other, rendering the indigenous struggle for survival invisible.

Twilight produces a modern myth that equates whiteness with goodness and frames indigenous people as less evolved beasts. It thus allies with Ward Churchill’s claim that “literature in America is and always has been part and parcel of the colonial process”.

While Meyer explains her inclusion of the Quileute as coming about due to her visit to Forks and discovery of their legends, it cannot be denied that representing a real indigenous people as wolves is in accordance with a colonialist viewpoint.

Meyer readily admits that she had concerns about her depiction of the Quileute. When asked by a fan if she had “any negative recourse for the fictional portrayal of their tribal members as werewolves?”, Meyer answered:

I was pretty worried about this myself. However, to this point I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from Native Americans, both Quileute and otherwise. I actually got a letter on MySpace from a girl who is the daughter of one of the council members… and she loved the werewolf thing.

Here, Meyer’s comments reveal that she had some sense she was taking liberty with another culture’s legends and history.

Further, by obliquely referring to positive feedback about her focus on ethnicity, she averts the question of portraying tribal members AS werewolves.

In another question and answer session, when asked why she chose certain settings, Meyer shared “I was nervous about what the real life citizens of Forks would think, and more especially what the real life people of La Push would think—I’d taken some rather big liberties with their fictional history, and I wasn’t sure if they would find it amusing or irritating.”

Again, Meyer reveals an awareness that her “liberties” might be taken as an affront. What she does not seem aware of though, is how said liberties build upon a history of appropriation in the name of white, colonial interests.

Whether or not Meyer is intentionally writing from such a colonial view is not the point, – more pertinent is that her socio-historical positioning cannot help but shape her depiction of Native culture.

Or, as Sherman Alexie argues, “when non-Indians write about us, it’s colonial literature. And unless it’s seen that way, there’s a problem.”

As far as my research reveals, Meyer did not correspond with any Quileute peoples nor seek out the Tribal Council to enquire whether it was okay to depict their legends in the series, let alone to determine whether her Google research was correct.

In contrast, she did reach out to the owners of Bella Italia restaurant in Port Angeles to find out if it was okay for her to feature the restaurant in a scene. So, she got permission to write about mushroom ravioli but not an entire people (as revealed in the Twilight in Forks DVD).

Instead, Meyer read about the Quileute on the internet, just as Bella does in the series. Meyer freely admits this when discussing how she decided on the Forks setting and the inclusion of the Quileute, noting “I turned to Google, as I do for all my research needs.”

A modern James Fenimore Cooper, Meyer carries on a long tradition of white authors who know little to nothing of indigenous peoples but nevertheless feel entitled to write about their cultures.

Further, Meyer carries on the tradition of using indigenous characters for “backdrop” and  “color” and raises no real criticisms of the colonial project or current racial inequalities.

Like Westerns, which rarely show the real diversity of Native Americans, Twilight presents the Quileute people as “russet-colored” outsiders who are romanticized as noble, exotic, and mysterious on the one hand, and dehumanized as beastly, childlike, and sexually violent on the other.

Historically, this construction resulted in native peoples being viewed quite literally as animals. In an example documented by Andrea Smith,  a California newspaper reported in 1853, “We can never rest in security until the redskins are treated like the other wild beasts of the forest.”
This line could fit quite well within Twilight with the white privileged vampires unable to rest until the “russet colored” wolves, and Jacob in particular, are “civilized.”

In the final book of the series, this colonization of the wolf is promoted when the Cullens introduce “culture” to Jacob. Sleeping and eating outside at first, in various states of undress, J is gradually “civilized” and moves inside the Cullen house, or into the white world.

While Meyer’s texts themselves largely ally with the white construction of “the Indian,” the casting choice of Lautner also falls in line with a long history of non-native actors being cast to play indigenous parts.

