Randy Ribay’s AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES and YA Participation in Rape Culture

From the moment I heard about it, I was excited to read Randy Ribay’s An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes. Nerd stuff? Check. Gay stuff? Check. Filipino author writing characters of color? Oh yeah. It’s been promoted at places like We Need Diverse Books and The Pirate Tree as an excellent example of what needs to be happening in YA literature.

There was much that I liked about it, too. The writing is poetic and urgent, the characters are complex and richly developed, and the road trip that the four protagonists take is an excellent coming-of-age journey.

The story follows four friends whose friendship is no deeper than playing Dungeons and Dragons once a week at the home of Mari, a biracial, adopted girl reeling from some difficult news. There’s also Archie, a white guy whose father recently came out as gay; Dante, a Black teen who’s struggling with his own coming out; and Sam, a young Filipino man recently dumped by his longtime girlfriend. The four set out on a cross-country trip to try to catch up with Sam’s girlfriend and possibly win her back, in the process deepening their friendship. I was thoroughly enjoying the book.

Until they reached Minnesota.

Trigger warning: sexual harassment/assault

Along the way, they make a stop at a home in Minnesota, recommended by a hitchhiker they picked up as a safe place. Upon arriving, the place most definitely does not seem very safe. They come upon “four men reclining in lawn chairs around a bonfire, drinking from red plastic cups” (163). Soon after inquiring with the name they were given, they’re told they don’t know anyone by either the hitchhiker’s or the supposed homeowner’s name—and that they’re trespassing. Then things get real disturbing:

[Archie] starts to back up but then bumps into someone. He turns around and comes face to face with the other two guys who, having left their places at the fire, must have circled around and snuck up behind them. One is skinny and short, grinning to reveal gleaming, white teeth. The other is fat and unsmiling.

The bearded guy takes a puff from his pipe, still seated at the fire. “They have to pay the price.”

“Fuck you,” Sam says. He moves to walk away, but the fat guy blocks his path. Sam stares him down but thinks better of it and rejoins his friends.

“As we were saying,” says the skinny guy, still smirking. “The price.”

“What is it?” Archie asks. “We don’t have much money.”

The skinny guy looks over at the bearded guy who nods.

“Her,” the skinny guy says, tilting his chin toward Mari. (164).

Mari then stands up for herself, prompting the “bearded guy” to get up, stand creepily close to Mari, and sniff her hair. Archie says, “Don’t even think about touching her,” to which the “skinny guy” replies, “Too late” (165).

The tone here is one that implies sexual assault, at least very plainly to me. Mari is threatened, seriously, with rape. Until the men start laughing, shrugging off the whole scene with a “We’re just fucking with you.”

It turns out, the four men are actually two gay couples, they definitely know Sunshine (the hitchhiker), and they’re happy to have the four friends stay for the evening.

As I read this scene, I was literally shaking—first with fear for what was going to happen to Mari, and then abruptly with rage at the sheer awfulness of four gay men making such terrible, ominous threats as a “joke.” I had to set the book aside and take a few breaths before being able to continue. And then, the tone shifts at breakneck speed into a happy-go-lucky party.

There is no recognition of the horror of this scene. Once it’s over, the four road-tripping friends happily mingle with the four gay guys, swimming late into the night, drinking, and crashing until they can continue the next morning. Not a word is said about how terrifying and terrible the way the groups were introduced was. The “rape joke” is shrugged off and glossed over completely, even by Mari. It’s completely ignored. No one says “sorry,” or, “That wasn’t okay,” or “Are you okay, Mari?” or even “Hey, that was a dick move.”

Look, I’m no naïf. I know that men—especially young men—make jokes like this all the time. This is why we have developed the concept of rape culture: it’s pervasive. Sexual assault is everywhere, and it’s considered “normal.” You can shrug my anger off by saying, “it’s realistic.” Sure. But a book that is being marketed and applauded as a remarkable example of diversity—and particularly, intersectionality—can’t ignore the fact that it’s so completely steeped in patriarchy that horrifying references to sexual assault are reduced to being unworthy of conversation.

It’s not like Ribay doesn’t recognize that harmful content shouldn’t go unaddressed in his book, either. At one point, Archie calls Dante a “fag,” and Mari calls him on it. Archie is made to apologize. Look, slurs are terrible, but honestly, “joking” about raping someone is worse. Yet, the former is the one that needs to be addressed in Ribay’s book; the latter is conveniently glossed over.

