Guest Blogger Mean Asian Girl: Oh? No! Or, Why I didn’t participate in the Facebook doppelganger meme

You may remember friend of SP Mean Asian Girl from her previous guest post, The Fantasy of Being White. We loved that post so much that we asked her to weigh in on that most vexing of seemingly innocuous little internet games: the Facebook celebrity twin meme. Thanks, MAG! — Sweet Machine

Oh? No!

Or, Why I didn’t participate in the Facebook doppelganger meme

By Mean Asian Girl

(with a little help from the SP crew)

When I first heard about the Facebook celebrity doppelganger meme, my first thought was, “Where do I find a picture of [Asian woman most recently and/or frequently seen by whomever I’m speaking to]?”

See, because I’ve been told I look like several different people, the most recent being Sandra Oh. Most of you don’t know what I look like, but suffice it to say, not like Sandra Oh. My friend Charles, who is black*, and happens to think Sandra Oh is hot, doesn’t see any resemblance at all. Then again, Charles’ opinion of Oh may be in the minority.

OK, let me digress for a moment. I googled Sandra Oh, expecting the first thing to pop up would be her IMDB profile. Before I finished typing, the first suggestion that popped up was “Sandra Oh ugly.” Which was where I found that Asian Bite website. So maybe the whole idea of anyone trying to pay me a compliment is not the case. I am tempted to start a discussion of whether people think Oh’s very Korean-ness is what makes her ugly. Maybe some other time. I’m a bit too stunned at the moment.

But anyway, years and years ago, someone told me I looked just like the girl in “Karate Kid II,” who, if you notice, does not look very much like Sandra Oh. In fairness, I probably look more like Sandra Oh than like Tamlyn Tomita.

As it turned out, the very cool women here at Shapely Prose were having their own discussion of the racial/ethnic-fail aspects of the doppelganger meme and were kind enough to invite me to join in.

Eventually, we touched on how Janet Jackson and Kristy McNichol have the same face, Elvin from the Cosby Show, the appropriate celebrity doppelganger for Kate’s husband Al, and a staged reading of The Big Lebowski, but prior to that, we made some more serious observations about white privilege and doppelgangers.

And first, we agreed that I look nothing like Sandra Oh.

“This seems like one of those Facebook exercises that’s mostly about a certain kind of girl getting to wank about how hot she is without looking conceited,” Kate said. But fair enough, I guess. If someone told you you looked like Anne Hathaway, or Blake Lively, or, for that matter, Penelope Cruz or Halle Berry, wouldn’t you want to tell people?

Problem is, if we’re talking about Hollywood stars, or even prominent women known by most U.S. residents in general, the pool gets awfully shallow if you’re not white. Kate told me, “I can think of like four Asian-American actresses off the top of my head, and none of them, except possibly Keiko Agena**, have characteristics I could see as part of a recipe for you.”

Part of a recipe. Sure. But we can’t do collage profile pictures. Or at least I can’t. So I have to settle for what other people think. Because, really, what most people see when they look at me is that I’m Asian, I have epicanthic folds over my eyelids, flattish face, black hair, etc. And what do you know? Sandra Oh also has epicanthic eyelids, a flattish face and black hair! So does Tamlyn Tomita! Though, actually, based on the Tamlyn Tomita comparison, they’re not even paying particularly close attention to my hair.

At some level, it’s a version of the “All you [insert racial/ethnic group here] look alike.” I once worked at a news service with two African-American women, Robin and Debbie. Robin was probably 5-2, close-cropped hair, round face and very loud and outgoing. Debbie was 5-6, longer hair, thin face and quiet. They did not start working there anywhere near the same time, nor did they cover the same beat. Yet, they constantly got called each other’s names. I guess they did have similar skin tones. Any of you who do not have similar stories have either never worked with more than one minority or have worked in remarkably enlightened workplaces.

Of course, it’s not just about skin color and ethnicity. Kate knows a couple of dark-haired fat women who wanted to go as Pat Benatar for Halloween, but didn’t because everyone would assume they were Beth Ditto. I mean, you’re fat, you’re a rock chick … duh. Fillyjonk mentioned how people told her she looked like Kate Winslet when Winslet was in her relatively fat*** state

I am in no way saying there was malicious intent behind the doppelganger meme, and clearly, as oppression goes, it ain’t exactly Jim Crow. I’m just saying, well, maybe I should point you all to Sepia Mutiny for a little more perspective. If I may digress a bit, the line “If only you weren’t so dark, you’d be so pretty,” is horrifying. But maybe I’m still hung up on the “Ugly Sandra Oh” issue.

If you don’t feel like reading through that whole post, try Fillyjonk, who puts the matter pretty succinctly for a privileged white girl:

“Getting told you look like someone who has nothing in common with you besides skin color and body type is bad enough,” she said. “But getting told you look like someone who has nothing in common with you besides skin color, period, elides your actual features even more.”

To take that a step further, when someone – inevitably white — says, “I don’t see race,” if much of society sees you only as race, then they don’t see you.

*I mention this for no reason other than to wonder if perhaps this is a white thing. I’m not sure any person of color has told me I look like Sandra Oh, including, obviously, anyone Asian.

**Though I had seen “Gilmore Girls” once or twice, I had no idea who Keiko Agena was until Kate mentioned her. I am old compared to the SP crew, esp. when you consider that I saw “Karate Kid II” when it came out in theaters.

***i.e., Hollywood fat

“but who can distinguish one human voice amid such choruses of desire”

America lost a great voice this weekend: the poet Lucille Clifton died. She was 73 years old.

Clifton wrote wonderful, poignant, witty poems whose formal simplicity belies their emotional and political depth. She wrote of the realities of living in a large, black, female body in a racist, sexist culture; she survived cancer and wrote of the joys of the body in the face of mortality. I hope all Shapelings have run across the marvelous, body-loving “homage to my hips“:

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.

Read the rest here.

From “scar” (in The Terrible Stories, which has a section on breast cancer):

we will learn
to live together.

i will call you
ribbon of hunger
and desire
empty pocket flap
edge of before and after.

You can find a longer collection of Clifton’s poems, as well as an introductory essay to her work, at the Poetry Foundation. Warning: tissues may be needed. Clifton’s poems touch on abortion, whiteness, hate crimes, war, menstruation, grief, and so many other “terrible stories;” yet they vibrate with such compassion and clarity of vision that it’s easy to forget how tough and nervy they are. Blessing the Boats, her selected poems from 2000, is an excellent entry point for new readers, and a powerful testament to the importance of Clifton’s voice to our culture.

I’ll let Lucille Clifton end this post herself, with a video of her reading in 2008.

Rest in peace, Lucille Clifton. Thank you for being one human voice.

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to remember transgender victims of violence. Here’s a list of the people we’re remembering in 2009. Please take a moment to read their names and stories — what is known of them — and think about these people, mostly young women, who suffered often exceptionally brutal violence for their gender identity or presentation.

