On Fear and Safety

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“To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.” – W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

As I watch white passerbys in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I feel a sickness to my stomach.  I watch them clutch their purses tightly, look down at their feet, increase their pace, as though this is the most normal response one could have to being in the presence of black and brown bodies.  Though I often cannot see the eyes of the passerby (my view is often obstructed by the presence of dark,  hipster, bug-eyed sunglasses), I can tell that they fear for their safety, that they deem those bodies a problem.  But as we discussed in a blog entry, fear, no mater how genuinely felt, can very much be informed by fucked up assumptions re: race, class, gender presentation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.

Merriam Webster defines safety as “the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss” and safe as “free from harm or risk,” or “secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss.”  The question I pose is this: how does one assess whether there is a threat of danger, harm or loss?

Fear obviously plays a tremendous role on what makes us feel safe and unsafe.  You fear crocodiles and the threat of being eaten and tossed around, so you safety-plan by not swimming in Florida’s swamps.  You fear being injured or capitated in car accidents, so you make sure the driver is calm, lucid, and skilled.  You fear being sexually assaulted by a black man, so you clutch my purse, run away, and/or find a white man to walk with you.

One of these is not like the others.

The next question I pose is this: how does one assess whether there is a threat of danger, harm, or loss, when the only available identifier of something/someone to be feared is physical appearance?

Fear and Desire are FUNKYTOWN

I pair fear and desire into the same group of funkytown concepts and practices.  We are often extremely uncritical of what (who) we fear and what (who) we desire because to us, these are instinctual and primordial.  God, what can be more natural than wanting to escape death or harm?  What can be more primitive than our desire to fornicate with a desirable mate?  But it is exactly for these reasons that unchecked fear and desire are tremendously powerful and dangerous – assumptions, stereotypes, and tropes run free, eat free, and grow freely and begin dictating behaviors and feelings.  Are white women instinctually afraid of black men?  Are white male vigilantes instinctually afraid of young and hooded black bodies?  Are Americans instictually afraid of people we perceive as Muslim?  To answer these questions, it is important to think about what facts, opinions, images, and re-imagined memories assemble to inform our visceral, cerebral, and involuntary reactions.  My father tells this funny story about his experience in high school.  After recently migrating from S. Korea, he joined a high school in NJ where the students were convinced that he was not to be messed with.  Why, you ask?  Because they thought that he somehow inherently had mad ninja skills.  Hilarious? Yes.  Informative and illuminating? Yes.  True? No way.

So the exercises for today are: (1) To think about how our imagined, constantly reassembling thoughts inform our fears and ideas on what it means to feel and be safe; and (2) To evaluate how our fear of the Other dictates our behaviors, our feelings, and our body’s response to “threat”; and (3) To ultimately realize that many of our fears exist only to reinforce a system that purposefully disenfranchises certain communities.  And if you want to be particularly self-deprecating, you can ask yourself this: How fragile are our psyches, if we unknowingly try to dismantle any semblance of the Other, of the “problem” by involuntarily raising our heart rates, sweating our brows, shortening our breath, when we see something or someone we fear?

Subject-Object Problem: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?

One way to penetrate the massive problem of fear (in all its gory and messy glory) is to think about where these “truths” come from.  Arguably, the world consists of objects, or entities, which are perceived or otherwise presumed to exist as entities by subjects, or observers.  In this dichotmized world where only the subject can be the one to define the object, we can see a clear problem, one where knowledge, and even the acknowledgement of another’s (an Other’s) existence, relies upon the good graces of the subject.

The major issues within this dichotomized understanding of how humans relate to one another are twofold: (1) How do we know that something (to know) exists?; and (2) How does one know what one knows?  Regarding the first issue, think about this: Exactly who has been determining what should be known about the Other? What was known and discussed about slaves and their humanity in the 1600s was limited, to say the least, because the subjects (slave traders and owners) decided there weren’t any more things to be known about the slaves (objects) other than their ability to produce and reproduce.  Regarding the second question, think about where we learn our truths.  Where do we learn that black and brown people are scary, that they will rape and hurt our women and children?  Everywhere.  TV shows, movies, the news, laws, practices, parents, friends – structural and cultural reifications that ________ community is fearsome, violent, and dangerous.  In other words, the subject is always identifying what is known and what should be known, and the object is always being defined by the subject.  Think deeply about who the subject and object are in our country.  And then, as I’ve mentioned in my blog entry “The Color of Fear,” think about who has the most to gain in constructing realities where _______ community is fearsome, violent, and dangerous.  The subject-object problem is one informed by power and one falsely mitigated by the subject.

So what happens when we marry the subject’s ontological (concerned with the essence or  nature of being), epistemological (concerned with the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity), and hermenutical  (concerned with methodological principles of interpretation) assumptions with fear and desire?  Life.  Life, where songs like “Asian Girlz”  are supposed to be “ironic” in a hispter way, but reinforce assembled “truths”  that make the eroticization, fetishization, and objectification of our bodies, minds, and souls justifiable.  Life, where a majority of white people believe that Zimmerman’s verdict was fair and just, and that Trayvon Martin was the aggressor on trial.  Life, where stopping and frisking is considered a necessary procedure, to ensure the safety of city’s children and families.  Life, where transgender people are beaten for using a bathroom of their choosing.

In a series of unpublished notes to his friend, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze (who famously co-authored Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari) explains that desire is never a “natural” nor a “spontaneous” determination; rather, that it is always a process of assemblage (whereby power is an important component) that is historically assignable.  He explains, “For me, desire does not comprise of lack; neither is it a natural given; it is but one with an assemblage of heterogenous elements which function; it is process, in contrast with structure or genesis; it is affect, as opposed to feeling; it is “haecceity” (individuality of a day, a season, a life), as opposed to subjectivity; it is event, as opposed to thing or person.”  I would argue that fear is a similar assemblage of elements that are never “natural” nor “spontaneous,” and they come from places of powerful historicity.  Read the fascinating and interesting text here.

