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.

Sincerely,
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

Of Trolls, Horror, Movies, and Calling Dibs

I’m writing this mostly to let people know that I’m still alive and thinking, but also to pull something my digital acquaintance Kerry Mockler has pulled over on her blog: calling “dibs” on ideas for papers.

Over break, I’ve been watching a lot of movies. Like, a lot. Probably more than is good for me. Two that have stuck out at me more than others are House, directed by Nobuhiko Ōbayashi and The Night of the Hunter, the only film ever directed by Charles Laughton. Both of these are horror films (by most classifications), both involve children (and childhoods) in critical ways, and both of them are–to say the least–outliers of the genre. I had been turning over the films in my head and trying to make some interesting connections between the two, when I found that Evan Calder Williams has already done so in a remarkable essay in Film Quarterly. In “Sunset with Chainsaw,” he suggests these two films resist typical readings of horror, but instead offers a new method of reading horror politically through focusing on visual environments as opposed to horrible content. Williams’s reading is provocative, and it’s spurred me to think through how it might be developed. Again, since I’m particularly interested in understanding childhoods, I’m wondering how focusing on horror through the lens of the child might affect this reading. There’s also some interesting feminist stuff floating around those films (particularly House), which I’d like to explore. Finally, I’d love to see if some of the stuff garnered from reading childhood horror in these films might apply in horror in children’s fiction. Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn was–for some reason–one of my favorite books when I was around eleven or twelve, and I’d both love to write a paper on it and revisit it trying to understand childhood horror.

Relatedly, I also watched Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles recently, and–maybe because I’ve been thinking about horror so much (in addition to watching these films, I’m working on a horror film collection development project for my job)–I’m wondering if there’s a way of reading the film as horror? The orgasm as a monstrosity? What might the implications of that be? (Has anyone already done this? Beyond calling it “horror,” I can’t find anything to suggest they have.)(Also, I may hold off on this one until I see what Annemarie Jagose says in her new book.)

I also don’t normally blog about books I’ve been reading a whole lot on here, but I recently finished Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo, and that also make my mind start racing. I guess it seemed relevant because the book (serendipitously) dealt with a lot of things I’d been reading about lately: monstrosity, queerness, affective geographies, some tangential relationships to childhood studies. The book also could bear with some fantastic readings in terms of posthumanism, critical animal studies, and ecocriticism (particularly with regards to the project of pet-making and the allegory of taming our own “wildness”), but I’m less grounded in those approaches.1 I guess it’s also interesting because I’ve been thinking a little about Moomins recently–I’m starting a class in Scandinavian childhood studies and children’s literature next week. The connections between Finnish trolls is remarkable–although the trolls don’t resemble each other all that much, I think there’s some particularly interesting things I’d love to explore between the two. (I believe it is possible I may have already found a term paper for this class?)

All of this to say, “hello!” and “Please don’t write about any of these things before I get a chance to.”

1. As a side note, Troll also contains one chapter that is literally the best description I’ve ever read of the experience of being a queer person in a smallish city, like the one I live in now.

“…Our city’s unique, but with a slightly different nuance for each of us. In a little town like this, we don’t have our own streets, shops, or galleries, but we do have our individual hidden topography, our own street corners. A man’s smoking a cigarette on a bridge, and we see him quite differently from everyone else: we take in a hand movement, a furtive glance, which, for others, is just visual bric-a-brac…”

The Mayans Weren’t “Wrong”…You Were

I was prepared to say exactly zero things about the Mayan apocalypse prediction debacle, until my friend Debbie Reese made a point on Twitter that I’d been turning over in my head vaguely, but hadn’t concretized as well as she did.

The Mayans weren’t wrong.

I can’t repeat that enough. The Mayan’s calendar ending around this time was never a prediction that the “world would end” or anything like that. It’s like the end of the year–your calendar runs out, and you start over. Maya scholars–like Lisa Lucero–have been trying to scream this at us for years.

You were wrong.

Settler colonialists were wrong. This is a classic example of a colonial mistranslation of Indigenous knowledge and culture. God knows we’ve seen this enough.

Outsiders came in, saw what they wanted to see, used their frame of reference to make a claim, and when that claim didn’t “come true,” they make a false claim about the wrongness of Mayan thinking.

The Maya were pretty amazing. Their art is breathtaking, their building skills were impressive, and their mathematical and astronomical knowledge were astounding. To call them “wrong,” when the wrongness really lies with a colonialist misinterpretation of their knowledge, is bullshit. And it only serves to further obscure, erase, and devalue Indigenous knowledges.