But don’t stop there. It’s important to have a day to remember the dead, who are often in danger of being ignored, but there are victims of anti-trans bigotry every day, and that bigotry is also ignored or glossed over or made light of or even lauded. Liss at Shakesville wrote about how TDOR is about remembering the victims of discrimination and indifference as well as the victims of anti-trans violent crime:

Lacking federal employment protections, transgender men and women are at higher risk for lack of insurance, adding to the difficulty of securing routine medical care from welcoming practitioners. Transmen, for example, frequently have trouble locating accommodating gynecological services for annual pap smears, risking undiagnosed cervical cancer. The great 2001 documentary Southern Comfort spans the last year in the life of Robert Eads, who died of ovarian cancer after two dozen doctors refused him treatment.

That’s the kind of hate crime that doesn’t make headlines. Or even federal hate crimes statistics.

We remember all the victims of violence and apathy today.

Kate wrote about TDOR at Broadsheet, and highlighted the fact that many of the violence victims were members of multiple oppressed groups — not only were they trans, but most were women and many of those with photos seem to be people of color. She quotes Queen Emily at Questioning Transphobia, who writes:

So it seems to me that to unite all trans people under one banner ignores the specifics of death – sex (the majority are trans women), race (Latina and black), class and occupation (sex work) are as important factors as transness.  Appropriating those deaths for political work seems dubious to me at best.

Queen Emily goes on to say, though, that while transphobia may not be the only contributing factor in these murders, it adds an element of silencing that TDOR is designed to counteract:

So what I want to acknowledge is that there’s a paradox, that no trans person can truly witness for the murdered–especially those we’ve never met.  And yet, with due caution, I think we should.  Not to further our own goals, not to get legislation passed that protects only the already-privileged or to wallow in self-pity, but to honour the memories of every single trans person murdered this year, and to acknowledge the violence that our community lives with as a whole.  To acknowledge that even in death, transphobia and cissexism mean that the murdered are not properly remembered, not even by the correct names and pronouns–and those people should be remembered as the right sex.

I’d add, for our cissexual readers, that the prevalence of intersecting oppressions in murders of transgender people, while it in no way lessens the need for transgender victims to have their own dedicated day of remembrance, should also remind us that standing for social justice means standing together, even (especially) with groups who are often still being relentlessly othered even by progressives.

I want to close with a link to Gudbuytjane’s terrific post about her struggle to come to terms with TDOR, because I basically just want to quote the whole thing:

I used to distance myself from the Trans Day of Remembrance. It made me angry, and in ways I couldn’t discuss with my mostly cisgender community (as some of that anger was directed at them, inevitably). … So I kept away, head down and earphones in as November 20th snuck past my peripheral vision, exhaling only when it was gone for another year. Still, on my own I found myself on the internet, reading the stories of the dozens of trans women who are brutally murdered every year. I learned their names and their faces, and soon this cisgender dominance began to slip. I felt myself reclaiming my own experience of the day, my relationship to these women who died, and ultimately my responsibility to them. …

In the face of a cisdominant culture that enforces false narratives to keep trans women marginalized, it is imperative we make our voices heard. I’ve written about this before, and I believe it is an essential process for dismantling cissupremacy. The most important voices to be heard are our dead, and the responsibility for those voices lies with those of us who are still alive. Not for cis culture to consume, not even for ourselves, but for these women who are no longer with us; By giving them dignity we give ourselves dignity, and demand it from a culture which withholds it from us. Even if it is only knowing their name or a tiny bit of their story, it gives back to them some of the humanity their killers took.

Although cisdominant media inevitably focuses on the murders of these women, pieces of the stories of their lives nonetheless get through. This is how she died is supplanted for brief moments by This is how she lived. Amplify that. Know the stories of their lives, and tell the stories of your own. Not just on November 20th, but every day.

Cissexual readers, please let this Transgender Day of Remembrance be a day of transgender awareness, not only of how transgender men and women die but also of how they live, and the silencing and othering they face in both. For trans readers, of course, every day is a day of transgender awareness, but please know we’re with you.

ETA: Just saw a post from Meloukhia that does a better job of what I was saying in my last paragraph than I did.

High five a gay kid today

There’s a really wonderful article in the NYT magazine this week about queer teenagers and how cultural changes have made it safer (in many but not all areas of the US) to come out in middle school. The gist of the article is that the increased visibility of queer people in the culture at large has made it easier for kids to identify and articulate their own sexual identities, and it makes their peers more likely to accept them. Overall, despite the fact that anti-gay bullying is still widespread, many middle schools have become less like sex-and-gender torture systems and more like safe spaces. I cannot even tell you how delighted I am to hear this.

The angle I want to discuss here is not just about happy gay kids (though it cannot be repeated enough: happy gay kids! omg!), but about a word that never appears in the article but which underlies the whole thing: normativity. In this article specifically, the main cultural shift appears to be a weaking of heteronormativity. Kids these days know there are people who are not straight, and that those people aren’t doomed to lovelessness or criminality. Part of how they know this is because of pop culture, and part is this here series of tubes we’re all on. Take the case of a 12-year-old bi girl named Kera:

Kera says she was 10 when she realized she was interested in both sexes. “It was confusing for a while, because for some reason I thought that you had to be straight or gay, and that you couldn’t be both,” she told me at the coffee shop. “So I thought about it a lot, like I do about everything, and I went online and looked up bisexuality to read more about it. I realized that was me.”

This story, in its very simplicity, just about kills me, because I was Kera as a teen. My diaries from elementary school are filled with “I love so-and-so” hearts with both boys’ and girls’ names in them; my middle school days were spent furtively staring at both the widening shoulders of boys and the widening hips of girls. But I had no word for it back then, and I didn’t have Professor Google, so I just felt… well, weird. The first time I heard the word “bisexual” used in a casual way (as in, not as an insult or in a tone of disgust), it was electrifying. It was like something woke up inside of me; something in myself stood in recognition. I was 15, and a lot of my friends were dating, but I wasn’t — I was too busy having super-intense friendships with sexual tension that couldn’t be talked about because I was too busy trying to wish it away. I literally cannot imagine how different my adolescence would have been if I, like Kera, could have just looked it up and found other people like me.

The adults featured in this article are not, generally, as quick to accept this less heteronormative world as their kids are. Many of them doubt their queer children, wondering how they can possibly “know” when they’re so young, or before they’re sexually active. As the author points out, straight kids are not doubted when they have sexual or romantic feelings at the same age; many of them, in fact, are encouraged. Kera is lucky to have a mom who sees right through the fog of heteronormativity to accept what her daughter tells her:

“My first reaction to the poem [in which Kera came out], which she slipped under my bedroom door before going to hide in her room, was that she seemed really worked up about this,” her mother recalled. “But I knew I was interested in boys when I was her age, so it didn’t strike me as unusual that Kera might know she’s interested in boys and girls, put two and two together and call herself bisexual. Kids just know what those words mean a lot earlier than when I was growing up.”

You rock, Kera’s mom! Kera’s mom has passed Empathy and Cultural Diversity 101: she thinks of herself and her own experiences, compares them to her daughter’s, and acknowledges that while different, they are just variations in standard human behavior. Kera’s mom had crushes and sexual fantasies as a teenager, so she gets that Kera does, too — and she knows that if she definitely liked boys, it makes sense that her daughter would be definite about who she likes too, even if it’s different from her own desires.

Kera’s mom,* could you please adopt every queer kid in the country? Kthx!

