Thursday, June 28, 2012

Language as Resistance, Media Literacy and Media Justice

cross posted from my Media Justice column

The language we use and how we use them can be forms of resistance. I understand that not many folks may “get” this and many folks may try (and sometimes succeed) in isolating folks who use language in another form. This article is about how language is a form of resistance, something that is alive and evolving, and a part of media justice. Please don’t confuse this piece on language as resistance with permission to use terms that stem from white supremacist spaces to marginalize groups of people. This article centers marginalized and oppressed people and our use of language to resist that white supremacy, heterosexism, transmisogyny, ableism, and xenophobia. 

This post came about as I started teaching a course that centers women of Color. I spelled the term “woman” with a y as “womyn of Color.” When I provided the syllabus to students, one student said that there was a typo. I laughed thinking “oh my goodness I worked so long and hard on this syllabus of course there is a typo that I didn’t pick up” (because that’s how it always goes sometimes with this kind of stuff). But then the student said the typo was on the first line of the syllabus and I knew it was in response to how the term “womyn” was spelled. 

It was from that space that we began the class. I had already decided to begin with this topic so it was timely and exactly what I had hoped we would explore as a group. We had a great discussion on how people who identify as women have used language to resist and recreate and build community. We discussed examples such as “womyn” and “wimmin” all of which my students had not seen or experienced before. We discussed why there was a need or desire to do this with language.

We did not begin the class discussing what the backlash is to using language as a form of resistance. And there is! Folks are really not open to and are critical of how oppressed people use language and communicate, even if it’s communicating with their communities of practice. 

I’ve written about the use of the @ symbol,  which is a form of resistance and there’s been a lot of critique. Folks have wanted to hold onto traditional forms of discussing and using Spanish language because they are connected to the formal “rules” of language. Yet, who made those rules? Who benefits from challenging the forms of resistance communities use to communicate? What are the benefits by telling oppressed people the ways they communicate are wrong or inaccurate or make others uncomfortable? Why is there not an examination into why that person is invested, what they think they are giving up by seeing language as fluid, or sitting and examining their discomfort? What can be learned by that process?

This is a good time to revisit the AnzaldĂșa quote of: “So if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” Let’s be honest, it’s scary for those in and with power when oppressed people and youth take pride in themselves because it represents survival and a revolutionary love for our lives in a way that demands our existance as humans be honored and treated with dignity. 

I’ve been told that my writing is not good enough, been pushed out of degree-seeking programs because my writing wasn’t good (and then went on to have 4 writing gigs, this being one of them!), or was too accessible in that I was writing in a way that brought more folks to the conversation. It doesn’t stop there! I’ve been told (as I’m sure many of you have) that my use of language makes me seem uneducated (and I have 3 degrees so I’m actually over educated but this is most definitely connected to class), young (which is adultist and elitist and speaks to how folks don’t think youth can speak “well”), careless (why would someone so overly educated choose to speak with slang or made up words?), and isolating (why would I choose to speak in a way that will isolate other folks, and “other” in this example include people with power). 

Code-switching has been a part of my life since I was born. Growing up in an immigrant sub/urban home for my first 17 years of life impacted my use of language. One parent speaking limited English, but fluent in Spanish and another parent bilingual in both languages, I grew up in a bilingual home where “Spanglish” was spoken on a regular basis. I’ve been told my use of “Spanglish” terminology is problematic. When I hear this I interpret this as my identity and existance being problematic. I’ve come to a space today where I realize this is not my problem but the reality is that if a person in/with power thinks this way it becomes my problem because that is how systemic forms of discrimination and white supremacy works. 

My response to this has been to remain within my community and find others/move to a space where code-switching from different languages is normalized: New York City. This is a huge privilege to be able to move, it’s also a form of survival to self-isolate for self-care and affirmation that I did not find in other places and spaces. I share this because we do live in a world and country where Spanish is being outlawed in the US southwest; states where the original language spoken was not English (look at the rulings of SB1070 for more information on this). 

