The Mute World (Politics & Society)

In Black and White: A Discussion About Perceptions of Race Relations

Wikimedia Commons

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with my Black History Month theme, and my own reflections about when I first began to understand the significance of race and race relations in America, I decided to compare my thoughts and realizations with those of some of my white friends. No discussion on race and race relations can be complete if it is one-sided, and I think that many people understand that most feelings about race and relations are taught and/or learned, whether directly or indirectly.

Of course, I also understand that there are many more races than just Black and white, but I think that for much of American history that struggle has been a predominant one. Also, for right now, mainly for simplicity purposes, I didn’t interview all of my friends of other races. I was curious about whether and how white families talk to their children about race relations and racism, and thankfully, a few of my friends were brave, gracious, and open enough to share their thoughts and recollections with me.

Interestingly, one of my friends was around the same age that I was–six or seven–when she first realized that she was white. Like me, she also realized it after reading a book. “I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and my mom sat me down to have a conversation with me about the book,” my friend told me. “[My mom] was very serious, and she [told me], ‘there is one word in that book that is very, very bad, and I never want you to say it to anyone, ever. You would get in a lot of trouble if you said it at school.'”

My friend’s mom wouldn’t tell her what the word was, only that it “start[ed] with an ‘n'” and my friend eventually figured it out. She had grown up in a predominantly white and middle-class neighborhood and gone to school with mostly white children. Before that time, her primary interactions with kids of other races came through friends of her parents or participation in local sports organizations. She remembers being confused by the sudden warning that “there were ways to talk about race that were wrong and offensive.”  Just as I had in the moment before I looked at the back of my hand after reading the Martin Luther King book, she had previously viewed race as “something that existed in a neutral sense,” but not something that was “capable of having good or bad connotations.”

She said her parents had always taught her and her sister to “treat others as we wanted to be treated, not to judge anyone for being different, and not to make fun of anyone for any reason.” She remembers her parents always having a visible distaste for excessive wealth and injustice, avoiding membership at country clubs that had refused to admit African Americans until forced to do so in the early 1990s and ridiculing “elite social scene” events. While she doesn’t remember “many direct conversations about race” as a child, they did have discussions about privilege, “but usually privilege in an economic sense.”

Also like me, as my friend got older she began to be more cognizant of racial tensions. She recalled that the few African American students in her middle school tended to eat lunch together in a section of the cafeteria that her classmates nicknamed “Little Africa.” She explained that such comments made her “uncomfortable” and “didn’t mesh with the values [her] parents had taught [her].”

Another incident took place in high school when a group of students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program that she was in (which was only about 10% African American) decided to dress up “in baggy jeans, white t-shirts, gold chains, and other “ghetto outfits” to mimic the students on the “traditional” academic track after the traditional students dressed up like “nerds.” She said that while she “knew  that this episode highlighted some of the tensions at the school between different groups of students,” she “did not give it much critical thought” at the time.

“I thought that it was enough that I was in an environment that was diverse, and even if there were racial tensions within that environment, I was doing my part to broaden my horizons by simply existing in a space different than the one I had grown up in,” she said. “Now I wish I had talked to some of the traditional students about what this high school was like from their perspective, but at the time I didn’t feel like I knew how to do that.”

She says that it was not until she got to college that she “learned that [she] could listen to and participate in conversations about race. She says that that “small step has helped [her] learn more and confront [her] own misconceptions more, because [she] can have honest conversations with people and push [herself] to look critically at [her] own ways of thinking.

Another friend of mine said that if there was a distinct moment when he realized that he was white, he was “too young to remember.” His parents were Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1980s and “continue[d] to identify as Italians as opposed to Americans or whites.” He also grew up in an Italian immigrant community and spoke Italian at home.

He admits that both of his parents “didn’t like Black folks” when he was growing up. He remembers his mother telling him not to date Black girls when he was in elementary school and not having a reason when he inquired about why. He said his father had also been robbed at gunpoint by a Black person shortly after he arrived in the United States. As a result, his father tended to avoid Black people.

He says he was fortunate to have good teachers who “tore apart racist ideas.” He describes himself as being “pretty outspoken about race” from a young age, arguing with his parents about it whenever they said racist things, and he has continued to do so with other people because he thinks it’s important. More than the significance of race per se, he believes that “historical modes of economic relations over-determine our individual social relations.”

My friends’ recollections about what they were taught and have learned about race has helped me to realize a few things:

1. The importance of media, education, and communication. If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love to rattle on and on about media and the critical messages that we consume and that others send. I think that it is much more than an interesting coincidence that my friend and I both became aware of the significance of race at around the same age by reading books. Fortunately, we were becoming aware of our differences in a somewhat more “intellectual” medium where it was presented in an already edited and filtered way that was designed to be broken down further and discussed, but I cannot help but to think about the children who are formulating ideas about race and race relations through television, music, and other forms of media that are not being monitored or discussed.

