Friday, February 29, 2008

The truth hurts.

I've spent a lot of time over the last ten or fifteen years alternately supporting Planning Parenthood and bitching them out. I recognize that, on the one hand, PP is operating in crisis mode ALL the time - the instructions for dealing with a bomb threat are usually posted on the wall behind the reception area, and the clinic attacks haven't stopped - they've just stopped being reported.

So I understand the defensiveness that comes out when PP is criticized.


Women of color have historically been, and are currently treated poorly by the pro-choice movement and by the very organizations set up to serve women and protect their reproductive rights. "Poorly" is a euphemism here. A big one. The reality is that women of color are not treated the same way that White women are treated by the healthcare system, and that includes Planned Parenthood. The reality is that women of color have had their health compromised, served as guinea pigs, been denied needed medical care, been sterilized without consent or under coerced consent, and Planned Parenthood and the healthcare system have been complicit in this.

Margaret Sanger is still somehow lauded as a birth control warrior, regardless of her blatant attempts to use it to limit the number of Black babies (that's called eugenics). When an organization holds her up as a role model or as someone who should be remembered as a pioneer (there's another interesting (and racist) term right there), what message does this send? Why would anyone expect that women of color would want to be part of such a movement?

And when the response to this criticism is "that happened a long time ago," what then? The implication is that a movement built on oppressing women of color so that White women can have birth control will be a liberatory movement. How could that be, even if the oppression had ended there? I would argue that, while it may be liberatory for some women, it is not a liberatory movement if it depends on the oppression of other women. And that is exactly how this movement has unfolded.

What happened a long time ago is not divorced from what is happening now. We are still living with that legacy. And further, what happened a long time ago continues to happen now. A quick look at the comments in some of the following links illustrates that fact. And I'll be honest - I wasn't aware of some of this. I knew that Norplant was tried out on nomadic women who would not be able to have it removed - and it has to be removed or else it causes serious, life-threatening problems such as ectopic pregnancies. I read Andrea Smith's work on this issue and I had a good sense of what the years since Margaret Sanger have looked like. But I didn't think about it in terms of what happens in daily interactions between doctors and patients, what assumptions color (I use that intentionally) the advice the doctor gives and what s/he hears.

Further, and you need to especially read the comments in the second to last link to get this, all this bullshit about Black Amazon and others somehow silencing Planned Parenthood supporters by criticizing Planned Parenthood (in Black Amazon's case, with one sentence in a post about something else entirely)? This is classic, right out of the textbook. To paraphrase Patricia J. Williams, whose book is unfortunately in my office and not convenient for a better paraphrasing:

A: Women of color have been hurt by Planned Parenthood.
B: I work for Planned Parenthood, and I can't handle what you've just said. I'm upset. I wish you'd never said that.
A: I'm sorry you're upset, but I was upset first. Please listen to what I am telling you.
B: Your upset is upsetting me. You are silencing me with your anger. It isn't fair for you to silence me. I can't listen to you.

Read this
and this
and this
and this
and this.

(Edited to add: Since I posted this, the second and fourth links have been broken as the posts have been taken down. I've pasted in those posts in the comments below.)

I continue to wrestle with what the right thing to do is here, given the current climate for reproductive rights. But I won't accept that we can't have these conversations because of this climate. If anything, this is the very time to have them. If we want to ensure reproductive rights for all women, then we need to ensure that we are promoting the health and safety of women of color - globally - and this means listening to the hard, painful truth.


Also, please help the Southall Black Sisters. This was, in fact, the point of Black Amazon's original post (already linked).

Andrea Smith denied tenure.

I learned about this on La Chola. Apparently, Andrea Smith had a joint position in American Culture Studies and Women's Studies. A few months ago, American Culture Studies recommended her for tenure, while Women's Studies did not. Last week, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts denied her tenure. This shocks me, because Smith is someone who is not only well-published, but whose national and even international status as an activist and scholar is well-established.

I'm pasting in below the statement from students and faculty at U of Michigan. This explains the situation and what we can do to help:

Statement of University of Michigan Students and Faculty in Support of Andrea Smith’s Tenure Case

On February 22nd, 2008, University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) issued a negative tenure recommendation for Assistant Professor Andrea Lee Smith. Jointly appointed in the Program in American Culture and the Department of Women’s Studies, Dr. Smith’s body of scholarship exemplifies scholarly excellence with widely circulated articles in peer-reviewed journals and numerous books in both university and independent presses including Native Americans and the Christian Right published this year by Duke University Press. Dr. Smith is one of the greatest indigenous feminist intellectuals of our time. A nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Smith has an outstanding academic and community record of service that is internationally and nationally recognized. She is a dedicated professor and mentor and she is an integral member of the University of Michigan (UM) intellectual community. Her reputation and pedagogical practices draw undergraduate and graduate students from all over campus and the nation.

Dr. Smith received the news about her tenure case while participating in the United States’ hearings before the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Ironically, during those very same hearings, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that restricted affirmative action policies at UM specifically were cited as violations of international law. At the same time, there is an undeniable link between the Department of Women’s Studies and LSA’s current tenure recommendations and the long history of institutional restrictions against faculty of color. In 2008, students of color are coming together to protest the way UM’s administration has fostered an environment wherein faculty of color are few and far between, Ethnic Studies course offerings have little financial and institutional support, and student services for students of color are decreasing each year.