I know this is my week for tortured analogies here, but I think that there’s something to be said for FA here, too. When we depathologize states of being that are considered abnormal, we can reveal the normative structures that propped up our pathologizing in the first place. When we accept that the categories we’re accustomed to are not best described as X and not-X (straight and not straight, thin and not-thin, etc.) but as X and Y and probably Z too, we see that X was only considered “normal” because it was important to people who are X to view it that way. When we look from a standpoint of celebrating human diversity, it seems bizarre to think of Z as abnormal or the “opposite” of X: Z is its own way of being. Thin people and straight people aren’t required to explain away their bodies and desires; they’re not asked “How do you know you’re straight?” or “Have you ever thought about trying not to be thin?” Social justice movements aren’t simply trying to flip things around and make it so that those questions do get asked of “normal” people, too; they’re trying to get rid of these demeaning, eliminationist questions in the first place.

And for some lucky kids and their cool friends and understanding teachers and awesome moms, that seems to be working.

*Or, as I probably would have called her when I was 12, Mrs Kera.

Quote of the day: Normal

I take the war on terror personally because the war on terror is really a war on difference, because my body strikes terror in the hearts of other Americans.

My body and the bodies of the people I love are the most intimate sites of American imperialism. Because our sex anatomy isn’t normal, they operate on us without our consent. Because who we have sex with isn’t normal, they won’t let us get married. Because our gender isn’t normal, they don’t give us jobs, health care, or housing. We work, we pay rent, we pay taxes, but because we’re not normal, we don’t get the same freedoms other Americans enjoy, the same freedoms American soldiers are murdering to protect.

Normal is a weapon of mass destruction. It’s just as deadly, and just like those weapons, it’ll never be found.

— Thea Hillman, Intersex (for lack of a better word), 2008

I very highly recommend this book: it’s fascinating and moving.

“This is what happens to black men in America”

Alternate title: Jesus H., Fellow White People, Shut Your Mouths and Use Your Brains for Five Minutes, Would You?

So, I can’t stop thinking about Henry Louis Gates, Jr., being arrested at his own home last week. Very short version: He got home from a trip to China, found his front door jammed, let himself in the back, and then worked with his driver (also a black man) to open the front door. A white neighbor* witnessed their efforts to unjam the door and called the police to report a suspected break-in. Cops showed up when Gates was already inside the house, and well, details are hazy — not surprisingly, the police report differs substantially from Gates’s statement — but basically, Gates produced i.d. proving it was his house, he and the cop argued, argument moved outside, and Gates got arrested on his front porch for disorderly conduct. (The charges were dropped today.)

Here’s the thing: Even if every word of the police report is gospel truth — up to and including Gates using the words “yo momma” — the man did not commit a fucking crime. And why was the officer even there long enough for the argument to escalate? How is there any possible response to proof that the resident is the man accused of “breaking in” other than, “I’m sorry about the misunderstanding, sir. Just being cautious. Have a nice day”? That’s even if the guy is being a belligerent prick about it — because I’m sorry, who wouldn’t be a belligerent prick after getting off a long flight, coming home to a jammed door, then finding a cop in your living room accusing you of trying to steal your own shit? I sure would.

There are so many layers to this story and so much we don’t know, which means lots of people are trying to be all devil’s advocatey about it and suggest that Gates bears responsibility for making matters worse. But, even without knowing all the details, I just cannot imagine a scenario in which it was legal or ethical to arrest the man. It seems to me that at the very worst, Gates acted like an asshole, which is not illegal in any state. And I simply cannot imagine how a middle-aged, academic white man in a polo shirt would have ended up in the back of a fucking squad car, short of actually taking a swing at the cop. That’s the issue here. Compare Gates to a white man of the same age, wealth and accomplishments — i.e., someone who would be viewed, without question, as having more power in this society than a white uniformed police officer  — and the idea of the cops arguing with and eventually arresting him for expressing anger at being accused of burgling his own fucking home is simply asinine.

Pam Spaulding offers a few questions for discussion:

  • Would a white professor have been subject to the same suspicion by the woman who called in the report of a break-in?
  • While a white prof wouldn’t have yelled “I’m a black man in America”, say he had said something to the effect of “is there some reason you’re standing in front of my home?” and proceeded to engage angrily in the same manner. Would he be arrested?
  • Would a white prof react as strongly to the police officer’s initial inquiry since he would not be a victim of racial profiling?
  • Did Dr. Gates’s explosion of anger in his own home warrant an arrest? Is this a manifestation of the “angry black man” phenomenon, where the lower threshold of public anger by black men is seen as more threatening than it would be for a white man?
  • Was the fact that Gates threw down the “don’t you know who I am?” card a mitigating factor?

Let’s take those one by one.

1) Maybe, maybe not, in this particular instance. This woman could be a stone cold racist or she could be a watchful neighbor who only wanted to do Gates a good turn, or anywhere in between — perhaps not consciously racist but steeped in the same racist society we all are, so she reacted more strongly to the sight of two black men trying to force the door than she would have if they’d been white. It’s possible that she only had a clear view of the driver, not Gates, and that’s why she didn’t recognize her neighbor. It’s possible she would have done the exact same thing if he had been white. It’s possible she’s already been by his house with a big plate of cookies and a heartfelt apology, and Gates has assured her it wasn’t her fault. Even if all that were true of this one woman, though, it’s hardly evidence that we live in a post-racial society — yet people keep arguing as if it matters to the big picture whether she’s a white supremacist or just Gladys Kravitz. It doesn’t. It’s really not hard to believe these two things at once: She did not necessarily do anything wrong or overtly racist, and yet we live in a racist society where white people call the cops on black people for being black all the goddamned time, which is relevant to this conversation regardless of what’s in this one person’s heart. Why are people so concerned with defending her, to the exclusion of acknowledging that Gates was a victim of racist bullying and a bullshit arrest either way?

2) No. See what I said above. I’m picturing my dad 15 years ago here — not an academic (in fact a high school drop-out), but a successful white businessman, short, medium-build, same age. Now, my dad in particular probably wouldn’t have gone ballistic — he pisses himself talking to customs agents at the U.S./Canada border — but let’s say he did. Let’s say he reacted the way, oh, his youngest daughter — who goes apeshit when asked to produce a receipt on her way out of Best Buy and would end up on a no-fly list if she were ever stupid enough to say what goes through her head while enduring the uselessly invasive pageantry of airport security  — probably would. As in, “What the fuck is this? You’re in my house with a gun, demanding to see i.d.? And now I’ve shown you i.d., and you’re still fucking treating me like a criminal instead of apologizing and getting the fuck out of MY HOUSE? I want your name and badge number. This is BULLSHIT. GET OUT.” My cute little white dad would totally not get arrested for that. The cops might not like it — nobody likes getting yelled at — but even if they wanted to put him in his place, they would think twice about the kind of connections wealthy, middle-aged white men often have, about what would happen if he sued, about whose side their superiors would be on. They would be operating in a culture where wealthy, middle-aged white men who yell a lot and berate people just trying to do their jobs are feared and fucking respected, even when they don’t have good reason for it. Which, in this case — if the officer said anything other than, “Sorry about the misunderstanding” after i.d. was produced — our imaginary white man actually would.