However, after the ruckus over Lautner’s casting, Native actors were cast to play various roles for the second film, though none of them are Quileute. Alex Meraz, who plays Paul, was mindful of the weightiness of his casting, sharing

In essence, even though we’re taking some of their mythology, their creation story and it’s mixed in a fantasy, still we’re taking from the culture. Being Native, we needed to be conscious of that and ask permission to the people of the past, present and of the future … Native Americans…have a right to be protective of their stories.

Putting a rather positive spin on the saga’s depiction of the Quileute, Meraz further explains:

I think it’s time for us to kind of rewrite what Hollywood’s take on Native Americans was, which was long hair blowing, noble kind of people, leather and feather period pieces. So now you see something in a contemporary setting, and you see us to be humans. It’s great.

While it’s true the saga avoids the usual tendency to depict Natives as only living in (or stuck in) the past, Meraz’s claim that the saga shows them as humans glosses over the fact that the texts (and the film adaptations) focus on the wolf identity of the Quileute – on their animality more than their humanity.

Moreover, not only does Twilight frame America as the new frontier for vampires (with Forks being the Western resting place of these good pioneers), it constructs La Push (and non-white society) as “outside,” Other, and poverty-stricken.

Meyer’s depiction of a “treaty” between the Cullen vampires and the Quileute wolves also problematically echoes earlier historical treaties between Native Americans and the Federal Government.  However, Meyer’s fictional treaty differs dramatically from the real life Treaty of Olympia, signed between the Quileute nation and the US in 1856. While the historical treaty resulted in the loss of Quileute land and sovereignty, the treaty in Twilight offers a relatively peaceful means of co-existence.

Meanwhile, for the real Quileute people of La Push, land issues remain a concern and boundary disputes with Washington State continue.  For them, the “treaty line” signs that have been put up on the road that leads from Forks to La Push likely have a much different significance than for the fans who regularly pose by the signs, taking home photo shots that celebrate the fictionalization of a real people and once again render indigenous culture tourism fodder.

To conclude, though the stereotypical depiction of Quileute as noble-savages morphed into werewolves can be brushed off via the claim this the series is meant to be a fantasy, we cannot pretend that such depictions do not contribute to dominant notions of race shaping US culture.

The fact that the series depicts a real group of indigenous people, one that, like most indigenous groups, has been decimated by colonization, torn apart by practices such as Indian Boarding Schools, and forced to assimilate into white culture and belief systems, is problematic. The series does not touch on such history let alone address the lasting legacy of colonialism.

Thanks to Twilight, we can “celebrate” images of Indigenous people as violent beasties for generations to come…

(Cross-posted here at Monstrous Musings, my guest column at Womanist Musings, and here, at Seduced by Twilight)

A good friend of mine sent me two emails recently – one complaining that in her graduate psychology classes, the scenarios she is given to analyze often are rife with racial stereotypes. Here is the example she sent:

“A couple comes to your office seeking advice on how to best support each other as they deal with transitions in their family. The husband, Brian, is a 27-year-old Caucasian in the US Army who returned six months ago from his second (and, he has been told, final) tour of duty in Iraq. His wife Jamie is 24 and has been drinking heavily since Brian’s first deployment; since his return, she has continued regular binge drinking. She expresses concern over this because her father is Native American, and there is a history of alcoholism in their family.”
My friend’s commentary to this “scenario” noted “I love the way the person that is an alcoholic is Native and so was her father-because ya know all Native Americans are alcoholics and should be reminded of that over fucking over again and we better not let that stereotype fade in everyone else’s eyes…WTF?!?”

In her second email, which may not at first glance seemed related,  she sent the me a link to a July 2010 article from RezNetNews, a site dedicated to “reporting from Native America.” The article, annotated with commentary below, argues that the depiction of the Quileute in Meyer’s Twilight saga is a cultural boon. Yet, it FAILS to consider the furthering of stereotypical representations of indigenous people the saga enacts let alone to note issues of cultural appropriation and commodification. As it is coming from a Native American news source, I found this particularly surprising.

