Friday, September 30, 2016

A movie.

Sometimes we can learn from books and movies and situations even when they have much erroneous or misleading information or depictions in them. Sometimes.

I recently re-watched a movie, The Help, which is an instance of a fictionalized account of some aspects of pre-civil rights southern life that offers many learning opportunities all the while promoting some seriously deluded and misleading notions.


In the scene from the movie above, the actress Octavia Spencer is in the foreground and Viola Davis is shown behind her. Both did phenomenal acting jobs in the movie.

I re-watched primarily because I'm a massive fan of Viola Davis (who plays a housemaid named Aibileen Clark). During the re-watching I did some more learning and you might use it for that too.

One situation that slammed me was a scene wherein a woman who had worked as a maid for decades was fired by her white employer. The employer was faced with the decision of whether to break ranks with a culture of white solidarity and to do the right thing or fire her maid (the maid, played by Cicely Tyson, was theoretically someone the employer and the employer's family "loved"). White solidarity won and in the process the employer outed some of the integrity corrupting aspects of the ideology of whiteness.

Watch the movie and the scene I described. There you'll see white racial solidarity working to damage everyone who upholds it and to deeply harm those who are targeted by it. It's a painful and ugly scene to watch.

The movie itself exemplifies a common Hollywood meme, that of the white savior, and many insightful reviews and critiques have been written about it. You can read some of them here and here and here.

I found a brief documentary that was evidently created to accompany a commemorative re-release of Gone With the Wind. The documentary was called Old South, New South. It's about 25 minutes and I would urge you to watch it...for a number of reasons.

One of them is if, like me, you attended public schools in the U.S. you were likely treated to a distorted view of the cause of the civil war and the documentary pretty much demolishes the whitewashed version of the "lost cause".

Briefly (and you see these untrue memes all over the place) the feel good version of the civil war I was taught was that the southern states instigated a war because they wanted to uphold the "right" of their states to make whatever laws they wanted to...even if those laws defied the constitution or the federal government. What this whitewashed version fails to mention is that the principle "right" they wanted to uphold was to be able to continue to legally enslave human beings. It's also noteworthy to realize that the North didn't enter into the war to "free the slaves" but rather to resist dissolving the union of the states.

From what I can gather the establishment of slavery arose because it became apparent that the North might lose the war unless they found some way to deprive the South of the benefit they got from exploiting enslaved humans and one way to do that was to declare emancipation. Initially such emancipation was only valid in southern territory that had been conquered by the north.

At this point in time my viewpoint on the onset of the civil war is that the south was fighting to uphold enslaving humans and the north was fighting to uphold the union. The abolishing of human enslavement was not anything the north was initially wanting to do and only arose, in part, as a tactic to assist in defeating the south. Watch the documentary, it's quite informative.

Also, in that documentary, the author of the book titled "The Help" (which the movie was based on) is shown in several scenes. Having read the book and also having watched the movie and having seen the author in the documentary leads me to suspect (of course I don't know that she actually thinks and/or feels) that she exemplifies a "good white person". By that I mean I suspect she's been conditioned (like most of us, especially we who have white skin) to have negative biases toward African Americans but she also knows that such notions are false and despicable so she has banished such thinking from her consciousness. But...that bias continues to operate within her (albeit out of her conscious awareness) in some form or fashion and to influence her perceiving and comprehending.

Struggling to escape the constant subtle and not so subtle racist conditioning, especially for we white people, that constantly pounds at us from all sorts of media and social sources is incredibly difficult. Part of that difficulty occurs because we are taught that if we have good intentions and think good thoughts then we're good to go. Well...that's a seriously big load of crap. Consider this, is it realistic to think that centuries of racist domination and enslavement and murder and atrocities are going to be negated and resolved by "thinking good thoughts"? Gimme a break...and I write that as someone who believed such an absurdity up until a couple of years ago...to my everlasting shame and chagrin.   