We also live in a world where folks are being isolated in “new spaces” (think online) for using and creating their own languages. As language evolves and is used to express and resist there are folks who are hesitant to recognize us and value the ways we exert our power and identities through our languages. Sometimes I say to myself and my community: “how dare someone tell us how to communicate with one another?” Then I realize that folks who want to dictate and tell us we are “wrong” for using language when communicating with one another want us to assimilate and conform to their standards and center them and their (hurt) feelings. 

In the immortal words of Homie the Clown from “In Living Color”: Homie don’t play that. 

Honestly, I’ve lost jobs, building connections, education, and opportunities because folks do not like my use of language are are unwilling to recognize how their power-over antics result in additional oppression. And to be honest, I’m sure I’ll lose more because when someone tells me my identity is wrong or won’t be tolerated because they disagree with it means more work for me to do with them in addition to the work I’m already doing. Usually that work is unpaid and exhausting. To share with someone how I’ve survived and maintained my sanity and humanity through language means reliving traumatic experiences for the benefit of someone else. It means my self-care rituals and healers must be immediately accessible for me; and life doesn’t always work that way. 

I share these stories with readers because it’s important to know these interactions exist and there are choices. I’ve made many choices to walk away from such interactions and I imagine I will again. Doing unpaid work is not my idea of survival for myself. Sometimes I’ll do it when I see it as an important part of building community, but often, and again this comes with some privilege I’ve acquired through age and education, I’ve decided not to do this work and not take the job or opportunity. For me, this is a form of self-care. To keep my dignity and remind myself that I’m worthy even when I don’t get validation from folks in positions of power. 

Your language is worthy as are the communities you are a part of that use them. Your life and existance is valued even when others may disvalue the language you create that is home for you. You are important even when others think your existance challenges theirs, it’s not your fault and it’s ok to turn down doing unpaid work! 

How have others used their language as a form of resistance? How have folks in power used their power-over based on language? I’d imagine so many folks have stories and strategies to share! 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Abortion In The Future? Not In The Film "Prometheus"

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is not so much an article about the future of abortion, but rather how abortions are presented to us today in films that are set in “the future.” As someone who remembers very well a time when there were no cell phones or internet, for me, I am already living in “the future.” However, I just saw the film Prometheus and there was a scene about pregnancy and abortion (spoilers ahead!).

I’m not going to give a long synopsis of the film Prometheus, I saw it for the old school sci-fi films reference and the cast (ok really just for Idris Elba). As a result I knew there would be a ton of things about the film I would not enjoy, or that would be predictable (which I also don’t enjoy much about films). Briefly, the film takes place in 2093, a group of scientists, engineers, wealthy folks are following/looking for “our creators” as in the folks who came before us in another part of the universe. They are frozen for two years, traveling through other galaxies, and have all this super advanced type of technology.

Alas, the two folks who think they are leading the “exploration” are partners. Since sex does exist in the future, after being awakened as they are approaching their destination, they want and choose to engage in consensual sex. Now, we are told that the woman in the film is infertile and this is something that makes her sad, after all the irony of it: they are looking for their makers but she cannot procreate. Long story short, her partner gets infected with some foreign stuff and because it’s super-alien-fast-growing-magic-stuff, he impregnates his partner. He then dies because of this infection.

When his partner, who is a doctor, realizes she’s pregnant with something alien she “wants it out of her.” Now, this was a surprise for me. After all, this is a character who is all about this mission and learning more about origins, etc. that I thought she’s be down for sacrificing her body and life to learn more about this substance and what it can create (but that’s only ok when it’s other folks sacrificing their lives for her). So when she said she didn’t want to be pregnant I thought “this will be an interesting storyline.” Alas, it was. But it was also a terrible one.

In short, abortions in the future are non-existent. The word is not even used. When the doctor finds out she’s pregnant and wants “it out of her” as it was only 10 hours she had sex but her pregnancy looks like it is 12 weeks, she is told the super expensive ($3 trillion) mission does not have the equipment for such a procedure. Then she runs to a super futuristic pod that can provide any type of surgical procedures, including bypass surgery. All you have to do is put in what procedure you desire and get yourself into the pod and the machine does the work.