I also found it interesting that, at least based on what they told me, neither one of my friends’ parents really delved into reasons or explanations for warnings and/or opinions about race or race relations. For example, while my friend described her mom’s attempt to prepare her for the upcoming appearance of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn and told her that she could “get in trouble” if she used it, she did not explain why the word was problematic or the history of the word. Granted, she might have done so at a later time, but I am always curious about the way in which white children are taught about history and race relations.

As I mentioned in my previous post, images and stories about Black leaders and history were prominent in my household growing up. Before I even understood the negative connotations of Blackness, I knew the positive ones. It was almost as if my parents were building me up before society could attempt to tear me down in any way. They were compensating for the gaps that they knew would be missing from my schooling, but which they knew would be crucial to my complete life education. When it comes to white children, we know that Martin Luther King gets a lot of attention in schools, but who and what else does? And what role does that play in shaping how white people grow up understanding racial tensions and race relations?

2. The importance of engagement and not just exposure. Just as my friend quickly learned that it was not enough to just be in a diverse school and do her part to be exposed to people of other races, people of other races cannot just exist in one another’s midst without truly engaging with one another. We can’t learn from one another that way. Impoliteness is not acceptable, but fear and political correctness helps no one. As my friend noted, we have to call one another out when we see and hear things that are wrong. As a Black person who has attended schools where I have been both the majority and the minority, I know that it not enough to just be present, we have to interact. That is the only way we come to truly understand one another and to challenge stereotypes.

3. My own generally monolithic views of whiteness. While I am very aware of the vastness of and the differences among the Black Diaspora, I tend to think of white people as one cultural entity. I was surprised to realize that when my friend explained that his parents were Italian immigrants. I never think of “whiteness,” whatever that is, as being composed of different nationalities and cultures. After growing up and also largely associating different races with wealth disparities, I am just now truly wrapping my head around the concept that not all white people are wealthy. Now, I have another realization to confront.

4. The pros and cons of inflating the connection between economics and race relations. Truthfully, I think many people are simply more comfortable addressing issues of injustice along class and economic lines than along racial and/or cultural ones. I think it sounds better to say that we need to help the poor than it does to say that we need to be tolerant of one another’s differences. I absolutely agree that there is a major connection between social relations and economics and class, but I also know that even wealthy Black people still suffer from many of the societal challenges that come with Blackness. In response to a question about what he wishes other less progressive people would realize, one of my friends said that “we’re really not that different at all.” In theory, I understand that. We are all human. We are all more alike than we are different. Yet, I would really like for society to get to a point where it embraces the fact that we are all different and that that’s what makes us beautiful. Culture is important. Culture is necessary. It can be prevalent without being threatening or divisive.

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The Mute World (Politics & Society)

Way Black When: A Remembrance

As you may know, February is Black History Month. I’ve decided to devote my posts this month to telling stories about race and race relations in the U.S. from the perspective of millennials (that’s what people seem to like to call me and other people in my age group.) Last week’s post sparked an idea, and I’d just like to develop it more and see where it goes.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I remember the first day I realized that I was Black. I was six years old, and I was reading a children’s book about Dr. Martin Luther King. I don’t remember if I was in school or if it was a book that I was reading at home. I don’t remember the name of the book or the name of the author. I just remember getting to a part in the story where a young Dr. King is heartbroken after his childhood friend tells him that they can no longer play together because the friend is white and Dr. King is Black. (I have no idea whether this actually happened to Dr. King, but I remember this part of the story in that particular book.) The book described the confusion that Dr. King felt after being told this because he didn’t understand why the color of his skin should keep him from playing with his friend.

In that moment, I looked at my hand. It was closer to the color of the young Dr. King than it was to his white friend in the picture.

Initially, I was confused too. I knew my colors and I couldn’t help but notice that the shade of my skin did not match the color of my grandmother’s big leather Bible, the turf at recess, the crayon in my 64-box set, or any of the other things that I had come to identify as “black.”

“Black?” I thought. “Brown, definitely, but not Black.”

My distinction wasn’t coming from a place of self-hatred or disdain, as so many people have come to identify associations of shades of “blackness” and complexion. It was rooted in the innocence of childhood literalism and curiosity. That’s why it always amazes me when people say things like, “kids don’t see color.”

“What do you mean kids don’t see color?” I always think. “We teach kids colors! Most kids even have a favorite color.” The identification of colors is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. We teach kids to group, categorize, and label things all the time.

Kids may not instantaneously know the socio-political significance of race, but experiments like the 1947 doll study (replicated  in 2010 on CNN with the same results) show that many kids figure that out at an early age–even when they don’t realize what they’ve internalized or why. So, with that in mind, many people should actually be surprised that I was as old as six when I realized that I was Black.