I suspect that the author, were she to take the Implicit Association Test, would get results revealing that she harbors some degree of bias toward African Americans. And...even if she didn't get such results...I still would view her with some skepticism because, as far as I know, she has used none of the money (apparently a tremendous amount, based on the popularity of her book and of the movie) she has gained to support or fund any organization that works to overcome racism here in the U.S.

I'm absolutely opposed to members of an oppressor group making money off of exploiting or writing about what has been done (and continues to be done) to victims of oppression without using those profits to resist such awfulness. Such stuff is just not ok with me. That's adding insult to injury.

Anyway...if you haven't seen the movie and want to see one with some fine acting by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (along with many other good performances) then do so. But...realize that this movie is pretty much a movie that whitewashes a lot the past (and current) ugliness of white racism. In no small part because it tries to present the notion that the problem of white racist America has been and is a function of "bad" white people instead of the truth that it is the "good white people" that uphold this deplorable and awful stuff.

The movie tries to make you feel good about "white saviors" when in truth there's really not much to feel good about...either then or now. With all of its flaws, the movie can still function as a learning opportunity...but...you'll have to work at it and you'll have to comprehend and resist much of the minimizing and distorting that's present in this film.

P.S. If you want to read a fairly well done book about "Good White People", author Shannon Sullivan's book is an ok place to start.

Living vegan is a breeze when compared to the difficulty of grappling with the racist ugliness we all swim in here in the U.S.

Most of us white people (as well as some people of color) are really really messed up about all this...and I definitely include myself in the messed up group. Jeez. To resist it...you have to be able to realize what it is when you encounter it...and this movie might assist in that task and...as a bonus...you get to watch Viola Davis. 

 


   

Friday, September 23, 2016

Quote and variations.

I recently ran across this quote that concisely explains what is meant by the phrase "social construction".

Here's the quote:
“We think we see ‘race’ when we encounter certain physical differences among people such as skin color, eye shape, and hair texture. What we actually ‘see’ (or more accurately ‘perceive’) are the social meanings that have been linked to those physical features by the ideology of race and the historical legacy it has left us.”

-- Smedley, Race in North America (xii)
I read it several times and realized that it could be tweaked a little and accurately reference other instances that we tend to think have some meaning outside of what we humans make up and apply to such ideas. For instance "gender":
We think we see ‘feminine’ or 'masculine' when we encounter certain physical or other differences among people such as size, voice timbre, clothing, behaviors and hair length and/or style. What we actually ‘see’ (or more accurately ‘perceive’) are the social meanings that have been linked to those various features by the ideology of gender and the historical legacy it has left us.”

-- Smedley, Race in North America (xii) (modified for “gender”)
It's instructive and enlightening to consider terms like "race" or  "gender" or other terms that are socially constructed...which means humans made them up...to "explain" something and those explanations have been created via the interactions of power and culture and history and such and...they can change depending on any or all of those factors.

They aren't fixed...they morph and change to suit shifting times and circumstances...all the while upholding structures of oppression.

The problem of oppression isn't that there are differences among living beings...the problem is created by the fantasized (but purposive) meanings humans attach to those differences.

And...way way too often these human created meanings of differences (sometimes called "identities") are then used to mark which living beings are targets for oppression and policing and control and violence and which beings are considered to be "fully human" and "superior" and worthy of freedom.


For one powerful instance of human created 'meaning' go here and read about the difference between having white skin and the ideology of whiteness. Those are two different things, one is simply a description referencing skin color and the other is a human constructed system of comprehension and understanding (an ideology) designed to implement and maintain oppression. 

Having white skin is one thing...the ideology of whiteness (often attached to and conflated with having white skin) is something quite different.

For a further insightful bit of writing about these notions...go read Aph Ko's excellent article regarding the need for change in our conceptualizing about the way we understand "knowledge" and liberation.

Hmmm...when we forget history and context and relate to social constructions as if they are independent of human made meaning...well...that's when we enter the troublesome land of believing that fantasy is "true" and while that could theoretically be fun and interesting...the sad fact is that, way too often, it gets misleading and dangerous and harmful real fast.

Here's one last quote that tells us something very important:
The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.