To Support Professor Andrea Smith: The Provost must hear our responses! Write letters in support of Andrea Smith’s tenure case. Address email letters to ALL of the following:

* Teresa Sullivan, Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs, LSA,
* Lester Monts, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, LSA,
* Mary Sue Coleman, President,

Voice your ideas on the web forum at

To Support Women of Color at Michigan and the Crisis of Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies: Attend the student organized March 15th Conference at UM!!!! Campus Lockdown: Women of Color Negotiating the Academic Industrial Complex is free and open to the public. Speakers include renowned activists and scholars Piya Chatterjee, Angela Davis, Rosa Linda Fregoso, Ruthie Gilmore, Fred Moten, Clarissa Rojas, and Haunani-Kay Trask. For more information and to register, visit:

• Smith is author of the following books:
o Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide
o Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances
o Sacred Sites, Sacred Rites
• Smith is editor and/or co-editor of the following anthologies:
o Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology
o The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
o Native Feminisms Without Apology
o Forthcoming on theorizing Indigenous Studies
• She has published 15 peer reviewed articles in widely circulated academic journals
including American Quarterly, Feminist Studies, National Women’s Studies Association Journal, Hypatia, Meridians, and the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion
• Smith is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards from organizations such as the Lannan Foundation, University of Illinois, Gustavus Myers Foundation, Ford Foundation
• Smith was cited in the U.S. Non-Governmental Organization Consolidated Shadow Report to the United Nations
• A co-founder of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and the Chicago chapter of Women of All Red Nations, she has been a key thinker behind large-scale national and international efforts to develop remedies for ending violence against women beyond the criminal justice system. As a result of her work, scholars, social service providers, and community-based organizations throughout the United States have shifted from state-focused efforts to more systemic approaches for addressing violence against women. In recognition of her contributions, Smith was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
• As of June 2007, Professor Smith’s book, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (2005) had sold over 8,000 copies. Three-fourths of these sales have gone to college and university courses. In addition, the leading Native studies organization, Native American and Indigenous Studies Association organized a special panel about this book at their last annual conference (2007). The international impact of Conquest is evidenced by its reprinting in Sami (Sweden) and in Maori Institutions in New Zealand; by Professor Smith’s invitation to participate in an academic workshop in Germany based on the book; and by the book’s frequent use in Native Studies classrooms in Canada.
• She has also played a key role in contributing social-justice based research, teaching, and community building at the University of Michigan.
• Under Andrea Smith’s mentorship, a large number of undergraduate and graduate students have grown as intellectual members of the UM’s campus community.

• Her intellectual work contributes to the fields of Native American Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies, Religious Studies, and American Studies.
• Smith is jointly appointed in the Program in American Culture and the Department of Women’s Studies at Michigan.
• The Program in American Culture gave a positive recommendation for Smith’s tenure, while the Department of Women’s Studies gave a negative recommendation. After the tenure recommendations were released from the two departments, the College of Literature, Sciences, and the Arts reviewed the tenure file and also gave a negative tenure recommendation.
• She is currently the Director of Native American Studies at Michigan.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Can we go there?

I've been participating in - mostly reading - a discussion about biracial kids and White moms, and someone mentioned the issue of hair, and of having overheard a white mom say that she wished her biracial daughter had hair like her own because it was easier to take care of.

I've been pondering this for a couple of days because my immediate reaction is to wonder if perhaps no one ever showed this mother how to care for her child's hair. I wonder this because I'm a White woman with hair that none of my White family members and hairdressers ever knew how to care for until, as a grown woman, I finally went to a hairdresser who specialized in "ethnic" (this was in South Dakota, where "ethnic" is never used to refer to White Americans) hair and who had two biracial daughters, herself. I've never styled Black hair, but I know what my own hair is like, and I wonder - is there really so much difference in terms of ease of care? I mean, it's not uncommon to walk into a wall of hairspray in public restrooms where White women are primping (not so much lately, I guess, but years ago this was certainly true), and I do occasionally see PTA mom haircuts that are, essentially, helmets - and this means that the hair takes time and work to do. I mean, sure, a lot depends on what exactly you do with the hair, and its texture helps determine that, but I suspect that when White people say things like this, they maybe have no idea what to do.*

And what I'm being too nice to say is that when White people say things like that, it's racist.

I'm actually not going to talk about the politics of Black women's hair right now.** I'm going to instead talk about my own hair, because something I've gradually become aware of is how race has operated for me in terms of my hair. It's an example of how race is constructed, because it was only the fact that I thought of myself as White that stood between me and having well-groomed hair. I did not learn, until I was an adult, that I could not care for my hair the way most White people I knew cared for their hair.

When I was a kid, this is what White people did with their hair:
1) Shampoo
2) Rinse
3) Condition (this was new, back then!)
4) Rinse
5) Blow dry / curl / comb / put in a ponytail.

If you have hair like mine and you try this, you will be rewarded with a mess. And still, I used to brush that hair, determined to make it behave. I tried mousse. I used cans of AquaNet. I remember crying to my mother that I was going to have to shave it off and buy a wig. This was not a bad hair day. This was years of not being able to take care of my hair and of feeling down-deep ugly because of it, despite the fact that there were plenty of women of color around me, plenty of hair products for their hair around me. It just never, not once, occurred to me that I was looking in the wrong places. I just figured that there must be something wrong with me.

This prompts me to post an excerpt from something I wrote several years ago:

My hair. My aunt tells me, laughing, "When you were little, we used to say that you had Angela Davis hair." I'm never sure what to make of this; I don't think my aunt means this as a compliment. My mother remembers, "You would cry and cry when I'd wash your hair. You kept pleading with me, saying 'Mommy, I be good! I be good!'" And I think of how they used to try every morning to get a comb through it, pulling so hard I thought I'd end up bald, forcing my hair into position for a few minutes, until the wind and humidity got into it. My father would lecture in his stern voice: "If you would brush your hair a hundred strokes every morning and every night, you could train it to straighten out."

My baby pictures show reddish blond curls that stuck up all over my head, seemingly weightless. Later pictures show hair that is much darker and heavier.