This doesn’t mean that that was the first time I’d been told that I was Black, it just means that it was the first time that I realized it. It was the first time that I understood that, to some people, and often structurally in society, my “Blackness” was a bad thing.

I was raised in a very “Afrocentric” household. I had black dolls. I read children’s books by Jamaica Kincaid with little black girl protagonists. Names like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Wilma Rudolph, Garrett A. Morgan, and Charles Drew, with heroic stories of achievement to match, floated around constantly. I understood that people like me had done great things.

If anything, Dr. King’s childhood rejection didn’t comport with what I had been raised to believe about Blackness up until that point. I knew that Harriet Tubman had been a slave and I understood that that was a horrible thing (and even that many other people who looked like me had suffered the same fate). However, the emphasis of those stories had always been on the magnitude of our triumph in spite of this, and not on the struggle.

So, if anything, that realization while reading the book about Dr. King was more like an “oh-that’s-what-they-meant-by-Black” rather than an “oh- snap-I’m-Black? (as in, you mean I’m not white?)” moment. Even in the melting pot, which many people view as New York City, neighborhood class lines are often organized along racial lines. So, everyone in my neighborhood was Black. At the time, pretty much everyone I went to school with was Black too. So, Black wasn’t a revelation; it was my reality.

Of course, I wasn’t oblivious to the presence of people of other races. My teachers, in particular, were all white. I subconsciously associated whiteness with authority. White people were my teachers, principals, police officers (except for the few Black ones my mother knew), doctors, politicians, and most people who reported the news. I didn’t quite understand why they tended to be in these positions and I didn’t necessarily think about why many of the Black people I knew weren’t. It was just the way it was. We were just different. I couldn’t understand the appeal of Friends (which, thanks to reruns, is actually now one of my favorite shows), but I loved Living Single. It was that simple.

Ironically, within the next several years, I quickly started to wonder about the reasons for the apparent discrepancy–not so much because of what I was being told, but because of things that were happening and what I was seeing. We all know that the world gets realer as you get older. Little by little, I began to lose my security blanket of childhood innocence, as if I had been wriggling too much in my sleep.

For me, one such incident that snatched at that blanket was the NYPD attack on Abner Louima. At seven years old, I had no idea what sodomy was, but I understood: black man, white cops, severe beating, Brooklyn. I saw the pictures, the protests, the news reports and could feel the anger of the adults around me.

A few years after that, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD. By that time, I was older and I still understood: black man, white cops, 41 shots (wow, that’s a lot), unarmed, “a wallet is not a gun,” and acquittal. And again I saw the rallies and the news reports, and again I could feel the anger of the people around me. Later on, the pattern, which by that time I had learned was not a new one, continued: Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell, the list goes on…

Around the same time, but possibly before that, I got the universal “you’re-Black-so-you-have-to-be-twice-as-good” speech. I honestly don’t remember the reason for or the context of my being given that speech at the time because I had had the “twice as good” mentality for as long as I could remember, and it had nothing to do with my being Black. I was just ambitious. But the mentality became different when it was put in a historical context. Suddenly, I had the ancestors on my back and I could not let them down. Now I understand that they are actually the ones who carry me.

By the time I took my first ride from lower Manhattan all the way Uptown and watched as the neighborhoods gradually changed outside of my window, I was curious. I could no longer just accept things as just the way things were. I wanted to know why they were that way. I visited a school on the Upper East Side–not a college or a graduate school, just a school–that had a fireplace in the classroom and a spiraling staircase. I understood that I was still in New York City, but I felt that I was literally and figuratively a long way from home. I understood that very few of the people who went to this school looked like me and that if I wanted to come to this school, I would need to get a scholarship. And I started to understand that we lived in different worlds that were deeper than Friends v. Living Single.

A friend of mine who comes from a multi-racial family told me that growing up his “Black side” of the family would talk about numerous injustices committed against them by whites and that it was in stark contrast to the way his “white side” of the family was. He said that that dichotomy was a big help to him in terms of learning that one can’t fully be judged by the color of his skin. For me, it has never really been about judgment or skin color as much as it has been about access and self-determination.

Of course, now I understand that white does not necessarily equal rich and powerful, but I didn’t always understand that. I did understand that Black seemed to mean less likely to be rich and powerful and more likely to be poor, uneducated, criminalized, and even killed. It was a realization that didn’t fit in with the stories and feelings of pride and greatness that had been instilled in me. It still doesn’t. It hopefully never will.

But I also know that Black history, present, and future are all bigger and better than that. So, this month especially, as we used to say in my spoken word circles, I hope to “go in and get free,” to pay homage to those stories by telling our stories and working to create new ones.