Mari is a biracial, Black woman. She is literally the kind of woman Kimberlé Crenshaw had in mind when she developed the idea of intersectionality. And for all of its buzzword-y appeal in this moment, Crenshaw calls us to remember that the intersection of race and gender oppression is a very dangerous place to stand. The audacity of four (presumably White) gay men making such demeaning and scary advances on a woman of color without a word is something that I’m unwilling to let go unaddressed. In particular, I want to point out something that many other people have pointed out before me (here’s the Crunk Feminist Collective on a situation that deals with similar themes—the Azealia Banks/Perez Hilton brouhaha): gay men don’t get a pass on sexism. Again, for the people in the back: GAY. MEN. DON’T. GET. A. PASS. ON. SEXISM.

And yet, that’s exactly what’s happening here. The four gay men get to presume access to Mari’s body in order to make a joke, and when they’re done, it’s like it never happened. Their world gets back to normal. Ribay writes a biracial girl without thinking about the concerns that a biracial girl might have after having thought that she was in a dangerous situation. I can’t imagine that a biracial girl like Mari, after having been in this situation, would have actually been okay with staying with these men for the rest of the night. It’s almost as though any of Mari’s reactions don’t matter.

I think this book participates in the sexism of the YA in a particularly terrible way. It’s not exactly a new realization that YA exists in the patriarchy, and patriarchy exists in YA. Please see Justine Larbalestier on awards, Kelly Jensen on honoring girls’ stories, and Tessa Gratton on the Andrew Smith debacle for just a tiny introduction to this pervasive problem.

Honestly, I found the whole book kind of sugarcoated in male privilege. Archie is pretty much an asshole throughout the entire book, especially toward women, and he’s rewarded for it. Also, their journey is about Sam trying to get back with a girl who’s made it very clear that she’s no longer interested, ending with the realization that (spoiler!) he was actually the good one in the relationship. The sexual harassment of Mari in Minnesota is merely the most egregious example.

I’m not going to say that’s it’s not okay to like this book. Rachael at the Social Justice League has offered advice on how to be a fan of problematic things, if you have a different interpretation or reaction to this scene. What I am very concerned about is the fact that I have not seen any reaction to this scene, anywhere. Ribay’s book has been been hailed as the next big thing in LGBTQ and racially diverse fiction. (And it really does make important contributions there!) But it has serious problems with unproblematically assuming rape culture as a given. And for that, I can’t see myself recommending it as a “diverse book.”

You don’t get to write a diverse book as though biracial girls don’t matter. You don’t get to write a diverse book and have it participate in rape culture.

Spoiler ahead in next paragraph.

Also, there’s something a bit uncomfortable about men with wives writing books with gay characters that end with a gay-bashing (*cough* Andrew Smith *cough*), but I’ll just leave that there.

“I think that if we can’t go back, then we should try even harder to go forward”

I am stunned at the news that Walter Dean Myers has passed.

Walter Dean Myers changed the shape of young adult literature. He was the first winner of the Printz Award and won the Coretta Scott King Medal five times.

Walter Dean Myers changed the shape of Black children’s and young adult literature. His work was groundbreaking in so many ways, giving young people portraits that reflected their lives.

As a friend on Twitter said, “We are all better librarians because we have the pleasure and honor of being able to hand Walter Dean Myers books to our patrons.”

There are kids whose lives will be affected that we will not get to see the 15 or so books Myers thought he still had in him when I met him last year. There are kids whose lives will be affected by the fact that they will not hear Myers—someone who looks like them and who has lived a life like theirs—say that “reading is not optional.” That is an incomparable loss.

Mr. Myers was one of the most gracious men I have ever met. One of the most widely known names in YA literature had nothing but kind words when I picked him up from the local high school, walked him across the street to my apartment building, and shuttled him across town in my old Honda Civic to the Juvenile Detention Center. To know that his kind of graciousness is not in the world is an inconceivable blow.

As Phil Bildner has pointed out, there is a cruel irony in the fact that Mr. Myers passed on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act’s passage.

Mr. Myers charged us not long before his passing with work to be done. Let us do that work.

Rest in power, Mr. Myers.

When Racism is a University Tradition: An Open Letter to the UIUC Community

This is a conversation I really didn’t want to be having. I didn’t think I would have to still be having this conversation. But, we must. Some friends and I (primarily driven by Suey Park) collaboratively worked on this open letter to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign community. If you’re an alum and want in on the signature: tweet, FB, email, or comment. I’ll update periodically. I am happy to add signatures, but will not do so without an explicit statement directed to me stating so. I want to respect people’s autonomy and privacy in this as well.

Dear University of Illinois,

In 6 years, much can be accomplished. Lincoln Hall and the ARC have been renovated, the SDRP has been built, the basketball team has finally beat Indiana, and many of us have walked across stage with a bachelor’s degree. Apparently, though, 6 years has not been enough time to remedy the school’s history of exclusion and cultural appropriation.

Having graduated from the University of Illinois, we are shocked to hear The News-Gazette report that students get to the vote to uphold racism on March 5-6, 2013. Are we really allowing this in the year 2013? This so-called “democratic” system the Student Senate and University uses is incredibly flawed if we point out this whole argument is about protecting underrepresented students, underrepresented meaning “not an adequate amount,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. The annual School Report shows there are currently only 25 undergraduate students, 14 graduate students, and 2 staff members identifying as Native American on campus. Do we really think this is a fair vote? The results of this ballot will only give Chief supporters a tangible way to prove how massive and in the majority they really are. Allowing students to vote “yes” or “no” on an issue as complex as the Chief does not simply allow each student to have his or her own opinion but rather gives majority students the choice to have power over underrepresented students. Or, should we say, continues to allow students to have power over underrepresented students.

The Student Senate and this campus’s administration usually do not take a side when it comes to the Chief; it is out of privilege that neither is forced to take a side. Many students who fight against the Chief do so for survival. We do it because we hope to make the university a more inclusive space for those who come after us. Silence or neutrality chooses the side of the oppressor. More than the expected jeers and sneers from the pro-Chief fans, we will remember your silence. This silence is something commonplace in many atrocious events in this nation’s history. In a space where Chief-fanaticism exists, the silence of the administration not only allows for the growth of this fanaticism, but legitimizes it. The university has had 6 years to educate students on this issues instead of hoping it would die out. Instead, their silence has left students to fight for themselves and amongst themselves.

Less than 100 years ago–in 1916–the Ku Klux Klan was an honorary student organization at the University of Illinois. Since then, the university has continually been a site of racist incidents. To ignore our school’s racist history is not to understand fully the Chief debate. Although we have since then “welcomed” students of color to attend our university, recruitment and retention of students of color is still less than ideal.

Stephanie Fryburg and her colleagues at the University of Arizona, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan have done multiple psychological studies on the effects of mainstream characterizations of Native imagery on Native students’ self-efficacy and academic well-being. In an article published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Fryburg and her colleagues found that exposure to Native imagery, including images like Chief Illiniwek and Disney’s Pocahontas, had a pronounced negative impact on Native students’ well-being, while the same imagery actually boosted White students’ self-efficacy. Not only does imagery like Chief Illiniwek not properly “honor” Native peoples, it is actively discriminatory in this way when propagated on a college campus. We have seen countless incidents of cultural misappropriation protected as humor or tradition. From the infamous “Tacos and Tequilas” party to commonplace games of “cowboys and Indians,” it becomes evident that not enough has changed. Perhaps we can argue that modern day racism is all in good “humor,” but only one year ago Prof. Dharmapala was stabbed 6-inches into the throat as a result of racist ideology on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Such shocking incidents make us reasonably question the neutrality of such “humor.”

Other times, racism is upheld not as “humor” but as “tradition”. Is it of any surprise that 2nd and 3rd generation Chief supporters feel entitled to this mascot, along with other societal advantages? It shouldn’t be, since it is conceivable that these student’s ancestors contributed to pushing Native Americans onto reservations and stripping them of their rights, land, and dignity to begin with. Even those Chief supporters who do not have such connections benefit from a tradition of excavating, destroying, and abusing Native land and culture; nor have they faced the very real and potent difficulties that shape the lives of Native peoples living in this country today. Now our generation fights over the symbol that still remains a reminder of “tradition” to some and of death to others.

Let’s start calling it as it is. The real, choice students will be making on March 5-6th is not simply choosing the Chief or a new mascot. It is choosing whether or not to go backwards and reinstall a racist mascot or choosing to move forward toward new traditions. We can find a mascot that can represent all of us. We can find other things to fight for.

