An Undisciplined Account: the context

In my last post, I discussed my undisciplined experiment with digital storytelling. In my digital video, I reflected on my first-grade report card and was curious about why my “lack of self-disciple” was featured so prominently on it. Even as I was finishing up that video, I was troubled/unsettled/curious about my lack of context. While I briefly mentioned that I went to school in Hickory, North Carolina, I didn’t provide any details about the town or the state. Since I’m interested in the ways that calls for self-discipline have disturbing implications for folks who don’t fit the mythical (White) norm, it seems important to mention that 1980s North Carolina, particularly in the part of the state that I lived, near the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, was a racially charged and poverty stricken area (at least, right outside of the city of Hickory). It was also in a school district where corporeal punishment, in the form of paddling, was mandatory (I need to do some more research on that, but I’m pretty sure that I remember my mom, a junior high learning disabilities teacher, struggling with how to resist/reject this regulation).

One more note: less than one year before I was in first grade in Hickory, a violent massacre of anti-racist activists occurred less than 2 hours away, in Greesburo, South Carolina:

Just shortly before starting this post, I wrote a comment about the need to contextualize my self-discipline narrative. Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my whiteness and its impact on how my lack of self-discipline was handled by my teacher. As much as I can recall, I didn’t really get in that much “trouble” in that first grade class. Even though paddling was encouraged, I was never paddled. (It might have even been mandatory for teachers; I went to elementary school in the 1980s in North Carolina, at least partly known for its poverty, racism and corporeal punishment. I think I recall my mom, who taught in a different school, saying that she was told that she had to paddle misbehaving students).

I wish I could remember more of my mom’s stories about her teaching experiences in North Carolina. I think she would have a lot to say about how non-white/poor white students were punished as troublemakers with corporeal punishment and by being placed in learning disabilities classrooms like hers.

After posting this comment, I decided to quickly look through one of my mom’s notebooks (the same notebook where I found her reflections on throwing darts at the Censor and her poem about the dragonfly). In it, I found some of her research notes for a presentation on Creativity and Weaving: “My Experiences in Taylorsville, North Carolina–the 80’s.” Jackpot! Well, not quite, but it’s a start. In these brief notes, my mom provides some context on 1980s North Carolina and a little bit of information about her experiences as a teacher during that time. She was a special education teacher (I remember that she called herself an LD–learning disabilities–teacher) at West Jr. High School “in the middle of the country in Alexander County, then the 2nd poorest county in the state.” She notes that the KKK was a big presence (with at least one teacher claiming membership) and that there was a sharp contrast in wealth between “the richer city of Hickory” (where I attended school) and her extremely poor students in rural Alexander County.

She also briefly describes “discipline in the schools” as: “paddle–woodburned names, classroom chart with 3 demerits than a paddle.” I remember that from my first-grade class! Only once was I almost paddled. I had made it through the entire day without a single demerit. Then, in the last few minutes of school, I managed to earn three! For some reason, Mrs. Miller didn’t paddle me. Did I ever see her paddle any other students? I’m not sure. How did my mom handle the paddle rule in her classroom? Did she ever paddle her students? Did she refuse? If so, what were the consequences of that refusal? How did she manage her role as a teacher who was supposed to discipline students (and who was frequently given students who didn’t really have learning disabilities, but were just deemed “disciplinary problems”) with her role as a mother of someone who lacks (self) discipline? Did she witness any differences between how discipline functioned in “rich Hickory” and “poor Alexander county”? What did she think about these differences? Did they shape how she handled my disciplinary problems?

Yes! I must continue to explore and trouble my undisciplined account.

 

more on white privilege and challenging racism with humor

A few weeks ago, I posted some resources for thinking critically about privilege. Here are a few more that came to my attention in the last 72 hours or so:

1. Yo, is this racist? I first saw this tumblr blog several weeks ago when a facebook friend posted it. I was reminded of it after reading this Colorlines interview with the creator/writer of the blog. Here’s how Andrew Ti  describes his overall goal:

“What I would like to have, the resource that seems most needed based on the questions in general and the hatemail from indignant white people,” says Ti, “is just an examination of white privilege, and of all privilege in America. That’s what I try to bring to the table, without being too serious about it: an examination of privilege. Because at the end of the day, I’m making jokes and making fun of people, and if that sting of embarrassment can make one in a hundred people think, ‘why is that? Why do I feel this way?’ That’s what I can bring.

