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.

Resistance in/to the academy, part 2

On Friday, I posted on how 70 students protested via walkout against their Introduction to Economics teacher and his dangerous teaching at Harvard University. Shortly after writing that post, another example of student resistance took place; this time, the resistance was at UCDavis and was in a response to the violent pepper-spraying of non-violent student resistors. Here’s what I just posted on my feminist debates course blog about the UCDavis action:

Yesterday I posted a “this is a feminist issue because…” on Police Brutality against UCDavis students. Here’s a follow-up about how the students organized and engaged in a powerful collective act of non-violent resistance to the administration’s (mainly Chancellor Katehi’s) decision to call in the police and use pepper-spray and other violent tactics. Here’s a video of their action:

And here’s a description/discussion of the action from an anonymous letter (posted here):

And something remarkable happened at Davis tonight.  I’ve been watching the live streams and following the blogs since late this afternoon.  It was a very important moment.

Chancellor Katehi was preparing to give a news conference to take another crack at spinning this story and controlling the growing, viral character it has acquired.

UC Davis students showed up in large numbers to this conference,  and were kept out of the small building (Surge 2, for those who know the campus) for lack of press passes (ha ha).  They surrounded the building and their numbers grew over several hours to over 1000 student protesters.  Reports came that Chancellor Katehi was afraid to leave and go through the student protesters, or even that she was being kept from leaving, as if it were a hostage situation.  Cops were *not* summoned, however — or at least they were kept back.  UC Davis appears to have learned at least a tactical  lesson already.

Through patient OWS style organizing, worked out over dozens of mic checks, they arranged to clear a wide path, determined that they would be silent and respectful when she came out, and sent word that they were not keeping her hostage in the building, just there to call for her resignation.  Hours went by as the situation got more and more tense, but the students showed remarkable discipline and organization as their numbers kept growing.   Finally, they negotiated with Chancellor Katehi’s people and she left the building to walk to her taxpayer-paid $70,000 Lexus SUV [buick] with one aide.  The students maintained *absolute, total order and silence* — really, not a word —  and stood aside,  except for the couple of journalists asking her questions on the livestream feed.  It was eerie and powerful and  Chancellor Pepper Spray was clearly feeling the shame of a thousands of eyes on her around the nation (the livestreams were overloaded as they were joined by students across California and then the nation).

What questions does this raise for you about feminist organizing and resistance against/in/with the academy? About the limits and possibilities of feminist education in the University? 

My troubled reflections (for nov 21): I’m interested in putting these two actions–the Harvard students walking out and the UCDavis students silently and peacefully protesting–beside each other. Both actions are connected to Occupy Wall Street. In their letter, the Harvard students indicate that their action is in solidarity with OWS. And the UCDavis students adopted practices first used by OWS, including organizing through the human microphone. (Here’s one way that The Nation connects the UCDavis students with OWS: “One of the really good things about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is not a campus-based, student movement – it is a movement of “the 99 percent.” But campuses provide a special setting where tactics are tested and strategies are developed, and the students at UC Davis have set an amazing example – when the whole world is watching.”) What different strategies of troublemaking do these two groups of students draw upon? What are the limits and possibilities of these two sets of strategies? Which set of strategies might be ultimately more effective, more transformative, more long-lasting? While I do have my own opinions about which action I think may ultimately work better, I’m not interested in making a judgment here. Instead, I want to leave these 2 actions beside each other and spend a few days being curious about them and thinking through the various questions that they raise for me. 

Makin’ Trouble in Fist City with Loretta Lynn

Last weekend, RJP, FWA and I were listening to a local radio station (the awesome The Current) when Loretta Lynn’s song, “Fist City” came on. Immediately it reminded me of Lurleen Lumpkin from The Simpsons (L Lynn must be the inspiration for this character). After listening to the lyrics I realized that Loretta Lynn is pretty awesome. Sure, I knew about her and had probably listened to some of her music when I was younger, but I don’t think I had ever heard this song or really thought about the lyrics and how they speak to/about a certain form of making (and being) in trouble. This form of making trouble has a lot to with class, particularly poor white folks living in the U.S. South in the 20th Century. There is some great feminist work that describes and theorizes about these experiences. Some of this work has been helpful in expanding, complicating and deepening my understandings of troublemaking and troublestaying. In particular, I’m thinking of Dorothy Allison and “The Question of Class,” Bastard Out of Carolina and Two or three things I know for sure and Mab Segrest and Memoir of a Race Traitor.