Experience & Statistics

Sometimes people will point to their own experiences (or the experiences of people they know) and statistics to justify their fear of a certain community.  I was robbed by ______ or I heard that __% of violent crimes happen at the hands of _____ community or __% of terrorist attacks are orchestrated by _______.

To this, I say HOGWASH.  Not because survivors and victims of crimes or violence aren’t or shouldn’t be triggered by certain behavioral signifiers, but because almost every time someone is scared of a community, the fear is determined by race, gender presentation, sexual orientation, or nationality.  Take for instance, that in the United States, a white person is almost six times more likely to be killed by another white person than he or she is to be killed by a black person.   Given that, do white men and women and children’s hearts skip a beat, do they sweat, does their breath shorten, when they are around white other white people?  The fear of black violence and culture is an irrational feeling, and an imagined reality, when statistics show that white people are way more likely to be assaulted, murdered and raped by another white person.   Men in turbans are to be feared at all times, but Adam Lanza or James Holmes are treated as outliers, as aberrant individuals whose mental illnesses and home lives and social awkwardness drove them to commit their crimes.  When black men commit crimes, people point to “essential” violent, hedonistic, and primitive genetics or culture.  But whenever a mass shooter is white, no one uses Moynihanian fingers to point to failed white fathers, white families, or white culture .  As this article on theroot.com states,

“The crimes of a James Holmes, or a Jerry Sandusky, or a Timothy McVeigh, or a Ted Bundy are never attributed to some inherent defect in white culture or a failure of white people to police their own, yet their crimes are no less representative of ‘whiteness’ than a Chicago black youth’s drive-by-shooting is representative of ‘blackness.’”

So, going back to the subject-object problem: the white subject has created the entities of blackness, coloredness, terrorism, only to reify their power.  The dark object remains the imagined reason for all bad things we fear.

So fine.  Let’s racialize crime and violence and culture.  You want to play?  I’ll play.  Let’s discuss why a white person is six times more likely to be murdered by another white person than by a black person.  Let’s discuss why in 2011 more whites were murdered by fellow whites than blacks were murdered by other blacks.  Let’s talk about the pathology of white families, and how it leads to mass shooters.  Do people not understand numbers?  Would trainings on basic math help our society see that their fear for safety around certain people and communities are not statistically sound?

But we know it ain’t about statistics.

So yes, your experience of fear is real. Your heart is pounding, your adrenaline is pumping, but the question I will always ask is this: Why?

Unsafe vs. Uncomfortable

When I was doing community organizing and public advocacy work around domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships, I participated in many interesting conversations, especially regarding inclusion of LGBTQ survivors in domestic violence shelters.  One of the biggest issues discussed was the inclusion of transwomen.  Some counselors and advocates argued that the presence of a penis made all the women in the shelter feel “unsafe,” regardless of how the transwoman identified.  Of course, thinking about how a survivor is triggered and supporting them in working through these is an incredibly important piece of counseling.  However, if someone is triggered, at least in part due to their fear of a type of person, the situation is a bit different,  because that has more to do with discomfort of the unknown and the Other.  A counselor and advocate should and does gently and lovingly help a survivor identify specifically what their triggers are, what behaviors and actions scare them and make them feel unsafe.  And then they should and do help them safety plan and experience empowerment.  However, they should try not to encourage survivors to continue utilizing physical markers to identify fear.

A transwoman should not be denied shelter because of her appearance and should not have to inform intake staff as to whether she is pre-op or post-op.  She shouldn’t have to prove that she does or does not have a penis.  A transwoman should be able to use whatever bathroom she chooses.  I think sometimes we conflate safety with comfort – if someone is uncomfortable with the idea of living with a transwoman, because they do not understand nor want to understand what it means for this person to be living their life, that should not preclude the inclusion of a transwoman in the shelter.

This is the real issue.  We are uncomfortable with a transwoman because we do not know what it means or looks like to be a transperson and it is easier to hate someone than to take the time to learn about difference.   We are uncomfortable with young black men because we do not know what it means or looks like to be a young black man, except for what we see on TV and movies and the news.  We are uncomfortable with our own privilege, and feel guilty that we have access to a type of safety, and project onto Othered communities in order to justify our privilege and power.  We are uncomfortable with undocumented immigrants because we don’t want to address how we feel similarly dispensable, replaceable, invisible, and exploited  by the government and corporations, and we utilize racism and xenophobia to socially distance ourselves from the reality that our lives and livelihoods are concretely connected.  We are uncomfortable with our stringent understanding of masculinity and lash out at gay men and transpeople for making us rethink everything.  We are uncomfortable with our own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism, so we make ourselves feel better by turning our opinions into truth.  But folks – the prioritization of our privileged comfort is killing lives.  Literally.  So let’s get it straight, ok?

I’m not saying that safety-planning isn’t a real and important need.  I’ve been in several situations in my life where safety-planning was necessary for me to avoid harm and injury, and I know it’s been life-saving and changing for survivors of violence.  But in order for anyone to safety-plan properly, it is incredibly important to be very accurate and specific about what we fear.  For example, I was afraid of a man with mental health issues who stalked me for weeks, and heavily bruised my arm twice.  I was not afraid of all black men or all people with mental health issues – just this guy,  because he had hurt me.  And I relied on the kindness and dedication of the young black men in my neighborhood with whom I became friends.  They alerted me when this man was around.  They suggested certain walking routes for me.  They made sure they were around on these routes during the times I would walk home from work.  They did some investigating and found out whether this man was going to continue living in the neighborhood.  And I gave them information on free mental health services in Brooklyn, in case they wanted to pass that along to the man.