2. Another resource that uses humor to expose, examine and challenge white privilege is Franchesca Ramsey’s YouTube video, “Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls.” Posted on January 4th, it has “blown up the Internet“:

This video is all over the place. I even found it on the VH-1 blog (via my Flipboard)! I found an interesting comment on the Racialicious article about the video. Yonnie writes:

I hope to see Racialicious do a more analytical article on this video and more importantly, the comments/reactions to it on the internet.

I do think that a critical analysis of the comments/reactions to this video might be good…if you have a strong stomach. I can only imagine the racist, privilege-denying rants that this video could spark. I do have hope that humor can reach and positively challenge people, like here.

 

Oh bother! or, don’t bother? Mansplaining and whitesplaining, the Gene Marks edition

Last week in my feminist debates class, I brought up a term that I had recently encountered (it’s been around for awhile): mansplaining. Here’s the definition that Fannie’s Room offers:

Around the feminist blogosphere, the phenomenon of mansplaining has been duly noted as of late. This is also known as the Men Who Know Things phenomenon, whereby some men mistakenly believe that they automatically know more about any given topic than does a woman and will, consequently, proceed to explain to her- correctly or not- things that she already knows.

The mansplainer’s problem isn’t so much that he’s trying to teach a woman something, but rather that he takes it as a given that she doesn’t already know whatever it is he is going to tell her.

She also briefly mentions whitesplaining:

a white person whitesplains how a person of color is “wrong” about something being racist against people of color. It’s the same basic idea as mansplaining- as both are grounded in the privilege of one’s identity being considered society’s default and, therefore, more objective than the experiences of Other identities.

As I was looking over my twitter feed this morning, I found a tweet to an article over at Colorlines:

The article at Colorlines is a critique of Gene Marks original essay for Forbes: If I Were a Poor Black Kid. Marks’ article is getting tons of traffic and tons of attention and has generated lots of important critiques. Here’s one take on how this traffic and attention might have been deliberately crafted by Marks because it’s good for (his) business. I don’t really think I’m interested in bothering with a critique of this very problematic article (or am I? not sure; hence, the title of this post: oh boher! or, don’t bother?) because it just contributes to more attention (and money?) for Marks. I am interested, however, in documenting it as a great example of whitesplaining. Gene Marks is great at this ‘splaining stuff. Just a few months ago, he wrote an article that stands as a great example of mansplaining: Why Most Women Will Never Become CEOs. Sigh… So, next time I want to teach about whitesplaining or mansplaining, I can look to Gene Marks as my (im)moral exemplar! Gee thanks, Gene!

I was partly inspired to write this post after noticing a few responses to Marks’ “if were a black kid” approach. Here are just a couple:

Here are 2 examples from the If I was a poor black kid tumblr:

 

 

Why Jay Smooth is awesome

I’ve been following Jay Smooth and Ill Doctrine for a couple of years now. His work is amazing…to watch and to teach. I’ve used his video, “How to Tell People They Sound Racist” in at least one of my classes (see here for the lecture). Yesterday morning, while reading my twitter feed (I follow him @jsmooth995), I came across his most recent video, “My Personal Pledge for the ‘Until Abortion Ends’ Movement.” After watching it, I noticed another recent video: “My TEDx Talk, ‘How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race‘.” This video, from a talk given last month, is a follow-up to the wildly popular “how to tell people…” video (which is from way back in 2008). Check it out:

This brief speech is packed with great things to talk about. For now, I want to briefly highlight a few key parts of the speech (read the entire transcript at Ill Doctrine):

1. Race is a social construct that was designed not to make sense, but to rationalize and justify indefensible acts:

The first thing is that anytime we’re dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out of any science or reason or logic, we are grappling with a social construct that was not designed to make sense. And to the extent that it is the product of design, the race constructs that we live in in America were shaped specifically by a desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues, we’re grappling with something that was designed for centuries to make us circumvent our best instincts. It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up. So just based on that alone we should be able to keep in mind that you will never bat a thousand when it comes to dealing with race issues.