The Undersigned Embarrassed Alumni

Thaddeus Andracki
Suey Park
Katie O’Brien
Maja Seitz
Andrea Herrera Orrala
Kate Higgs
Kaytlin Reedy-Rogier, class of 2010
Melorie Masacupan
Patsy Diaz
HoChie Tsai
Stephanie Anne Ladrera Camba
Erin Andriamahefa
Kimberly Oco
Maria Koularmanis
Shikhank Sharma
Gabriel Machabanski
Nicholas Wood
Meghan Bohardt
Xavier Diaz
Kathlyn Oco
Ariann Sahagún
Jessica Nicholas
John-Ben Soileau
Benjamin Barnes
Erica Manzo
Xanat Sobrevilla
Emma Murdoch
Rae-Anne Montague
Matthew Knight
Pryscilla Bolander
Marina Sivilay
Shola Rufay
Tiffany D. Johnson
Sarah Rowe
Margaret Olson
Gwendolyn Wydra
Sarah Park Dahlen
Marcela Reyes
Peter Odell Campbell
Liz Watts
Jessica Harrison
Samantha Chavez
Samantha Sednek
Richard W. Chang, Esq.
Glynn Davis
Philip Slater
Matthew Francis Rarey
Erin L. Castro
Dawn Scanlon
Bryanna Mantilla
Jessica Kursman
Samuel Jesse
Jerry Diaz
Robyn Bianconi
Thomas O’Malley
Hilary Morris
Esther Ikoro
Patrick Brown, Champaign native, UIUC alum
America Campos
Liz Elsen
Ashley Rayner
Dan Wright
Masood Muhammad Haque
Jean Lee
Alexandra Bellis
Christine Dasko
Eric Schacht
Sunah Suh
Ryne Dionisio
Kristin Drogos
Aaron Parker
Tina-Marie Smith
Lucas McKeever
Steven Rosado
Sam Sednek
Zane Ranney
Christie Barchenger
Bert Berla
Andrew Y. Kim
Lorrie Pearson
Hector Mandel
Brian Bell
Rudy Leon
Benjamin Stone
Bryan Anderson
Chloe Edgar
Jessica E. Moyer
Deborah E. Dorsey
Ingbert Schmidt
Mathew J. Carroll-Schmidt
Mary E. McCormack
Alex Orozco
Debbie Reese
Elizabeth Berfield
Kent Carrico
Dana Robinson, Ph.D.
Mark R. Linder
Regina Serpa
Emily Henkels
Konrad Taube
Leah Zinthefer King
Sivling Heng
Roy Saldaña, Jr.
Lee Roberts
Thomas Webb
Jessica Dickson
Lily Huang
Viraj Patel
Justine Chan
Emily Wilson
T.J. Tallie
A.J. Kim
Berenice Ruhl
Jennifer M. Snapp
Kathleen Bowman North
Rafter Sass Ferguson
Raúl A. Mora, Ph.D.
Ryan Kuramitsu
Julian Ignacio
Thomas Joseph Ferrarell
Maren Williams
Victoria Murillo
Rosalie Morales Kearns, MFA
Stephanie Chang
Valerie Enriquez
Lukasz Wojtaszek
Amber Buck
Mike Suguitan
Brian Kung
Janaki Patel
Homari Oda
Suraiya Rashid
Christine Asidao
Archaa Shrivastav
Kathryn Conley Wehrmann
Dustin Lovett
Cynthia Wang
Kati Hinshaw
Isabel Diaz
Pei-Lynn Juang
Phillip N. Lambert
Jane Emmons
Damian Satterthwaite-Phillips
Amanda Beer, PhD
Ruxandra Costescu, PhD
Scott Kimball
Amanda Karkula
Lynsee Melchi
Victoria Mwansa Seward
Frank Hassler
Julia Dossett Morgan
Lauren M. Graham
Robert Mejia
Catherine Knight Steele
James D. Bunch
Gretchen Madsen, MLIS
B.A. Davis-Howe
Eric Mills
Rose Stremlau
Ian Binnington, Ph.D.
Carlos Daniel Rosa, Student Senator Emeritus
Amy Strohmeier Gort, Ph.D.
K’La Albertini
Eva Au
Guillermo Delgado
Cassie Connor
Michelle Birkett, Ph.D.
Adrian Bettridge-Wiese
Anusha Narayanan
Julie Boone
John Miller
Jeffrey DiScala
Emily Litchfield
Tyler Guenette
Sidoni Gonzalez
BWS Johnson

edited 2/25/13 22:59 to add signatures
edited 2/25/13 22:35 with more signatures and signature caveat in preamble
edited 2/26/13 11:07 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 12:00 with more signatures, changed “Illini” in 2nd to last p. to “Chief supporters”
edited 2/26/13 13:45 with more signatures
edited 2/26/13 16:15, more signatures
edited 2/26/13 19:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 6:53, more signatures
edited 2/27/13 14:24, more signatures
edited 2/27/13, 20:10, a few more
edited 2/28/13, 20:52, one more
edited 3/3/13, 12:03, one more signature
edited 3/12/13, 18:09, another signature added

The Turbanizer and The Methodology of the Oppressed

I met Valarie Kaur at the Illinois Conference on Interfaith Collaboration (ICIC 2012) this past April, where she was one of several incredible keynote speakers. Valarie is an amazing Sikh woman who created the incredible documentary Divided We Fall and has gone on to become a founding director of the Groundswell Movement, a multifaith, far-reaching social justice organization founded on the belief that storytelling + advocacy = social change (a philosophy which I tend to agree with). At the conference, she shared her story, her personal philosophy on activism and social change, and inspired us to take action based on radical coalitional politics. I was honored to have met her, and we connected on Facebook and Twitter in order to keep in contact.

Yesterday, Valarie tweeted about a new phone app called the Turbanizer, created for World Turban Day. It allows you to put all sorts of classic, creative, and silly turbans on people in your photos. The app answers that age-old, ever-important question: What do I look like in a turban? It seems like a lot of fun, and the theme song is pretty catchy.