I know I have written about this topic before, but it is one that I feel does not get near enough attention – the representation of the Quileute people is not a “boon” if you ask me, but yet another act of exploitation that furthers negative perceptions of indigenous people while also profiting from them AND altering their history…

Like the psychology scenario above, Native Peoples in Twilight “have issues” – they are abusive and violent and poor – yet none of these aspects are explored from a socio-historical context that considers WHY Native peoples have such high rates of poverty, alcoholism, violence, and suicide. A hint, it ain’t because they are more animal than human as Meyer’s saga (and so many, many Western films) suggest….

Here is the RezNet article, my commentary is in all caps…

Northwest Tribe Revels in ‘Twilight’ Spotlight

July 5, 2010

By Manuel Valdes of the Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) — The leader of the Quileute Nation in northwest Washington first began hearing her tribe had a role in the popular “Twilight Saga” from fans clamoring to know more about the place where a vampire tale of teenage love unfolds.

Some fans sent e-mails. The most dedicated among them made trips to the remote reservation that is home to the series’ heartthrob werewolf Jacob Black. NOTICE THE CONFLATION OF HISTORY AND FICTION HERE – JACOB BLACK IS NOT A REAL PERSON – THIS PROBLEMATIC CONFLATION HAS DOGGED (NO PUN INTENDED) INDIGENOUS PEOPLE FOR YEARS, LEADING TO MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THEIR HISTORY, CULTURES, AND HERITAGE

“The interest in our tribe was a surprise, a good surprise,” tribal Chairwoman Anna Rose Counsell-Geyer said. “I thought to myself, people are going to actually get to know the Quileute and we are going to be recognized as a people. The real Quileute.” I THINK YOU MEAN RECOGNIZED AS WOLVES (WITHOUT SHIRTS) NOT “AS PEOPLE”

That was a couple of years ago. With “Eclipse,” the series’ third movie in theaters now, the 750-member Quileute Nation is reveling in the “Twilight” spotlight, attempting to capitalize on the blockbuster’s massive financial pull and welcoming new interest in the tribe’s culture. NOTE HOW THERE IS NO MENTION OF WHY THE NATION ONLY HAS SOME 750 SURVIVING MEMBERS. CULTURAL GENOCIDE, ANYONE?!?

At their Oceanside Resort, the tribe is opening a cabin decorated in a wolf theme, a shout out to Jacob and the Quileute’s own origin story, which begins with a transformation from wolves to people. NOTE THERE IS NO ANALYSIS OF THE COMMODIFICATION OF A TRADITIONALLY NON-CAPITALIST CULTURE.

At a Quileute store in the reservation town of La Push, handmade beanie hats with “Jacob” stitched on them sell for nearly $35. There’s also a “Jacob’s Java” espresso stand. YES, I BELIEVE THE QUILEUTE PEOPLE INVENTED THE DOUBLE WOLF LATTE

“This is historical. This is going to be imprinted on people’s lives for generations to come,” Counsell-Geyer said. IMPRINTED? IMPRINTED? DOES THAT WORD CHOICE INDICATE THE TRIBAL CHAIRWOMAN IS A-OK WITH THE IMPRINTING THEME IN THE SAGA WHERE THE QUILEUTE ARE YOUR BASIC CREEPY POLYGAMOUS PEDOPHILE TYPES? WHAT A MESSAGE FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS…

Central to the “Twilight Saga” is a love triangle among human teenager Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner). YEAH, AND SHE CHOOSES THE RICH WHITE VAMPIRE, NOT THE WOLF OF COLOR MECHANIC…

The Quileute’s homeland — the place where they have lived and hunted for centuries &$151; serves as the backdrop to author Stephenie Meyer’s saga, with the stunning imagery of rocks and cliffs rising along the Pacific Ocean. NOTE THERE IS NO MENTION OF THE COLONIALISM THAT PUSHED THE QUILEUTES ONTO THE RESERVATION NOR OF THE MANY TREATIES THAT DISENFRANCHISED THEM.