Here are the lyrics form “Fist CIty”:

You’ve been makin’ your brags around town that you’ve been a lovin’ with my man
But the man I love when he picks up trash he puts it in a garbage can
And that’s what you look like to me and what I see is a pitty
You’d better close your face and stay out of my way
If you don’t wanta go to Fist City
If you don’t wanna go to Fist City you’d better detour round my town
Cause I’ll grab you by the hair of the head and I’ll lift you off of the ground
I’m not a sayin’ my baby is a saint cause he ain’t
And that he won’t cat around with a kitty
I’m here to tell you gal to lay off of my man if you don’t wanna go to Fist City

Come on and tell me what you told my friends if you think you’re brave enough
And I’ll show you what a real woman is since you think you’re hot stuff
You’ll bite off more than you can chew if you get too cute or witty
You better move your feet if you don’t wanna eat a meal that’s called Fist City
If you don’t wanna go to Fist City…
I’m here to tell you gal to lay off of my man if you don’t wanna go to Fist City

Is it helpful to put Loretta Lynn beside Allison and Segrest? Do they fit together? I’m not sure, but as I listen to the powerful (and resistant) lyrics from “Fist City,” I want to think more about troublemaking in the context of class, whiteness and being southern in the U.S..

Here’s the video (stick around for the brief interview with the announcer at the end!):

One of my favorite troublemakers: Dorothy Allison

I love Dorothy Allison’s essay, “A Question of Class” (and Bastard Out of Carolina and Two or Three Things I Know For Sure…); I wrote about in my dissertation (on the radical subjectivity of story/truthtellers). Today we are discussing the essay in my queering theory class–here’s my summary for the day. As I was preparing the class, I came across this awesome image/description by Allison on her website:

That’s one great way to define troublemaking!

Really Rosie! and Really, Rosie?

My daughter, Rosie, started summer camp today. Her preschool class ended two and a half weeks ago. During the in-between time, we spent all of the days together, going to the beach, the grocery store, the newly renovated library, local parks, and biking along the Mississippi River. We made up stories and had great talks about everything from soylent green (she brought it up) to our fifth favorite color to the possibility of life on other planets (prompted after a viewing of A Wrinkle in Time). I was able to bear witness to her (mostly) wonderful troublemaking spirit and was reminded of how she (and her brother FWA) helped to inspire my creation of this blog back in May of 2009.

Being beside Rosie is always very helpful for my own thinking about troublemaking. Much like me, her troublemaking usually comes in the form of an insatiable curiosity and a refusal to merely accept what she is told. Because she asks so many questions and always demands explanations for why she must do this or believe that, she reminds me that engaging in troublemaking (or being around someone who is making trouble) can be exciting, exhilarating and exhausting. Indeed, troublemaking has its limits and shouldn’t be uncritically embraced as that which we should do all of the time. And when it is practiced, we need to remember how it can drain us or those around us. Throughout the past two and a half weeks, Rosie has prompted me to exclaim with joy, “Really Rosie!,” one minute, and then utter in annoyed disbelief, “Really, Rosie?,” the next.

When I was a kid, I loved the show, Really Rosie. My daughter Rosie was (at least partly) named after it. For some time, ever since I saw Spike Jonez’s film of Maurice Sendak’s other kids’ classic, Where the Wild Things Are, I have wanted to write a blog entry, contrasting the gendered representations of the troublemaking girl in Really Rosie and the troublemaking/troubled boy in Where the Wild Things Are. Hopefully I will get to that entry sometime this summer. For now, I want to mark the occasion of the beginning of my summer writing (now that the kids are in their summer camps!), by paying tribute to one of my favorite troublemakers: my five year old daughter, Rosie. In honor of her, I’m including the video for Really Rosie below:

Part one:

Part two: