Beyond Ignorance: Teaching White Privilege

I work for a college-access program designed for first-generation, low-income students of color. In a class of seventeen freshmen, one student is white. She’s incredibly willing to learn about race and diversity and, even as a high school freshman, already knows terms like privilege. She wants to be educated and do anti-racist work.

I work with this student twice a week through one-on-one sessions. We’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay (a collection of essays I recommend to anyone and everyone for Gay’s humor, vulnerability and realness when discussing modern day feminism). Multiple times, this student has expressed the opinion, “I’m really ignorant” when speaking about race, especially in regard to her uncomfortability when confronted with the notion that there’s a whole world of racial injustice she hasn’t seen and will never experience directly.

Though I’ve written before about how whiteness and Jewishness feel like two conflicting parts of my identity, when working with this student (and really all of my students) I am a white instructor. Especially when working with this particular student, I have been in her situation and still am in the situation of trying each day to unlearn racism. I too have stumbled over or whispered words like “black” or “African-American”, as if these descriptors have a negative connotation and I’m uttering an insult. This is racist of me and it’s a process to unlearn these patterns of speech and behavior.

But I don’t want this student to leave our sessions believing that she’s ignorant and that’s all she can do is admit to her ignorance because she’s white. I’m trying to move the conversation to a place where she has action steps and can recognize when that ignorance might actually be guilt or another uncomfortable emotion we haven’t yet named.

I sent her an article from Everyday Feminism: “‘I didn’t Know That was Racist’- Are You Using ‘White Ignorance’ to Dodge Responsibility?” and the accompanying video. I’m thinking of continuing the conversation by speaking about white privilege as a way of framing why she’s ignorant. I’m searching for advice and suggestions to have a more specific plan.

Does anyone have any resources or suggestions on how to have a conversation with this student that moves beyond white ignorance?

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Suicide Squad: Deadshot and Morality

Suicide Squad, is perhaps the first movie I’ve ever walked away from saying, “That was not a good movie, but it was worth seeing.”

Without any spoilers, the plot had no structure and we spent time getting to know the characters through useless (and excessive) flashbacks. There were characters who had no purpose in the film, except to haphazardly flesh out the sprinting world of the DC Cinematic Universe. I swear Captain Boomerang was only there for laughable appearance by the Flash.

But what did work?

indexDeadshot. Will Smith’s Deadshot is the moral center of this film. Arguably, as a hit-man, he is the most villainous of the main characters by profession. He has not reformed nor makes any pretenses that he will give up the assassin’s game anytime soon.

Suicide Squad focuses on the character development of only a few characters: Harley Quinn, el Diablo, and Deadshot. Deadshot is the center piece. It is his story and his relationship with his daughter that grounds the character. Deadshot is the one talking about honor among thieves and the importance of the team’s survival.

To make it clear: a movie starring a black man featured said black man as a complicated protagonist and loving father who is the moral center of the film.

And in a media culture that only upholds the stories of white men (straight, cis, able bodied white men), this is huge. Every day people quote the racist (and downright false) argument that “there are more black men in prison than in college” as if there is a moral deficiency in black men naturally. As if black men do not want to be there for their families and for their children.

Yes, Deadshot is a criminal. He is a comic book villain. He kills people for money. But he is also a black character who is a loving father and a moral compass in a movie that desperately needs a moral center. He stands out in a media industry that needs  representations of black men who live to see the ending credits.

 

 

Men are People, Women are…Not

I’ve been getting a lot of comments on my post about The Women of DBZ as well my post on rape culture in Teen Titans Go!

Mainly, commenters tell me that I am over reacting. These are cartoons and anime, after all! What does it matter? Why do I care, especially when this media is out for ratings, not appeal to feminists.

And though I’ve replied with my own comments and counter arguments (because yes, DBZ and Teen Titans Go! are two of many examples of sexism and misogyny in animated programming) I have yet to formulate a cohesive rebuttal. Until now.

Critiquing sexism in animated programs (or any media) is necessary because this criticism challenges the idea that men are people and everyone else are not.

women-are-people-too

When we tell stories about men, make male centered narratives the only stories, consume media that features almost exclusively straight, white, cis, male protagonists, we create a culture where men are the only ones who matter. Men are human and we can connect with them and their struggles and triumphs.

Male characters have a backstory, dreams and a life beyond the constraints of plot. We know Goku since he was a child, we age with him as he develops into an adult and we believe his actions come from a deep rooted place of emotional honesty. He’s an alien, but we believe he is complex enough to be human. We can see ourselves in Goku, regardless of our gender.