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The Mute World (Politics & Society)

The Privilege to be “Candid”

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I was in college, one of my friends did a semester exchange at Columbia. When she returned to campus, I asked her how her learning experience there compared to her experience at our university. As some of you might know, I went to Howard University, which is a historically black college (HBCU). With all of the constant debate surrounding the merits and relevance of HBCUs, I asked her if she had felt that Columbia’s curriculum had been more rigorous or difficult and if she’d felt that she had learned more.

“Not really,” I remember her telling me. “If anything, I feel like they are still debating the existence of issues that we (at Howard) already acknowledge and are trying to figure out how to solve.

Over the past year and a half that I’ve spent at an “Ivy League” law school, that conversation has come to my mind many times as I sat in numerous classes and went to events where I was forced to listen to “intellectual”  back and forth around controversial topics. “I can’t believe we are still talking about this,” I would think. Or better yet, I can’t believe the superficial way in which we are talking about it. What can we do about it? What are we doing about it?”

One of today’s controversial topics of choice was affirmative action. In just a year and a half at this institution, I have already had more “discussions” about affirmative action than I can stand–not counting all of the years I had to hear about it before I even got here. And understand, this is not a post about affirmative action, because, guess what: I don’t want to know nor do I care what you think about it. Really, I don’t. Many of you don’t like it: I get that. I only ask that you stop subjecting me to your feelings about it.

Some people might argue that discussion is essential to forthcoming action. I disagree. I don’t think that a bunch of (mostly not “of color,” urban, or poor) legal scholars sitting around in a room pontificating about the constitutionality of a policy that many people in the room can’t stand is doing anything to address educational disparities in urban and/or poor communities of color. I’m not even convinced that educational disparity is the main issue, but I digress… However, I do know that little third-grade Charlie, whom many people feel so comfortable talking about but have never met, probably doesn’t care about whether or not the Supreme Court used “strict scrutiny” to analyze a case that might affect his future.

One scholar argued that affirmative action actually inhibits the educational experience because diversity discourages “candor.”

“Wow, that’s really funny,” I thought. “You’re sitting here saying my presence discourages candor while you proceed to tell me all of the reasons why I don’t deserve to be here. And even though you don’t think I deserve to be here, you’re not interested in investing in educational opportunities for me or people like me to succeed elsewhere. Okay, great…So, what exactly are you holding back?”

Am I supposed to be grateful that my classmates haven’t forced my peers and I to walk around wearing “AA” on our foreheads?

During a Constitutional Law class last year as we discussed affirmative action, someone argued that the policy had a negative effect on the experience of minority students because, whether or not they said it to our faces, behind our backs, everyone said we were affirmative action targets anyway. Well dang, there goes that darn diversity destroying your opportunity to be candid and tell me to my face that you don’t think I deserve to be here…until we have a forum, a guest speaker, or God-forbid a Con Law class, that is. As we both sit in these halls of intellectual privilege, I would hate for you to be deprived of your right to point out my community’s flaws because we all know that you get a commission, sense of pride, vindication….”Wait, hold up? What exactly do you get from it?”

“What do I get from it?”

“What does third-grade Charlie get from it?”

Wait, wait, wait. Maybe I’m being too superficial. Maybe we get perspective from it. Maybe we’ve changed some people’s minds, made them understand. Still, somehow, I doubt that because this is the  fifty-leventh time that we’ve discussed it and I’m still hearing the same arguments and I still get that you don’t like it.

What if I said that I don’t like it either? What if I said that I’m not the begging type, and I don’t want to be anywhere that I’m not wanted? What if I said that my friend was right and that I’m not surprised that we can’t come up with solutions to these problems because in 2014 you’re still debating the validity of the connection between poverty and educational performance? What if I said that I don’t feel like debating my intelligence, worth, capabilities, identity, or my culture and that I don’t have to? What if I refused to? What if I realized that no one else ever has to do that? What if you did too?

I know that not everyone will understand this. Not everyone will understand why I get so worked up about this. They’ll think I’m defensive or sensitive, and they won’t get that this is not about my personal offense. I’m a pretty self-reflective person who is able to admit my insecurities–and I promise you that this is not one of them. I know exactly who I am and what I’m capable of, with or without mainstream metrics of achievement. Rather, it offends me that certain people think that it’s okay to tell other people what they think their place and/or problem is: the rich telling the poor, New Yorkers telling Texans, etc. Who is anyone to do that? What do they know? It’s a presumptuous audacity with which I will never be comfortable.

As I contemplated the argument about the relationship between diversity and candor, I thought about my experience at Howard, where we were able to have a wide variety of discussions on controversial topics and to speak with a freedom and sense of community and understanding that I only now fully appreciate and greatly miss. While I found myself shocked at some of my classmates’ values and opinions, it was there that I truly learned that diversity had to do with a lot more than skin color. I honestly don’t think that we felt comfortable discussing things because the majority of us were African American. I think we were able to talk because most of us came from similar positions (in the eyes of society, if not in class distinctions) and had a genuine interest in wanting to see things change and improve. We all had something to gain from the progressive motion of the universe.