—James Baldwin
I have slowly and haltingly...oftentimes with dismay and sorrow...come to realize that things like liberation and social justice and freedom are simply out of reach without doing some arduous and frequently frightening and painful digging into my own ways of understanding the world and how I've been taught to comprehend the living beings in that world.

Think of it this way...most of the people I know seem to be good-hearted and well intentioned...I suspect most of the people you know are too. If that's the case...how is it that we live in a social world where living beings are routinely subjected to horrendous instances of harm and oppression?

What the hell is going on?

I'm saying that maybe we're seduced and/or co-opted into...without intention or desire...being complicit in upholding and maintaining those systems of oppression.

And maybe...part of what's getting in our way of breaking out of these systems of harm has to do with our understandings. Maybe a big part of our job...if we are desirous of interrupting these systems...is to start digging into our own selves and into the understandings that were given to us by our culture and our society and figuring out which of those understandings have some actual non-harmful utility and those which primarily serve to uphold and keep the operations of oppression in place.

Maybe...if we want things to change...part of what we have to do is to engage in the work of changing ourselves by examining and revising our comprehension and our understanding.

Wallowing around with and wrestling with all this is absolutely the most difficult and painful thing I've ever undertaken in all my life. I fluctuate between astonishment and dismay and bewilderment and sorrow...sometimes...I even have moments of clarity. I must admit that clarity is rare...but it does happen on occasion. And wow...it's quite a treat when it does.

I'm dreadfully old to be engaged in something like this...most of you who read this are probably much younger than me. Don't wait, please...the longer you put off this quest the longer you (without meaning to) engage in oblivious complicity in upholding systems of harm.

I firmly believe we can do better than what we've done so far...but...we must do the work of taking apart these social constructions that we confuse with "reality" that our culture/society has presented to us. And...once we do that and gain a little more accurate understanding then we can better choose how to go about achieving social justice.

This is what I think so far...in no way do I believe I don't have further to go. If you see obvious errors or distortions here...please...let me know what you think. Heck, it's even ok to let me know if you think this makes sense.  

 

Friday, September 16, 2016

James Baldwin.

One of the most insightful and talented thinkers and writers ever. The graphic below might offer you some understanding of why I make that statement.


The part of this quote, where ignorance and power are referenced and that an alliance of those two phenomena present the greatest obstacle to justice is scary true.

I'll add that we who are afflicted with whiteness (along with everyone in this society) are carefully and incessantly taught to be ignorant (but to be oblivious to that not knowing) and all the while thinking we are well informed. We all are subjected to this sort of demeaning flimflam but...those who belong to oppressed groups also are slammed with experiences that counter such social propaganda.

I have a book that contains a collection of his essays and it is just excellent. It's titled: The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings and it contains some excellent work....and his other writings are superlative too.

Notice how Mr. Baldwin is expressing (albeit in much more lyrical and powerful form) what Ruth Frankenberg has condensed into one the axioms she formulated as tools to assist in analyzing information.
Axiom Three: Those who are being harmed and/or oppressed by a system of domination are going to have the best location for detecting, apprehending and comprehending those domination activities. In other words, those who are being hurt by domination/oppression are going have the most comprehensive viewpoint. If you want to know what is going on...listen to the victims of oppression...they know more than you.
I love it when I run across things like this. If you haven't read James Baldwin...do so.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Some humans

are spooky. I'll be more specific...some humans who are raced as white are spooky.

This morning I went on Facebook and quickly ran into a link to this story. A brief summary:...a woman (white) publishes a textbook about Mexican American heritage and makes the mind-boggling statement that "...Mexican-American scholars weren't tapped to help write the book in order to have an unbiased book." She's saying if you want a supposedly factual book about a subject you should avoid consulting those who are knowledgeable about the subject in order to be "unbiased". Hmmm...

Then I ran across this next story. It's an article about a woman (white) who has written several books but this time the author is giving a talk and in the talk she's promoting the idea that she (or anyone) should be able to write about anybody's experiences because...it's fiction. She's arguing that since fiction is "fake" anyway then no one should object to her (or anyone) writing from the viewpoint of, for instance, a rapist (even if they are not a rapist) or a Nigerian woman (even if they're not a Nigerian woman) and on and on.