Female characters in mainstream media, however, exist for a male hero. She is his lover, his mother, his friend, his ex. Whether explicitly or implicitly, he owns her, the same way male viewers own her. She is created for male pleasure because she only exists on the page or the screen only so long as the male hero exists. Her conversations (and relationships to other women–if there are other women in the narrative– revolve around men, (so much so that we can test this with the Bechdel Test). She has no real struggles or triumphs of her own. We do not believe she is alive.

By extension, it is such a small, dangerous step, but so simple to believe women are not alive. This is one facet of rape culture: dehumanization.

The media representations of women are flat, sexual beings who exist only for the male hero. The real life women who jog down the street, bag your groceries, practice medicine, sleep in on Saturdays, drown their cereal in skim milk, drink their coffee black, become flat sexual beings. We have no responsibility for them because they are the shadows and cardboard cut-outs on the periphery of our lives. They are not human. They are receptacles for violence.

This is why when even well-intentioned people fight rape culture, they can resort to the argument: “This could be your sister. Your daughter. Your mother. Your aunt.” It’s a tempting argument, one I’ve considered using with my own brother. It’s a tempting argument, but a flawed argument. Just like the media we consume, we are then saying that women only matter when they are placed in relation to a man.

I am a sister, a daughter, a niece, but I am a human being! A human being in my own right. Women exist, even if a man isn’t watching. And if media, especially media geared toward young people, refuses to acknowledge female autonomy then I will continue my criticisms. Because with the media we consume being so male-centered, there is no way in hell I am going back for a second helping.

Goku as asexual

Goku was my first hero. He was my brother’s hero first, to be honest, but Goku was also mine. I watched the anime with my brother when he was in high school and I was in middle school and we spent our nights and weekends sparring each other as Z fighters.

My brother looks the part of a saiyan. He has black hair. He’s dedicated to training and strengthening his body. He’s male.

And yet, Goku was my hero. Even though we look nothing alike, Goku was mine. He is my belief that goodness and heroes exist. That strength of mind and discipline is just as important as strength of body. That you get back up every damn time you’re beaten down.

Dragon Ball Z perpetuates hypermasculinity. It’s a male dominated manga and anime where fighting and winning is key. As a feminist, I shouldn’t love this series. But I do. I love it more now that I’m further embracing my ace identity.

I see Goku as an asexual character.

He marries Chi-Chi and has Gohan and Goten, but he never expresses sexual interest in any sex or gender. A person can be asexual and still get married. A person can be asexual and still have sex. Sex simply isn’t that person’s primary means of navigating relationships or the world.

And while I do not believe Akira Toriyama meant to write Goku as ace, in creating a chaste hero, who (especially in Dragon Ball) has no concept of sex or sexuality, Goku can become an asexual icon. Toriyama’s intent does not matter. It is the character he created and what Goku can mean for generations of asexual people to have a hero we can see ourselves in.

This is huge for the asexual community. We do not have ace heroes of any gender to look up to! We have to scrounge and dig and create head canons just so we can claim characters as our own. I claim Goku as asexual because he’s so much more than a sexual orientation. He’s the epitome of Get Up and Try Harder. He loves his family and his friends with such an intensity that they are the world he protects. I claim Goku as asexual because love is more than sexual love and Goku is my reminder of how this love can motivate us.

Goku is my hero. One day, I hope we do not have to rely on head canons to have asexual heroes in our lives.

goku

Books by Women: Foxfire

303564Thank you, mh1430 for responding to my recent post on which books by women you’d like to see me review next. As per request, here is my review of FOXFIRE: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates.

This was the first novel by Joyce Carol Oates I’ve read. Now I have been meaning to read more of her work because this novel was so beautifully put together. The novel focuses on a teenage girl gang in Upstate New York during the 1950s. The gang, FOXFIRE, targets misogynist men, sexual predators and racists.

What struck me the most about this novel was the narration, as it is both first person and third person and weaves between the two. Maddy Monkey looks back on her life as FOXFIRE scribe and narrates. She pulls together the notes she took on the gang’s exploits, where she refers to herself in the third person, as well as her reflection on the past events. The result is a narrator who is both distanced from herself and her past mistakes, as well as reliving them and far too present. The novel is raw from Maddy’s reflections.

Whoever’s reading this, if anyone is reading it: does it matter that our old selves are lost to us as surely as the past is lost, or is it enough to know yes we lived then, and we are living now, and the connection must be there? Like a river hundreds of miles long exists both at its source and at its mouth, simultaneously?–FOXFIRE, Joyce Carol Oates

And while Maddy is the narrator, she is not the protagonist. Legs Sadovsky is. Legs, the androgynous leader of Foxfire, the exquisite Marxist, the woman who defies her gender and defies the law and it is difficult not to fall under the cult-like quality of her words and the daring quality of her actions. Even at her most manipulative or insensitive, I wanted her to succeed at whatever her goal was. What I love the most that her gender and her sexuality are left undefined. If the novel were set in 2016, would Legs be trans? a lesbian? pansexual? polyamorous? We don’t know.