So next time you are afraid for your safety, ask yourself, always ask yourself: Why?  Find all the “facts” and evidence and opinion and maxims that made your fear real and visceral and see if you are actually fearful or if you are uncomfortable.  You likely won’t like the view, but it’s not too late to change.

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“Orange is the New Black”: A Review

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Every sentence is a story, but Piper’s is waaaaaaaaaaay too present.

Before I begin dissecting what I liked and disliked about the hip new Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, I should let you all know that I am apparently annoyingly critical about everything I watch, including shows I love (like The Wire and Oz and Arrested Development).  Though it is certainly arguable to what degree TV shows and movies impact the construction and reification of viewers’ imagined truths and realities, I am a strong believer that directors, writers, casting directors, and producers have a social and moral obligation to create something that doesn’t proactively (or accidentally) promote fuckedupness, whether it be about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, size, ability, etc.  (For examples of how movies reinforce people’s imagined truths, click here).  I am pretty sure I’m in the stark minority with this opinion, as I’m often met with comments like, “It’s just a movie/TV show” or “It isn’t up the artist to be fair, it is up to the viewer.”  Which all may be true – but this is just my personal way of approaching, loving, and critiquing things.

With that, let’s begin.

Orange is the New Black is a hilarious and tender dark comedy that follows the story of Piper Chapman, a well-to-do, uppity, privileged, bored, and “progressive” white woman who lands herself in Litchfield prison and realizes that she needs to learn to live with and through a metaphorical box of colored crayons.  It is important to note that the show is based on a memoir by an equally uppity, privileged, bored, and ” progressive” white woman named Piper Kerman.  The show is set up in a way that intersplices Piper’s mildly lame and irritating story with the narratives of the Other women in the prison, revealing threads of their lives that are supposed to explain why they landed in prison and why they are the way they are.   Along the way, Piper learns about herself, her narcissism, her lovers, and her survival (often at the expense of black women’s livelihoods).  This review will be split into three categories: (1) Report Card on Race, Class, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity; (2) Quality of Other(ed) Women’s Narratives; and (3) Entertainment Value.

Um, and be warned: SPOILER ALERTS.

Report Card on Race, Class, Sexual Orientation, and Gender IdentityAverage: B or B+

For a mainstream TV show, Orange is the New Black does relatively well pretty okay in dealing with issues of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity, but some are handled much better than others.  Here is a breakdown:

Race:           B

From the very beginning of Piper’s stay in Litchfield, a fellow white inmate named Lorna Morello tells her that “We look out for our own,” and in response to Piper’s raised eyebrow, admonishes her by saying, “Oh, don’t get all P.C.  It’s tribal, not racist.”  When the prison creates a tokenizing and conciliatory advisory council, it is organized by mostly racial districts: Whites, Blacks, Latinas, Golden Girls, and “Others.”  This isn’t actually what I found irritating about the way race is handled on the show. The director (Jenji Kohan) and writer of the memoir on which this show is based (Piper Kerman) try their very best to make race a central and important issue, and try to distance themselves from their own white power and privilege (that made this show a possibility) by ridiculing and mocking Piper’s well-intentioned and stuck up idiocy.  But it feels as though Kohan and Kerman have a heavy veil of privilege hanging over their faces and can’t see the ways in which they give white characters much more agency than black/brown characters.  Look:

  • Red, a Russian woman who runs the kitchen, controls most of what goes on regarding smuggled goods, and has the resources and wit to work the system (though admittedly, all this backfires on her).  She has a whole crew who follows her every order and dotes on her ailing back.  The Latinas need Red to help them get a CO in trouble.
  • Alex Vause, Piper’s complicated ex, is possibly painted as the most independent thinker in the prison, and has the power to stand up for what she believes in.
  • Nicky Nichols, a former junkie who came from a privileged background, has the power to fuck up Red’s kitchen by providing CO Mendez with important smuggling information.
  • Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is a militant, born-again, evangelizing Christian who has a disturbing posse and the ability and resources to land Piper in solitary confinement.  (Note: though she is seen as having agency as a white woman, she is also portrayed horribly re: class and education.  More on this below).
  • And, of course, Piper Chapman, as an “appointed” member of the prison’s advisory council (and the only white) is the only one to bring up important issues like the discontinuation of GED classes and the importance of the running track re: preventative health and mental health, while the black, brown, and yellow members talk about pillows, hot sauce, or just fall asleep, making her the bright white knight of the bunch.

Regarding the last bullet point, it could be argued that this moment was supposed to be an expository one – one that shows how survival looks very different for black women who just want to do what they can to be released.  Taystee explains to Piper that the council is all for show, and that she’s not trying to start a mess of a movement when she could be released early.  The flaw in this, however, is that this situation is dichotomized, and implies that black women, or generally women who don’t have the kind of privilege and power wielded by Piper, do not and cannot fight for issues ‘bigger’ than themselves.  Let’s not forget that some of the most amazing activists are black women who were in prison (hello?  Angela Davis, much?) and that prison movements have historically been and continue to be led by POC, queer, and trans people, not by well-educated white women.

Additionally, though the black characters are written to be likable (notably Taystee and Poussay), their narratives mostly do not exist, and the kind of historical and emotional context that is provided for Piper, Alex, Red, and Pennsatucky are not generously given to some of the most interesting black and brown characters.