3) Probably not. I mean, as I indicated above, I am a white person who has big, big problems with the attitude that “If you’re not doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t mind being [searched/questioned/asked to show i.d./otherwise treated like a possible criminal].” I can rant for an hour straight about having to show i.d. to buy cough medicine. But then again, I do it. And personally, I’ve never had an unsettling encounter with a police officer — which is a function of both luck and white privilege, as well as my generally law-abiding nature — so I wouldn’t be primed to assume the worst.

So if a cop showed up in my house, I imagine I’d mostly be bewildered. As a woman, if I were alone, I’d be wondering whether he was really a cop and if I was about to be attacked by a strange man in my home. If he had his gun drawn, I’d be scared shitless. But once he explained why he was there, and it became clear that there was no physical threat, I would cease to be frightened. And that part is pure white privilege — I have no reason to be frightened of an actual cop who is actually there doing his job (as opposed to actual cops who drop by to rape you), when I’m not actually accused of anything. This is simply not true for people of color. They have a damned good reason to remain anxious, just as all women have a damned good reason to be anxious when strange men show up at their door — not because all cops are violent racists or all men are rapists, but because enough are that you can’t fucking afford to assume there’s no potential risk to your safety and/or liberty.

But given that I would indeed cease to be frightened once I realized what was going on — oh, somebody thought I was breaking into my own place, I get it — chances are, my good-hostess conditioning would overwhelm the righteous civil libertarian in me, and I’d get my i.d. without a fuss. If the officer did respond with, “OK, sorry about the misunderstanding, ma’am,” I would probably even get fucking solicitous. Oh, no problem, I understand, you’re doing your job! Better safe than sorry! This is because, as a white person, I would have no reason to assume there was anything going on beyond a simple misunderstanding. If someone called 911 because she thought I was breaking into my own place, there would be zero doubt that the color of my skin was not a factor. And if I handed the officer an i.d. showing that I’m a resident at this address, it is highly unlikely that he would push the matter any further, because one i.d. is more than enough proof for most white people to trust that this other white person is who she says she is. If it were a simple matter of a cop doing his job, based on a neighbor’s unfortunate misunderstanding, it would be over in five fucking minutes for a white person.

And if it weren’t, well, that brings us to Pam’s next question.

4) No, it did not warrant an arrest (see answer to question 1), and yes, the “Angry Black Man” phenomenon is certainly at play. And here is where a bunch of white commenters, even at blogs where I expect people to get it, are really making my head explode. As Shark-Fu puts it:

Now, here’s what always happens when a charge of racial profiling-based ig’nance is made – folks will talk about giving the officers involved the benefit of the doubt even though they didn’t give Professor Gates an inch even after he produced two forms of identification in his own damn house proving that they were all standing in his motherfucking house…other folks will blame Professor Gates for getting testy while being accused of breaking into his own damn house even though he was being hassled about whether or not he had the right to be in his own damn house which he proved was his house when he produced two forms of identification whilst standing in his own damn house…and still others will defend the officers involved no matter what evidence is revealed because they think Professor Gates was acting uppity and uppity negroes deserve the wrath of the law when they let themselves get uppity about being harassed in their own damn houses and since when do they let black folk have houses, don’t they know that makes them uppity?!?

The problem (well, one of them) is, too many white people imagine the scenario going pretty much as I described in answer 3. Cop says, “Neighbor thought you were breaking in,” you say, “Oh, ha, it’s my own house, here’s my i.d.!” and the cop apologizes and goes away. Because A) that actually is how it would be likely to happen for us, and B) the words “a neighbor thought you were breaking in” would not, in themselves, be loaded. Your first thought might be, “That’s weird,” or “Maybe she didn’t recognize me because I was wearing a hat,” or “Wow, what a fucking busybody!” But your first thought would not be, “Oh, of course she saw a white person forcing the door and assumed it was a crime in progress. Jesus Christ. Welcome home.” That would, in fact, be a completely unreasonable response for a white person, on account of how NOBODY EVER ASSUMES WHITE PEOPLE ARE CRIMINALS JUST BECAUSE WE’RE WHITE.

But if I were a black person, especially a man? You’re damn right I’d hear “Someone thought you were breaking in” differently; from the word go, the entire exchange would have a different tenor to it. And it is entirely possible I’d go from zero to righteously pissed off in that instant, the same way I do when somebody hits an anti-feminist bingo square and then gets all, “What? Why are you so angry, when all I said was [B3]?” White people need to acknowledge that even if we wouldn’t get immediately testy in that situation, there are some very good reasons why a black man would. And then we need to acknowledge that this culture routinely casts black men as criminals, as apes, as ready to kick ass or kill at a moment’s notice — so when a black man does get testy, white people will often perceive it as a direct threat and (over)react accordingly. Which, you know, doesn’t help the situation. “I would act differently, so if he got that angry that fast, he brought it on himself” is not a sufficient fucking analysis here. You would act differently because you have been treated differently your whole life.

And even if you did act like an arrogant jerk for no good reason in your own home, you would probably not get arrested for it, because that right there is part of the different treatment. This is not rocket science.

5) This one depends on whether Pam’s asking if it actually mitigated the cop’s behavior (no) or merely blurs people’s perception of who’s to blame (yes). I mean, “Do you know who I am?” is always an asshole statement, but A) if anyone’s earned the right to say it, surely it’s Professor Gates; B) as I said earlier, being an asshole is legal; and C) go back to that scenario featuring my dad in the role of the falsely accused. When we look at fiftysomething white guys in very nice houses and very nice clothes, surrounded by very nice things, we see power — or at least, potential power. We see the likelihood of friends in high places, of golfing buddies who are cutthroat lawyers, of his kid going to private school with a senator’s kid. We see entitlement. Which means we see a guy who could fuck us up — legally and financially, not physically — if we gave him reason. Gates, as it turns out, is pretty much that kind of guy — the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to arrest without a reeeeally good reason. But because he’s black, this cop didn’t think, “Hmm, I wonder if he’ll have a disproportionately  good lawyer, and this will end up all over the papers, and it’ll all be a total clusterfuck that’s so not worth the satisfaction of cuffing him to show who’s boss right this second.” However dickishly, Gates was pretty much warning him of just that outcome — an outcome anyone with half a brain could have envisioned if he did, in fact, know who the professor was. Or if the professor had been white.

Gates gave an interview to the Washington Post today that’s well worth a read. “There are one million black men in jail in this country and last Thursday I was one of them,” he says, continuing:

This is outrageous and that this is how poor black men across the country are treated everyday in the criminal justice system. It’s one thing to write about it, but altogether another to experience it. [Major snip.] I think that poor people in general and black people in general are vulnerable to the whims of rogue cops, and we all have to fight to protect the weakest among us. No matter how bad it was going to get, I knew that sooner or later I would get to a phone and one of my friends would be there to help.

That’s the thing that’s different about this story. Gates knew it was utter bullshit, knew his rights, and knew the right people to get himself out of there and make a huge stink about it. But this sort of crap and much worse happens again and again and again to black men who also know it’s bullshit but don’t have the power to do anything about it. And on the relatively rare occasion when it gets media attention, my fellow white people cling to the just world theory and scramble to explain what the guy did wrong, how he brought it on himself, how different choices would have led to a different outcome, how it’s not a matter of institutionalized racism but individual behavior.

