I wish I didn’t have to be writing this in 2017, but there’s still disagreement, even among those who vocally support trans people, around whether trans surgeries are really medically necessary. To me, this is an obvious “yes,” but perhaps it’s harder for those who don’t experience dysphoria to understand, so let’s try an analogy.
What does “unbiased” actually mean? I’ve been thinking about this when liberals defend the gold standard of mainstream news outlets in the era of “fake news” accusations, and while I obviously think the Trump cronies are full of shit, I also wonder what the staunch defense of traditional news organizations might leave out.
Growing up, I never really questioned the standard that journalists must be objective and unbiased. That seemed like a reasonable enough idea, and I expected it of those working at large news organizations. But in order to be “objective” and “unbiased” according to the definitions of a news organization, you need to have an academic background and specific skills that are especially valued by white folks. You need to reference credible sources–and “credible” sources are often written by white people. You need to have that gold standard “objective” point-of-view that is invisibly white.
I think this expectation of unbiased journalism really means “journalism steeped firmly in white culture.” The idea that anyone could really be “unbiased” is a racist notion, because it relies on the invisibility and supremacy of the white perspective. Everyone has a point of view. Everyone’s perspective is rooted in culture, it’s just that white culture tends to be so pervasive as to go undetected. Rather than expecting objectivity, I think we should acknowledge and embrace the cultural grounding of our journalists, and rely on news sources that come from a range of perspectives.
I curse like a sailor.
Whenever a new person joins my team at work, I always ask whether they’re offended or bothered by cursing, because without censoring myself I have trouble keeping “fuck” out of my vocabulary. Especially as I become friends with my coworkers, it’s just likely to happen. But one word that’s always gotten to me, that I use far less frequently, is “bitch.”
I think “bitch” is uncomfortable to me mainly because of misogyny–it’s a word used mostly for women, or is supposed to be emasculating when used for men. It has a really ugly sound in my ears when used as a quick insult. But I’ve also noticed that I do sometimes use it in certain phrases, i.e. “bitch please.” In that context other words don’t have quite the same impact.
When I do use “bitch” in phrases like this, I’ve realized that the common element is a certain kind of competition or cattiness. This variety of competition is coded as intra-femme or woman-on woman, and I’ve internalized it in such a way that it can actually make me feel better to put a woman or femme down through such language. Think of the triumphant femme archetype in a movie getting into an argument with a femme villain who’s done something particularly vile. “Bitch, you just made it personal.” I have the urge to cheer on my fellow femme, crow with the heroine’s scrappy resilience, but at the same time this triumph is actually about putting another femme down. What does that say about the values I’ve internalized?
Pitting oppressed folks against each other is a tale as old as time. Using media and culture to encourage poor white racism against people of color in the same economic position was an easy tactic for elite white folks to consolidate power. Similarly, I wonder how media that glorifies femme competition might encourage us to frame personal success as being cooler, more fashionable, or wittier than other femmes, rather than working together in collective action. After all, part of the whole point of femme community is to challenge narratives of female competition, but acting in solidarity and avoiding societal messages requires continuous struggle.
Did your elementary school ever celebrate those “culture days” where kids were encouraged to dress up in some native costume, do traditional dances, sing traditional songs, and eat foods associated with a given culture? Maybe this is a 90s artifact, but I read something recently that mentioned them and cringed remembering my own school days. I used to love learning words of a foreign language and trying new foods, but I was never encouraged to consider the implications of those days that painted other cultures as strange and foreign. It certainly never occurred to me, as a white kid, whether the children who were from those cultures wanted to experience a day where they were so visibly othered, asked questions they might not have known the answers to or might not have wanted to answer for inquisitive white kids and teachers.
What if, instead of these awkward “culture days,” schools actually covered white dominant culture as a topic? Never in my school days was white culture acknowledged with any specificity, it was just background noise. But I now know that there’s plenty that could be covered, if schools wanted to be thorough. I’m not sure that it would necessarily be possible to avoid children of color and immigrant children again feeling othered in this unit, but with training it might be possible for teachers to normalize discussion of whiteness as something to consider, and to frame culture as something we all have. If such a unit were offered alongside history and literature lessons that fully incorporated cultures outside North America and Europe, I’d imagine that white kids would grow up to both be much more conscious of their privilege and much less freaked out when discussing race. And maybe kids of color would get to avoid at least a few of the awkward moments.