Four hours west of Seattle, the Quileute reservation is on the far and remote side of the rain-soaked Olympic Peninsula. The reservation’s boundaries are confined within a square mile. CONFINED TO A SQUARE MILE? GEE, I WONDER WHY…

In the movies and books, the tribe’s folklore is meshed into the role of the Wolf Pack, a group of young Quileute men who shapeshift into wolves. Jacob and other Wolf Pack members guard the reservation from vampires.

For Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker, the key aspect of the Twilight series is that it shows Native Americans in a contemporary light. AND A SHIRTLESS ONE! NOTE THE FAILURE TO MENTION THE RAMPANT SEXUALIZATION OF THE “WOLF PACK”

Eyre directed the well-received 1998 film “Smoke Signals,” which focused on a coming of age story of two teenagers living on the Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho.

Like “Smoke Signals,” the “Twilight Saga” marks a departure from Hollywood’s long tradition of portraying Native Americans as a people from the past. DON’T THINK DEPARTURE IS THE RIGHT WORD…

In the saga’s second chapter, “New Moon,” Jacob talks about going to school on the reservation and rides motorcycles. YEAH, WHILE EDWARD HAS MULTIPLE DEGREES, MEGA MONEY, AND SPARKLES LIKE A F***ING WHITE DIAMOND…

In “Eclipse,” Jacob’s friends emerge from a small house in their opening scene shirtless and wearing shorts – a now-signature look for the Wolf Pack. They laugh and tease Jacob about his crush on Bella. HELLO – ANALYSIS OF THIS “SIGNATURE LOOK”?

“I think as long as the werewolves aren’t wearing loincloths, it is a good step forward,” Eyre said from Los Angeles, where he is finishing an episode of the NBC show “Friday Night Lights.” YES, THIS IS WHAT WE CALL PROGRESS IN OUR “POST-RACIAL” SOCIETY.

“It’s so important to have Native people in contemporary roles … that’s where I think we’re lacking. We want to see Native people in 2010. I think we’re tired of seeing Native people in 1860,” he said. TRUE – AND HOW ABOUT SEEING NATIVE PEOPLE NOT PORTRAYED AS ANIMALS?

When the first movie was filming in Oregon, a group of tribal members visited the set and met with Lautner, who interviewed them.

“One thing they do that I noticed is they don’t need to be told to what to do. If the trash is getting full, they empty it out. They’re always helping each other. They’re always there for each other. So I just want to make sure I can bring that part of Jacob alive,” Lautner told MTV in 2008. WTF? NATIVE PEOPLE ARE GOOD WITH TRASH? WAY TO DUMB DOWN THE TRADIAIONALLY NON-PATRIARCHAL, COMMUNAL CULTURAL MODELS!

In that interview, Lautner said he was part Native American. YEAH, AND I AM PART CHEETAH.

To top it off, several members of the Quileute nation attended the movie’s premiere in Los Angeles last week, said Jackie Jacobs, the tribe’s spokeswoman for all things Twilight. Some also attended the premiere of “New Moon.”

“This is going to be imprinted on people’s lives for generations to come,” Chairwoman Counsell-Geyer said. YES, WHAT A THING TO CELEBRATE, NOW “GENERATIONS TO COME” CAN VIEW THE QUILEUTE PEOPLE AS HALF ANIMALS PRONE TO VIOLENCE (ESPECIALLY AGAINST WOMEN) WHO “IMPRINT” ON THE TODDLER SET. WAHOO!

What if that Pebble Becomes a Boulder?: Racism and Sexism on Campus and in Everyday Life

The theme of one of the common complaints I often get from students in my women’s studies classes is “feminism is so depressing.” Students, young and fresh-faced, though eager to dissect and critique the world around them, also seem to yearn to look through the world through rose-colored glasses. They generally dive into analyzing privilege and oppression historically, happy to give examples of the injustices our world has doled out for centuries. However, when asked to hold up a mirror to their contemporary moment, they often like to focus on the positive changes, suggesting that somehow all the rumors of a “post-racial” and “post-feminist” society are true. It is partially my job to place large cracks in such a rosey-eyed view, revealing that, yes, racism, sexism, homophobia and all those other ugly –isms are still going strong.

