Break the Silence Against Racism

I was at a diner the other night and had a lovely interraction with the cashier. She seemed like an intelligent woman: more than ready to answer my questions about the menu, joke around for a bit and provide me and my friend with quality service.

My friend and I had just sat down when a black man walked in. He asked for a cup of water and the same woman who was just pleasant to my friend and me groaned at this request. She groaned out loud that this black man had the audacity to come into the diner and ask for water.

The cashier got him a cup of water and told him, “I don’t like that you guys keep coming in here. We normally charge for water here.” And then she left.

The man was genuinely confused with what he had done wrong. He stared at his cup of water and called over another waiter. He told the waiter that there was a female employee who had just been rude to him. He asked if he could please have a lid for his cup of water and a straw. The waiter complied and the black man asked to speak to the manger.

I spoke to the black man and told him that what the cashier just did was not okay. It was blatant racism because my friend and I are both white and were treated with decency and respect not two minutes earlier.

But even though we talked for a brief moment, the black man left without speaking to the manager.

When the manger came over, I explained how there was  man who had been here who had been treated unfairly by a member of her staff. She told me if he wanted to speak to her he should do so himself. The issue was dropped.

This is casual racism. My friend didn’t even notice there was a confrontation! We are trained to accept racism as a natural occurrence in life that can’t be solved. Racism just is and anyone who thinks otherwise is being too overly sensitive.

People don’t want to listen and see that racism is still a problem. No one listened to the black man who was wronged and no one listened to me try to make things right. Racism-and nearly every other oppressive system–thrives because it is treated with silence.

Break the silence against racism. Stand up and say something because if enough people speak not everyone can be silenced.

 

Dear America…

I was fortunate enough to spend the other day with my room mate reading me poetry by Allen Ginsberg. His poetry is phenomenal and writing as a queer communist in America during the 1950s you can only imagine how banned his books were and how influential.

If you haven’t heard of his poem “America”, you can read the full poem here.

It is so amazing that he addresses America as if the country is a person who is accountable for his or her actions. This is a radical concept and one I’m amazed more people haven’t adopted. One of my best friends has questioned me about my loyalty to America and what I think America means: do I support the idea of America? the literal place?

What am I attached to?

Reading Ginsberg prompted me to write a freewrite of uncensored thoughts of what I would say to America if the country were a person and not an abstract idea. Especially in light of the NSA spying, Americans need to find their voices even more.

Please join me sharing your uncensored thoughts by writing a freewrite titled “Dear America”. A freewrite is where you write constantly for a set period of time-say five minutes-without stopping to think or censor your thoughts but see where they take you.

Here is my freewrite letter to America, exactly how I hand wrote it:

Dear America

Why do you oppress us? Why do you oppress those who stand for freedom and democracy and believe they are worth more than order?

How can you bury us under packages of meat, packages of disease marked as food, labeled as toys or beauty products? The elusive health care.

You bury us under packages and then package us into boxes. The blacks. The whites. The gays. The lesbians. When you can, spare the postage stamp to send us on our way as poster children.

The children of America. The brainwashed, the ignorant.

Able and disabled. You love hierarchies masqueraded under change. Your puppet president Obama has turned “yes we can” into a war cry of inaction.

And that is what you want, America. You want us to suffocate in our packaging and be reborn as true American citizens: the ones who matter.

Straight. White. Cisgender. Rich. Men.

And then in a feast of gluttony you feast on those who did not make the cut.

For shame, America. For shame. But what can I do? I wag my finger, I scream on the page, and you, my country are strong.

You swell with pride when I say those words: my country.

But here’s the thing, America, I own you. We own you. And you, my dear, are in our hands.

Rip open the packaging and see the hand that feeds you. Because it might not be white, straight, cisgender or male. Rip open the packaging and see.

What Does it Take to Defend Yourself?

I have always had a hard time standing up for myself. Somewhere along the lines, I was indoctrinated into the belief that women cannot be aggressive and being aggressive is anything that can cause a conflict. When I was in elementary school I would get into fights with my friends all the time over the stupidest things and so I fell into the trap of turning a 180: instead of causing conflicts, I would be a good girl and bring peace. Being a proper girl and being a peacekeeper were interlinked in a way I didn’t question when I was a child.

Unfortunately this way of thinking is still hardwired into my brain. And so when a man the other day called me a “little girl” (see my previous blog about the incident here) I lost my voice and didn’t say anything to refute his statement. Women are especially trained to not contradict men.

But I was able to stand up against a sexist comment I heard the other day claiming that all women were uninterested in sports and could amuse themselves by talking to other women while the men watched the NBA finals. He tried to justify his comment by asking me a question about which player got the basket in the last game, thinking that my ignorance of sports proved his point that all women don’t like sports. I told him his comments were sexist, unappreciated, and not funny.

It didn’t feel as if it took that much courage to tell this person off, but it felt impossible to stand up for myself when a sexist comment was directly aimed at me.