2. We need to shift away from the tonsils paradigm of race discourse…

These are things that will just naturally develop in our day-to-day lives, so the problem with that all or nothing binary is it causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils. Like you either have tonsils, or you don’t, and if you’ve had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider it again. If someone says “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice,” you say “No–my prejudice was removed in 2005! [Audience laughter] I went to see that movie Crash, it’s all good!”

…and toward the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse.

But that’s not how these things work; when you go through your day to day lives there are all of these mass media and social stimuli as well as processes that we all have inside our brains that we’re not aware of, that cause us to build up little pockets of prejudice every day, just like plaque develops on our teeth. [Audience laughter] So we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm of race discourse toward the dental hygeine paradigm of race discourse. Basically, if I might just offer one piece of advice.

3. We also need to move away from the idea that being a good person is just what we are and shift toward the recognition that being good is a practice, one that we must work at everyday [note: hmm....see some connections to virtue ethics here; I really like the idea of repeated practices]

And in general I think we need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift towards seeing being good as a practice, and it is a practice that we carry out by engaging with our imperfections. We need to shift from, we need to shift toward thinking of being a good person the same way we think of being a clean person. Being a clean person is something that you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that I’m a clean person therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth. And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say “Wh-what do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth? I’m a clean person! Why would you–” [Audience laughter]

4. Being good does not being perfect, but being willing to engage with our own and each other’s imperfections.

The belief that you must be perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be. It would make our conversations with each other a lot smoother, and it would make us better at being good, if we could recognize that we’re not perfect and embrace that….So I hope that we can–if I could have one wish it would be that we would reconsider how we conceptualize being a good person, and keep in mind that we are not good despite our imperfections. It is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good. Our connection with our personal and common imperfections, being mindful of those personal and common imperfections is what allows us to be good to each other and be good to ourselves.

5. Having conversations about race isn’t enough to address bigger issues…

So I know that this is no small task, but if we could shift a little bit closer, toward viewing these race conversations the same way we view a conversation about something stuck in our teeth, it would go a long way toward making our conversations a bit smoother and allow us to work together on bigger issues around race.

Because there are a lot of–beyond the persistent conversational awkwardness of race, there are persistent systemic and institutional issues around race that are not caused by conversation, and they can’t be entirely solved by conversation. You can’t talk them away, but we need people to work together and coordinate and communicate to find strategies to work on those systemic issues. Because despite all of the barriers that we’ve broken, all of the apparent markers of progress there are still so many disparities.

…but it is a helpful way to bring us closer so we can work together.

If you look at unemployment rate, infant mortality rate, incarceration rates, median household income, there are so many disparities on the various sides of the color lines in this country that it is worthwhile for us to iron out these conversational issues if for nothing else so that we can get a little closer to working together on those big issues.

So many important themes here–willingness to be wrong/imperfect + emphasis on building connections/community + recognition that being good involves repeated practices–and delivered in a way that encourages us to laugh, think and act. Jay Smooth is awesome.

One other reason (among many) that Jay Smooth is awesome: He’s fostered a great community on his blog; the comments on his Ted Talk post are really impressive (full of love and support). With so much talk about how pointless comments usually are (with trolls and blowhard d-bags derailing or hating on important discussions), it’s always great to see spaces where comments work to build community.

On privilege

In the past 24 hours, I’ve encountered several online discussions about privilege (especially, but not exclusively white privilege). I want to archive these conversations for future reflection.

Encounter One: Scrolling through my politics of sex course blog from last semester last night, I came across my lecture notes on privilege. Here they are:

Today’s topic for discussion is privilege and oppression. This is a continuation of our discussion on Monday about heteronormativity and straight thinking. Ingraham writes:

The question then becomes not whether heterosexuality is natural, and therefore ‘normal’, but, rather how do cultural meaning systems work to normalize and institutionalize heterosexuality? And, more importantly, what interests are served by these processes? In other words, who benefits from the ways we’ve named, defined, and organized sexuality (74)?
In today’s class we focus on the question of whose interests are being served (who benefits)? At whose expense do some benefit? We are extending the question beyond sexuality to think about how heteronormativity is part of a larger network of normativities. 