On the campus where I teach, this was in shocking evidence today on, of all places, a bathroom wall. The picture above, sent to me by a student, was taken last night in one of the main campus buildings. Placed there on the eve of the statewide day of action defending education budgets, it is surely a modern-day exhortation to “keep your mouth shut,” a threat to those of us on the side of history that seek to progress society towards justice rather than conserve the longstanding privileges that the maker of this sign unabashedly seeks to maintain. (And don’t you just love how there is a heart above the ‘i’ on this message?!?)

While I had planned to post something upbeat today about my daughter turning eleven this week, detailing positive changes in culture compared to when I turned eleven in 1982, my own rosey-eyed view of feminist accomplishments has suffered a brutal beating in the past few days. Locally, just in this past week, there has been news of a high school senior sexually assaulted and murdered, there has been a spate of racist attacks at local college campuses (with the picture above only one of many incidents), there was, just yesterday, another young woman attacked by two men at a local park.

On a more personal level, I was told by my son’s principal that a teacher’s P.E. commentary, consisting of “you throw like a girl” and “don’t use the girly weights” are meant to be “humorous.” “She is a very strong woman,” he assured me, “a role model.” On the one hand, I am proud my thirteen-year-old son sees the sexism his principal fails to, on the other hand, I am deeply disturbed that such sexism is still passed off as “just a joke” and excused by claims that it’s ok because she is a “strong woman.”

To top it off, I have somehow received a plethora of emails of late that either assume I am a man (due to the “Dr.” title I imagine) or that address me as “Mrs. So and So.” This last annoyance is so slight in comparison to all the other horrors of this week, yet it somehow rankles me– it seems, in short, like a virtual but constant reminder, knocking at my in-box, reminding me “keep your mouth shut…you are only a woman…who are you to try and change the world?”  This “little thing” reminds me of Jewelle Gomez’s realization that “Sexism could be like a pebble that needs to be removed from a shoe; a tiny thing that throws off a woman’s gait, causing her to limp, sometimes unconsciously, to avoid pain every day.”

This week, it seems it is not only pebbles, but huge boulders, and I am indeed limping from the resounding evidence that no, we are not living in a post-racial, post-feminist society. However, despite those who wish to “get rid of” people like us, the people who want to change the world for the better, I will keep limping along, teaching my “depressing feminism” and endeavoring to remove pebbles and boulders out of the path of those who march towards justice.

What if…? Short Takes 1/21/10

1. As detailed by Cynthia McKinnery here, what is happening in Haiti will likely promote justification for turning increasing US militarization of Haiti (a trend with precedent, as noted at HaitiAction here). She reports that the US military, with echoes of Katrina, have turned away planes trying to deliver humanitarian assistance from “CARICOM, the Caribbean Community, Médecins Sans Frontieres, Brazil, France, Italy, and even the U.S. Red Cross.” As she warns,“All of us must have our eyes wide open on Haiti and other parts of the world now dripping in blood as a result of the relentless onward march of the U.S. military machine.”

2. In more great writing on Haiti, Renee of Womanist Musings examines the phenomenon of “the people of Haiti continually being referred to as looters.” As she writes, “The idea that these people are looters is ridiculous when you consider that Western nations have had no problem stealing from them for centuries.” In another echo of Katrina, this language frames people of color as “looters” and fortifies the positioning of white westerners as the saviors, or, as the infamous copy from below maintains, as the “finders.” Kind of like how white people “found” all the land the now occupy as theirs…

3. In more Haiti news, the wonderful Naomi Klein shares how the Haiti disaster is only partly natural, detailing how the entrenched poverty in Haiti is far from natural and how corporate capitalism has played a big part in impoverishing this and other nations. Check out the clip here.