When you stand up for a movement-say the feminist movement-, you can claim righteousness in that you’re one among many who believe that women need equality. When you stand up for yourself, there might not be anyone to back you up. And that is terrifying. I know I get a gut feeling where I immediately question my worth: did I deserve the comment that was slung at me? Am I actually the little girl he pins me as? Is his perception of me my own fault?

All of these questions are worse than useless because I am playing into the hands of the person who insulted me. By the time I process all these questions, the moment has passed where I could have stood up for myself.

And I’m increasingly realizing that if I don’t stand up for myself, then it will be a self fulfilling prophecy where no one else will stand up for me either. But I’m also realizing that defending myself is more than just speaking words in my own defense.

I can defend myself by defending my ideals. This is very circular: I have an easier time standing up for a movement than I do standing up for myself, and standing up for myself includes standing up for a movement. And it’s so difficult.

I was at a party last night and I watched someone log his friend’s computer where his friend’s was logged into facebook. He posted as his friend’s status: fee fi fo fum; I want a penis in my  bum.

No one but me saw him do this to his friend’s account and I turned my back to him and pretended to be invisible. I didn’t know him. I barely knew the friend who was being pranked. But I knew I disagreed morally with what was going on.

And we’re back to women being taught to never contradict or confront men. We’re back to ingrained sexism and the shame of falling prey to it.

So what does it take to defend yourself? The way I see it, you can only defend yourself when you truly believe in what you’re fighting for and don’t care what the opposition says. Then you can defend your dignity, your sex, your race, your intelligence, your sexuality. Then you can defend your morals.

We are Trained to Take Sexism

It’s been almost a year since I discovered that I’m a feminist and have actively taken the route to pursue what this means. During the course of this year I’ve noticed all levels of sexism, from women hating on women, to being told it’s a man’s world, to people who try to invalidate me because of my sex. There comes a point where you think that even if you haven’t seen it all, then at least you have a good idea of the sexism that pours out of people’s mouths and that maybe you even have a response ready.

I’m always surprised by what people will say, but I’m even more surprised by how much I won’t say in response. I think I have my responses, and I know I know what I stand for, but I find myself freezing up.

Today a man in his early twenties had a conversation with me about how I don’t have a car and can’t get to a movie theatre close by. He told me to take public transit and then rethought his answer. He corrected himself: “Then again, I wouldn’t want to be a little girl walking in those areas by myself.”

What?

It took me a moment to process this because it came out of nowhere. This man is maybe two years older than I am. He would never say something like this to a man, but he said it so casually too that he didn’t even stop to think that he just called me a child.

And I didn’t have a response because suddenly everything I could have said felt weak and invalid because this is how I’ve been trained to think. This is how all women are trained: you do not contradict a man.

I now have a clearer idea of where my feminism needs to go. Now that I see sexism clearly in my own life and in the world scene as well, I need to make the same conscious effort to not just see it but give voice to it.

You Know Your Country’s Racist When…

Though this sounds like the opening to a bad joke, or a top ten list you might scan through to get a quick laugh, I think it’s time people stopped laughing at racism. Even people who still admit racism exists won’t always stand up to stop it, or will laugh along with the crowd. I’m just as guilty of this myself, but my experience as a canvasser this summer is opening my eyes to see that racism isn’t always as simple as hateful words or scornful thoughts and glances. A lot of the time, racism is the system of oppression which perpetuates the verbal and non-verbal hate that is deemed worthy of media attention as true racism.

But I’m out canvassing in areas of Atlanta like Virginia Highlands or East Atlanta and I’m seeing first hand that hate speech is a by-product of economic injustice and social inequality. When I was in Virgian Highlands, the houses would alternate between three tiered miniature mansion houses where people could freely write out checks for $60, and broken down shacks of unmowed lawns, broken screens to cover their front doors, and people who are out of work. 

This wasn’t every experience-I did run into a lot of white people who were also out of work, and some black families who were well off-but a majority of the time, the white people lived in the fancy houses and the people of color lived in the shacks. This was described to me as a mixed income neighborhood.

These are not people you can reasonably ask for money and a few weeks ago I was called out as being racist by a black man who asked why I skipped his house on my way down his street. He asked me flat out, “Do you just not go to the houses of colored folks?” His house was on my list and I did skip over it because I knew I would not be able to get a contribution. I was being racist and falling into this system of oppression because it was easy to do so. Though I was mortified and angry at being called out on my behavior I’m glad someone was willing to tell me my actions were complete bull shit. No one else was going to do it so I’m glad someone had the guts to.

I can’t pretend to speak from the experience of a person of color, but from my own experience, even just as a specatator, I know this is wrong. This is why racism exists: people see the poverty of black people and other people of color and think that because it is so prevalent in certain areas that therefore it is natural. White supremacy has to come from somewhere and I see it as stemming from the economic injustices that appear so mundane it’s sickening.