But my hair did not gleam. It sat, dully, sticking out in every direction no matter what I did. Often it stood straight up from my head, particularly if I'd recently pulled off my knitted cap. The hairstylist who cut our family's hair, didn't know what to do with me. When I was thirteen, he cut my hair into a short Afro so that it curled up all around my head. I liked it, and let it grow longer and longer, picking it out as far as I could. My friends were amused by what my junior high school principal referred to as "a Zulu haircut" (another comment not meant to be a compliment). But I was supposed to be white, and there was no way for my hair to fit into white beauty, except as a joke. No white movie star had an Afro. I knew damn few Black people who had an Afro in 1982. The younger sister of my best friend started calling me "frizzbomb".

In high school, I used to get up early so I'd have time to curl my hair. No matter how carefully I wound the strands around the hot iron, there would always be one long piece that stubbornly hung down in front of my face. I spent my classes trying to tuck this piece in behind the rigid curl that ran the length of my forehead (my attempt at an eighties version of a Farah flip). Within seconds, it would untuck itself and slide squarely between my eyes. Once, as I was twisting and twisting to no avail, I looked up and caught the eyes of a boy who was grinning at my futile efforts.

I always longed for long, straight hair. I used to pretend, when my hair was wet after a shower, that my hair was really that straight. For a long while, I would hope every time that it would stay that way when it dried, but of course, it never did. I used to drape the towel over my head and pretend that that was my hair.

I let my hair grow long, twice. The first time was in ninth grade, when my hair grew past my shoulders, long enough for my mother to braid it down the back. It refused to hang straight though, and it would buckle the braid that tried to contain it, finally pulling its way loose, so that by the end of the day fierce tufts would poke out toward freedom. And no matter how long my hair got, I could never wear it in a ponytail. Instead of falling down gracefully from the elastic band, it would stick straight out in an uneven puff.

The second time I let my hair grow was in college, after all but shaving it off completely. Two years after graduation, it was long and free, and I loved it. It was a wild mane, too heavy to curl tightly, but when freshly washed it would kink up beautifully. When it got wet, it would hang in long locks, and if I didn't separate them with my fingers they would stay that way. Every morning I'd have to pull apart the dreadlocks that threatened. It was so thick I couldn't pull it back into just one barrette, and so heavy that, when wet, it took effort to lift my head. My hair was so big and so full that it didn't just hang down my back, but radiated out from my head so that I couldn't see over my shoulder when moving into the passing lane.

For the record, here's what I do these days:
1) Shampoo (I don't actually use shampoo, but I use other cleansers for curly hair)
2) Apply about a handful (yes, really) of a very thick shea butter conditioner
3) DO NOT rinse
4) Apply something else, I don't know exactly what it is, but it helps hold the curl
5) DO NOT rinse
6) Apply a finishing glaze
7) DO NOT rinse
8) Wrap my hair (upside down, so the curls are accordioned) for 20 minutes
9) Go.

It takes far less time than I used to spend in high school, and there's never any crying.

Note, too, the absence of a comb or brush.

*this very issue of White moms not knowing how to style their biracial daughters' hair comes up pretty frequently in multiracial writings.

**though I do want to say in passing, and maybe I'll post about this later, that when we are in the midst of Love Your Body and such day/week/month, I think it's a good idea to think, not just in terms of loving your curves and not purging your dinner, but also in terms of race. We tend to interpret these events as only about eating disorders, but we should also be thinking about how whiteness is central to what is portrayed to us as "beauty" and about things like skin bleaching and the ways that women of color see their bodies and are made to feel about their bodies (a great video on this is here).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Drugs and consensual sex are wild; exploiting women, not so much.

On my way to the gym this morning, I was singing along with Nickelback to "Rock Star":

'Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars and
Live in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars
The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap
We'll all stay skinny 'cause we just won't eat
And we'll hang out in the coolest bars
In the VIP with the movie stars
Every good gold digger's
Gonna wind up there
Every Playboy bunny
With her bleach blonde hair
And we'll hide out in the private rooms
With the latest dictionary of
Today's who's who
They'll get you anything
with that evil smile
Everybody's got a
Drug dealer on speed dial, well
Hey, hey, I wanna be a rockstar

Except, the station I was listening to bleeped out the word "drug", so the line was, "The girls come easy and the ... come cheap." And, you know, I take offense at that. It's ok to talk about women like they're disposable, but God forbid we talk about drugs?

Even more funny to me is that the next line about staying skinny and not eating kind of depends on the drug reference.

And everyone can figure out what a "bleep-dealer" is. I mean, you wouldn't have a car dealer on speed dial, right?

But what really ticked me off was that the next song was Lou Reed's "Take a Walk on the Wild Side." And in this bizarro land of radio censors, "giving head" is not ok and needs to be bleeped, but "colored girls" can sing all they want to.

To recap: Drugs and consensual sex are bad. Treating women as disposable sex objects and talking about women of color as "colored" is just dandy.

Fucking censors.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The persistence of sexism.

This is cross-posted at Dakota Women.

I've written a lot about racism in the public discourse around Hillary and Obama's candidacies, but I have not written much about the very real moments of sexism she's faced. I'd like to rectify that, not so much by writing about it myself* as by sharing with you a few links I've received recently** that help to show both the scope of this sexism and also the way racism and sexism are interwoven so tightly in our national discussions.

Teaching Tolerance has a special edition of the Anti-Bias Classroom that is focused on teaching about the elections. I have not had time yet to peruse the whole thing, but the first page sums up problems with the national discussion so far quite nicely.

The Hillary Sexism Watch - just what it sounds like, and worth reading.

And lest you miss it, go here to see why Axe sucks. I mean, we KNOW they suck, but this is pretty bad.

*At the moment, I don't have anything to add to the good writing that is already out there.
**Thanks to the WMST-L Listserv.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The thing about "barbaric."