You’d hope that this sort of example would be a wake-up call, but you’d be wrong. If I see one more person saying, “Well, if he’d just X instead of Y, none of this would have happened,” I am going to fucking lose it. A 58-year-old man who’s accomplished more than most of us could hope to in three lifetimes was arrested at his own home for being angry that a police officer walked in there and treated him like a criminal. And even liberal white people respond by saying, “Hey, it happens to us, too,” and Monday morning quarterbacking this specific instance out the wazoo, instead of acknowledging that this kind of bullying — let alone brutality — by the police is fucked up, and it waaaay disproportionately hurts people of color. The people who think “He should know better than to talk back to cops” is an appropriate response here remind me of people who insist the solution to rape is self-defense courses for women. Yeah, it’s nice to know, in theory, how to defend yourself, but the real problem is rapists — and a culture that doesn’t do nearly enough to discourage them — not victims’ lack of preparation. Here, the problem is racism and a culture that willfully ignores how deeply embedded it is in our institutions, in our expectations, and in our analysis of how just this world really is, not individuals getting angry with police officers. And every time we try to reduce an instance of police racism to an isolated incident in which “fairness” and “objectivity” somehow demand that we blame the victim, we’re contributing to that very fucking culture.

*Found out after this went up that she wasn’t a neighbor.

Guest Post: The Fantasy of Being White

By Mean Asian Girl

I’m a friend, neighbor and grad-school classmate of Kate’s, but while I’m a faithful reader, I’m not much of a commenter. Every once in a while, however, here is a post that resonates with me to the point that I really have to say something. This was one of them.

Me and everybody else, right? So why do I get my own special guest post — a year late, no less? For starters, read that first part again. But secondly, and more importantly, as someone who has spent a lifetime passing for thin-to-average – and I say passing because, for what it’s worth, I weigh much more than people think I do — my perspective on the issue of self-acceptance is a little different.

First, a little background: as the name indicates, I am Asian-American, specifically Korean-American, and both my parents were immigrants. I grew up in a small city in the greater Detroit area that for most of my childhood was about 70 percent white, 29 percent black, the Gonzaleses, the Yamauchis and us. The Yamauchi girls each graduated high school in three years – partly because they were smart, but I think mostly because they were not enjoying high school so much that they really needed to stick around for prom. Let’s just say that while our community was diverse, it wasn’t exactly multicultural.

I hated myself for being Asian. I hated having a weird name. I hated having parents who ate kimchi and pronounced things funny. I hated my black hair and my bowl haircut.* I, who was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, hated being asked “Where are you from?” or “What are you?” In kindergarten, I drew pictures of myself with blue eyes and blond hair.

Since self-hatred is a pretty difficult concept for a five-year-old to grasp, I boiled down all of these feelings into an intense dislike of one feature: my eyes. They were the problem. If I had different eyes, life would be better. I’d be pretty. I’d be popular. At the very least, I figured, kids on the playground would no longer be able to make fun of me by pulling their eyes into slants and pretending to spout “Chinese” gibberish. What I really meant was, if I had different eyes, kids wouldn’t be mean to me.

I was lucky. I got older, I got smarter, I got nicer friends. And unlike the Yamauchis, I had a pretty good time in high school. I got good grades. I participated in various activities I enjoyed. I had male friends – I was especially popular when it came time to study for exams – who would occasionally turn to me for a sympathetic ear about how some girl wasn’t interested in them. But I, the weird kid, the “Chinese” girl, was clearly not date material.

I graduated from high school in 1986, well before the archetype of the “hot Asian chick.” There was no Lucy Liu. There was no … well, damn. I guess even today there aren’t a lot of specific “hot Asian chicks” who capture the collective imagination. But back then it was Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley and the like. Needless to say, I fell very, very far outside that ideal.

And sure, maybe it wasn’t all about race. But honestly? I think part of it was. Again, this was long before we had a biracial president. I knew very few black-white couples, let alone white-Asian or black-Asian. It was not for nothing that I had to mark “Other” for the racial-ethnic category on standardized tests.

While I was smart enough to recognize that anyone who would refuse to be my friend simply because I was Asian was a racist asshole not worthy of me, I was incapable of applying the same logic to boys I was interested in. Clearly, it wasn’t their attitudes that needed to change. I mean, we all knew Asian girls just weren’t as attractive, right? With the eyes and all?

It was around this time that I found out there was surgery to de-slant eyes. Heavenly choirs started singing, people. I’d have this surgery, and I’d be pretty. It was so simple.

But of course, it wasn’t. My “Fantasy of Being White” wasn’t exactly the same as the “Fantasy of Being Thin.” Even if I could change all of my physical features**, I would’ve had to change my name and my family members and make up an entirely new cultural background for myself. Not that that wasn’t tempting at times.

Ultimately, I started to question what my fantasy really was, and what was driving it. Did I really want to be white, or at least non-Asian? Or did I just want people to like me? Was it worth it if they liked a version of me that had been doctored significantly to meet some cultural standard of beauty?

Those of us who are fat, or use a wheelchair, or have teeth that aren’t white, or skin that isn’t either, or slanted eyes, or hair where we shouldn’t, or not enough hair where we should, or a variety of other characteristics or combinations thereof, would have to do a lot of erasing and adding and subtracting to reach some kind of beauty ideal. If we don’t, or sometimes even if we do, at some point someone in this society will tell us we’re ugly. We hear it enough and we start to believe it. That sucks, and it’s hard to overcome. Despite my own efforts, I certainly haven’t managed to do it. But self-hatred is a lot of work, too.

What I have managed to do is find friends, a husband, a career – a couple of careers, actually – and some happiness here and there “despite” having slanted eyes. I also have a daughter – she’s “Whasian,” so her eyes aren’t totally slanted – whom I hope to raise with slightly more self-esteem than I had or have.

It would be a great world if we all loved ourselves as we are. But if we don’t, or we can’t, we can at least be aware that the version of ourselves that we’re so eager to change is worth a second look.

*I am willing to embrace the various physical and cultural attributes of my ethnicity, but I draw the line at the bowl cut, which I think to some extent is some westerner’s idea of what Asian children should look like. So long as I have control over my daughter’s hair, I will have eyelid surgery before I allow her to get a bowl cut.

**Fay Weldon has a great book about a woman – not Asian, but fat, actually – who did exactly that.

Read ‘Em

-Lauredhel: Fat acceptance and Oppression Olympics fail on The Gruen Transfer 

An excellent elaboration of Rule 11, among other things.

The critique of the panellists completely fails to connect this one simple fact: That arguing “you wouldn’t tell racist or homophobic jokes, so why tell fat jokes?” misses the point that people do tell racist and homophobic jokes. Bram Williams alludes to this near the end of the segment, but the dots are not connected. These jokes are everywhere. The jokes in the this advertisement all have resonance because we’ve all heard them all before.

So how is the ad supposed to work? “We’ve conquered racism, now let’s work on fatphobia?” “We’ve conquered homophobia, now let’s work on fatphobia”? “Fatphobia is the last acceptable prejudice”? We haven’t, and it’s not. And it’s downright offensive for a bunch of white sexist blokes working on their personal growth to try to create traction by stomping all over other oppressed groups.