In a fantastic assessment of the show, Yasmin Nair of In These Times provides another example of racial difference, not exposed, but reified in Orange:

“When the show does deal with the question of what happens to women of color when they get out of prison, it dodges the insurmountable obstacles standing in their way. For instance, when a young Black woman, “Taystee” Jefferson (Daniele Brooks) finally ends her prison term, she leaves with a joyous farewell party thrown for her. But then she’s back a couple of episodes later and explains, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes, the difficulties of the outside: Constant surveillance by the state, the impossibility of finding jobs, her lack of a support system outside. At least inside, she says, she has a bed, a routine, and friends.

On the one hand, the scene could potentially serve to highlight the differences between Chapman and Jefferson. The problem is that there are no structural reasons provided for the latter’s situation outside, only that she has no friends; even her inability to find a job isn’t really portrayed as a structural problem. Her return to prison is depicted as a voluntary one, and emerges almost as one bound to her DNA, just as Chapman’s ability to think about others is also bound to her whiteness, an instinctual need to care for others.”

To its credit, Orange is the New Black does try to tackle issues of race and racism – however, it is possible that because the story is coming from the memoir and lens of a privileged white woman – though they do their best to mock the protagonist– the power of the message is weak and undefined.

Class:  C-

Poor people are chronically pathologized on this show (with maybe the notable exception of Alex Vause, who uses her cunning, charm, and wit to get rich off an international drug cartel).  Yes, the show makes fun of Piper when she tries to explain what Robert Frost’s poem means, but she has the ability and capacity to realize her narcissism and arrogance in a way that poor women.

Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (mentioned above for having agency as a white perseon) is a woman whose vitriolic homophobia, transphobia, and racism makes her a wholly unlikable character.  Based on her vignette, it is clear (to me) that she and her crew experienced (and continue to experience) real generational poverty.  A meth-head who went from having multiple abortions to being a God-fearing and uncritically evangelical crazy person, Pennsatucky is the kind of poor America doesn’t like to talk about, and to me is also the most insufferable and hateful character.  Though Piper is very clearly ridiculed for her uppity tendencies, and though she is written to be quite irritating, she has the emotional and cerebral intelligence to work through her shit and come out the other side as a better person.  On the other hand, Pennsatucky is emotionally stupid, and has no way of thinking for herself.  The moment she is saved by a bunch of rabid pro-lifers who mistakenly assume that she shot a nurse at the abortion clinic because she is a staunch protector of the unborn, she immediately becomes a proselytizing Christian.  The moment she is thrown into the psychiatric ward, she abandons the idea of God.  And the moment the pro-lifers revisit her, she is back in the game.  In a particularly annoying scene, Piper explains to Pennsatucky (in a publicly humiliating way) that she cannot be baptized, and explains that the God she believes in must be a ruse.  God, Piper, you’re such a fucking smart agnostic.  While viewers are able to criticize Piper for being arrogant, prideful, and naive, her whole being, soul, and mind are not the targets of vehement detestation.  Pennsastucky – well, that’s a different story – and that’s the point.  Ridiculing someone for being too book smart is different from ridiculing someone who is portrayed as morally and intellectually deficient.

Let’s also keep in mind that only someone like Piper could leave prison with a book deal and TV show in hand, while most prisoners are left with the foul taste and touch of structural inequality and the prison industrial complex.

Sexual Orientation:  A

Though the show kind of fails to deal with race and class in a consistently productive way, the ever-present thread of sexual orientation and its fluidity is done remarkably well.  Mostly focusing on Piper and her past (and later present) relationship with Alex Vause, sexual orientation is not portrayed or understood as a phase or an aberration. Rather, it is a central, natural, and important piece of love, loneliness, and survival.  Also, it feels like the romantic and lusty scenes are not made for anyone’s gaze, which is really fucking refreshing.  There is no shame around pleasure or love or intimacy, and the only people who are shamed are those who judge (like Correctional Officer Healy and Pennsatucky).

Funnily enough, I think the straight relationships are FAR more dysfunctional and fucked up in the show than the queer ones – so yahoo for that!

Gender Identity:  A-

The story of Sophia Burset (played expertly by transgender actress and superactivist Laverne Cox) is one of my favorites, because it illuminates the challenges of not only being transgender, but of being transgender in prison, which is not an uncommon experience.  She is complex, loving, selfish, talented, smart, and giving.  One of the more whole and complicated characters on the show.  I’m happy with the amount of air time she was given on Orange is the New Black.

Quality of Other(ed) Women’s Narratives: B

I kind of feel like I was lied to.  People told me that this show is really not about Piper Chapman, that her story serves as an entry point into Other narratives and characters that are much more interesting.  To a certain degree, this is true.  Piper is certainly not the most interesting person in the prison, and she is probably written to be one of the most annoying ones.  However, I expected the quality of these other narratives to be better, and that perhaps more time would be spent on them.  I was pretty disappointed that by the time I finished the last episode, I had the feeling that I knew way too much about Piper, her stupid love stories, and her undying naivete and innocence , and that the Other characters got maybe 5 minutes in each 53 minute episode.  Janae Watson’s story could have been very interesting, but it felt ridiculously disjointed and poorly written.  I wanted to know SO much more about Miss Claudette and her experiences, her worldviews, her life, and her love. And where the hell were narratives on Taystee and Poussay? Honestly, I could have done without 98% of the Piper/Larry show, which would have freed up a zillion minutes for these Other stories.

I’m actually kind of confused by how many people keep saying that this show isn’t really about Piper.  It is the Piper show. Written by Piper. Starring Piper.  It’s all about the Piper, guys.  Did we watch the same show?

God, I wish it was seriously the Taystee and Poussay show.  I would watch that show all day, all  night.