But I hesitated. The idea of putting turbans on people smelled a lot like the idea of putting Native headdresses on people. And we probably know how that ends up. The idea smacked of the potential for cultural appropriation, not to mention the potential of some really racist images/captions surfacing. Turbans carry a lot of Orientalist weight in the American cultural imaginary. I was worried that there might be too many negative outcomes from an app like this. I wondered why Valarie seemed so enthused.

I don’t want to pretend like I have any special knowledge here. I’m not Sikh. The most sustained conversation I’ve had about Sikhism was with Valarie. I really don’t want to claim the Sikh voice in this situation. I shared the idea for the app with some of my friends on Facebook, and an Indian (though not Sikh) friend had some of the same concerns: “I might have been fine if it had just said hats and not turbans.” But I wondered why I was getting so concerned when Valarie, a Sikh woman who is truly concerned about advocacy and social justice, was endorsing the app. Or even when the app was created by a (presumably Sikh), turban-wearing, aspiring entrepreneur named Ash Singh? As I try to unravel this in my head, I wish to re-emphasize that I do not speak for Valarie or anyone in the Sikh community. I have tweeted at Valarie, asking her to further explain, but I have had no reply yet. The content of this post is not intended to be a “guess” at what Valarie (or anyone else) feels; rather, I am attempting to understand the force of the Turbanizer, and why it might, for all the racist potential I can see, be a force for good. I attempt to do this on my own terms (building upon, of course, the work of others, and deeply informed by self-critique and an attempt at different perspective-taking).

At first I thought of a conversation that two of my favorite people in children’s literature studies, Thomas Crisp and Debbie Reese, have had regarding representation. Debbie (whom I’ve referenced here before) is tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo and does work regarding representation of American Indians in children’s literature; her stance regarding representation is that there has been so much misinformation and prejudice trafficked by bad (over)representations in children’s literature, she’d rather see fewer portrayals than so many stereotypical ones. Tom, on the other hand, is gay, and is more concerned about the systematic silencing of LGBTQ representations in children’s literature; he’d rather there be more stereotypical representations than none at all.* I wondered at first whether Valarie and Ash were taking Tom’s line–the Turbanizer certainly helps normalize the “Other” that that turban can represent, even if there is a risk of appropriation and inappropriate use.

There’s more than that, though. Sikh identity in the popular imagination and representation isn’t quite the same as either Native (marked by generous overrepresentation of poor quality) or LGBTQ (marked by curious absence, particularly outside of a middle-class white gay/lesbian representation) considerations. In the wake of 9/11 especially, the turban has been emptied of its cultural specificity, and been replaced as a popular symbol that is always racialized as “Other,” and frequently equated with “terrorist.” At one level, there’s something to be said for normalizing the turban. After all, if your niece looks good in a turban, so might someone you might think of as “Other.”

But I think there might be something more than that, even, going on. The turban in the Turbanizer is not a “regular” turban; in many cases, they’re clever or cute. (I’ve never seen any real person actually wear a Facebook turban.) The aggressive symbol that the turban has become (turban = anti-American terrorist Muslim) is cutesified into something else. Sianne Ngai has argued about the ways in which cuteness is an aggressive feeling itself–things that are cute are malleable, pliable, controllable.** Cuteness is often deployed to tame things that are “wild” (animals, for example), and is often also deployed against the vulnerable (children).*** Cuteness is often also an act of furthering oppression (gay men are acceptable if they do cute things; Black children can’t be taken too seriously, because they’re extra-cute). What happens when the latent aggression of cute (a tool of dominant ideology) is used against other dominant ideology?

Viewing the cutesifying of the turban in this way reminds me of Chela Sandoval’s methodology of the oppressed. In her book Methodology of the Oppressed, Sandoval expounds ideas for those invested in de-colonial practice to employ toward liberatory ends. One of these is a process she calls “meta-ideologizing,” in which she extends Roland Barthes’s ideas about ideology formation and semiology to “rob” signifiers of their meaning and re-scramble them into new formations–ideology about the ideology.**** Taking Sandoval’s lens to the idea of cutesifying the turban, we might say that we are able to see the Turbanizer as a methodology of the oppressed. By the using aggression of cutesifying to neutralize the ideology of the aggression of the turban, the Turbanizer is a nonviolent way of resisting the ideology of the dominant culture. The turban–a valuable cultural artifact, but also a symbol of aggression in dominant worldviews–is re-scrambled into a different formation: a cute thing your sister can wear on a night out.