I wrote this post last month, at the same time that I wrote my FGE post, but it's timely to post it now as I've just seen this response to the FGE post. The blogger, and a commenter, as well, suggest that "barbaric" is not, in and of itself, a problematic word to use. Below are my thoughts.

In the discussion on FGE that I mentioned, one angry woman, who didn't understand why Western women's opposition to the practice was perceived as imperialist, challenged someone else's comment that "barbaric" was an offensive term. Why, she asked, did we consider "barbaric" to be imperialist and offensive?

The obvious answer is that we in the West, particularly but not exclusively white women, tend to use "barbaric" only to talk about "other" cultures. For example, we almost never call "barbaric" the mainstream forms of body modification, such as high heels. Partly, this is because when we compare high heels to, say, foot binding, we feel safe in the knowledge that high heels only deform the foot and leg a little, and they may slow some women down, but they at least leave her mobile. So, we see high heels on a spectrum, and on the spectrum, they're not so bad.

We also tend to see mainstream forms of body modification as, well, mainstream - fairly safe, fairly accepted (except by radical feminists, bless their hearts, who remind us of what these practices actually do to our bodies), things that don't make us gasp. Pierced ears, for example. Tattoos. Many plastic surgeries are quickly becoming these kinds of accepted practices, such as breast augmentations and lifts and reshapings, or stomach "tucks", or face lifts. Many of these things hurt (a lot or a little), but the person having them done recovers, and our perception is that they are not life-threatening (though certain plastic surgeries that are common, like liposuction, are) nor do they impede sexual pleasure (though breast surgeries frequently result in significant loss of sensation). When it comes to more extreme types of body modification, things that are not so mainstream - like tongue-splitting, for example, or even, for many, spreaders in ear piercings - we are quick to say "barbaric!" because it doesn't describe many of us, or our family members, or our friends.

Against footbinding and FGE, these procedures look tame.

IGM (Intersex Genital Mutilation), performed on nonconsenting infants and children, and male circumcision, also performed on nonconsenting infants and frequently without anesthetic, are not really taken seriously by some feminists. Many pooh-pooh objections to these practices as a waste of time, when there are more serious issues, like FGE, to address. Some point out that IGM (they often don't call it this - they feel that using this terminology diminishes the brutality of FGM) only affects a very small percentage ofthe population. And often, it is pointed out that male circumcision doesn't have lasting negative effects, or if it does (loss of some, but not most, sensation), they are minor.

Maybe it's time now to define "barbaric".
From Merriam-Webster:
"1 a: of, relating to, or characteristic of barbarians b: possessing or characteristic of a cultural level more complex than primitive savagery but less sophisticated than advanced civilization
2 a: marked by a lack of restraint : wild b: having a bizarre, primitive, or unsophisticated quality."

So "barbaric" means primitive, wild, unsophisticated, savage. These are terms that have historically, repeatedly and EXCLUSIVELY been used to refer to people of color and poor people.

And yet - we use them to talk about a certain level of brutality, right? While we refuse to see the brutality within our own culture.

I could post pictures of IGM to prove a point - or, for that matter, videos of plastic surgeries - but I won't.

Finally, I'd like to suggest that "barbaric," in addition to being a racist term, is also offensive in that it comes from "barbarian." Terry Jones (yes, THAT Terry Jones) writes in his book, Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History:
"Nobody ever called themselves 'barbarians'. It's not that sort of word. It's a word used about other people. In fact, it's a form of otherness. It has been used by the Ancient Greeks to describe non-Greek people whose language they couldn't understand and who therefore seemed to babble unintelligibly...The Romans adopted the Greek word and used it to label (and usually libel) the people who surrounded their own world.

Once the term had the might and majesty of Rome behind it, the Roman interpretation became the only one that counted, and the peoples whom they called Barbarians became forever branded - be they Spaniards, Britons, Gauls, Germans, Scythians, Persians or Syrians. And of course 'barbarian' has become a by-word for the very opposite of everything we consider civilized. In contrast to the Romans, the Barbarians were lacking in refinement, primitive, ignorant, brutal, rapacious, destructive and cruel.


We actually owe far more to the so-called 'barbarians' than we do to the men in togas. And that fact that we still think of the Celts, the Huns, the Vandals, the Goths, the Visigoths and so on as 'barbarians' means that we have all fallen hook, line and sinker for Roman propaganda...Now, however, we are beginning to realize that the story of a descent from the light of Rome to the darkness of Barbarian dominion is completely false."

So let's just examine our subject positions, shall we, when we invoke words like "barbaric" and use them, both to slander ancient civilizations as well as contemporary cultures? Perhaps there is more accurate and honest, and less imperialist, language we can use to mount a critique that will help save women's and children's bodies. Perhaps there are better ways to be allies than by pointing out how wild and savage those "other" cultures are.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Racism, feminism, and the issue of FGE.

Once again, a dust-up around FGE (Female Genital Excision) has erupted on a professional listserv that I am on, and once again, the mere mention of the practice has prompted all kinds of accusations and leaping to conclusions.

It used to be that we - "we" being Western feminists - used the term FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). We did this because that's how we saw it. Only - surprise! - African* women don't like being told they have mutilated genitals. And, too, they didn't appreciate the Western imperialist approach that cast their societies as backward and evil, while Western feminists ignored the brutalities within our own cultures. (This is where some readers on the professional listserv said to themselves, "aha! She said there are brutalities within our cultures! She is equating FGM (they don't much care what language other people choose) with things like high heels and male circumcision!" More on this in a minute.)