-NYT: Striking a pose for girth

-So much wrong with that headline, but it’s a pretty good article on Yoga for Fatties. (My only real gripe is the line about the use of props in a plus-size class, which implies that said props are unique to those classes — fatties can’t hack it! — as opposed to being a staple of beginning Iyengar yoga that about a zillion different schools have adopted.)

Anyway. I’ve heard this “we shouldn’t be shunting fat folks into separate classes” argument before, and while I do think it’s true that ALL yoga teachers should be trained in modifications for fat bodies, the reality is that even if they are, they won’t necessarily have the time to devote to helping fat students in a big class. And a lot of them aren’t trained, and have never thought about how fat might interfere with the typical expression of some poses. And a lot of them are teaching at gyms where body shame is the norm. And probably most importantly, plus-size yoga classes provide a safer space for fat people who want to try yoga but are intimidated by the thought of walking into a room full of thin people in spandex. So I’m a big fan of the concept, but I would absolutely like to see more awareness of fat people’s needs among general yoga teachers. (Thanks to a Damsel writer for the tip.)

-If you missed it, Obama thinks workplace “wellness” programs are a swell idea and has a team studying the “best” ones and “explor[ing] the feasibility of developing such a plan for federal employees and their workplaces.” FANFUCKINGTASTIC. That totally won’t fan the flames of employment discrimination against fat people or bring yet more fat-shaming into yet more offices. It’ll just make us all HEALTHEEEEEE!

As Zuzu, the first person who sent this to me, said in an e-mail:

If we had single-payer, these things wouldn’t be tied to keeping your job, and if doctors didn’t have to deal with bill collecting instead of providing care in the first place, maybe there would be enough resources for prevention of the kinds of diseases that doctors are always associating with being fat and overlooking in thinner people. Which would mean lower costs, since things would be caught early, what with people not having to do things like walk out of the ER with head injuries or refuse necessary treatment because it’s too expensive.  Or wait until a condition becomes life-threatening and expensive to treat before seeking help.  

I can’t really top that.

-This has been up on the sidebar via Twitter for a couple of days, but Marjorie Ingall wrote a terrific essay on dealing with kids’ curiosity about fat people — how do you teach them not to scream, “Hey, look at the fat lady!” without reinforcing the message that fat is bad? We discussed this topic a bit on the thread about Joy Nash’s “Staircase Wit” video, but I’m still not sure I know what the answer is.

All right, that’s all I’ve got right now. Reminder to Chicago Shapelings: I’ll be selling/signing books and hanging out at Vive la Femme, 2048 N. Damen, tomorrow evening (5/15) from 6-8 p.m. There will be awesome fat people, awesome plus-size clothes for sale, and refreshments! And if you’re interested in hanging out afterwards, let us know over at the Ning site.

Yes Means Yes! Virtual Tour: Q&A with Kimberly Springer

OK, so nobody who reads this blog can be unaware that Yes Means Yes! is out, and I’m in it, and you should buy it, and I FELL DOWN FOUR TIMES FOR YOU PEOPLE. But we haven’t talked much about the other contributors so far. Because, you know, I really like to talk about myself.

Today, I would like you all to give a warm Shapeling welcome to Kimberly Springer, author of the essay “Queering Black Female Heterosexuality,” who was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her contribution below. Huge thanks to Kimberly for sharing her time, wisdom, and awesome with us.

Commenters, a few extra notes for today:

  1. Please pay special attention to rules number 10 and 11 in the comments policy.
  2. Although we do get into comparing depictions of fat white women and both fat and thin black women onscreen (and I got rather long-winded on the subject, not suprisingly), I would like to keep such comparisons in the background of this discussion as much as possible. When in doubt, please keep in mind that today’s topic is what Kimberly has to say about black female sexuality, not (for once) what white fat women think about being white fat women.
  3. If you’re commenting for the first time, welcome, but please be aware that all first-time comments automatically go into moderation — and Fillyjonk, Sweet Machine and I might not be able to check the queue and release them right away. Please be patient with us.

One last note before we get to it: Don’t forget to check out the next stop on the tour, Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman guest-blogging at Bitch Ph.D. this coming Monday, Feb. 16!

Kate Harding: I’d like to give the readers a bit of 101 on some of the terms you use — specifically, the “Jezebel,” “Mammy” and “black lady” stereotypes, as well as “queer” as a political stance and a verb.

Kimberly Springer: What’s important to note about stereotypes is that, as some people maintain, there may be a grain of truth in them. But also key is to observe the historical continuity. In other words, the more representations change, the more they stay the same. While the icon of the Mammy may be rooted in slavery and the role of black women as caregivers to white families, that role is replicated in popular culture endlessly with black women caring for or teaching white folks something about themselves. Jennifer Hudson, bless her beautiful, talented soul, was relegated to a Mammy role in the Sex and the City film. Usually the Mammy is asexual, so while Hudson’s character did find love for herself, that’s different than being a well-rounded person who’s romantically and sexually fulfilled. Would I have rather not seen any black faces in that film? Absolutely. Carrie Bradshaw can wipe her own damn nose and get Miranda to straighten out her dayplanner.

The Jezebel would be the other end of the spectrum. Why do I always return to Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball? Because this Academy Award-winning performance was so bloody offensive. Is it Berry’s fault that all the YouTube clips are of her “sex scene” in the film? Not entirely. But this fact is indicative of how the general public views black women’s sexuality. It is Jezebel cinema 101: needy, groveling, desperate for white cock, no self-worth.

Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Sexual Politics, does a much better and more exhaustive outlining of the evolution of these stereotypes. I’d really recommend checking out her book for her take on how these stereotypes are updated and reverberate in characters like the black female TV judge, i.e. the black lady. Black women are allowed to enter the frame as judge, teacher, or Oracle carrying out the dominant culture’s laws and edicts as if those are determined ahistorically.

The stereotypes raise the question, can we ever win? Will there ever be representations of black women that outruns these specters of history? For example, in the new trailer for He’s Just Not That Into You, L.A.-based comedy team Frangela (Frances Collier and Angela Shelton) are featured sitting on a park bench dispensing wisdom, ostensibly, to the film’s white female protagonists. Latoya Peterson (also featured in Yes Means Yes) blogged about the spot for Racialicious and her friend nailed the exasperation with this particular representation of black women perfectly, “They always do that to us, don’t they?” Yes, cripes, they really do! But what struck me were the comments to the post about “fat black women.” What demands do we make on Hollywood to give us depictions we can get with? Let’s examine our uncritical pegging of the “fat black woman”. Can she speak her mind without being the Mammy or, yet another stereotype, the black bitch/Sapphire?

Queering, as a verb, is meant to encourage us to take risks in how we identify and interact with our sexuality as black women. My basic point is that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in looking at how queer theory questions gender categories and applying that to questioning racial and gender categories as they intersect. I’m also thinking about black women and our sexuality as always “queer,” already “queer” whether we want that or not. Back to my Frangela example, I’ve got some personal connection to them and so know that, for instance, they made a pilot of a too-smart-for-television sitcom. I also know that they, like everyone else, have to pay the bills. But, yet, I always question black folks who take roles that make me cringe. So, are there ways to queer these representations? To make them something other than capitulations to mass culture? Is it self-delusion to try and see subversiveness when there may not be any? What kind of queering can we do, if allowed the space and resources, of stale stereotypes? Professor Rebecca Wanzo (Ohio State) put a concept to the questions I’ve been contemplating with her notion of “complex personhood.”