Have I over-thought the Turbanizer? Maybe. But I was led to this pontification by the call put out by Saba Mahmood: When thinking about the ways in which someone is “oppressed,” always be willing to ask how you are implicated and what is at stake. When I first saw this digital artifact, I wondered why Valarie was supporting and not decrying it. After all, there was too much danger, right? Mahmood challenges us to resist the “normative impulse of critique” and the notion that agency requires everyone be motivated to resist and oppose dominant structures at all times.***** When I rethought the situation, pushed beyond my “progressive” politics, I found a different way of viewing the situation, a methodology of the oppressed of the Turbanizer. Again, I must state that I do not know why any one specific person, let alone a Sikh, is enthused about the Turbanizer. But I do know that there is more to the Turbanizer than may meet the eye at first.

*I unfortunately to not have a citation for this conversation. Debbie mentioned the exchange in a class I took with her.

**Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31:4, 2005, 811-847.

***See Natalia Cecire’s work on cuteness on her blog, Works Cited. Particularly see her post, “Dressing up our pets and/or children (as one another).

****Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 109. In more colloquial terms, we might be able to shorten Sandoval’s idea to “Occupy words.

*****Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamist Revival and the Feminist Subject, 2nd ed., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 39.

Update: 6/10/2012 5:35 pm

Valarie has responded to my tweet. She says: “Good q. A Sikh group aiming to make turbans accessible. Reminds me of ppl wearing turbans in solidarity w/Sikhs. But agree about potential for misappropriation. The founder Ash Singh hopes instead the app is an intro to Sikh issues.”

Which, although not exactly the same, is something I was reaching for. She shared stories of this kind of solidarity at ICIC 2012, and they nearly moved me to tears. A different kind of methodology of the oppressed, perhaps. But a beautiful vision.

I’m a Little Bit Frustrated by the New York Times…

As you might be able to tell, it’s really not all that difficult for something to set me off. It’s been a problem. I’ve been told I need to “turn the politics off every once in a while” by my friends. But the New York Times, recently…

Well, frankly, they’ve been pretty sexist. Now, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t really expect mainstream media sources to provide actively feminist viewpoints. But in the past week or so, a couple of their articles just…*exasperated sigh*

Let’s start with this lovely article in the “Fashion and Style” section called “For Would-Be Cougars, the Prom is a Good Start.” Apparently, according to the author, a (female) high school senior dating a boy two years younger than she is a predatory “cougar-in-training.” Basically, the only response I could come up with is: “Double standard, much?” Granted, the article seems to have nary a point to make, save the claim that “would-be cougars” are a thing, and a thing to be worried about. I can come up with no better way to describe this than gender-shaming. Because, after all, the boy is supposed to be older than the girl, right? Otherwise, she’s creeping on the young boys. Out to get them. She’s supposed to be available for them college boys to score.

Not to mention that not a peep is made when the situation is reversed.

I was pretty upset. And then I found the “wonderful” article about a sexual harassment case in Silicon Valley.

This article about the lawsuit Ellen Pao has filed a sexual harassment suit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. And it opens up with a doozy: “MEN invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago. ”

Really. It says that. “MEN invented the Internet.”

Image Courtesy of BoingBoing.net

Otherwise, the article is quite good. I mean, it frames sexual harassment itself rather problematically (“randiness” doesn’t cause sexual harassment, and saying it’s “not the lore” seems to me to be a pretty nifty way of dismissing claims), and it gets a little weirdly tangential (“OMG, her husband has an ex-BOYfriend, we have to include that, because…well, because…”). But, overall, it treats the Pao case itself with journalistic integrity.

But there’s no way of dismissing that opening line. How about Radia “Mother of the Internet” Perlman? It’s framing like this that erases the history of marginalized people. I simply don’t understand why this line was necessary. It’s completely reactionary: “OH NOEZ, TEH MENZ R BEING ATTACKED. Let’s remind everyone who really runs the show.” When men running the show was never threatened in the first place.

Women + technology = fail. And the NYT is out to remind you.

I’ll grant that the two stories are pretty much unrelated. But I’m going to have a hard time taking NYTimes seriously about anything relating to gender for some time. And that’s the trouble I want to point out. Feminism has a hard enough time fighting patriarchy in the first place. We don’t need our news sources making things worse.

The Mainstream

In doing some research for a paper I’d been writing about selecting good multicultural literature for children, I came across this quote in an essay entitled “Literature About Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People and Their Families” by Linda Leonard Lamme:

“The ultimate goal for any marginalized group is to fit into the mainstream.”

Something about that sentence irks me. It re-frames the issue of marginalization in ways that I think are dangerous and counter-productive. It sounds like the “melting pot” view of multiculturalism all over again. It suggests that achieving social justice is a matter of assimilation. That marginalized people just need to make a big enough effort to “fit in,” that their difference from the mainstream is just something that needs to be overcome. It ignores their very real oppression–the whole reason they’re “marginalized” in the first place.