So, that’s how I know that candor does not come from homogeneity, it comes from privilege–feelings of freedom, security, justification, and confidence. Worse than that, oftentimes candor has no purpose. Someone gets to say something just because it’s on his mind, regardless of its accuracy, relevance, or tangible or emotional effect–that’s what some people confuse as their First Amendment right. It’s the difference between being able to discuss solutions to problems and being forced to listen to diatribes of cultural superiority couched in legalese. Unfortunately, I have come to the realization that not everyone gets to be candid because some people have more to lose than others.

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The Mute World (Politics & Society)

“I’m Gon’ Need You To Say Something, Bey Bey” : When Celebrity Used To Mean Something

Beyonce

Beyonce (Photo credit: Ana Kelston)

I can already feel the Beyhive swarming, but I had to do it.

Over the past week, the world has been going crazy over the surprise release of Beyonce’s new self-titled album. So far, the album has been praised for its vulnerability, feminist manifestos, and the boss-like way that it was dropped without the aid of typical modes of artist promotion like radio, singles, interviews, etc.

Let me first say that I too admired and respected Bey’s strategy and business savvy in choosing to release the album on her own terms and in her own way. It was genius and I have no idea how she did it (in secret, no less) while being in the midst of a world tour. It is a great testament to the level that she has reached in her career. She needs no external promotion because we (myself included now, with this blog post) are her promotion. She did something that independent artists have been doing for years and she is fortunate enough to have a loyal enough base around her that it worked out to the umpteenth power.

But to me, the fact that she has reached a level in her career where she can literally say, “jump” and hundreds of millions of people worldwide will say, “how high King Bey, and where would you like me to land?” is not a testament to some other-worldly awesomeness or musical/performance superiority. Instead, it has me wondering, what else can she do with this level of influence?

Now I know you’re thinking, “what do you mean what else?! She’s married to a fellow #BOSS, has a beautiful little girl, loyal friends, a wildly successful world tour, and a fit figure. What else do you want the woman to do?” Well, I want her to be ABOUT something.

The other day, I went to watch a screening of an amazing documentary called The Trials of Muhammad Ali. The documentary focused heavily on Ali’s decision to refuse to serve in the Vietnam War. In making such a decision, he was stripped of his heavy weight title, lost millions of dollars, was not allowed to box, and faced five years in prison in a case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States and made a statement about religious and political freedom. And as I sat there and watched it, I could not help but to think, ” What happened to celebrities (particularly African American ones) who used to stand for something?”

Granted, Ali was not known for his modesty (he was proud and confident in a time when it wasn’t okay for black people to be that way). Still, what happened to people who did more than sing and rap about how much they’ve accomplished and how great they are, but who actually spoke up and defended causes? This is exactly what Harry Belafonte was trying to say with his comments about Jay-Z last year. In response, proving that they entirely missed the point, the Carters contended that they do a lot for charity and support many causes financially. Except no one was questioning their ability to open their wallets. We were questioning their ability to stand, to speak, and to actually say something (worthwhile, that is).

And yes, Kudos to them for following in Solange’s footsteps and showing up to the Trayvon Martin rally, but that’s not enough. If Beyonce can sell tens of thousands of records in a matter of hours or days with no advance notice, imagine what would happen if she mobilized for a  cause beyond her own record sales? Or even if she smacked her husband upside the head for not wanting to make “snap judgments” about the situation at Barney’s instead of calling a spade a spade (as he’s done in the past with Cristal, before his money level changed exponentially anyway.)

As for the debate about her feminism or lack thereof, Beyonce is not a feminist. That opinion has nothing to do with black versus white versions of feminism or opinions about modern sexuality. Aside from all the lyrical contradictions in her music (because we all contradict ourselves) in my opinion, Beyonce cannot be a feminist because feminism is a political term that requires action and engagement (not simply the quoting of feminist scholars). Yes, she is a wife, mother, and businesswoman who inspires even me with the notion that I can “have it all,” but again, that’s not enough.

Do I want her to run for political office? No. Do I want her to sing a song about freedom from political oppression? If she wants to, although I’m not sure what amount of concrete good it will do. I want her to use the King Bey worship that she elicits from so many for the benefit of the greater good. How? I don’t know, but I’d like to see an effort. George Clooney does it. John Legend does it. Alicia Keys does it. Bey can too.  I want her to pick a cause, educate herself about it,  get people to pay attention to it, and to act on it. And to all the people who are screaming through their computers at me that she does, if I don’t know about it, that’s proof that she hasn’t promoted that cause nearly as well as she’s promoted her surprise album.