When she gets to this pod and has to put in her procedure, she says she needs a c-section. Now, many folks may know that a c-section is a hardcore surgical procedure that is complicated and very different from abortion procedures. However, in the future that does not exist either. This is because the machine was designed only for men. Yes, you read that correctly, science, technology, and medicine are still centered on men. Now, I have to say this was probably the most realistic part of this storyline because that I can definitely believe. After all the $3 trillion for this mission was provided by an older white man and the wealth of women were limited to their knowledge, which was questioned often.

Now, this omission of abortion in science fiction is not completely new. There are a lot of omissions about reproductive health, care and justice that has been excluded when people imagine or reimagine a future. What is ironic is how these experiences are erased, or assumed not to be an issue that impacts folks. Especially since the future is dependent on some form of procreation and evolution. But more importantly because abortions and other reproductive needs have been around since before modernization.

Perhaps this is a sign of what happens when women are not creating or a part of imaging a future for themselves? Maybe this happens because folks don’t want to talk about menstruation and what that represents, even in the future. Or it could be a odd sense of “privacy” folks don’t think we need to discuss or that women viewers may assume as they watch? Perhaps it’s an outcome of pleasing folks who are funding the project?

I’m not completely shocked by this omission. After all, Prometheus is a Fox Searchlight film, and Fox is owned by a extremely conservative wealthy white man. This is part of media literacy, knowing and recognizing how media is created, has embedded values, and is created for profit. It’s clear the values of certain folks are incorporated into many of the forms of media we are exposed to on a regular basis.

If you saw the film, what were your perspectives? Did you too see something odd about this storyline?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Media Justice Mash-Up

Cross posted from my Media Justice column

There’s been a lot going on over the past week to start off Pride month. Here are a few exciting and interesting stories. Please consider this trigger warning as these stories will be discussing transmisogyny, violence,

CeCe McDonald and Support
If you have yet to hear about CeCe McDonald, I don’t know what to say but get on it! In short, CeCe is a young Black trans woman who is a survivor of racist and transphobic and transmisogynistic comments in her home state of Minnesota which lead to violence. She was attacked by 4 people and fought back for her life. One of her attackers died and she has been incarcerated at a men’s prison for the past year. CeCe pled guilt to manslaughter for a reduced sentence and and was sentenced this week to 41 months in prison with some time served toward her sentence and to pay over $6000 in restitution.

CeCe has an amazing support time working to help her legally, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically during her incarceration. There are book clubs, letter writing campaigns,  fundraising,  and movement building that you can participate in today! Visit this site  as the main space to find more information and official updates from her team (there have been some unapproved CeCe petitions and such going around) and follow them on tumblr. 

Leslie Feinberg Arrested
Author and activist Leslie Feinberg was arrested on June 4, 2012 the day CeCe McDonald was sentenced.  One of the things I find incredibly important to be reminded of is from Feinberg’s official statement after arrest which reads in part:

As a white, working-class, Jewish, transgender lesbian revolutionary I will not be silent as this injustice continues! I know from the lessons of histories what is means when the state—in a period of capitalist economic crisis—enacts apartheid passbook laws, bounds up and deports immigrant works, and gives a green light to e white supremacists, fascist attacks on Black peoples—from Sanford, Florida, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to a courtroom in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The prosecutor and the judge are upholding the intent of the infamous white supremacist Dred Scott ruling of 1857.

The same year Fredrick Douglass concluded: “Without struggle, there is no progress!”

CeCe McDonald is being sent to prison during the month of Juneteeth: celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation—the formal Abolitionist of “legal” enslavement of peoples of African descent. The Emancipation Proclamation specifically spelled out the right of Black people to self-defense against racist violence.

Yet, the judge, the prosecutor, and the jailers are continuing the violent and bigoted hate crimes begun by the group of white supremacists who carried out a fascist attack on CeCe McDonald and her friends.

CeCe McDonald is being sent to prison in June—the month when the Stonewall Rebellion ignited in the streets of Greenwich Village in 1969. From the Compton’s Uprising to the Stonewall Rebellion, defense against oppression is a law of survival.