African women have tended to use the term FGE to describe the practice. Other terms that are used in an attempt to work with African women as allies and to be respectful and culturally sensitive include FGS (Female Genital Surgery) and FGC (Female Genital Cutting). There are, indeed, many terms in use, and there are politics around which terms one uses. One may be completely opposed to the practice and call it "cirucmcision," for example, which is a word that many Western feminists oppose because they think it doesn't do justice to the "barbaric" nature of the practice. (They get mad, too, when you try to point out the racist and imperialist attitudes that are illustrated by using words like "barbaric" to talk about non-Western cultures.)

There seems to be no way to get a certain segment of the feminist population to understand that it is possible both to oppose practices like FGE and still seek to use respectful terminology. This is perceived as attempting to "whitewash" (an interesting phrase, since we're talking about mostly White women slinging racist slurs as mostly Black women) the issue. In fact, on several occasions when this issue has come up, it has progressed in the following way:
1) Someone uses terminology that is other than "mutilation," or suggests that Western women have been imperialist in their approach to the problem in the past;
2) Someone responds with, "how can you not care about this terrible practice?! If you think it's so great, why don't you have it done?!"

And immediately, it is third grade, and we are on the playground again.

Meanwhile, what does it do for African women in America when so many American feminists have considered opinions about their genitals? I'm not saying we shouldn't care about FGE, and I do oppose it. But I mean, we don't say, "What can I do to help?" Instead, we say, "Those poor women have mutilated genitals! Ew! How disgusting and horrific! I'm so lucky that I live somewhere where that wouldn't happen to me!" And then we go off to the bathroom to vomit our lunches, or to the dermatologist for our Botox, or to the plastic surgeon for a boob job, or whatever.
Again - not equating. But why are we so fixated - to the point of distraction, really - with Black women's genitals? And meanwhile, the women whose vaginas so intrigue us may not have clean water, or adequate shelter. They may be living, for the short remainder of their lives, with HIV. They may be being raped repeatedly when they leave the refugee camp to get water and firewood.

One feminist (who gave me permission to post this here) wrote the following on the listserv:
I just want to ask why [FGS] is getting so much attention when, if you poll a large number of women on the African continent, I have the sneaking suspicion that FGS would not top the list of priorities with regards to the struggles they face as "Global South" women. (This isn't to say FGS would not be listed as an issue of concern, but would this be the main issue?)

I've been wondering about feminist discourse of late and whether or not we can truly transcend our "vagina" politics (monologues or dialogues) to create complex perspectives about women's experiences and struggles for social change and social justice.

If we continue to get stuck viewing all women's struggles as only existing between her legs, we are going to miss viewing these issues through a wider lens and to assess our body politics within the larger political arena of neocolonialism, global poverty, etc.

One thing I know, without knowing the different ways in which FGS is practiced, is that these practices do not exist in a vacuum.

One thing I also know is that I will not teach on the subject of FGS in my Women's Studies classroom. I don't feel like reducing present-day African woman's bodies to their genitalia - with the historical examples of Sara Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus," and enslaved women, I think more than enough of us have been contemplating and capitalizing on their vaginas for far too long.

I am dismayed that prominent feminists cannot, or will not, hear the voices of women of color telling them "I want your help, but I don't want you to cast me as someone with a mutilated vulva and vagina. I don't want to be an object of pity. I don't want you to talk about my culture in ways that focus only on the problems, while you proclaim yourselves to be the Great White Hope and ignore your own racism, ethnocentricism, and imperialism in approaching me. I want to speak for myself, and I want you to respect me and to listen."

It is, of course, the same debate over and over again. Trans. Sex work.** Racism in the Women's Movement and in Women's Studies. "I will not use your language because it does not say what I want it to say. It says what you want it to say, but you are not in a position to name yourself. You do not speak for women. I am your rescuer. Shut up and let me rescue you."

*Africa is not the only place in which FGE is practiced, but this discussion focused on Africa.
**The feminist who let me post her words would disagree vehemently would this connection. I don't want it to appear that she shares my particular argument re. sex work.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

"If someone said that about a Black person..."

I've been thinking - yet again - about the use of race as an analogy in discussions about the primaries. In Robin Morgan's "Goodbye #2," Morgan repeatedly makes mention of race. However, she does not mention race in order to talk about moments of racism that Barack Obama, or, indeed, any Black American has faced. She mentions it as a measuring stick. Her sole purpose in mentioning race is to suggest that, while there is no tolerance of racism (a big "HA!" must be inserted here, or I shall go crazy), there is tolerance of sexism. And so, she repeatedly suggests that if [insert racist image/comment/stereotype] were employed against Obama, we as a nation would not tolerate it.

I'm not going to refute this here, as I've already done so the other day. But what I do want to note is just how often I hear this phrase: "If it were about Blacks, it wouldn't be ok."

I've heard it so frequently lately, and not just in relation to Hillary Clinton, but about l/g/b/t rights issues, that the phrase is literally begining to ring in my head. I will admit, I have said it myself in the past. I have seen it as a valid thing to say. After all, the point is that we, as a nation, have come to recognize that some comments/stereotypes/behaviors are just not cool. The public response has shifted. Black people are now, some of us White people have thought, seen as fully human by the larger (White) American public, where once they were not.

Here's the problem (again, leaving aside the issues of whether racism still exists (Duh!)): in referencing race and racism in this way, we are USING other people's oppression for our own advancement. And on top of that, we are MINIMIZING other people's suffering.

When, for example, Robin Morgan mentions "this nation's deepest scar - slavery" and then goes on to completely ignore the legacy of slavery, the suffering of an enslaved people, the devastation that this wreaks - that is using Black suffering to make a point. She wants us to hear that women are sexual slaves. Why not just say that? Why, in order to drive home the point that something must not be tolerated, must we refer so dismissively to someone else's suffering?

And further, why must oppression against one group of people be measured by whether or not it would be tolerated against another group of people? And how must it feel, as a Black lesbian, for example, to hear White queer people confronting homophobia by arguing, in essence, that since we can't use racial slurs, we shouldn't be allowed to use homophobic slurs? (No, no one really argues that, but that is part and parcel of using Blackness as a stepping-stone for the advancement of another political agenda.)