Yes, this stirs up the age old question of what, if any, responsibility celebrities owe to society. Obviously, my answer is that they owe everything to society. Yes, they are role models. Beyonce didn’t drop her album without promotion. WE are her promotion. We are the ones who allow her to live the powerful and extravagant life that she lives. So, if we’re going to follow her, then she, and every other celebrity, has a responsibility to actually lead us somewhere.

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The Mute World (Politics & Society)

They’re Not Every Woman: Feminism and the Position of First Lady

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I recently read this piece in The New York Times about what the roles and public reputations of Michelle Obama and Ann Romney reveal about the state of American feminism.

The author, Jamie Stiehm, who is clearly a Hillary Clinton admirer, talks about how much both Clinton’s individual political career and tenure as First Lady seemed to advance the cause of feminism, especially as compared to Michelle Obama’s tenure and Ann Romney life and campaign identity so far. She notes that Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama, who is 15 years Ann Romney’s junior, grew up during different eras in the feminist movement–and how their life choices seem to reflect that.

Although Stiehm initially seems to suggest that Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama’s age difference may account for their different life choices and representations of the goals of feminism, she doesn’t venture to explain how or why Clinton, who was born two years before Ann Romney and seemingly during the same “era of feminism,” chose the same professional life path (and apparent adherence to the feminist movement) as Michelle Obama, but maybe I just missed that…

According to the article, Ann Romney “has never pursued a profession outside of the home,” while Michelle Obama, of course, is an attorney. Yet, Stiehm notes, despite these differences in their backgrounds, both women primarily play the role of supporters to their politician husbands and not professional women pursuing their own endeavors or actively championing the cause of American feminism.

Stiehm argues that while Ann Romney “owes no debt to feminism” because she chose the “traditional” exclusive path of motherhood and family, Michelle Obama, with her education and professional achievement, has directly benefited from the feminist movement. For this reason, the author seems to be surprised by the similar ways in which both women seem to have followed the typical model of First Lady as family focused and political arm candy, especially considering Michelle Obama’s professional background, as opposed to “breaking ground” and having a policy agenda like Hillary Clinton, for example.

I don’t intend for this to be a post steeped in theoretical feminism or anything like that. At the moment, I’m neither interested enough nor qualified enough to do that, but several questions and issues ran through my mind while reading the article that I feel compelled to discuss.

My first issue is the notion that Ann Romney “owes no debt to feminism” because she chose to be a wife and mother as opposed to being employed outside of her home. The very fact that she had a choice between careers in the public and domestic spheres suggests to me that she does owe some sort of debt to feminism, to people who argued that women were capable of doing more than housework. Ann Romney is also educated–another form of “indebtedness” to women who argued for possibilities and opportunities for women.

I think it’s important that those who subscribe to the label of feminist or argue for feminist causes are careful not to classify as or suggest that women who choose the “traditional” stay-at-home route are anti-feminist or not supporting or advancing the progression of women’s rights. Motherhood is a very important part of being a woman. It just does not encompass all that women are made for and capable of.

We don’t know why Ann Romney chose not to have a job outside of her home. Maybe it was because raising five children was enough of a job for her or maybe it was because it wasn’t financially necessary, (I may be wrong, but I think many of the early champions of feminism were from pretty well-off backgrounds themselves, so what they were really fighting for was the right to work, not the necessity of having the means to provide for themselves or their families, much like Ann Romney) but that doesn’t mean Ann Romney necessarily set the movement back or isn’t interested or able to advocate for the rights of women.

On the other hand, in the case of Michelle Obama, part of me agrees with the article’s sentiments that she seems to have put her own professional background aside in order to present the First Lady image of supportive wife and mother. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love my First Lady. Everyone knows that she’s educated and accomplished. I think she’s classy, admirable, down-to-earth, and intelligent, and I want to be like her when I grow up, but I do feel like sometimes she waters herself down in order to do the First Lady thing and promote her select initiatives and shout “Obama 2012.” However, unlike the author of the Times article, I don’t think that that is her intention or her fault.

A crucial point that I think the article misses is that the office of First Lady in itself is, in many ways, anti-feminist and contrary to a progressive agenda for women’s rights. Think about it. How much time do we spend talking about the First Lady’s outfits and likeability? The post is designed to be one of a figurehead and perpetrator of patriarchal notions of political leadership. The author of the Times piece seems to want the First Lady and the candidate for First Lady to develop policy agendas of sorts, but history has shown us that people do not like for the First Lady to get directly involved in political affairs.

Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for spearheading the universal healthcare initiative when she was First Lady. I remember reading her autobiography Living History and being surprised by her accounts (because I’m too young to remember it) of the criticism of her hair and outfits, especially when she first got to the White House. Again, issues like those seem to suggest to me that the position of First Lady is anti-feminist in itself because it reverts many women back to being objects of beauty who simply “stand by their man.”