4. One of my favorite blogs, Shakesville, posts thought provoking quotes of the day regularly. Check out this one:

Guided by our values, we endeavor to have our products used wherever precision aiming solutions are required to protect individual freedom.”—From the website of Trijicon, a gun sight manufacturer with “a $660 million multi-year contract to provide up to 800,000 sights to the Marine Corps, and additional contracts to provide sights to the U.S. Army,” which inscribes “coded references to New Testament Bible passages about Jesus Christ” on its rifle sights.

Wow, quoting Jesus on rifles? What a concept!

What if your white voice can(t?) help? (Ruminations on The Help, by Kathryn Stockett)

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, has not escaped controversy of the “can a white person write about black experience” variety.  This “who can write what” question has plagued literary study as well as the popular imagination for a long time. I remember all the talk regarding the white female professor who specialized in African-American literature when I was doing my M.A.

As suggested here, I think it’s absurd to suggest writers can only write about their own experiences or from the point of their own social positioning. However, all this is complicated by the fact that white voices (especially white male voices) have been privileged in literary (and other) worlds. We must be wary that our privileged voices don’t drown out or silence those also trying to speak.

In the case of Stockett’s novel, I found it to be a beautifully written, page-turning narrative that, at its core, intends to break down the privilege/oppression web. Yes, she is a white woman, but does this mean she cannot write fiction aimed at eradicating racism and employ black characters to do so?

She has been criticized for the dialects she uses for some of her black characters. For example, Erin Aubry Kaplan, “Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?” While the “linguistic quirks” of white characters didn’t play a huge role in the narrative, I felt the novel portrayed a number of “white quirks” that revealed how whiteness is constructed and maintained not only via language, but via dress codes, social activities, schooling, and storytelling.

This last one – storytelling – was one strand of the novel that I fell in love with, and that is particularly pertinent on this three-day  Martin Luther King, Jr weekend.  Aibileen, one of two black female protagonists who voices the narrative (the third narrator is a white female), tells stories to Mae Mobley in hopes she can inoculate this little white girl from growing up racist. As “She just loves hearing about peoples from outer space,” Aibileen tells her about he day “Martian Luther King” came to Earth and even though he “Looked like us, nose, mouth, hair up on his head” people treated him differently “Cause he was green” (296).

This story within a story speaks volumes about the intent at the heart of The Help – yes, it’s by a white woman, but can white women not use their voices to try and dismantle privilege and eradicate racism? As a white woman myself, I understand that how and when to speak/write is a very complicated matter – that just because one CAN speak/write, doesn’t always mean one should – that having a privileged voice can make it hard to quell the impetus to speak in order to make space for Othered voices. (And, as an opinionated POWP, I find it hard to keep my damn mouth shut!)

I hope, just once in awhile, I might say or write something that helps to eradicate injustice – I hope that I might be of help in the way I see Stockett’s novel helping the actively anti-racist cause.

What if…? Short Takes 1/14/10

  1. Want to help the people of Haiti? The SOA Watch website, an organization dedicated to closing the School of the Americas,* has donation options listed, as does The F Word. I am wary of the Red Cross after all the 9/11 and Katrina rumors about their corrupt and discriminatory practices. You may want to avoid having your donation dollars go toward credit card company profits though, as HuffPo warns of here. Also, for a good article on why women and children will be disproportionately affected by the disaster, see Tracy Clark Flory’s article here.
  1. Post-racial society my ass! For scary coverate of the rise of white power groups in the US, see “White Power USA: The Rise of Right-Wing Militias in America.”
  1. Sick of hearing about the “mancession” when you only make 73 to 78 cents to the dollar for every man or when being female results in chronic under and un-employment? For a good take on why the term “Mancession” is inaccurate go here.
  1. Check out the intro post for my new guest column at Womanist Musings, “Monstrous Musings.” Posts on all things monstrous will come out every other Thursday.

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*The SOA, as the SOA Watch website explains, the School of the Americans “is a U.S. Army training school that trains soldiers and military personnel from Latin American countries in subjects like counter-insurgency, military intelligence and counter-narcotics operations. Under Department of Defense jurisdiction, this school is funded by U.S. taxpayer money.”