And it is that very not-knowing that guides the novel to perhaps the most perfect ending line I have ever read. Because for all the novel repeats that “FOXFIRE burns and burns,” the novel ends (no spoilers):

Like a flame is real enough, isn’t it, while it’s burning?-even if there’s a time it goes out?

Keep on reading and tell me which book you’d like me to review next.

 

 

Books By Women: The Red Tent

indexI read The Red Tent (1997) as a first year in high school and I didn’t understand any of it.

The novel by Anita Diamant is a feminist biblical retelling of the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. In a male patriarchal narrative, all we know of Dinah is that she is raped and her brothers decide to welcome in her rapist’s family into their own tribe, circumcise them and then kill them.

We do not hear Dinah’s version of the story.

And then there is The Red Tent, first a novel and now a miniseries (2014).

In this novel, Dinah is the first person narrator. She tells not only her story, but begins even earlier: telling the stories of her mothers Leah (her birth mother), as well as Leah’s three  sisters, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah who all marry Jacob.

This is a novel celebrating and exploring the voices of women. As Dinah says in the first chapter of book:

If you want to know about any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.

As a reader, you do listen. Diamant does a phenomenal job at taking biblical women and crafting real and complicated people. Leah and Rachel are so distinct and so beautifully flawed in their reality as women, I almost feel I could meet them today, despite the vast cultural divides that separate their world from ours.

The most interesting cultural element is the theme of the incoming patriarchy. The goddesses Dinah’s mothers worship are goddesses which value women and hold menstrual blood as sacred, not profane. To bleed is a woman’s entry into adulthood and it is a time of joy. The red tent is where women go when they are menstruating, where they relax and tell stories and live as women unencumbered by the lives and world of the men around them.

Reading the novel in 2015, there is a definite cis understanding of womanhood and I hope a new edition of the would include an introduction  by Diamant, welcoming transwomen into the fold of womanhood the novel creates. I can only hope.

My one other critique is that while the female characters are fleshed out and envisioned with subtleties and skill, the male characters, especially Dinah’s lovers, are flat and bland. Oddly enough for novel rich in cultural nuance, sexual love is almost fairy tale like with love-at-first-sight syndrome. And while I believe Dinah deserves happiness, I struggle to believe her love because of how uncomplicated it is.

Still, I would recommend this novel. I would also recommend having a basic background on the original biblical story so you do not read blind as I did entering this text as a fourteen-year-old. But with a bit of background and an open mind to believe in the power of women’s stories and hearing women’s stories, the novel is a great read.

Keep reading!

Books By Women: The Terrorists of Irustan

The Terrorists of Irustan has literally everything I’m interested in. It’s feminist science fiction. It has Middle Eastern influences. The central conflict questions the difference between terrorism and activism.

It was difficult to accept how this novel disappointed at every turn.Written in 1999, the novel can, at best, be described, as a knock-off version of The Handmaid’s Tale, but set in space. And unfortunately,, the novel simplifies Islamic and Arab culture.

577258On the planet Irustan, due to pervasive religious structures women cover themselves from head to toe and have no power or presence in the public space. Men cannot speak to them and they cannot speak to men. Our hero, Zara, is a doctor (on this planet, the profession of women) who begins to use her medicinal knowledge to poison men who harm women, specifically women she knows and loves. I was expecting nuance and cultural critique from this premise. I was expecting a massive underground uprising of female resistance fighters who pledged their lives to activism (or terrorism) to demand their rights.

Though the novel draws on Islamic culture, the author, Louise Marley, becomes entangled in the singular narrative that women who cover themselves are oppressed, look at how this other culture (read Islam, but in space) oppresses their women! Female characters who claim the veil as a symbol of their power do not have a voice in this story. The singular reading of women who cover themselves for religious reasons alienated me from any feminist message. It did not offer a plurality of voices in the text. Furthermore, I felt the structure of those women over there lifted the blame off Western misogyny and gave Western culture a free pass on our own sexism. If we’re not as sexist as these other guys, then we’re doing alright, no problems here. The one character who’s background offered push back, is a Chinese person working on Irustan, who describes the plight of future women in China, which was a fascinating cultural comparison and pretty well explored.

Yet, I wish this book were stronger and lived up to my expectations because it’s one of the few books I can think of where there are no (or almost no) white characters. Everyone is a person of color and regardless of any issues I have with the narrative, I have to give Marley credit for her diversity in this regard.

It’s a shame that the characters are pretty one–dimensional and the narrative does not grip you emotionally. I appreciate what Marley tried to do with this novel, and I know she’s won awards for her science fiction before, but for me, this novel fell pretty flat. If I decide to give another of her novels a try, I will let you know.