I’m sure the initiatives that every First Lady develops were begun in part to combat those stereotypes,  but, despite many of them being worthy social causes, they still have always seemed like nationally hyped “pet projects” to keep the First Lady busy and perpetuate the notion of the modern, liberated woman. I’m sure Michelle Obama did not go to Princeton and Harvard so that The New York Times could write that “her degrees are hidden in the White House cupboards,” but deference seems to come with the territory of being First Lady. The one time Michelle Obama seemed to express an honest sentiment (the being “proud of her country for the first time” remark), she got raked over the coals. Thus, the motto for First Ladies seems to be to stick as close as possible to the script or risk messing things up for your husband.

If we really want to analyze what being First Lady has done for feminism, we need to examine the existence and function of the post as a whole. Why can’t a woman just be the President’s wife? Could she have just moved to D. C. and continued practicing law? Why does the position of First Lady seem to come with an unstated contract of giving up your personal pursuits, voice, and identity in order to support your husband’s? How might this level of sacrifice change if we were to elect a woman president? Would the First Man be judged by his words and wardrobe just as fiercely or could he go on living his life?

These are just some of the issues that truly need to be addressed before we start talking about what first ladies are doing or not doing to advance the cause of feminism.

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The Mute World (Politics & Society)

Them, Themselves, & Irene: No Evacuation Plan for Prisoners During Hurricane

As the East Coast braced for Hurricane Irene this weekend, with hundreds of thousands of mandatory evacuations ordered, one particular group of potential storm targets was forced to fend for themselves regardless of what the weather brought, prisoners. Despite the world-famous city of islands and insomnia (Manhattan Island,  Brooklyn and Queens, Staten Island) shutting down the public transportation system and forcing residents located in vulnerable zones to leave their homes, there was no evacuation plan–nor plan to evacuate– prisoners on Rikers Island, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

You may be thinking, “of course not,” “should there have been?”, or even “why would there have been?” But  I ask you, “why wouldn’t there been?”, at least an evacuation plan.  Despite being labeled on the evacuation map, the prison was not included among the sites to be accounted for in the event of an emergency.

The subjective value society places on life is an interesting and more than controversial phenomenon. In a nation that goes through great pains to confirm its submission to divine authority, many people  play God with others’ very existences, making judgments and decisions about their right to life and about the quality of their lives.  Politicians and religious leaders argue vehemently in defense of the life of embryos or fetuses in utero, sometimes even at the expense of the life of its mother. (No, I don’t want to get into that debate here.) Michael Vick was publicly reviled and imprisoned for endangering the lives of canines, and environmentalists conduct endless campaigns to save trees and other plant life. Yet, many people will still debate why a prison should have an evacuation plan.

Practical concerns might arise over where to temporarily house the prisoners, but that is a common dilemma during evacuations. People do not always have someplace else to go. However, in order for the dilemma to be solved, it must first be addressed with the development of a plan of action for emergencies. In some ways, it might actually be easier to relocate prisoners than to relocate other ordinary citizens because the state would undoubtedly provide assistance, whereas many families have to find their own shelter.

Other concerns like the possibility of escape and the danger of potentially exposing the prisoners to society again could also likely be minimized with careful thought and planning. Those who feel that  criminals do not deserve to be evacuated because prison is punishment and being trapped in a hurricane would simply be part of that should also consider that not all of the people on Rikers Island have been convicted of a crime yet, not all of those convicted of crimes are guilty, and the vast majority of many prisoners are imprisoned for non-violent crimes. Some of the prisoners are children. The same holds true for many other prisoners in other institutions nationwide.

Here’s another novel concept, even those guilty of committing crimes deserve a fair chance to preserve their lives in the event of an emergency. No one wants to be an afterthought. It is often said that people cannot truly empathize with people or situations to which they feel that they cannot relate, yet human error is universal. Any one of us could be one second, one incident, one injustice, or one misunderstanding away from a prison cell at any given moment, and we would want the justice system and the general public to be considerate of our needs.

Much has been written, spoken, researched, and campaigned for regarding prison reform. While the occupants of Rikers Island may be forced to navigate the waters this weekend, society won’t be safe to swim until criminal justice and human rights issues like these are adequately addressed and resolved. Until we learn to acknowledge, value, and honor everyone’s humanity, without regard for our own opinions, assumptions, and fears, no real change will ever be accomplished.

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The Mute World (Politics & Society)

The Declaration of Media Independence

Veteran journalist and regular Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges recently wrote an article lamenting the decline of print journalism and media as we know it.

In the article, which Alternet fittingly re-titles “Lies Become Truths: The Demise of the Newspaper Leaves Americans Dumber, Blinder and Prone to Ideological Manipulation” in its cross-post, Hedges reflects nostalgically on his first visit to a newsroom as a teenager and the epiphany that he experiences that tells him he has found what he wants to do with his life; he pays homage to his reporting idols and their legendary feats, and he asserts that the decline of the newspaper business will ultimately leave the public “deaf, dumb, and blind.”