Entertainment Value: A+

This show is funny, cute, witty, and tender.  Notably funny/good moments:

  1. Whenever Taystee and Poussay pretend they are white
  2. The moment Taystee and Poussay have a heart-to-heart after Taystee’s re-entry into prison.
  3. When Poussay sings “Amazing Grace”
  4. Any moment with Poussay (who really needs a fucking storyline in the next season, please!)
  5. Swirls.
  6. When Miss Claudette gets her hair done by Sophia.
  7. Whenever Taystee and Poussay pretend they are white.  Did I already mention that?  SO FUNNY.

Grade Point Average of Orange is the New Black: Somewhere between a B+ and an A-

Summary: This is a good show with solid acting, funny moments, interesting storylines, and wonderfully tender moments. But let’s not front…this is NOT a revolutionizing or revolutionary show.  To me, this show isn’t about humanizing inmates or dismantling stereotypes (actually, this show belabors the tropes and stereotypes) – it is about ways people move in the world at their best and at their worst.  If I want to watch a mind-blowing, politically-altering, gut-wrenching show about prisoners, I’ll go ahead and watch Oz (which is actually a show that DOES know how to interweave complex and profound stories of multiple characters without focusing on one protagonist).  If I want to watch something cute and fun with that feel-good diversity vibe that kind of involves life in prison, I’ll watch Orange is the New Black.  Also, word of advice to Jenji Kohan and Piper Kerman: You are not exempt from being more thoughtful about race and class, just because you poke fun at your white protagonist.  But two thumbs up, anyway!

On the Color of Fear

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FEAR! Borrowed from pixelgardenstudio.com

In the wake of all this public debate about “Stand Your Ground” laws and vigilantism, I think it’s important to talk about something that often controls our behaviors, actions, and beliefs—a living and breathing specimen that is almost always left unchecked: fear.  White women: it’s what you feel when a man of color is walking behind you at night.  White men: it supposedly motivates you to shoot black boys.  Police: it’s the reason you stop and frisk the fuck out of communities of color.

We are not born fearing dark-skinned men, people we perceive as Muslim, people of color in hoodies, transwomen using the bathrooms they want to use, etc.—we are taught by our parents, teachers, media, movies, video games, by every single thing that exists, that our safety, happiness, well-being, and life are at stake when we are in the presence of certain people and communities.  So what do we do in response to these fears? We create systems that legitimize them, that make them more real.  We make laws that make it pretty cool to murder 17-year old boys.  We create violating and unconstitutional practices of profiling, stopping, and frisking and do everything we can to avoid oversight on these practices.  We put all the people we fear into a gigantic prison system, making goddamn sure that those “animals” will not be a bother to us and our children.

But this is all so familiar.  We’ve built this practice of constructing fears (and satiating our desires) around the very people we wanted to imprison, enslave, and exploit since even before the inception of our great nation.  In fact, this is exactly how our nation was built.  We thought, “If we can make our people fear the slaves, then we don’t even have to consider justifying it, or the torture, or rape, or harvesting of child slaves.”  Constructing that “fear” and making the symphony of fuckedupness feel like reality and truth has been an indelible tool since the moment European ‘travelers’ noticed the possibilities of black women’s (re)productive labor and bodies and depicted/drew African women as monstrous, beastly, and inhuman creatures.

Since the very beginning of the New World, we’ve had to be very consistent and constant about our rhetoric, constantly describing the need to fear black and brown bodies, whether it was in a time when slave revolts became distinct and looming possibilities; when the ‘War on Drugs’ decided to deploy its troops against crack users; when we stop and frisk thousands upon thousands of people of color and insist on its efficacy and value.

So slave owners got all scared when they realized that maybe what they were doing was going to be seen as “wrong” by their peers, and maybe by their slaves.  This is how I imagine them talking: “Shit, the slaves might act irrationally and revolt! Perhaps I should whip and torture them more, just in case.  And to make these more interesting, I will juxtapose this increase in surveillance and torture with the development of a new paternalistic language to justify the enslavement of black people!” Suddenly, they did everything they could to show that they were benefactors..nice and loving parental figures, that they were civilizing the savages that were brought over from a wildly primitive and violent culture.  So, one could (and SHOULD) argue that historically speaking, people of color have MUCH greater reason to be in constant fear of white people.  If someone says/asks, “Oh my God, black/brown people are inherently violent…why shouldn’t I fear them?” I like to respond by shaking my head, laughing sadly, and saying, “You don’t know anything about history or anything, do you?” Cuz…for real, y’all.  Do I have to make a list? It’s too goddamn long, and I don’t have time for that.

Interestingly, even when slaves revolted, they almost NEVER reciprocated the kind of violence they experienced at the hands of the plantation owners and slave masters.  During and after the Haitian Revolution, whites very vocally condemned the “violent” insurrection, and tried to name the action is inhumane, horrific, and savage.  However, CLR James in The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, points out that the slaves were:

“surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them.  They did not maintain this vengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased…Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible.” (89)

So…let’s be reasonable, here.  Let’s ask ourselves:

– Did [insert community I fear] enslave, rape, torture, and reproduce my people?

– Did [insert community I fear] forcibly sterilize me, so that I can’t have any more babies?

– Did [insert community I fear] lynch my people?

– Did [insert community I fear] make laws to make the migration of my people more difficult or illegal? Have they deported my people?