It's time, White people, to stop referring to what gains Blacks have won as a way to make a point about what struggles still need to be fought. We should be able to call a crime a crime without running it past the Black-o-meter. We should be able to simply say, "that's hateful and oppressive." And - oh, yeah - we should be able to fight on more than one front. Racism is still with us, and I don't believe it will ever go away. With that in mind, it is far more appropriate to focus on how racism and homophobia are connected, how racism and sexism are intertwined, than to suggest that the Black battle has been won and that the rest of us are simply playing catch-up.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

I'm off...

OK, my little chickadees, I'm heading to Vegas for the weekend. When I get back, I will try to post on Black Feminist Thought, as it is Black History Month and as I just taught this topic tonight!

Now, I must go pack.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Last night was hell, but I'm glad I did it.

It took about twenty minutes just to find a parking spot. Then we had to stand a block away, in the cold, waiting in line to even enter the building. Once inside the building, we were packed in like sardines (I'm NOT kidding). It took another twenty minutes or more just to get to the right room because of the crowds. There were so many people that I has hanging on tight to Bean, for fear of losing him.

All the good swag was gone, of course. I asked for an Al Franken sticker (I wanted to keep it as a memento), but the guy peeled it off so I had to wear it.

I am not registered to vote in Minnesota. They didn't even look at my ID. They just had me write my name and address in their files and sign. I was planning on not registering for a particular party, but for all I know, they may have registered me as a DFL-er.

They gave me a tiny blue square of paper with a full list of names, including all the folks who've dropped out. I had to borrow a pen. I marked off my candidate, dropped my bit of paper into a cardboard box that reminded me of the boxes you make in Kindergarten to collect Valentines, and left. As I was walking out the door, the caucuses had been going for only an hour, and one of the guys staffing the door said to someone else, "We've already had 10,000 more than last time." (Imagine that amount of people - 10,000 MORE - in your average small junior high school! Now imagine that all those people came through in one and a half hours, because the caucusing only went from 6:30-8.)

The whole thing took about an hour or more, and at several points I almost gave up and went home. But, I'm glad I stayed.

Monday, February 04, 2008

If Hillary Clinton were a White man.

Lately, it seems, feminists who should know better - including feminist academics - are saying some really cringe-worthy things in the course of defending Hillary as a candidate. For instance, I'm really sick of hearing - and I have now heard this from several sources - that overt racism is no longer acceptable while overt sexism is, and that therefore, Hillary is getting the worst of the abuse. Yet, some of these same (White) people will turn around and confide that they are worried that if Obama were elected, someone would assassinate him. I have not yet heard from anyone the concern that Hillary would be a target for an assassination. She might be told to iron someone's shirts, and she might have her appearance repeatedly analyzed, and she might have to pander to the American public's need for her to be both strong and warm, feminine and powerful, but she is probably not in great danger of assassination for being a woman.

It may not be acceptable to say "the n-word" on broadcast television, but it is apparently acceptable to let hundreds of Black people drown rather than rescue them from a flood that everyone knew was coming and that we had resources to rescue them from. The number of Black men in the prison system is epidemic, and they are there while White men who commit the same crimes receive lesser sentences - or no sentences. Black women are far more likely to die from preventable and treatable diseases than are White women because they do not have access to healthcare and because the healthcare system doesn't give a damn about them when they try to get help (witness the woman who just died in her home in the Twin Cities because her doctor didn't believe anything was wrong with here when she went to see him, and sent her home). Is someone really going to tell me that this is not overt, public racism?

I've also heard more than one person refer to this as being another case in which Americans must decide who goes first: Black men or White women. If that's true, and if people are really thinking this way, then it is also likely to be another case in which White feminists will sell out American Blacks without a second thought. Again.

I've heard a lot of talk about how, if Obama were a woman, no one would look twice at him, at that Obama woman with "no experience." (No one ever mentions that being Black might have anything to do with that - nope, it's all about gender.) I've heard that if Hillary weren't a woman, she wouldn't have had to deal with all the scrutiny and nasty comments (probably true) and would therefore be way ahead in the race (like John Edwards, the White guy?).

But so far, I haven't seen anyone really examine what it might mean for the race if Hillary were a White man. So let's consider it, and let's think particularly about what kind of support she'd be getting among feminists and among women more generally.

If Hillary Clinton were a White man, then all the White feminists who are furiously fanning themselves at the thought of having to choose between betraying womankind and looking like a racist would immediately back Obama. They would point out that we've had enough White men in the White House, and that this is a historic moment for change. National feminist organizations would be falling all over themselves to be first to endorse him. Meanwhile, they would be pointing to Hillary's war record as signs of disregard for the poor people and people of color who have had to give their lives for the war.

If Hillary Clinton were a White man, her comment about Martin Luther King, Jr.'s work only coming to fruition because of the work of a benevolent president would have drawn criticism from White feminists.

If Hillary Clinton were a White man, there would be more, not fewer, remarks about how she would continue Bill's legacy (were she his son).

If Hillary Clinton were a White man, we'd be looking now at a race between Edwards and Obama.

If Hillary Clinton were a White man, no one would accuse female Obama supporters of voting with their crotches. (Interesting that no one said this about Edwards supporters. And, what, are there no lesbians supporting Obama? Hmm.) Instead, they'd be accusing female Clinton supporters of voting with their crotches.

If Hillary Clinton were a White man, at least I wouldn't have to listen to what is passing for feminism but is really thinly disguised racism.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Hello, Media?

They are not "suicide bombings" if they aren't suicides. Women used "unwittingly" to deliver bombs aren't committing suicide. They are being murdered.

Heterosexuality, intercourse, and rape.

A commenter at Heart's writes:
"...the relationship I have with my current partner is the first one where we have not been physical. And in fact, it’s the first relationship where I have known true intimacy. What the patriarchy thinks of as intimacy is only a shadow of what my partner and I have. More is conveyed in the simple touch of a hand or in a look than can ever be done with genital contact.

My previous sexual experiences can best be described as a series of rapes. They were with men who all were completely dominant over me. The sex just reinforced that dominance. That’s what sex is: a means to control and subjugate wymmyn. It’s a form of abuse, plain and simple. The worst part is, they were all rapists and didn’t even know it. My heart weeps for the wymmyn those men ended up with. They’re rape victims. All heterosexual wymmyn are."

I can understand trying to find ways to relate to each other that are not "male" or that do not involve treating the other person like a sex object. But this comment - and another commenter who immediately agreed that all heterosexual women were rape victims - makes me wonder what the goal really is, here.

Radical feminism has always sought to explore healthy feminist sexuality without tones of "male sexuality." Radical feminism generally opposed pornography and tried (unsuccessfully, but it was a sincere effort) to draw a line between "erotica" and "pornography," with the distinction that the latter objectified women. (As we know from the history of legislation surrounding pornography, there has never been a commonly-agreed-upon definition for "pornography" that tells us, when we look at a picture, whether or not it is pornographic. The same is true for "erotica." When I was in college in the late '80s, some of us distinguished between the two as erotica being "sensual" and pornography being "sexual" - a popular distinction during this time - but feminist theorists generally gave up on this distinction because it was still too muddy.)

But what I see in this comment does not seem to be about developing a feminist, woman-centered sexuality. True, it is about developing intimacy, and people do often embrace celibacy, alone or with partners, in order to put their energies into something else, whether that be spiritual or emotional or whatever. I think developing this kind of intimacy should be respected. It isn't easy, and I think it's great that people can do it and want to do it.


When someone moves from saying, "I was dominated in my relationships with men"* to saying, "all heterosexual women are rape victims," and in the context of promoting a celibate life, then I have to wonder, first, if the goal is to eradicate sex from relationships because of a belief that sex, itself, is harmful to women. "Sex" hasn't been defined here, so I don't know if we are talking about penetration, orgasm, or what. And, too, when we talk about "all heterosexual women," we need to remember that the same variety of sexual experience applies. Plenty of heterosexual women don't have intercourse but have other kinds of sex. Are they rape victims, or are we only talking about intercourse? Is the assumption that heterosexual women never want to have sex of any kind with their partners? That they are never freely able to make decisions about their sexualities and sexual relationships?

There's a really good argument to be made - and Andrea Dworkin made it, in Intercourse - that we as a culture have constructed violence and force into heterosexual intercourse. Here is how she supports this claim (and in this next part I am actually drawing from Laura Carpenter's work, but the following paragraph is from Dworkin): we think of virginity loss as only happening in relation to heterosexual intercourse, which is, as sex goes, a male-defined act. It is "male-defined" because it is dependent on the penis: we know it has occurred only if a penis has entered a vagina and ejaculated. Whether or not the woman orgasms is immaterial.

Dworkin reminds us that we think of virginity loss as something that happens in one, forceful moment; we accept that it involves tearing and pain. We never question this reality. But Dworkin points out that vaginal walls stretch, that over time, they can accomodate, and that we *could* think of first intercourse as a gentle process that occurs over time. We don't. That tells us something about how female and male sexualities are perceived in our culture, and about how men and women are perceived in our culture, and about the ways in which female sexuality and experience is already defined for us, before we even get to explore it for ourselves.

So there is good reason to challenge patriarchal notions of sexuality. I would even go so far as to suggest that there is a "gray area" - that there is, in fact, cultural coercion - operating on women in regard to sex in general. Intercourse is central to the notion of heterosexuality, which is not to say that there aren't many heterosexual people who have more enlightened perspectives on their own sexualities and who can make honest choices to engage in whatever kind of sex they want to engage in.

I'm not saying that intercourse is rape. I am saying that the fact that we assume, as a culture, that it is inevitable that a woman will engage in this kind of sexual practice; that the fact that we assume, as a culture, that virginity loss must be painful; that the fact that we assume, as a culture, that female pleasure doesn't matter, but male pleasure does, in determining whether sex has been had - all of these things add up to a loss of some agency, a loss of some options, on the part of women AND of men. And there are, therefore, times when intercourse is culturally coerced (not unlike Rich's notion of compulsory heterosexuality).

But even given that, that is a huge step away from claiming that all heterosexual women are rape victims, which is something that even Dworkin didn't claim. Such a claim mimimizes the reality of rape and the agency of women who have taken risks to explore and defend their sexualities. It suggests that there is no difference between consensual sex and the actual brutality of forced sex. It also posits, once again, the notion that women who are not heterosexual are, simply by virtue of their sexual identity labels, free of rape (not true - rape occurs within women-women relationships, and women who love women are still raped by men). Finally, it suggests that men exist in all of this only as a harmful force, that men who have sex with women are always raping them because men+sex=rape. (As an aside, this is not a real helpful construction for those of us who work with boys and men to take leadership in stopping rape and sexual assault.)

None of this is feminist (nor, sadly, is it original). This commenter is really quite revolutionary - building a relationship on an emotional connection rather than on sex is radical and inspiring. But it would be nice if the justification for that act could be in the good that comes out of it, and not in the assumption that one experience is universal, nor in identity politics posturing.

*I'm using quotation marks here, not to quote verbatim, but to quote approximate ideas. I'm also not quoting the commenter's spelling of "woman" and "women," because I wrote like that for while and I find it annoying now.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Warning: rambly post.