The arguments that Hedges makes are not new to anyone who is involved in or has an interest in journalism and/or media, particularly print media. Much has been written and stated about the decline in newspaper sales and magazine subscriptions, unemployed journalists, and journalists who are scrambling to keep up with the changing forms of media in order  to keep themselves current and marketable. From a business standpoint, these developments are without a doubt both frightening and disappointing. It is the intellectual and societal consequences that Hedges’ offers that are more open to debate.

While few people would argue the importance of newspapers in recording history, spreading information, and keeping the public informed, in general, Hedges’ tone of imminent doom and destruction demonstrates a somewhat overly idealistic and limited view of the nature and role of media in society at large.

The decline of print media is definitely sad, and even worrisome in certain respects, but not because the public is suddenly going to be left to fend for itself, ignorant and gullible.

Hedges places a great deal of weight on print media providing “trustworthy” and “impartial” information. Even as someone who hopes to enter the profession myself, every lesson that I’ve ever learned about media has emphasized the importance of being skeptical and critical of the media, not worshipping it as if it were some all-knowing entity that fights tirelessly for the downtrodden, even though like Hedges, I wholeheartedly believe that it should.

He claims that the print newspaper decline is contributing to our “impoverished civil discourse” and “leaving us less and less connected to the city, the nation and the world,” but how connected are newspapers to the general public in the first place? More importantly, to whom are they connected? By whom, and where?

Granted, I can only speak from my limited New York City experience (and a little bit of D. C. experience). I don’t know exactly where The New York Times offices are located, but I’m pretty sure that they are  situated in a very specific neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily legitimize its “connection” to “the city.” One would be hard-pressed to even find a New York Times on the stoop of any home (or even at a corner store) in several sections of New York City.

We live in a capitalist society. Sales trends don’t just change for no apparent reason. Who and/or how many people, were actually reading these papers in the first place? Perhaps, a growing portion of the population can no longer afford print subscriptions, or they don’t feel as “connected” to the publications as was previously thought, and thus they no longer feel the need to support it financially. News, like education and many other public services, is not equally accessible to everyone, and now  profits are showing this. If the public would rather be entertained than informed, as many people seem to believe, then the media must do a better job of demonstrating the importance and relevance of the information that it really needs to present.

Local, national, and international correspondents do not bridge the physical and emotional distance that newspapers, no matter how detailed, often fail to cover. The public did not simply get dumber; it became disillusioned. Hedges alludes to this disconnect when he says, “The Washington Post does not cover Washington. It covers official Washington.” Yet, he defends what he views as the “official” and minimizes the ascent of what he sees as the “unofficial.”

He worries about the public increasingly consuming its news from “the ideological ghettos of the Internet,” but the Internet has the potential to assist the media by helping to truly connect it to the public (more or different aspects of it anyway) and to perform its role as the defender of truth and justice that Hedges hopes for. The blogs, websites, and Tumblr accounts with no corporate sponsors or advertising campaigns, average citizens writing what they see, how they see it, because they want to and they can–this is the truly independent media.

What is an “ideological ghetto?”  No, not every source is a reputable one and some websites do more harm to your hard-drive than good for your mind, but it is an open forum where people who might not have otherwise gotten the opportunity now have a more equal chance to learn and to be heard. The same people who could never find a copy of The New York Times in their neighborhoods can now visit The New York Times website. The same is true for several other publications that many people might never have come into direct contact with, but that they can now search and follow on a regular basis.

A professional writer recently expressed his disdain to me that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can now sit behind a computer and call himself or herself a writer, but I don’t see the problem. As long as you had the ability to put words on a canvas, any canvas, be it a napkin, a notebook, or a laptop, you were always a writer to me. I don’t aim to exercise a monopoly over the profession. If I’m true to what I do, I do not feel threatened by you doing what you do.

“And once this bedrock of civil discourse is eradicated,” Hedges continues, “people will be free, as many already are, to believe whatever they want to believe , to pick and choose what facts or opinions suit their world and what do not.” You mean, people will be left to think their own thoughts and believe what they want to believe? Wait, you mean people haven’t always done that, newspaper or no newspaper? Print or digital?  Oh. My. Goodness. It’s intellectual anarchy. I’m sure the scribes felt the same way when the printing press was invented.

All sarcasm aside, I’m sure print media isn’t going to just evaporate into thin air, and I wouldn’t want it to. I personally prefer turning pages in my hands. Again, no one can deny the crucial role of reporters and the traditional techniques that journalists use to tell the important stories that form the backbone of our society. Everyone knows that the victor has always had the privilege of presenting history. This generation has finally figured out a way to help level the playing field by telling more of the stories, our way–ourselves.

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