Think about WHY you fear who you fear, and who has the greatest stake in constructing this fear as a reality.  Think about whether it’s reasonable that people fear and act out against Muslims and people pereceived as Muslims, when the public often shows sympathy for white shooters/mass murderers (“Those poor souls…they were nerdy and lonely!”).  Think about whether it seems right that black Americans are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession, even though the two groups use the drugs at similar rates).  Think about the relationship between the constructed fear of black bodies with regard to enslavement and Jim Crow, and then think about who benefits from the mass incarceration of black men.  What does it mean when we in 2010, over 1.6 million people were serving jail sentences in America, and what can we conclude when we find out that prisons are contracted out by the government, and that private prisons nest within a completely market-based criminal justice system? (for more reading on this, click here and here),   Think about how women are often more afraid of black men than white men, and remember that white men are at least 52% of reported rapists.   Think about the FBI’s hate crime statistics, and that among the single-bias hate crime incidents in 2011, there were 3,645 victims of racially motivated hate crimes, and that 71% of them were perpetrated because of an offender’s anti-black bias, and that of all hate crimes motivated by an offender’s bias towards a particular ethnicity/national origin, 56.9% were targeted because of an anti-Hispanic bias.   Think about the fact that white people who kill black people in “Stand Your Ground” states are 354% more likely to be cleared of murder. Then think: who really ought to be scared?

So yes: maybe people truly feel fear, and respond (violently) to protect themselves.  But if your fear is informed by all this fuckedupness and fuckupery, then that is on you.  I’m not saying that instincts aren’t good.  I’m saying instincts end up being useless when they are veiled by racism, homo/transphobia, classism, misogyny, etc. If you get to the point where you find you’re a racist, then stop trusting your insticts.  They suck.

On Being a Decent Ally

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“The job of a good ally is not to save anybody but rather to help create the conditions under which people can assert and grow their own power.”

– Rinku Sen, President and Executive Director of The Applied Research Center

Recently, I’ve seen an outpouring of support from white activists and allies, enraged and energized by the (predictable) Zimmerman verdict. I’ve also seen people of color demonstrate and articulate exhaustion in having to explain to white activists and allies that their more “radical” protests (whether through vandalism, destruction of property, etc., all in the name of justice) are being seen as violent rioting, and are, both implicitly and explicitly, being blamed on black bodies.

(Of course, I’m not addressing the equal if not greater outpouring of white people feeling offended that people keep bringing the issue of race to the forefront—I don’t even know what I’d say to them without blubbering what on earth do you know about racism and what measures do you use to distinguish whether something racist is happening, when you have the privilege to be blind to such matters or of course you think race has nothing to do with it…you benefit from racism every single day and with every single breath. But that’s clearly for another day, when I’m feeling nicer and stronger and more loving.)

Good intentions are fine, but they are not enough, and sometimes they do more damage than anything else. There are many great tips out there on how to be a good ally, but I wanted to add some that are very personal. These are the things I have said to close friends and colleagues, and these are the things I am still working on myself. Being an ally is about being constantly intentional, thoughtful, and supportive of systemically marginalized communities that are ENTIRELY capable of growing their own power. And a LOT of it is about listening–listening to Others; listening to one’s own desires and assessing where the need to speak and act comes from; listening to and ignoring one’s ego; etc.

I think the Manarchist Meme is hilarious because this is exactly what a lot of ‘educated’ allies do.

So here it is:

DO listen, and try to learn as much as possible about those you want to support without expecting Other communities to teach you at your pleasure or leisure. Get books. Read things on the internet. Read the websites or materials of really amazing grassroots organizations.
DO NOT constantly try to prove exactly how much you know about a community that isn’t your own, their history, their oppression…it helps that you have the knowledge; it doesn’t help anyone but your ego when you to show it off. Keep that mess to yourself.

DO support and nourish your relationships with community members.
DO NOT use a relationship you have with a member of the community you are supporting to demonstrate how “down” you are. It’s actually really embarrassing to watch, so stahp.

DO participate in actions and protests organized by leaders of the community you are supporting. Ask how you can help, let them know your skill set, and be gracious about any role you are given. If you are disappointed about the type of task you receive because you are so far above it, get over it. You’re not there to lead-you are there to support.
DO NOT tell community leaders how they should be organizing – you may think have lots of knowledge that community leaders don’t have, but trust that they know their shit. You are not the last samurai, or that white dude in Avatar.

DO speak up on things that actually add to the dialogue. If you assess that your knowledge is something that would truly contribute (and it has nothing to do with proving your worth or how dope you are or being the one to save the noble savages), then be strategic about how you share the information. Maybe you can take one of the leaders aside and say you might have some information that would be useful for them to investigate, and that you are there to help in any way.
DO NOT use a tone that suggests you know more than anyone else in the room, because you don’t. Your privilege is whispering sweet nothings into your ear, making you believe you are superior. You aren’t.

grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

DO stay you. You are a valuable member of a movement.
DO NOT change the way you talk, dress, act, based on essentialized mimesis. It’s often insulting and inappropriate, and it does nothing to make you more legitimate.

DO experience outrage when fucked up things happen to marginalized communities.
DO NOT act out of rage without thinking about how your actions will impact the community you are trying to support.

DO share your love and compassion.
DO NOT try to maximize your own experiences of oppression to feel ‘equal,’ in this extremely odd way. I call that: intersectionality gone wrong.

DO show up when you are needed.
DO NOT just talk the talk. We have enough talkers in the world.

DO acknowledge your privilege and power.
DO NOT make Other community members hold your hand while you work through your guilt. Audre Lorde says, “Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”

DO approach communities with an open mind about who you are in the world.
DO NOT become vocally defensive when someone calls you out on your shit. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, calling someone out is an act of love.

DO step up and check members of your community when people are being fucked up. Do so with as much patience and care as you can, since it is much more difficult for marginalized groups to demonstrate patience and care when addressing fuckedupness directed at them and their community. Changing a culture of hatred is hard, but your holding people accountable will help.
DO NOT stop trying!

Now, if you think it’s difficult being a decent ally, then good. You’re right. It is hard to constantly check our tone, our attitude, our ego, our movement, how often we speak, why we do what we do and say what we say. We always have to be on our toes and move with the constantly shifting boundaries of identity politics. But we do this because we believe in utilizing our privileges and powers towards something better. We do this because we can and we should. Most importantly, we do this because we love.

So let’s keep at it!

On the U.S., Korean Nationalism, and Ownership of Women’s Bodies

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UPDATE: 7/17/2013

Reports state that the two men in the video have come forward, explaining that the horrible footage (see below) was part of a series of “edgy” horror films that was supposed to demonstrate how people react to “physical deformities.”  Apparently, in this video, that deformity was supposed to be the woman’s teeth.  (For more on this, click here.)

Though it is still up in the air whether this video is “real” (since the director of the film/clip has not stepped forward and many people are still contesting the idea that this was staged), here are some issues that still remain:

(1) Does the video’s credibility change the fact that U.S. soldiers and expats have historically and continue to not only engage with sex workers, but abuse them, traffic them, and shame them?

(2) Does the video’s credibility change the incredibly disturbing response from Koreans, who felt this woman was embarrassing her country? ( “She went crazy over white guys, lived at a club, and ran into trouble,” one Jagei.com commenter explained. Another wrote, “After that, I think she’s going to go clubbing to meet white guys again.”)

(3) Why on earth would anyone think this clip, even if it is part of a larger film with more context, is on the cutting edge?

Regardless of whether or not the events in the video were staged, the history and relationship between the U.S., S. Korea, and women’s bodies is very real, and the anti-American and anti-woman responses in Korea (all towards feeding a gigantic Nationalist boner) are very real.

***

What U.S. Americans know about S. Korea and its history is pretty limited.  They seem to know that Koreans make great manicurists; that there is a North and a South (sometimes); that PSY is hilarious and sometimes anti-American; and that kimchi is pretty stinky. It’s time to learn more. If not because you should, then because of this:

TRIGGER WARNING: Extremely disturbing video of two white expats objectifying, humiliating and assaulting a Korean woman

This terrible, gut-wrenching, and vomit-worthy video that has been circulating in the Korean webisphere (and now in the U.S.) is expository, and it opens this cruel and terrible world up to have public discourse on issues of gender, racism, modern forms of imperialism, and oppositional, reactionary, and masculinist creation of nation in response to colonialism.  Aside from the obvious, that these “Western” (read: white) boys are humiliating, debasing, and nearly torturing the woman this woman with sadistic and entitled pleasure, it is important to note the type of nationalist and anti-American rhetoric Koreans are using in response to this horrible video (click here for more on this). And also the ways in which Koreans have been debating whether or not this young woman was, you guessed it, asking for it.  And to understand that, some history:

WWII: Between 1932 and 1945, Japan was involved in an imperial war with many Asian countries and the United States.  During that time, the Japanese government mobilized a large number of Asian women to military brothers to “comfort” Japanese soldiers stationed in Asian and Pacific countries—most of these women were from Korea.  Confined to filthy shanties, the sexual slaves were forced to have intercourse with Japanese soldiers anywhere from 10-30 times a day.

Comfort Women Returning to Korea: Gender hierarchy in Korea played a key role in the suffering of Korean comfort women after their return home.  Most Korean victims of Japanese military sexual slavery spent less than five years in military brothers.  Yet they had to hide their humiliating stories for more than fifty years.  The Korean government’s desire initially to mute/silence these stories, and then vocalize them came from the ambition to appear strong and defiant in the face of colonialism at the expense of those who suffered most: the women.

Development of Nationalist Discourse: In many ways, nationalist and anti-colonial discourse redeployed the patriarchal norms of female sexuality demonstrated by the colonizers.  In the male-centered code of sexuality embedded in the nationalistic assumptions, the nation became gendered, and women’s sexuality became nationalized.  Nation was equated with the male subject position, and women’s sexuality was reified as property of the masculine nation.  Chastity involved not virginity as such, but rather that there is always a proper place where female sexuality belongs.

Becoming a ‘Client State’ of the U.S.: The authorship of Korean nationalism was predicated on the ownership of women’s bodies.  After liberation from Japan in 1945, Korea was divided into North and South, and the two Korean states turned into ‘client states’ of the US and the Soviet Union.  The U.S. played a major role in the modernization of postcolonial South Korea, and reinforced a form of dependent development in South Korea, making its desire to become a major modern nation-state in the global arena one filled with ambivalence.

Kijich’on (Campsites) and Sex Work: Six million American soldiers served in Korea between 1950 and 1971, and upward of one million South Korean women worked as “sex providers” for them in the kijich’on (camptowns) that sprang up around U.S. bases, Katharine H. S. Moon tells us in Sex among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations.  Conflict over sex work played an especially pivotal role in U.S.-Korean relations in the early 1970s, when the authoritarian rulers of South Korea feared withdrawal of U.S. troops under the Nixon Doctrine. South Korean leaders, in rhetoric that eerily recalls the suffering of the “comfort women” who served the Japanese during World War II, sought to mobilize these prostitutes as “personal ambassadors” to Americans, seeking to instill in them the idea that they were performing patriotic acts in meeting the sexual needs of foreign soldiers and thus encouraging the U.S. army to stay in the country.

A sign posted on one of the “juicy bars”  in The Ville, outside Camp Casey in South Korea. These bars host (and own) sex workers who cater specifically to U.S. soldiers. KSTA bars get tax breaks from the Korean government, but must cater primarily to U.S. soldiers and abide by rules set out by the U.S. military. Photo from Stars and Stripes article.

 

Who Were These Women?: According to the kijich’on work within a system that is sponsored and regulated by both Korean and American governments.  The women who typically sought work in the camptowns that served American soldiers were from poor families in Korea’s countryside.  Often these women had one or both parents missing or came from a family that could not provide for its other members. Moon describes how these women refer to themselves as “fallen women” even before they enter into sex-work.