In terms of multiculturalism, that’s smack in the face as big as overt racism and ethnocentrism. As someone in the “mainstream” racially, ethnically, and “culturally,” even I can tell you that people don’t want to be melted down. Marginalized ethnic, racial, and cultural groups may want to have their cultures validated and accepted by the mainstream, perhaps. They don’t want to “fit into” it. Doing so would erase what made them marginalized in the first place, which indeed erases the marginalization. But it also erases part of who they are.

Even if we just look at the theme of the article (even though the claim was explicitly made for “any marginalized group”), it still doesn’t work. The mainstream is cisgendered and heteronormative. The queer community automatically doesn’t “fit in” and simply cannot. Our goal isn’t to “fit in”–it’s to expand the mainstream so that queer identities are (again) accepted and validated.

Marginalization occurs because groups of people gain relative societal power and prescribe their identities for everyone else. “We’re White (or male or straight or able-bodied or yada yada yada…and, therefore, you should be, too.” They normalize their experiences and identities. When people can’t measure up because they’re different from that, well…that’s when marginalization occurs.

So, no, Linda. That is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is this: For there not to be a “mainstream” at all. For all kinds of sexualities and gender expressions and abilities and cultures and faiths and skin colors and identities to be allowed to be “normative.” For people not to have to apologize for not being “normal.”

Normal is just a setting on my washing machine. It doesn’t describe people very well.

Complexity defines us.

This morning, I had a great conversation via Facebook chat with my friend Andrea. She’s in Austria. She’s also Latina, and recognizes what that means to her here in the United States. We talked a lot about what it means to her to be Latina in the United States, and how the rules change now that she’s in Austria. One of the most frustrating things for her has been struggling with the question, “Where are you from?” She talks about it in a blog post.

There’s not an easy answer to that question for her. Her parents are from Mexico, but she was born in the US. She has spent a lot of time in Mexico, though. Does she say she’s American? (Which to the Austrians, means a lot of things that aren’t true of her, particularly that she’s White.) Does she say she’s Mexican? (That’s not really entirely true either.) There’s not an easy answer.

People are incredibly complex. When you start trying to define someone, we can start by identifying the social identities and categories they fall into…male or female (or trans or genderqueer), gay or straight (or bi or pan or queer), White or Black (or Asian or Latin@ or Native or something else entirely), Christian or Jew (or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or one of scads of other religious affiliations). Which is hard enough. But then, as I was starting to hint at even with those lists, those labels don’t fit real people very well. Reality always resists simplification. What does it mean if I’m male? Or if I’m gay? Or if I’m Black? Or if I’m Hindu?

The answer can only be really expressed if you find out what it means to me that I claim that identity. Labels are convenient. They give us clear-cut ways of how we’re supposed to think about other people. But that’s dehumanizing.

People have experiences and stories that shape what it means to be their identity. It’s a lived process. A lived pedagogy. Our complexities are what define us, not our simplicities.

But these simplicities do matter. Because they form the systems of privilege and oppression that we are forced to live in everyday. Andrea talked about how she knows what the rules are in the US but not in Austria. She’s playing a different identity game over there. We’re all playing an identity game, whether we want to or not. The things about us that we can’t change (and even those that we can) shape how people treat us, how well we see ourselves reflected in the media, and the opportunities we have.

Where do we draw the line between accepting simple categories and getting to the heart of complex people? It’s not easy. We see simple categories and we want to leave them at that. But real conversation and real growth occurs when we move past those.

I recently read a book that’s quickly become one of my favorite books of all time. It’s called The Girl with the Brown Crayon by Vivian Gussin Paley. She’s a teacher who spent a year with her class reading and responding to the books of Leo Lionni. One girl, Reeny, resonated with many of Mr. Lionni’s stories, particularly the story of Tico, a wingless blackbird. A wishbird grants Tico a wish: a pair of golden wings. Tico is able to soar far and wide. But the other blackbirds shun Tico because of his difference, his beautiful golden wings. The story ends with Tico tearing out his golden feathers, which are replaced by black ones, and giving them away.

Reeny dreams of a different ending to that story. She says, as Tico, “I just don’t want to give up my wings because I like them, because they look pretty. I’m not saying I look prettier than you. But I’m thinking, why don’t you stay and we’ll talk about it. Don’t fly away. See, we can keep talking about it, okay?”

Can we keep talking about it, okay? Race and gender and class and sexual orientation and religion and citizenship?

After all, in reality, there is no them. There are only facets of us. (-John Green)

Thoughts on Taking the Other to Lunch

So often, to succeed in our quest to promote what we see as justice and what’s right, we end up demonizing some other person. Much of our ideology is built upon the concept that someone is right and someone else is wrong. We construct Hitlers and Stalins in our endless quest to prove ourselves right. It’s the only way ideologies can function.