The past few days I’ve been in Ansley Park and this is an area of mansions. In the two days I’ve been there, I have spoken to one black family who told me that they didn’t own the house but were renting it. Every other person I spoke to or encountered on the street was white. Aside from the mansions this reminds me of my own home town and how ignorant I was of other cultures and the sytematic oppression which keeps white people at the top. If you grow up in an all-white neighborhood you don’t even think about racism and this is perhaps the most dangerous pit fall: ignorance that the problem exists at all.

And it is a problem! This is not just what I’ve seen demographically going from house to house, but that if the police get called on our organization for soliciting, there is a much higher chance the call will be in regards to a black male canvasser.

There is an irrational fear of people of color and fear is just another form of hatred. I know people who claim that because they don’t actively insult people of color they are not racist. But they are racist because they treat people of color differently and there is never any justification for it.

Any push for economic justice-living wage jobs, equal pay for equal work regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation-will wake people up to the fact that poverty is no one’s natural state and never will be.  When people of color are given the right to the same opportunities as white people that’s when white neighborhoods will expand to include other races and mixed income areas will no longer mean rich white neighborhood speckled with colored people in poverty. People need to see the injustice  and recognize that there is nothing natural about racism or oppression.

“So Beautiful It’s a Curse” Trope

My favorite historical figure is Hannibal Barca-the Carthaginian general who marched elephants into Rome during the Second Punic War.

File:Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War.svg

Carthage is on the tip of modern Tunisia: look to the right of Numidia and up toward Sicily. Carthage (the city) is right at the star. 

Hannibal was a military genius and even though he lost the war against Rome, his battle strategies are still studied today. I could spend hours just writing about his brilliance and my adoration of this man, but author David Anthony Durham has done most of that work for me. His historical fiction novel Pride of Carthage (2005) is what drew me into Hannibal’s world and over all, this is a very good book. Durham cites a bibliography, crafts rich and compelling characters on both sides of the war, and animates historical figures who have been dead for 2,200 years.

Yet he is incapable of writing women. While he does a decent on the historical women of Hannibal’s wife and sisters, Durham also writes a love story as a side plot line set against the larger back drop of the Second Punic War. The love story is about a foot soldier, Imco Vaca, who Durham creates and this woman, Aradna, a Greek who follows Hannibal’s army as a camp follower.

While Imco is an interesting character, rising through the ranks of Hannibal’s army, surviving the war and even conversing one on one with the Carthaginian general, Aradna’s greatest attribute is her beauty. This wouldn’t be so bad, if she weren’t introduced as a woman so beautiful that her entire back story is being raped by various men, starting with her dead father’s friend. Throughout the novel, Aradna falls into the trope of So Beautiful It’s a Curse. And the writing does not feel as if Durham is portraying the mindset of 200 BC, but his own ideas that beauty is a reasonable excuse to rape someone. We’re supposed to feel terrible for her after we read her tragic back story, but during the novel we’re told to accept that her beauty will attract men because that is naturally the way things go for beautiful women. Durham takes the responsibility off the men and reminds his readers that it is the woman’s job to not get raped.

When she’s not fending off men by rubbing herself in excrement in the hopes the smell will keep them at bay, she’s being pursued by Imco. By this, I mean he saw her bathing we get an uncomfortable look into Imco’s mind about how he wants to have sex with her. From the start of their interactions, she is an object. Throughout the novel the two meet up periodically by chance and Imco is always lusting after her. He’s in love with her beauty and this is the relationship readers are supposed to root for.

What bothers me the most is that even though she’s not interested and feels he’s just another man trying to attack her throughout most of the novel she finds him trapped under the dead bodies after the Battle of Cannae and she rescues him. Then they fall in love because the man needs to win the woman in the end. She is, after all, his prize.

There are so many things wrong with how she is written and where her arc goes, but I think one of the most important things to point out is that her story is sexist against both men and women. Against women, the obvious is that it perpetuates rape culture and also denies the woman agency unless it’s to aid a man and be his love interest. Against men it portrays them as sex-driven animals who can’t control themselves if a beautiful woman is around. I don’t understand why a man would want to portray his own sex in such a negative light, but that’s what Durham does.

This trope vilifying beautiful women as tragic figures destined for unwanted attention and rape is one that I didn’t understand when I first read the novel in high school. All I understood was that I never wanted to be Aradna. Because she was sexually assaulted she was the literary example of my greatest fear. It is terrible when young girls cannot look up to female characters without feeling as if being a woman is wrong and sinful somehow. I thought that her Aradna’s beauty was the cause and I didn’t want to be beautiful. And because beauty was her defining feature, I didn’t want to be a woman. I wanted to be Hannibal: the respected general with an intricacy of thought I still marvel at, not Aradna the beautiful woman followed by tragedy

I love Hannibal Barca, but I can no longer love the novel Pride of Carthage because it represents all of my fears of rape culture and places fear into women readers. I will not read something that makes me afraid or ashamed of my sex and these are the real evils of sexism that feminism combats. Feminism is needed because of how flippantly women are hated and how often we are told to hate ourselves. I’m a feminist because I refuse to hate myself and I will fight so that others can also understand the love and respect women deserve.