Ms. USA 2012
I’ve written about beauty pageants before, especially during my Media Maker’s Salon interview with Ms. Kings County 2011 Carmen B. Mendoza.  Now, I didn’t watch the Ms. USA 2012 pageant that was aired this past weekend, however the winner, Olivia Culpo of Rhode Island,  is making news. I’m most intrigued by her answer to her interview question (which is poorly worded) and generated via Twitter: “would it be fair if a transgender woman were to win the Miss USA title over a natural-born woman?” See the video below for her answer which begins at the 1:30 mark.

She responds "I do think that that would be fair, but I can understand that people would be a little apprehensive to take that road because there is a tradition of natural-born women, but today where there are so many surgeries and so many people out there who have a need to change for a happier life, I do accept that because I believe it's a free country.”

So, there’s a LOT going on in this answer. It is clear she is showing support for trans women as contestants, which has gained some attention recently,  and believes that freedom and liberation are elements of the US that apply to all people. At the same time there is a connection to trans women must have surgery of some sort for them to be contestants. I think this response is telling to the limited knowledge of the needs and experiences of trans* communities, especially trans women. My hope is that folks realize no trans* person needs any form of surgery or medical intervention to be considered a real person regardless of their gender. The elitism and classism connected to these ideas need to be challenged because no surgery in our society is affordable! What do you think about her comments?

Radical Sisters
There’s been a ton of talk about the work nuns (also referred to as sisters) have been a part of creating to help some of the most vulnerable populations in our societies. Their work is not often seen as valuable, especially in a society like the US where communities of Color, people with disabilities, working poor people, and people who are chronically ill are not valued as much as others, this is troubling. Yet, for generations sisters have been working to end racism, ableism, elitism, classism and create a power-with approach versus power-over approach to working within communities. Here is a great in-depth report (with videos)  about what is currently going on among sisters in the US working on various social justice agendas that are not considered appropriate and even called “radical feminist.” Yes, we do live in a country where name-calling occurs and where “radical” and “feminist” are used as slurs, and where name-calling is used as a form of abuse, where women’s work no matter what form is questioned and deemed invaluable.

New Research on Biology and Race
Author and professor of Biology and Gender studies, Anne Fausto-Sterling reviews three new books that discuss biology and race. Her thorough review published this week in the Boston Review is amazing. She reviews Dorothy Roberts “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century,”  which examines breast cancer fatalities and experiences based on race in the US. Ann Morning’s “The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference,” looks into how academics in anthropology, biology and current undergraduates are taught about race. Richard C. Francis “Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance”  which discusses research that argues stress can impact a person’s physiology in such a great way that they can transmit that to their offspring, thus becoming inherited and a part of our genes that are passed down and could be a way to understand Alzheimer's and diabetes (to name a few). The review is long, but that’s what I expect. Fausto-Sterling’s writing is somewhat accessible, but she is an academic and so there are larger words and some field-specific terms that I did not know. She leaves us with an interesting statement to conclude:

“The question of what exactly race is may be with us for while. But if we are dedicated to delivering social services and doing the right kind of laboratory research, we can, right now, address the comparative ill health of people of color, the poor, and the medically underserved.”

Sisterhood Summit Call for Proposals
The Black Girl Project’s 2nd Annual Sisterhood Summit is in the planning stages and there is a call for proposals.  As many of you know I’m a board member of The Black Girl Project, so this is something close to my heart. After last year’s Sisterhood Summit, the feedback from the young women present was overwhelmingly: we need to talk more about sex and sexuality! This year’s session is focused on all aspects of sexuality from abstinence, intimacy, anatomy, sexual orientation, safety, consent, and communication. This year there is also a track for parents who wish to attend who may also wish to accompany their child, or who desires to learn more ways to talk with their child, create messages that are appropriate and reflective of their values, and to gain more knowledge! Submit something today and keep an eye out for registration as the Sisterhood Summit is scheduled for mid-October.

Eryka Badu Talks Art
I was really excited to see this shared online, a video of artist Eryka Badu being interviewed about her process of creating art, her connection to her work, values, and how she finds peace of mind. She has some fascinating things to share and I hope soon there will be a transcript, but for now there is not. Check out the video below:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Remember Sarah Baartman

cross posted from my Media Justice column

This is the tenth anniversary of Sarah Baartman (also known as Saartjie Baartman)  being returned to her home in South Africa. Sarah is an important woman to me because she reminds me of how bodies of Color, bodies that are feminine, and the sexuality of Black and African women remain devalued in the world we live in today. If you do not know Sarah’s legacy I’ll share a bit of it with you here.