INTERLOCKING SYSTEMS OF OPPRESSION AND THE MYTHICAL NORM 
  • Audre Lorde in “Age, Race, Class and Sex” in Sister Outsider: “Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practising.”
  • Kate Bornstein in My Gender Workbook: The pyramid

Screen shot 2011-02-15 at 10.50.16 PM.png

Screen shot 2011-02-15 at 10.50.31 PM.png
  • Not just about any one category, or about envisioning the problem as one of binaries: oppressed/oppressor, white/non-white, male/female.
    Instead, about a larger network of norms (in terms of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality) that together contribute to this larger power pyramid of status/identity/privilege

LINKING INDIVIDUAL ASSETS AND MICROAGGRESSIONS WITH LARGER STRUCTURES OF PRIVILEGE AND OPPRESSION

  • Not isolated instances or individual practices of a few “bad” people
  • When analyzed cumulatively we can begin to see larger structures that enable the systematic oppression of groups who don’t fit the mythical norm/who fall outside the normal. What structures do you see emerging in these lists?
  • While becoming aware of privilege and microaggression involve individual experiences and encourage individual reflection, they are not about our individual intentions or about who we are (it’s not about us). Instead, awareness of privilege, microaggression and oppression is about the effects and affects of our actions/understandings on others. And how those actions are made in a larger context and social/material/historical processes of meaning-making.
Some examples (from “The Color of Supremacy”):
Screen shot 2011-02-15 at 11.29.20 PM.png
 Jay Smooth: How to tell people they sound racist:
What they did vs. What they are…the goal is to analyze actions, not to focus on whether or not an individual is racist.
LEARNING PROCESS
  • Individuals/groups learn/are taught how to ignore privilege and to take it for granted
  • This learning process involves being discouraged from thinking critically about race, sex, gender, class.
  • It also requires active refusals to become aware and to engage in critical thinking.
  • Learning process trains us how to engage in practices of racial/sexual/gender/class/ability/ethnic microaggressions. We may engage in these wittingly and unwittingly.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF EXAMINING PRIVILEGE/MICROAGGRESSION?

  • Importance of discomfort in addressing these issues
  • Why study micoraggressions? Privilege?
  • What do we do with this knowledge?

What do you think about this statement “about this site” on the microaggressions blog?:

This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal.  “it” is in the everyday.  “it” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it.  “it” happens when you expect it the most.  “it” is a reminder of your difference.  “it” enforces difference.  “it” can be painful.  “it” can be laughed off.  “it” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both.  “it” can silence people.  “it” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed.  “it” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
but “it” can create or force moments of dialogue.

A few more resources:

  1. There are lots of privilege lists circulating on the interwebz. Here’s a list of many of them.
  2. Check out these, in particular: The Black Male Privileges Checklist and Daily Effects of Straight Privilege (by Peggy McIntosh) Why are there so many privilege lists available? What are the benefits and limits of such a proliferation of lists?
  3. Check out this critical assessment of the privileges approach: “The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of “white privilege”

Encounter Two: Woke up this morning and checked my twitter feed. I found a tweet via @racialicious about a post on racism vs. white guilt.

This video is the subject of her post:

Encounter Three: After encountering my notes and the video on white guilt, I remembered that Slutwalk Toronto was planning to post on privilege soon. We’ve been following Slutwalk in my feminist debates class all semester and read/discussed their statement on racism in class a few weeks ago. I checked their blog this morning and found it: What’s All This About “Privilege”?

oh bother, part 2

This is the second in my ongoing series of events/ideas/objects that make me say, “oh bother!” As a reminder, here is the purpose of these brief entries (you can also find this explanation at the end of my about the categories post here:

This category will include anything that I find particularly reprehensible, repulsive, or just plain annoying. The term, bother, has been one that I have adopted as of late in order to stop saying f**k (which is a favorite word of mine) in front of my highly impressionable kids (who are 3 and 6). Any resemblance to Winnie the Pooh’s catch-phrase is purely coincidental. (Don’t get me wrong, I really like classic Winnie the Pooh. But, somehow, I don’t think Pooh meant “oh bother” in the same spirit that I do.) Like I said, I started uttering “oh bother” about a year ago when my kids got old enough to understand and repeat inappropriate words. It seems rather fitting to use this phrase in relation to making/staying in trouble. After all, to be bothered by something is another way of being troubled by it, right? To bother someone is to trouble them, right? To be in a state of botherment (is this a word?) is to be in a state of trouble. This category is different from my other categories. The “oh bother” examples are meant to be analyzed by you, dear reader, and not me. I want to know what you think about these examples. Perhaps the “oh bother” is a request or a command–as in, (won’t you please) bother these examples for me because I can’t or don’t want to.