This might be an interesting question to wrestle with (whether or how you can "know" the experiences of someone different from you) but...apparently that wasn't the tenor of the talk. The speaker was primarily ridiculing the idea of anyone objecting to writing from viewpoints that the author knows little about...if they were writing fiction.

There might be something of substance to consider here...but...I suspect the substance is going to be bound up primarily in consideration of whether the speaker/writer is operating from being positioned in a group that socially dominates another group or other groups. I'm specifically referring to Ruth Frankenberg's third axiom.

I can meld the messages together coming from these two women (white) and they seem to be saying that they should be able to present anything they want...without anyone objecting...and that ignorance about the topics is actually a strength. If the writing is supposedly factual then ignorance is a strength because it is "unbiased" and if the mode of writing is fiction then ignorance is a strength because it is an exercise of "freedom".

Notice that both are apparently upholding and lauding and maintaining that ignorance indicates some kind of strength or positive thing.


I couldn't help but think that, in some form or fashion, both of these women (white) seem to be confirming some of Dr. Mills' conceptualizations about an epistemology of ignorance.

He wrote about the substitution of ignorance for "knowledge" in regard to race but he also made mention (as does Cori Wong) that maybe there is an epistemology of ignorance for each manifestation of group dominance/subordination.

There's ignorance (masquerading as "knowledge") associated with white people vs people of color, there's an ignorance associated with men vs women, there's an ignorance associated with heterosexuals vs non-heterosexuals and on and on.

In each configuration of social domination directed toward a subordinated group noted in this post, the members of the more powerful group claim that they don't have to "know" that which they don't "know" and that their their "unknowing" is actually a good thing...either because it is "unbiased" or it is an exercise of "freedom".

There's something sort of Orwellian (think doublespeak) about all this...and...like I said...spooky. Humans sort of frighten me vis a vis their attitudes and behaviors toward Earthlings not identified as humans.



And, even more unsettling (spooky) maybe, is the fact that more and more I am rather frightened by white people.

Notice that I am situated as being in each of these groups (human, white...plus, jeez, I'm also situated as male and cisgendered and heterosexual)...and that is deeply uncomfortable to me. Because...each/all of those groups are situated as dominant and there seems to be a pervasive epidemic of unfounded prideful superiority coupled with a serious and persistent embracing of ignorance among all of them.

Also note...even though both the folks referenced in the articles I'm writing about are situated as women (a subordinated group) they are raced as white (a dominant group). Their dominant ways of viewing the world are apparently obscuring or suppressing the possible knowings they might have access to as a result of their belonging to a subordinated group. Is this a situation where the bad pushes out the good or power makes you deficient in awareness? 

These two articles made me think about the notion of not knowing what we don't know. It's very unlikely that we'll be able to find out about our not knowing that which we don't know if we maintain the position that our lack of knowing (or our lack of knowing that which we don't know) is a positive or laudable condition. That seems very much like saying "I'm ignorant and proud of it" or "I'm ignorant about being ignorant and I'm proud of it". Or...as Mr. Orwell said...ignorance is strength.

Like I said...some humans (especially those who are raced as white) are spooky.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dr. Johnson wrote