KH: Queen Latifah is an icon in the fat acceptance community (or was, before she started shilling for Jenny Craig), and it never really occurred to me before  reading your essay that most of her roles are so asexual. I was just so happy for the crumb of seeing a fat leading lady whose body is not (always) an object of derision — seeing a fat woman’s sexuality played for something other than laughs almost seems like too much to hope for. But as you discuss in the essay, taking those representational crumbs is not enough — we need to recognize that even superficially positive stereotypes, e.g., the “black lady,” are still dangerously reductive. Can you expand on this here?

KS: At this stage, in 2009, I remain uncharacteristically optimistic that we could hope for something more than crumbs from the big house table in terms of how black women are represented. And that word is key: re-presented. I don’t want yet another presentation of a black female stereotype that we’ve already seen a million times before.

So, while I’m all for calling Hollywood on their lack of creativity, I would agree with you that we should highlight positive stereotypes…and then demand complexity in that so-called positive view. I mean, dang, the very idea that Queen Latifah isn’t getting play left and right is absurd. And the default to depicting her sexually in a film would have to be played for laughs or related to assumed insecurities she has about her body. Can you imagine the number of scripts she turns down that do just that?

But, then, maybe we need to do a 360 critique. You say that Latifah is/was an icon in the fat acceptance community, but does her mere presence make her deserving of icon status? It’s probably best to make this more general than about Queen Latifah in particular, but I would question our impulse to uncritically embrace those who, really, only see us a potential audience. Most celebs lose me when they go out of their way to deny feminism as a factor in their art or who they’ve achieved success.

KH: One thing that really resonated with me as a fat, white woman was the false dichotomy of hypersexuality/asexuality. Though fat women who aren’t black don’t have the Jezebel/Mammy history driving that, I think all fat women are subjected to a version of the same stereotypes. We’re portrayed as either insatiably horny (which of course goes along with the stereotype of fat women as insatiable, period), or as the best friends/secretaries/teachers/etc. with no apparent romantic lives of our own. Horny fat women are portrayed as clowns, not temptresses — a fat woman’s sexual desire is seen as intrinsically humorous, and 99 times out of 100, she’ll be shown pursuing a guy who’s disgusted by her, with absolutely no clue that he feels that way. And asexual fat white women are usually portrayed as pathetic and lonely because of the fat, even if they’re simply in a supporting role with no romantic storyline — gratuitous shots of these women eating junk food at their desks or looking forlornly/jealously at a happy couple invite assumptions about the characters’ romantic lives. Whereas (at least this is my impression — please tell me if I’m missing something) the asexual black woman on screen isn’t meant to be seen as lonely or having any desire at all — she’s just a 2-dimensional human being who doesn’t “need” that aspect to her character, because her primary function is to further the white people’s story.

Writing it out like that makes me realize that, as profoundly offensive as I find that portrayal (implicit or explicit) of fat white women as lonely and unlovable, it’s still humanizing — in a really crude way — as compared to black women’s on-screen asexuality. The fat woman might actually have desires, we’re just meant to understand that she can never meet them as long as she’s fat. The black woman doesn’t even have enough humanity to feel loneliness. And please note that I’m deliberately separating the categories of “fat woman” and “black woman” here not because I’ve forgotten fat, black women exist, but because I think blackness trumps* fatness in this case: a fat black woman in that asexual role is still primarily defined by her relationship/usefulness to the white characters, rather than by her own body.

Going back to the other stereotype, though, I guess I’d say fatness more often trumps blackness, turning the Jezebel/”ho” from a desirable-in-a-dirty-way figure into a clown. (Especially when that fat, black “woman” is played by a man, which adds a whole other level.)

*”Trumps” is obviously a simplistic way to put it, and I certainly don’t mean the person’s fatness or blackness is obscured in either case. But it seems to me there are two different but related hypersexual/asexual dichotomies here, and whether fat black women are defined first by fat stereotypes or black stereotypes onscreen depends on which half of the dichotomy we’re talking about.

So, uh, got anything to say about all that? :)

KS: Yes, I get you! And, if I can use a UK-based example here: on Eastenders, the long-running English soap opera about the working class, they’ve featured for a while now a fat white women named “Heather.” It’s been on my mind to start a campaign about her depiction which is, as you note, insatiably horny, always eating, a failure in love, and just generally pathetic. She does have an abiding love for George Michael, but we might question the motives of having Heather lust after George who is out and proud about his gayness.

I bring Heather up because, again, heavens forfend, she should be a multi-facted character, someone not just in scenes for comic relief. Yet, it’s that question of desire that you raise so cogently in the distinctions you draw between a hypersexual, fat white femininity and an asexual black femininity. I think we can make the further distinction that at the root of the white woman’s sexuality is that she’s insatiable because she’s never had sex before and, unless she loses weight, will forever be horny. There is a solution to her “problem,” according to the dominant neo-liberal narrative and it is one rooted in self-help and willpower.

On the other hand, the fat black woman doesn’t need sex. Taking care of others fulfills her needs and desires. That said, the fat black woman as portrayed by black men in drag is, basically, an insatiable freak that plays into heterosexist male fantasies of a hypersexual jezebel who is “two tons of fun” and is definitely insatiable because she has had lots of sex and can’t get enough. This man in drag portrays fat black women as unending appetite and just like they might eat up everything in the kitchen, they will eat up a man—mama dentata.

In both cases, for black and white fat women, we might want to look a bit deeper into the representation of insatiability and key into the roots of their desire. We’re going wayyy beyond the script here, but if we consider that most actors create a life for their characters other than what we see on screen, we can track the nuances and better critique both motivation and consequences.

All that said, I’d ask readers to comment on Sherri Shepherd’s character Angie in “30 Rock.” Is this another stereotype that gives a larger black woman some sexual agency since a running gag on the show is how she and Tracy Jordan like to roleplay? Is there some dimensionality to Angie—though we pretty much only see her in relationship to sex and Tracy’s fears of not meeting her demands for sex and money?

KH: Can you talk more about how that dichotomy is “a huge obstacle in getting to yes” — how when women are painted as either insatiable or asexual, either way, there’s no aspect of choice or (specific)desire in their romantic lives. In both cases, you’re left taking “what you can get,” whether that’s every willing man you find or no men at all.

KS: It’s a bit like cable TV: tons of channels, but nothing on worth watching. What would a real choice look like? Like the recognition that people, in general, and black women, in particular, are not all one way or the other all the time. No one’s easily pegged as Samantha or Charlotte. That’s why I came to enjoy the show “Girlfriends.” All of the characters had their quirks or were annoying in their own way (read: Joan), but I thought they did have some dimensionality over the run of the show, which was unusual for a sitcom where the genre demands that its characters never learn their lessons. If we try to live our lives according to the scripts of pop culture, we, too, will never learn and simply feel like we’re stuck between Mammy and Jezebel or whatever current incarnations of those stereotypes are.

I know it sounds really corny, and Margaret Cho actually says it quite nicely in the Yes Means Yes intro, but I’ve gotta be able to say yes to me. And that’s not a one-time deal, but an on-going process.