Check out this news article about Harvard Professor Gates being arrested for breaking and entering into his own home. I first heard about it on facebook and then saw this blog entry about it on Angry Black Woman via Alas a blog. Words cannot express how much this bothers me. What about you?

What is your image of a troublemaker?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

So, when STA told me about the Think Different commercial (which I just wrote about in this entry, he pointed out something curious (and troubling): the different descriptions of “think different” correspond with particular images of individuals who embody them. For example, the Crazy One is Einstein while the Rebel is Bob Dylan. Now, here comes the troubling part: when Richard Dreyfuss says “Troublemaker” this is the image that we get:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (at 10 seconds).

Now, they could have easily used his image when Dreyfuss says: the Ones who See Things Differently or, even, the Rebels. So, why use this image with that word? Reflecting on this question, I was reminded of a kid’s book that I discussed at length earlier this summer (here and here and here): The Book of Timeouts. In this book, the author offers 14 different examples of troublemakers who behaved improperly and were punished with a timeout. In my earlier entries, I argued that these examples are meant to serve as moral lessons for kids on how not to behave and why they should try to stay out of trouble. As I was doing a close reading of the author’s examples, I remember being troubled by the one about Louis Armstrong.

Entitled, “The Horn Player That Nearly Blew It,” Lucke describes Louis Armstrong’s stint as a troublemaker:

One upon a time Louis Armstrong was just a poor boy looking for trouble. It found him, on New Year’s Even in 1912 in the city of New Orleans. A short while after that, the police showed up. He was hauled away in a paddy wagon and put in a ‘home’ for wayward children [juvenile hall aka prison for minors]. He thought it was the end of the world. But it turned out it wasn’t. His time out changed everything. While he was there he learned how to play the cornet.

Among all of the examples, which I have listed here, this story about Louis Armstrong is the only one about an African American man (And, why is it the only one? What about Martin Luther King Jr or Malcom X, for example?). The only one about a juvenile delinquent/criminal/street thug–who by nature (at least according to the author) seems to up to no good. And the only one that doesn’t offer any specifics about what exactly Armstrong did wrong. Instead, the description, “a poor boy looking for trouble” seems to be all that is needed (along with the illustration of a black boy) for the reader to understand that Armstrong was a troublemaker and criminal who really deserved a time out. Why didn’t the author provide any more specifics as to why Armstrong was in trouble? What exactly did he do that made him deserve a time out? In all of the other examples the author offers some witty connection between the behavior of the troublemaker and the misbehavior of a child (Cleopatra couldn’t share, Richard the Lionhearted cut through people’s yards, Napoleon took other people’s things). As I mentioned above, these connections are meant to reinforce moral lessons: Don’t be like Cleopatra, learn to share with others. Then you won’t get a time out. What moral lesson are we meant to learn from Armstrong? Don’t be born black or poor because then the police will find you and put you in jail?

The author’s (perhaps unwitting) linkage of poor, Black and young with criminal, deserving of prison, and troublemaker is very disturbing. It invokes a very problematic equation that influences a lot of thinking about and visualizing of troublemaker as someone who disobeys/breaks the rules: troublemaker = criminal/delinquent = black male. For more on this equation and why it is a big problem, see here or here.

This equation is also present in the Think Different ad when the image of MLK Jr pops up on the screen as Dreyfuss is saying, “troublemaker.” The image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as troublemaker should be empowering and inspiring and another example of the virtue of troublemaking. But it could also be seen as just one more image reinforcing the ideas (1) that troublemaking is bad, (2) that it is a form of criminal activity, and (3) that black male troublemakers are all criminals.

Thinking about this problematic link between black men, criminal activity and troublemaking reminds me that any revaluing of troublemaking, as something good and virtuous, also requires a deracializing of the troublemaker and a decriminalizing of the troublemaking activities of breaking the rules and disrespecting the status quo.