Let’s Have a Wiki

God, I’ve wanted to make that joke for so long¹.

I know it’s been ages since I’ve written anything on here, and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t really have all that much to say. But…

There is a Youth Services Librarianship Best Practices Wiki! And I am a contributor!

It’s really not that exciting because it’s just an ongoing class project, but there really is a lot of potentially valuable information for people who are interested in libraries, or young people, or any of those sorts of fun things. I thought I would share it with you.

If you are interested, I contributed content to pages on non-native speakers of English, LGBTQ youth, and multicultural literature for youth. But there are also super-rad pages with tons of information about youth services from an international standpoint, reference services for youth, and most anything else you can think of that has to do with young people and library services for them.

In other wiki news, the CU Wiki (for Champaign-Urbana) has launched, and it’s also a pretty nifty resource. Intended as a community informatics project to promote local knowledge and collaborative work with users across CU, it’s chock-full of interesting, locally created content. There’s information about my places of work, for example, as well as local businesses, and even local hauntings. The local wiki movement is, I think, an interesting one, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this one in particular pans out, since I’m here. Also, if they reach 120 users by December 6, they’ll be able to win free site hosting for a year. So, maybe you could help them out and create an account?

Wikis, man. They’re great.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

1. Also: “Forget the kiki, let’s have a bouba.” #undulycomplexgaylinguistjokes

Animated Things, Agency, and the Brave Little Toaster

I’d been anxiously awaiting, for some time now, the publication of Mel Y. Chen’s book Animacies, the newest addition to the Perverse Modernities series from Duke University Press. In the book, Chen discusses the idea of “animacy” as it relates to race, dis/ability, queerness, the human/animal divide, and a whole host of other topics, and manages to come up with some pretty wonderful stuff in terms of theory. In becoming excited about the book, I was thinking through some of the reasons why the topic of animacy seems so exciting to me and my work (other than, well, animacy is, in some ways, excitement itself).

A very common plot device in children’s literature is less-than-animated things becoming animated. You know the drill: “really useful” engines, self-aware appliances, talking animals. Even the idea of the dead becoming re-animated comes from folklore and fairy tales we, in the current moment, often associate with youth. The granddaddy of all children’s literature animacies, though, is toys coming to life.

As I’m trying to wrap up a project on gendered racializations and deviance in a couple of LGBTQ teen novels, I’ve begun thinking how I might put Chen’s work in conversation with the wealth of children’s texts that feature toys “coming to life” as well as other work on similar themes. (I’m thinking of Ngai’s racialized affect of “animatedness” in Ugly Feelings, Halberstam’s work on “Pixarvolt” films, and the question of “what it’s like to be a thing” that Bogost asks in Alien Phenomenology.) I’m particularly interested in the idea of toys becoming animated (as opposed to being always-already animated, and being really good at hiding it, à la Toy Story). What are the implications of that process? Especially since that process usually involves a great deal of control from a human (child) actor?

Toys are also fun to think about in children’s literature, because they often allow for more free expressions of the divisions we think of as so natural in humans, gender in particular. Toys are for playing with; when we tell stories about toys, we are also allowed to play with our notions of gender, race, and class in ways we often can’t in stories about people. (Of course, it’s hard to think about a pile of alphabet blocks as having a race, gender, or sexuality.) Take for example, the familiar Mrs. Nesbitt scene from Toy Story. Even among such profoundly gendered toys as Buzz and Woody, Buzz is naturally able to take up the post of Mrs. Nesbitt under the care of Andy’s sister. Buzz in drag is able to believably become Mrs. Nesbitt at his tea party in a way that a human child would never be able to. Even though Woody polices Buzz back into his “real” gender, Buzz, for a time, becomes Mrs. Nesbitt so much that he refuses to re-become Buzz.

I…am Mrs. Nesbitt!

Although they’re not actually toys, we find the same sorts of things going on in one of my childhood favorites: the film for The Brave Little Toaster. (Did you know that the title character is gendered as female?) Based on a novella by Thomas Disch, the film traces the attempts of five household appliances–a lamp, a vacuum, a radio, an electric blanket, and, of course, a toaster oven–as they leave the summer cabin where they’ve been abandoned to find “the Master.” The implications of their animation are, I think, interesting, so bear with me as I hash out a few ideas.

Even though the toaster and her friends are “animated,” it’s difficult to say whether they have anything that we could call “agency.” As a fan of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety, the concept of agency itself is to me a little questionable, or at least blurry. But the appliances definitely operate within a framework in which their “lives” are bound up in the idea of serving the “Master”–their whole harrowing adventure is a quest to get back to where they belong: operating the functions they were intended to serve for the Master. There’s all sorts of Marxist and/or theological implications there, which I won’t explore in depth. I’ll just point them out and suggest that we see the same things happening when toys become animated. Toys are sometimes particularly manipulated by the people who own them, even in their animation–their ability to become animated is bound up in the will of the human agent. I’ll just insert the caution of presuming to know “what’s best” for the toys and the appliances–in the same way that Mahmood cautions against placing our own ideas of agency on others.

Toaster is not amused at your presumption that she has absolutely no agency.

I think, too, there are ways we can read Ngai’s concept of animatedness into The Brave Little Toaster. According to Ngai:

On one hand, animatedness points to restrictions placed on spontaneous movement and activity; in Modern Times [Charlie Chaplin film], for example, it emerges from the exclusion of all bodily motion apart from the one assigned to the assembly-line worker. On the other hand, the affect can also be read as highlighting the elasticity of the body being animated…*

Using this framework, I think we can point to the ways in which these appliances can usurp their “intended” functions and do something different. For example, Blanky is intended to be a warm covering for the Master’s body. Her “spontaneous movement and activity” is  particularly limited by the way she’s allowed to function when in the presence of the Master: When people are around, her animacy completely disappears (at least in theory). However, when the appliances are trekking through the woods, Blanky’s body is able to become something else—a tent for her friends. This kind of purposeful rescrambling reminds me of José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of “disidentification,” taking a dominant ideology and rearranging it to suit one’s own needs.

Ngai also points to the ways in which animatedness is racialized–ethnic and racial difference is often read through an exaggeration of emotive expression. I don’t think I’d be going too far out on a limb to say that the radio is racialized in the film–he “sings” Tutti Frutti at the beginning of the film, for example. For a while, one of the top-rated comments on the Youtube clip of “It’s a B-Movie” was something to the effect of “lol the radio is so gangster at 2:19.” Even more fascinating, in the context of Ngai’s work, then, is the fact that the radio has no face. His animatedness is pushed only through his vocal inflection. I wonder what we can say about the ways his animatedness is fixed. He is certainly unable to use his body in particularly expressive ways.

Anyway, this is the direction I’m starting to look at and think about–the ways that animacy and, particularly, the process of becoming animated, functions for toys in children’s books. I’m interested in looking at the ways that these things affect our conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and power in general. I may or may not be placing some of my thoughts on these things here, but I just thought I’d share the things that have been bouncing around in my head for the past month or so.

*Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambrige: Harvard University Press, 2004), 100.

Identification in Children’s Literature

Earlier this week, I was listening in on (well, really more of watching) several people far smarter than I am on the Child_Lit listserv out of Rutgers discuss the possibility of children’s (or young adult/YA) literature not being “about” a child or teen. Books like Marcus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger and Richard and Florence Atwater’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins were offered as potential examples, but, as with many of the discussions on the list, no formal conclusions were drawn.

I was reminded of the observation that, unlike many types of literature, when we talk about children’s literature, we talk about literature being written for a group of people the author does not identify with. When we say “African-American literature,” we generally are talking about literature written by and about Black people in America. Similarly, “gay fiction” is usually written by and about gay people. It’s very puzzling to think, then, about a “children’s literature” that is “for” and (usually) “about” a generally well-defined, socially-sanctioned (and -constructed) group of people that the author fundamentally no longer identifies with. This idea is, in some ways, the departure point for Perry Nodelman‘s The Hidden Adult, as well as several other extended meditations on children’s literature, so I don’t wish to pretend that this ground hasn’t been trod.

What I have been thinking about is the way these distinctions get blurred funnily when the two are combined: How do we define “Native American children’s literature”? Or “gay children’s fiction”? The answers, clearly, are not going to be hard and fast. Usually, we won’t be finding Native American children’s literature being written by Native children. Strangely, though, we find that often books we call “Native American children’s literature” isn’t written by a Native adult, either.* Similarly, some of the biggest hits in “LGBT children’s literature,” at least until recently, have been written by cis- and straight-identified folks. (I’m looking at you Ellen Wittlinger, Robin Reardon, and Francesca Lia Block; although I’ll qualify that with a note that Nancy Farmer and David Levithan (and others!) have had a huge impact on the development an LGBT children’s canon.)

This is really just more of an observation more than anything else, really. I’m definitely not going to say that I find this as unequivocally a problem–just a curiosity, more than anything. I refuse to suggest that it’s not possible for someone to write a story about someone unlike them, or even to suggest that it’s not possible for them to do it really, really well. (I love Block’s Weetzie Bat series a whole, whole lot.)

In doing some hypothesizing about the phenomenon, I just wondered whether it’s possible that there’s a link here. Is the fact that a children’s author is already written for an audience unlike them/writing characters unlike them make them more likely to wish to take the “unlike-ness” a step further and explore other identities? Is the dismissal of children’s literature as “serious” playing a role? (“It’s okay for me to go out on a limb and try something different–it’s just a kid’s book. No one’s going to care if I get it wrong.”)

*Admittedly, I am blurring some lines. Often, we more properly refer to “Native American children’s literature” as that which is written by a Native person or at least someone with deep, authentic connections to what it means to be Indigenous, and talk about “children’s books with Native content” for the overarching idea of books with, well, Native content, whether it’s written by someone qualified to represent Indigenous people or not.

Anderson Cooper, Opacity, and the Loss that is Queerness

Anderson Cooper publicly says that he’s gay, and the world blows up. At least, that’s what it seems like.

There’s a whole host of things we can talk about here; the “outing” of a public figure usually works up a lot of brouhaha. I’ve been particularly interested in the responses I’ve been seeing via Twitter and Facebook, most of which can be broadly divided into two camps: “Well, duh” and “Damn, now I don’t have a shot.” I think there’s some interesting things I’m trying to tease out in my head about both of them.

I’m not really a fan of the metaphor of “the closet” anymore. You may have heard some of the objections: it limits “coming out” to a singular event; it produces discourses of shame/confession; it’s a “colorblind” paradigm that ignores nuances of race/class. I really think it’s interesting that we’re trying to force Cooper’s narrative to fit the idea of the “closet” when the metaphor breaks down (for most people): If we all knew he was gay anyway, why does this public “coming out” matter?

Say what you will about the need for “out role models,” I think it’s important for us to interrogate the usefulness of the idea of the closet. Cooper talks a lot about wanting to balance public/private aspects of his life, and that’s reasonable, to me, it seems. It’s making wonder if there’s a sort of tyranny of the closet–a need to produce confessions from queer people–a forcible “outing,” if you will. I’ve felt it before myself: The closet was a useful metaphor for my life, until it wasn’t, and then trying to force it on me (“You still haven’t told me you’re gay, c’mon, just confess to it, already!”) only made me feel…well, forced. I think sometimes, we want to use the forced confessional of the queer object to make the hearer feel like a good person or to use it as a political tool. (“Oh, you feel like you can come out to me, I feel special!” or “Look at all the good your story will do.”) Cooper has every right to tell his story. I’m glad he has. I just wonder how important it is that we say he’s “come out of the closet.” (And remember: For some queers, “coming out of the closet” isn’t a viable life choice. I think that’s another important point about the tyranny of the closet.)

The response to Cooper’s declaration also reminds me of Nicholas de Villiers’s recent concept of “opacity.” If we all “knew” Cooper was gay, but no one knew it, can we really say there was a closet at all? Perhaps we could read Cooper better through a lens of opacity. (Haha, that sounds funny.) But really, I wonder how much the closet breaks down as a metaphor in this case. If the closet doesn’t have walls and a ceiling, was it really there at all? De Villiers insists that by employing the idea of opacity, we open up new modes for queerness that don’t depend on the closet. What happens when we force Cooper back into a closet that wasn’t there in the first place, then make him come back out? (I don’t have an answer, I just think it’s an interesting question.) It reinforces the tyranny of the closet, I think.

And just one more thing. Anderson Cooper may indeed be a god. (Go to about 11 minutes into the video. And then watch the whole thing, because it’s beautiful.) But there’s a lot of damage done when we meditate on one person’s queerness as someone else’s loss. Since I study children’s literature, I’m reminded forcefully of the quote in Ann Rinaldi’s The Good Side of My Heart that goes something like this: “All that masculinity, wasted.” As if queerness resigned someone to being disposable and worthless. Saying “all the good guys are gay” not only devalues straight men, it also devalues gay men as people who should just be glossed over.

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.