KH: What are some of the steps you think black women can take toward queering their sexuality, in both the short and long term?

KS: What I’m suggesting, initially doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, which is a request to over-think sex. Yes, sex should be something that has spontaneity and is enjoyable—by all mean, engage in the freak-a-deak! Yet, in flirting, masturbating, moving through the streets, writing a dating profile on line, who are you as a black woman? What are you putting out there?

This isn’t a 19th century call for respectability, but just the idea that one might think while in the process of being a sexual black woman, “what stereotypes am I playing into? Why? Does this feel like me? Am I enjoying this?” I think that we, as black women, spend a lot of time running away from representations that, frankly, suck and that we don’t want to be associated with. The result is a lot of silence and reading trash novels like Zane’s where we live vicariously sexual lives through fiction and self-help books that tells us that our end goal in monogamy.

Yet, there may be times that you want to play with ideas about black women as exotic and be that sexy jezebel with tricks your partner’s never seen. Just be aware of when it’s play, when it’s not, and how that play reverberates in your daily life. If we all live in the panopticon and surveil ourselves, I would vote for doing that in ways that raise awareness of our inner sexual lives, improve our enjoyment, and create pleasure for our outer lives.

KH: You write about the need for both individual and community attitude shifts. Will you talk more about getting the message out both in terms of personal empowerment and broader reaching awareness-raising?

KS: The individual and societal/community transformation go hand in hand. I think it’s great if individual black women can find their sexual pleasure and security in who they are on their own terms, but let’s not forget our tradition of racial uplift. Does this mean changing what we think of as “good for the race”? Absolutely. To my knowledge, black women in the 19th century who were advocating for anti-lynching campaigns and suffrage weren’t necessarily also advocating sexual freedom (though there were definitely feminists of the era doing so), but they paved the way for us to continue to push forward a progressive agenda for individual freedoms, as well as nation building.

Ultimately, seeking and embracing black women’s sexuality in ways that are beneficial to black women is uncharted territory and will have to take place at all levels simultaneously. For those black women who are involved in the church, challenging dispersions cast on other women’s sexuality are moments of intervention, as are discussing popular religious, male-centered sermons that continue to place the all the responsibility for sexuality onto women.

Sexism in hip hop and how we’re portrayed isn’t a one-time battle and we have to be consistent in calling people out on their shit. But, at the same time, we seriously need to give more credit to people and artists that are advocating for a new way of envisioning and enacting black sexuality in popular culture and in the bedroom.

And the last step I’d recommend is: don’t have sex with anyone who says, “I’ve never had sex with a black girl before.” There’s a reason why they haven’t: ‘cause they’re an idiot who says shit like, “I’ve never had sex with a [insert race] girl before.” [Sorry, pet peeve. Had to get that out there!]

KH: Will you talk about some of the obstacles you see standing in the way of black women having open and honest conversations about sexuality?

KS: Our mommas. Yeah, I said it: our mommas are a big obstacle in talking openly about sexuality. And before anyone wants to go off about blaming mothers and scapegoating the matriarch, tell me this, “when was the last time you talked to your mother about sex, black girlchild?” Yesterday? Good for you. You are in the minority. Of course, the inability to talk about sexuality across generations outside of sex ed classes is endemic to all races, but while we’re telling one another what not to do, we need to recognize the times and talk about what to.

Just as always pointing out the stereotypes can be no fun and tiring, isn’t it just as exhausting elaborating a list of don’ts without ever getting to the do’s? Albeit, standards of acceptability around sexual practices change over time (i.e. I will never discuss anal sex with my mum), but I hear a lot of women claiming a close relationship with their daughters, but it’s close on the mother’s terms and not the daughter’s.

Returning to the black church, I would say this is a huge obstacle in discussing sexuality openly. If sex is discussed at all, it’s in terms of negative consequences. It would be amazing to see black church congregations decide that it’s time to approach new millennium problems with new millennium solutions and attitudes. Otherwise, we’re destined to repeat the same mistakes from generation to generation.

KH: What would you like to elaborate on that didn’t make it into the essay?

KS: Less than what didn’t make it into the essay, I’d like to raise how this essay made it into a Seal Press book. Before the Yes Means Yes call went out, I’d pitched a book idea to Seal about black women’s sexuality. Having taught Seal books for years in women’s studies courses, I thought they would be the right publisher for a book that wanted to point out the ways that black women could both challenge racialized sexism and highlight the work of people like Sarah Jones, Renee Cox, and even Janet Jackson in bringing to the fore new expressions of black female sexuality.

Seal’s response was that the topic, black women’s sexuality, was too narrowly defined. Huh. Interesting coming from a publisher that purports to publish books about the wide spectrum of women’s experiences. Presumably, books about weight loss, one’s cleaning habits, infertility, etc. are concerns of Everywoman?

Far from sour grapes, and glad that the chapter I wrote is included in Yes Means Yes, I question when the tokenizing of women of color experience ends? The assumption that women of different races, particularly those adhering to feminist principles, wouldn’t be interested or learn anything from the experiences of women unlike themselves undercuts the forward advancement of a feminist agenda. How is the assumption that books about women, that are actually about white women’s experiences and attempt to make whiteness as race invisible, any different than not making films about diverse audiences and claiming that white people (the only moviegoers?) would never go to see films that feature black characters? Unfortunately, it seems that the only perspectives allowed are ones that blame sexist and racist portrayals of black women on hip hop, painting the entire genre with the same brush, and only seeing black women as oppressed and lacking agency. The result is a limit on opportunities to talk about efforts to expand depictions of black women’s sexuality.

KH: Are there any other essays in YMY that struck a chord with you? Recommendations, criticism, thoughts?

KS: (I thought our essays worked well together, situated as they are one after another. I’m really into manifestos. We need more of them. I DEMAND MORE MANIFESTOS. That was my meta-manifesto.)

There are a couple of things about the volume that make it a deeply moving experience. First, I love the thematic set-up. Maybe I’m a mere tool of The Man, but I actually needed permission to jump around with the order of reading, to choose my own Yes Mean Yes adventure. Being ensconced in academia, despite teaching about new media and new ways of thinking, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to approach the book from a non-linear perspective. As such, it’s made me see how many ways we can concretely transform rape culture.

One of those ways that transformation can happen, and perhaps this has been happening in the U.S. for a while, is through the idea of enthusiastic consent. Some of the essays use this concept as a given, but I think it’s worth picking out and defining more forcefully. My rudimentary Googling reveals raging debates about it, which is a good thing. So, I’m trying to figure out how enthusiastic consent to sexual contact might translate to issues of consent around representation. This is another iteration of not only critiquing the stereotypes, but also recognizing what works practice.

Quick Hit: “Racism without Racists”

Nicholas Kristof

The racism is difficult to measure, but a careful survey completed last month by Stanford University, with The Associated Press and Yahoo, suggested that Mr. Obama’s support would be about six percentage points higher if he were white. That’s significant but surmountable.

Most of the lost votes aren’t those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.

Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously.

Loads of interesting stuff (and horrifying statistics) there about the power of unconscious prejudice. Definitely worth a read for those who think that if you don’t actively hate people of color, your behavior can’t be called racist.