this in his book:
…the basic features that define patriarchy as a type of society have barely budged, and the women’s movement has stalled in much the same way that the civil rights movement stalled after the hard-won gains of the 1960s.
Thus far, the mainstream women’s movement has concentrated on the relatively less threatening aspects of the liberal agenda. The primary goal has been to allow women to do what men do in the ways that men do it, whether in science, the professions, business, or government. The more serious challenges to patriarchy have been silenced, maligned, and misunderstood for reasons that aren’t hard to fathom. As difficult as it is to change overtly sexist sensibilities and behavior, it is much harder to raise critical questions about how sexism is embedded in major institutions such as the economy, politics, religion, and the family. It is easier to allow women to assimilate into patriarchal society than to question society itself. It is easier to allow a few women to occupy positions of authority and dominance than to question whether social life should be organized around principles of hierarchy, control, and dominance at all, to allow a few women to reach the heights of the corporate hierarchy rather than question whether people’s needs should depend on an economic system based on dominance, control, and competition. It is easier to allow women to practice law than to question adversarial conflict as a mode for resolving disputes and achieving justice. It has even been easier to admit women to military combat roles than to question the acceptability of warfare and its attendant images of patriarchal masculine power and heroism as instruments of national policy. And it has been easier to elevate and applaud a few women than to confront the cultural misogyny that is never far off, waiting in the wings and available for anyone who wants to use it to bring women down and put them in their place.

From The Gender Knot, 1997, Allan G. Johnson, page 13. (I have an older version of the book...it currently is available in a 3rd edition)


The hierarchies we are all squeezed into (and uphold by our knowing and/or oblivious actions and/or silent complicity) rarely are challenged by the excellent question he asks: "Do we really want a society that is based on dominance and control and the valuing of some lives more than other lives?"

Dr. Johnson doesn't live vegan (from what I've learned about him so far) yet that question he poses is one that addresses the functioning of every system of oppression...including speciesism.

From what I've been able to grasp over the past couple of years is that a tremendous amount of identifying and theorizing and conceptualizing of systems of domination has been accomplished...mostly by black feminists and anti-racist advocates. These systems...which involve all of us, sometimes as oppressors and sometimes as oppressed, are often "normalized"  (e.g., 'Tradition') and made invisible.

One of the purposes of normalizing and/or invisibling is to decrease the possibility that these systems are recognized and understood and discussed and debated...and maybe interrupted or dismantled. Heck...if you don't know about something and it is not comprehended (as oppressive) then the likelihood that you'll do anything about it is pretty low. 

I was recently in a setting where folks were assigned to groups of four and each group was asked to draw a line representing a continuum and place the various racial groups on that continuum ranging from least valued/powerful to most valued/powerful. All the groups placed black folks on the least powerful side of the line and white folks on the most powerful side with other racial groupings somewhere in between those two extremes.

The most interesting part of the exercise came when a young Native American woman talked about how doing the exercise was very uncomfortable. The discussion revealed that the discomfort came from making visible that which everyone knew (all groups placed blacks on the least powerful side and whites on the most powerful side) but everyone was uneasy with being open about this and talking about it. Breaking the silence triggered discomfort.

That phenomenon of everyone knowing something but not making that knowing open and talking about it exemplifies invisibling. The discomfort of being open and overt about what "everyone knows" is one of the forces used to maintain invisibility and invisibility is one of the prime ways that "everyday" or "normal" oppression maintains its power.

You could do the same sort of exercise by using groups such as sexual orientation or gender or species or ability or age and...it's likely that most of you could predict how those group members would be placed on a continuum of least to most powerful/valued and...it's likely that doing those exercises would result in discomfort or unease. Because...you're breaking the silence...you're interrupting the power of invisibility.

     
Interesting, eh? We all "know" that certain groups of humans (gender, race, age, etc) are valued less than others and we all "know" that various groups of living beings (humans or other Earthlings) are denied rights and/or restricted in their freedom...or are discouraged or prevented from accessing societal resources and on and on.

We all know these things but we tend to avoid talking about it...discouraged either by our own sense of discomfort and unease or...if we persist in trying to discuss such stuff...we'll often find ourselves discouraged from talking about such shared knowings by other people.That's how invisibility works.

If you're a white person, try talking to another white person about race/racism. I suspect that if your own sense of discomfort doesn't get in your way...you're likely to be end up being encouraged to shut up by the other person. That which we all know but participate in silencing are usually the very aspects of our social structure that are the most odious and harmful.

Whew...invisibling is insidiously and amazingly effective. Of course oppressive structures are much more complex than I've addressed here and there are other factors that maintain them in addition to invisibility...but invisibling is something that most of us engage in and therefore we can access it and challenge it ourselves...if we so choose.

Do be aware though...that oppression is potent stuff and when it is challenged strongly enough it will reveal itself in all its awfulness.

Oppression is, in the end, maintained by violence or threat of violence and challenging it always carries the potential to evoke that usually hidden aspect. Breaking silence around those who are invested in maintaining oppression can be risky in ways that go beyond personal discomfort. It can be dangerous because it might be met with ostracism, avoidance or...at the ultimate extreme...physical violence. 

Dr. Johnson is writing about the oppressive structure called patriarchy and it is especially difficult to grapple with...in part because of the aspect of it that's shown in this graphic.


That intimate association makes disentangling the factors involved in patriarchy (and sexism) really really confusing and tricky.

The graphic below lets us know that intimate association isn't the only aspect of patriarchal oppression that is convoluted and complex.

One of the ways to lose yourself when trying to comprehend oppression is to not consider historical factors and/or identity aspects. Each group targeted by oppression has its own unique history and...none of these groups are monolithic...by that I mean each member of a particular group will have their own unique experience of how oppression plays out in their life and among the factors that will influence how they experience that oppression will be their ethnic and/or racial grouping. 

There is no woman who exists who is not also assigned to a racial group...just like there is no member of a racial group who isn't assigned to some sex group...(as well as being in some class and being of a certain age and some particular ability level, etc.) hence...it can be profoundly misleading to think about oppression as a single factor sort of thing (think intersectionality).

Now...there's no way in hell I have the capacity to keep all these factors in mind simultaneously, therefore I often think in shortcuts or by using words like "woman" that actually always encompass other aspects of lived experience (like race, age, class, history, etc.). But...if I lose sight of the fact that I'm using a shortcut word that collapses together lots of other important factors...that's when confusion and lousy thinking sits in. And...I do plenty of that...but...hopefully less than I used to.

This sort of "forgetting" is something that happened to what is sometimes called the 2nd wave of the feminist movement. It "forgot" some factors and inadvertently fell into mostly only theorizing about and advocating for...white middle class heterosexual women. It was trying to oppose oppression and stumbled into being a source of oppression itself...by silencing and ignoring the experiences of women who weren't raced as white and/or who weren't middle class and/or who weren't heterosexual.

What is called Black Feminism challenged 2nd wave feminism and triggered a tremendous amount of re-thinking and re-conceptualizing about the various ways that oppression works. It is within the Black Feminist tradition that the notion of intersectionality arose and intersectionality is probably one of the most potent theoretical tools ever in terms of being able to make visible many of the dynamics of the operation of oppression. If you want to become more familiar with the one of the origins of the Black Feminist movement...you can read the most excellent Combahee River Collective Statement here.

See what I mean about this stuff being complex?

But...the great thing about all this is that it might make my head hurt to try to wrap my mind around it...yet it doesn't injure my spirit...in fact it often lifts and liberates that part of me. That's totally different than what oppression does...to everyone...oppression injures the spirits of both those who oppress and it injures the spirits (and often the bodies too) of those who are targeted by oppression. It isn't good for anyone even though it might be seductive to think so (thinking that it is good for the oppressors is one of the seriously insidious and dangerous aspects of it).

And you thought this was simple, right? All ya gotta do is save the animals, right?

Nope, sorry, it's a lot tougher than that. Oppression has been operating in a whole bunch of ways for a whole bunch of centuries...that's not an accident. This stuff called oppression is tough to figure it out and to effectively stop it...we gotta figure it out.

I'll end this thing (I didn't intend to write this much) by quoting a wonderful dedication I ran across in a book about feminism. The title of the book is "We Were Feminists Once" by Andi Zeisler. 

The dedication reads: "To my sweet Harvey -- May your generation be the one that finally figures this shit out."

Is that not nifty? I hope Harvey's generation gets it done...in the meantime it is incumbent on all of us to struggle with trying to figure it out and to interrupt oppression where we can...while being aware that oppression has persisted, in part, because often efforts to oppose it resulted in recreating oppression elsewhere. This is really really nasty and insidious stuff.