I have a confession to make on this Bisexual Visibility Day–I’ve definitely got some internalized biphobia going on. Whenever the topic of biphobia or bisexual invisibility comes up, I totally “rah rah” along in solidarity with bisexual folks, but I also have some kneejerk reactions to bisexuality as an identity that I need to keep interrogating. When I identified as gay, I had the bad grace to think of my own bisexual history as a phase I didn’t want to think too much about, and I definitely made the error of thinking of bisexual people as “less queer.” Now that I identify as queer, I’ve made some progress in understanding bisexuality as a valid identity for other people, but I realize that I’m uncomfortable identifying with bisexuality or seeing the commonalities between bisexuality and my own identity.
I’m thinking a bit about how queers experience space differently, and I notice that so many of my experiences of being queer are intricately linked with the dichotomy of public vs. private, even now as an out queer adult.
When queer folks talk about growing up and early sexual experiences, it’s often about hiding or trying to find safe space. Few of us had a safe, private place for sexual exploration, though sometimes keeping our identity quiet can grant us such a place. I remember kicking myself for coming out to my mom as a teen when my peers told me about being able to hook up behind closed doors, free from suspicion, because a parent would never suspect a same-sex friend. Similar dynamics can also come up for queer adults, looking for privacy as an alternative to potential violence and/or sexual abuse.
Usually when I hear discussions around the concept of white guilt, they’re about how inappropriate it is to air or focus on. This of course makes total sense in mixed-race spaces. Often when white people express their guilt around race, it’s in a mixed-race space and they’re derailing conversations to center their own emotions rather than the priorities of folks of color. It’s never right to center white guilt and white experiences in a general anti-racist space, and in that context white guilt can be just as bad as white pride.
One thing I have been frustrated about, though, is the way white folks handle white guilt in white anti-racist spaces that are designed for white people to work together without burdening people of color with their emotions or education. I haven’t heard much productive conversation about how to address this within white spaces so that we can then do effective work to dismantle racist systems in solidarity with people of color. What follows below the cut is a sharing of experiences and some thoughts that I’d love other white folks to engage with around strategy.
Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
I was a little startled by how much I related to Ariel Gore’s new novel, We Were Witches, out now from The Feminist Press. Deeply embedded in Gore’s experience with young motherhood, I thought I might like the story but expected to distance myself from it given the femininity of the topic. But this tale is deliciously queer in both form and function, and speaks to emotions I’ve certainly felt but found difficult to name.
In accessible language and with a playful narrative framework, Gore leaves the experience of shame cut open and dripping blood onto the page. But at the same time, she reminds us that only living things bleed, and reshapes that shame into resistance. “What does shame require to stay alive?” she asks. “What is the antidote to shame?”
Blending a personal journey with political questions, this story reminds us that even white women are not served by White Feminism, and the narrative complicates any nostalgia towards 90s feminism. Gore’s story reminds us that women can also be brutal and that whiteness can be a prerequisite for mainstream feminist protest, that seeking protection for a child can mean forced re-insertion into a heteropatriarchal structure even where the patriarch didn’t ask for it. Ariel in the story experiences both deeply personal, specific pains and the weight of oppressing systems that defy happy endings and leave some questions unanswered. This is a book about shame and magic, violence and motherhood. It’s not (entirely) a true story, but it plays with the question of what is true.
Disclosure: The publisher provided an Advanced Reading Copy of this book for review.
In education, the voice of the educator is important. The lessons we learn are shaped by those who pass them on to us, just as they are shaped by the writers chosen for curricula. It’s telling, then, that as an undergraduate, I never had a single professor of color–but also telling that I didn’t realize that until recently.
I was thinking about my undergraduate education, and how I didn’t really start reading many works by people of color until law school, and didn’t start to tip the balance of my reading more towards a 50/50 split between white authors and authors of color until much later. This was my own fault, but I also noticed when thinking about the books I read at that time that I couldn’t think of a single undergraduate professor of color. When I went systemically through all the classes I took, I realized that there wasn’t one.
My university (UMBC) was a medium-sized public school in Maryland that emphasized diversity in the sciences, in particular. Our university president was a brilliant black man who was a frequent guest on NPR. But in the humanities and dance, all my professors were white. I never took an “ethnic studies” course, but I also never had a professor of color for any “mainstream” subject. In law school, I had three professors of color out of maybe twenty.
I wonder how common this experience is for white folks, and how many of us don’t even notice. I’m certain my classmates of color were noticing. So if you get a chance, white folks who attended an undergraduate institution, think back and see if you can recall how many professors of color you had. Let me know in the comments.