We often call our ideologies “common sense,” which suggests that people who don’t subscribe to them and hold opposing ideologies are “nonsensical.” They are confused, wrong, liars, or even just evil. We set ourselves up against an imaginary “other” who disagrees with us and the ideologies we take for granted.

But doing so is a perversion of who we are as people. Sometimes in our endless quest for justice, even social justice, we forget one of the most critical (but highly invisible) aspects of diversity—diversity of thought. In seeing someone else as an ideology that we disagree with, and nothing more, we invalidate their humanity.

In the words of famed advice columnist Ann Lamont, “Of course we all think our opinions are the right ones. If we didn’t, we’d get new ones.” It’s hard to remember sometimes that we’re all entitled to our opinions. Sometimes, our opinions run completely and unequivocally opposite of each other. In those cases, it’s easier to start shouting, pointing fingers, and even just pack up our toys and go home.

That’s dangerous, though. If we can’t see past each other’s politics and worldview to our experiences and framework, we succeed only in estranging ourselves from each other. It’s objectification to the highest degree.

Over and over again, I’m forcefully reminded of the power of story. I’m convinced that story is among the strongest motivators (I’d suggest needs, even) of the human condition. Refusing to hear someone else’s story strips from them a deep element of their humanity.

In the words of the poet Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Will you, please, come to that field with me? Can we have a cup of coffee (or tea or hot chocolate or whatever?) and see each other for who we truly are, with experiences, perceptions, and histories that are good, valid, true, and reach beyond what I may see in my surface-level disagreement?

Can I hear your story?

Maybe in doing so, we can build some sense of our world in the commons–the community. Together.

Huh. Common sense. So that’s what that means.

Some Interesting Stuff that Relates to Other Interesting Stuff I’ve Been Thinking About

Playing around on teh Internets this afternoon led me to a couple of things that seem relevant to other things I’ve been considering.

Firstly: how to use social media well. Here‘s an example of someone who’s doing it, I think. It’s a videobook about YouTube…on YouTube. It’s actually an interesting concept that shows the power of social media to spread good information. (And it’s reflexive, which is always cool.) I found this via the UGL Facebook page, and they’ve asked whether this is the future of the book. My answer: I hope not. I love the ways this technology is being used. But I don’t think it can replace the book. Here’s my criteria:
1. Books are easily browsable. I can flip through pages of a book, pick a place at random, and look for what I’m looking for, or see if I’ll like it, or whatever. This videobook adds features I never knew were possible to make this closer to a reality, but it’s still limited. Browsability is among the most important aspects of books and libraries to me, and I think to knowledge and information in general.
2. Books offer depth of knowledge. Although this videobook makes a complete argument from beginning to finish, compressing all of the content of a monograph into video would take far too long. Trying to squeeze one content area into another medium can compress a full thesis into sound bytes. There’s value in gaining deep understanding that, so far, comes strongly from text. And usually page-based text.

Secondly: identities are incredibly complex. This video from one of my favorite sets of vloggers also talks about using information technology well (They’ve launched Your Pants! I’ve spent some time exploring in Your Pants. You might want to find Your Pants. The stuff in Your Pants is pretty exciting.) But it also, at the end, discusses how identities, both those that we choose and those that choose us, resist simplicity. Those of us who claim certain identities, whether we’d like to claim them or not, have to live them as well. And that’s what gives them their meaning. When I claim an identity as a male, or white, or as a Nerdfighter, I don’t just fit into that box. I work with others who claim that identity, and those who claim opposing identities, to create what that means. Sometimes it means things I don’t want it to mean–that I’ve got privilege in society that excludes others, for example. But it always resists a simple definition. And that’s what makes life so exciting.

EOL 199

So, I’ve started another class for the semester, EOL 199: Paraprofessional Staff Training. The class is basically an introduction to social identity, social justice and diversity, particularly from the perspective of a residence hall community.

The class kicked off this past Sunday with an all-day retreat, where I met the rest of my class and our facilitators. ‘Cause we’re ResLife and cool like that, we played a bunch of icebreakers and got to know each other pretty well. A majority of the day, however, was spent with Dr. Maura Cullen, a social justice educator. Her talk and our subsequent discussion in class this week have been bouncing around in my head for a bit.

So often, who we are puts us “in” or “out.” It’s kind of frightening how pervasive these things are. We did an activity that really played around with how although we may feel the desire to be more inclusive or open, “groupthink” can trap us in dangerous ideologies.

As a middle-class, temporarily able-bodied, white male from a Christian background, I’m often (though not always) in the majority, or at least the privileged, group when considering social identity. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in college, it’s how desperately I need to look beyond my “clumps” of people and set aside my privilege for the sake of a more equitable society.

I’m excited to see where this class goes. I’ve struggled in the past with learning to value all aspects of my social identity. I’m also excited to continue to validate and understand others’ identities better.