Sarah Baartman was a Khoisian woman from South Africa. Born in the late 1780s (yes, you read that correctly), Sarah was a member of the Khoikhoi community. In 1810 an English doctor on a ship, William Dunlop, met her and convinced her to travel to Europe with him. She agreed and Dunlop took her with him to Europe where she was put on display for others to view and given the name “The Hottentot Venus.” Her body shape and size was seen as oddly disfigured by Europeans and Dunlop. The reality was that her body shape and size were very much characteristics of her being a member of her community and thus not that odd.

From an outsider's perspective she was seen as having extremely large buttocks and genitals and it was these parts of her body that were on display for those in Europe to view, for a price. Each person who wanted to see the body of Sarah, who was marketed as a “freak” paid a price to an animal trainer who “managed” her. We do not know if Sarah was given any of this money. Her body and life on display became a part of the foundation that created the scientific and anthropological theories about African sexualities, Black bodies, and difference that are still present today.

After four years in Europe she went to France where scientist William Cuvier became interested in her for the same reasons Dunlop was. Her “showings” were extremely popular and several images and cartoons were created about her presence in Europe and France. You can see some of those images here. It is believed Sarah may have become a sex worker in order to survive once the doctors lost interest in her. Being in a foreign country with different climate, illnesses, and hygienic expectations, Sarah died of an infection of which people now believe could have been syphilis.

When Sarah died, her body was taken by a museum in Paris: the Musee de l’Homme.  At the museum a cast of her body was created, her brain and genitals removed and “preserved,” and her skeleton all put on display. Again. In the museum. For over 150 years after her death, the museum had her on public display. Some believe it was 1974 that she was removed from public display, others 1985, either way it was well over a century.

Even though her body was no longer on public display, the museum kept her body in their archives. When President Nelson Mandela requested her body be returned in 1994, it took 8 years for an agreement. In May 2002 her body was returned to South Africa and buried August 9, 2002 on South Africa’s Women’s Day.

Now you know a bit about Sarah Baartman’s life (please don’t refer to her as the derogatory name “Hottentot Venus”). When we discussed this in the course I’m teaching about women, art, and culture, my students were shocked. They were shocked that this went on for so long, many stating how they were born only a few short years after she was taken off of public display. Others questioned why there was resistance by the museum in returning her to South Africa. We had a great conversation about what museums represent, who they represent, and what and how are certain people, things, and topics considered art.

Many folks have used her legacy and life as a force for change, activism, and new forms of media and art. For example, in 1998 Khoisian activist and scholar Diana Ferrus wrote “A Poem for Sarah Baartman”  that many believe led to the agreement to send her body home and was read when her body was handed over at the South African embassy in Paris. Her poem is below:

I’ve come to take you home –
home, remember the veld?
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.

I have come to wretch you away –
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white –
I have come to take you home
where I will sing
for you for you have brought me peace.
I think it’s interesting that as I’ve written this article in a word processing program on my computer, that Sarah’s first name of “Saartjie” and last name were highlighted as being spelled incorrectly, when the names of the two doctors: William Dunlop and William Cuvier, were both recognized and not ever highlighted for misspellings. This is a great example of the normalization of such practices based on white supremacy and eugenics and the erasure of the lives of women of Color and of Sarah Baartman’s.

It is this same erasure that many of us are fighting to end. Some ways to challenge the erasure and invisibility is by sharing her legacy, asking questions, creating knowledge, healing, and seeing the connections of injustice and fighting to end them. Read more about Sarah Baartman’s life and if you are interested encourage your school or local library to purchase the two films about her life by Swazi filmmaker Zola Maseko  “The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman” and “The Return of Sarah Baartman.” 

I’m writing this post, sharing it with my community online, teaching about her life and legacy, and discussing it with people in my life. I’m reminding all of the people of Color in my life they are loved and their bodies their own. What will you do to remember Sarah Baartman?