E99.P85, Or: The Case of Pocahontas in the Library

The library where I work has recently been working on a large project converting from the Dewey Decimal system of classification to the Library of Congress. It’s been taking us a while, but we’ve finally moved on to the last phase: our large collection of media, including DVDs, video games, audiobooks, etc.

It’s understandable that with such a large undertaking, mistakes will be made. I would hardly expect every single item to be correctly catalogued during the conversion process. And I’ve been proven right, from minor technical errors (the misplacement of a decimal point) to major categorization flubs (‘Why is The Flintstones filed under “Celtic languages”?’), I’ve come across a number of labels that have had to be changed. It’s not a difficult process–if something doesn’t seem right, I just hand it off to our local staff person who works in cataloguing (we have a separate cataloguing branch as well; they assigned the call numbers in the first place), she looks it up and decides whether it needs to be changed. The other day, I was shelving a batch of DVDs, and came across a call number mistake that wasn’t just odd–it made me angry.

Disney’s Pocahontas was assigned a main entry of E99.P85. For those who don’t have LoC call numbers memorized (which I’m assuming is most people), E is the broad heading for American History. Numbers in the range around E90 are specifically American Indian History, and E99 is for History of Tribal Groups. The P85 specifies further the tribe the book is about.

Pocahontas was being classified as a historically accurate documentary.

I’d like to think this was some sort of mistake. But according to OCLC Classify, there are 1242 holdings of this film classified under this call number in libraries that submit data to OCLC. Pocahontas was deliberately assigned a call number such that it could pose as Native history.

I doubt I need to convince you that this film does not accurately represent the history of the woman who was Matoaka, but just in case, here’s a statement from the Powhatan Renape Nation, as well as information from multiple other sources. What I’m concerned about is the carelessness that librarians have taken in curating information about people.

I would argue that librarians have a social responsibility to the public they are trying to serve. Part of that responsibility is to make sure that information about people is not only available and readily accessible (via good classification schemes) but also that such information is curated in intellectually honest (and, I would suggest, socially just) ways.

Native peoples have had not only their lands and their lives, but also their histories taken away from them and misrepresented for hundreds of years. The colonialist imaginary has justified what is essentially genocide by taking indigenous stories and twisting them to fit a destructive mold that permits the violence of colonialism. Pocahontas is one of those stories. Kids who grow up knowing Pocahontas as their story about American Indians grow up knowing lies about who American Indians are and the history surrounding the colonization of America, and very specifically, grow up learning lies about the Powhatan tribe, John Smith, and the founding of Jamestown. I was trained in the academic study of children’s literature by Debbie Reese, who documents extensively the dangers of the misrepresentation of American Indian lives and cultures in her wonderful, wonderful blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. (I specifically use the plural, because there is no one “Indian culture.” That is another colonial myth.) I will leave the more in-depth discussion about representation specifically to her and others like her, more qualified than I to discuss such matters.

What I am concerned about here is the fact that fiction posing as truth is allowed by the field of library science to continue to do so. Even if you are quick to dismiss my rant on Pocahontas as left-leaning polemics (an accusation I’d be proud to bear), you must admit that it is intellectually dishonest to call an animated film with talking trees “history.” Debbie has written elsewhere about The Education of Little Tree, which was passed off an an autobiography before being exposed as a fraud. Many libraries still have the book classified as a biography.

It is critical that if we wish, as information professionals, to right some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated in American history against marginalized groups, that we not allow such things to happen. Indeed, classification in this way only perpetuates this kind of misrepresentation and oppression.

I refused to put Pocahontas on the shelf as history, and I requested that we find another classification for it. It now resides alongside other feature-length, fictional films. But it is critical that we continue to ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. The ways libraries present information matters. I cannot help but think of a tribally enrolled member of the Powhatan nation coming into our library and seeing that film on the shelf, posing as their tribal history. How are cataloguers acting as the arbiters of saying what counts as authentic information? I think of the ways that books on Native religion are often classified as “folklore” instead of as genuine religion, or the ways in which films with a queer protagonist are automatically classified under “sexuality,” while heterosexual softcore porn with names like Pleasure Party masquerade as being about “relationships.”

When we recenter our analytics outside of the dominant (white, cis-masculinist, able-bodied, and heterosexual) viewpoint, what does our method of knowledge classification look like? This is a question I wish to continually ask myself as a librarian, and I want to make central to library science. Let’s not be dishonest about people’s lives.