Offering “Fallen Women” as Sex Ambassadors: A “Necessary Evil”: While sex work is frowned upon in the Korean public imagination, many ignore it, or see it as a “necessary evil” that mitigates the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea.  Additionally, most of those who find it a necessary evil also ultimately blame the women rather than the foreigner or the pimps and club owners for such prostitution.   The kijich’on is the physical manifestation of the destruction, sacrifice and ugly, brutal, sexual history of Korea as a new international power.  They are, according to Moon, “living testaments of Korea’s geographical and political division into North and South and of the South’s military insecurity and consequent dependence on the United States”

So, it is within this context that I view this video.  It is in this context that I demonstrate rage against many misogynistic White American expats.  It is with particular sadness that I criticize the fragmented and masculinist nationalist identity of South Korea, and the ways in which many of its women are dispensable in life and indispensable as “ambassadors” to keep U.S. soldiers happy.  It is with confusion that I understand S. Korea as a postcolonial state, with a desire to articulate and assert its heritage before U.S. presence (incidentally, the Koryo dynasty had strong elements of matrilineal and patrilineal elements .)

Somewhat related: sometimes, people ask me if I am afraid of being a woman in an almost exclusively black and brown neighborhood.  Of course, their assumption is always that black and brown men are animalistic predators.  I always take the time to tell them that I have never feared for my life or for my body around them-in fact, I have created a community with many of them, and they have stepped in when I’ve needed help and support.  I do often fear the presence of drunk, privileged, affluent, lacoste-wearing, white men, because I have been smacked, grabbed, squeezed, slapped, and cupped by their pasty and entitled little hands.  But let’s leave race and sexual/street harassment for another blog post.

New and Imperfect

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This blog begins its journey as a wholly new and imperfect blob– an important, relevant, and accurate reflection of who I am as a writer, an activist, and a member of various wonderful and supportive communities. I write because I am enraged, because I love, because I need to know how to articulate and bring movement to concepts, words, and people when we are constantly reminded that we were never meant to survive (borrowing from Audre Lorde’s “A Litany For Survival”). A lot of things are happening, as they always are. Black bodies are hitting the pavement, to the disgusting delight of far too many. Women’s bodies and their (re)production are being monitored, policed, harassed, and forcibly sterilized. Hate violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected persons occurs every single fucking day. Immigration reform is comical, as thousands of brown bodies are being deported under a President that is perceived as too radical, too leftist, and too black.

And I sit here, behind the computer, privileged in my education, my ethnicity, my class, my marriage, wondering: how do I best position myself and constantly move myself to be as radically supportive and loving to my communities as I can be? And how do I, as a middle-class, Korean-American, married professional, help transform a society that has major stake in not giving a shit?

I’ve tried reading bell hooks’ amazing book all about love, but I keep hitting a block. I feel like I am not filled with enough love, or that my love is reserved to those who “deserve” it. The George Zimmermans and the Juror B37s and the Commissioner Ray Kellys and the Joseph Weekleys and the Roy Bryants and the lynchers-why should they get the distinct privilege of receiving my love? She tells me (in an entirely separate read) that:

“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”

To which I respond: How the FUCK am I supposed to do that?

I realize that I don’t know how to move through or with anger. I don’t know how to love those who enrage me, or why I would event want to.

So here I am. Behind a computer. I will probably write about things that seem disparate: critiquing and loving TV shows and movies with a hyper-alert bullshit and racism/sexism/homophobia/classism meter; microaggression in the workplace and in life; dog culture in hipster Brooklyn; food/recipes; gentrification and practices of white appropriation; book reviews; my personal experience with body image and eating disorders; my mother, who has taught me more in death than anyone has in life, etc. But the connective tissue of all these random things I care about will be this: my quest to answer bell hooks’ important question.

The title of this blog, Walking Our Boundaries, comes from one of my favorite Audre Lorde poems. To me, it reminds me of the outline of my body; of my constantly shifting personal boundaries; of ways in which oppression deftly and cleverly changes shape; of tracing the experience of death in order to live; of the need to always move. In a discussion about this particular poem, Lorde explains:

“When you love, you love. It only depends on how you do it, how committed you are, how many mistakes you make…but I do believe that the love expressed between two women is particular and powerful because we have had to love ourselves in order to live; love has been our means of survival.”

So here is my attempt to love in order to live.

Love,
Yejin

(and for those who want to read this fabulous poem, here it is:)

Walking Our Boundaries
by Audre Lorde

This first bright day has broken
the back of winter.
We rise from war
to walk across the earth
around our house
both stunned that sun can shine so brightly
after all our pain
Cautiously we inspect our joint holding.
A part of last year’s garden still stands
bracken
one tough missed okra pod clings to the vine
a parody of fruit cold-hard and swollen
underfoot
one rotting shingle
is becoming loam.

I take your hand beside the compost heap
glad to be alive and still
with you
we talk of ordinary articles
with relief
while we peer upward
each half-afraid
there will be no tight buds started
on our ancient apple tree
so badly damaged by last winter’s storm
knowing
it does not pay to cherish symbols
when the substance
lies so close at hand
waiting to be held
your hand
falls off the apple bark
like casual fire
along my back
my shoulders are dead leaves
waiting to be burned
to life.

The sun is watery warm
our voices
seem too loud for this small yard
too tentative for women
so in love
the siding has come loose in spots
our footsteps hold this place
together
as our place
our joint decisions make the possible
whole.
I do not know when
we shall laugh again
but next week
we will spade up another plot
for this spring’s seeding.