No, seriously, this is just a long ramble, and there isn't any neat coming together point. If you are in search of something meaningful and profound, turn back now.

So, I'm going to Las Vegas. For a conference. And here's the thing: one of the bragging points about this conference site, according to the folks putting on the conference, is that it's a NON-GAMING HOTEL.

"The fuck?"* you may ask, incredulously, as I did. But yes, this is a selling point.

Now - what is the point of going to Vegas if not to gamble? I'm not going to see Cirque du Soleil, which I can watch on t.v. any time I want, but which I really have no desire to do, anyway. I'm not going to see Barry Manilow, though a friend of mine was really disappointed that he won't be there then and so is going to see Cirque du Soleil. I'm going to the conference, and I'm bringing $20 or $40 that is set aside to be turned into quarters and fed to the gods of the slot machines.

Is this a feminist thing or is it just a confusion about entitlement and individual rights? I mean, I know that addiction is addiction, and I don't want to make people feel that they can't come to the conference because they can't be tempted, but I'm doubtful that gambling addictions among the membership is the reason for this. It may be that this group of feminists doesn't want to support a hotel that supports gambling and thus feeds off of others' addictions, and I can respect that, but at the same time, I'm not really convinced that this is the same animal as, say, avoiding non-unionized hotels. And plus, it's VEGAS. It's not like the conference is in Windsor or Niagara Falls or someplace that doesn't have a reputation for gambling (and prostitution, for that matter).

Feminist circles - at least some of the ones I travel in - are known for trying to accomodate everyone's needs. (Aside: Doesn't that sound a lot nicer than saying something like "Feminist circles are known for policing everyone's behavior?" Because at least in this case, I think it's really about trying to meet needs of a vast and diverse group.) In the NWSA, for example (not the conference that is happening in Vegas), there are always struggles between different constituencies. The Disability Caucus gets pissed off when Caucus business meetings are scheduled for early in the morning because many of the people who have disabilities have ones that are worse in the morning - more painful, more flare-uppy, etc. The Disability Caucus also points out that people with disabilities need to stay in hotels rather than on college campuses, so that they have (hopefully) easy access to sessions within one large and accessible building and so that they have air conditioning (not available on college campuses in June). This is a moot point now, anyway, since next year, the conference will move to the fall and will always be held in hotels, but still, holding the conference at hotels has angered the Women of Color Caucus and others who point out that this is far more expensive than staying on campus and that many WoC are priced out of attending at all. There are always some sanctimonius vegetarians/vegans who complain about the food available - ok, I know, this is really harsh of me, but fer crissakes, the world does not cater to most of us, and if you're going to attend a conference at a hotel, you should expect that it will not have much in the way of vegetarian/vegan food because, really, WHERE IN THE COUNTRY HAS MUCH IN THE WAY OF VEGETARIAN/VEGAN FOOD?! Not many places. And this is not the NWSA's fault.

OK, so I've gotten off-topic, but the point is, it's one thing to try to accomodate everyone. I think we *should* try to accomodate everyone, not just in feminist circles, but in general. I mean, that's part of respecting each other, isn't it? And the concerns of the Women of Color Caucus and the Disability Caucus are valid concerns (and they are exempted from the next sentence). But I also think that there's a point where some people begin to demand for themselves an experience in life that most people simply do not have. It seems to me to be a kind of arrogance to go to Vegas and insist on staying away from even the hint of gambling, or to go to New Orleans and complain that there is a lack of vegetarian food (I'm reaching, here, but you all know what I mean, I hope), or to complain about the service in the hotel restaurant at all (it's a freakin' hotel restaurant, and you are not so special, so just sit tight and wait). Or to claim that being asked not to wear perfume so as not to aggravate people with environmental sensitivity challenges one's identity as a person who has a particular scent. I've heard feminists say/do all of these things.

What I'm really getting at is that some feminists use feminism for their own purposes of entitlement. This is certainly not unique to feminists - I mean, the Christian Right does this all the time when they claim to be an oppressed group that is offended by a particular book in a library or Halloween parties or the fact that December holidays other than Christmas do exist. Instead of recognizing that there are lots of other people around who also count, they make it all about them and cast everyone else as the oppressor. But when feminists do it, it particularly peeves me, because I would like for feminists to be above reproach. And we're not, of course, because no one is, but I would still like for us to be.

But see, I think when you're trying to live out a principle, one of two things happen. Either you get frustrated because you feel that while you are trying very hard to be sensitive to all these other folks, no one is paying attention to who *you* are and what *your* needs are, so you get to a point of saying, "heck with this, I'm forming my own group to focus on people like me" - or you end up saying really preposterous things in the service of protecting some other that everyone but you recognizes that you see as other.

I sometimes think that, as feminists, we have too many rules about what we can do and say and think in order to be *good* feminists. I've just been pointed to a blog discussion from last August that I mercifully missed the first time around, and about halfway through the several hundred comments, I realized that the core of the whole debate was in the definition of "feminist," and that half the commenters were leaving it open to people to decide for themselves whether or not they fit under that moniker, and that the other half not only knew damn well that they were defining the term very specifically so as to leave out a good number of people who described themselves as feminists, but they were also being passive aggressive and not saying this straight out until well on into the fray. And that's where I just threw up my hands in disgust and heard myself saying "blah blah blah" as I was reading one of the more obnoxious posts about what feminism IS and what it ISN'T, which was based entirely on that commenter's personal taste but being presented as solid fact. And further, the very fact that someone had dared to ask questions about feminism that these commenters didn't approve of was seen as encroachment on their territory as feminists. So in this case, the very claiming of "feminist" as an identity label was being approached as an entitlement, as something that various people felt they had the right to control.

I told you there was no neat coming together point here.

*My friend's mom reads this blog, or at least she used to, and whenever I swear here, I always think of her and kind of blush.