No, we’re not gonna take it

In the October 15th issue of Newsweek I read a little sidebar piece on Race & Gender titled “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

At no small personal cost, Anucha Browne-Sanders stood up and demanded an end to the kind of abuse African-American women regularly tolerate from some black men. We are not “bitches” or “ho’s” to be harassed sexually or otherwise, she declared.

It was a brave thing for an African-American woman to do. Our community is reluctant to talk openly about the problem of black men mistreating black women.
“Black men have to start taking responsibility for being part of the reason black women are so disrespected in the first place,” [says Terry McMillan]. …but plenty of blacks–men and women alike–are loath to point fingers publicly.
The reasons for this silence are complicated, but mostly it’s about not wanting to make things tougher for black men than they already are. …any additional attacks from black women are seen as a betrayal.
Yet without open dialogue, nothing is solved.

I definitely agree with that. One thing the author didn’t mention is the tension between in-group condemnation and condemnation from without. My hackles rise when I hear white folks pronouncing from on high that black men disrespect black women. But I won’t hesitate to call out this behavior myself. I feel that I have more of a right, not only as a black person but as a black woman, than any white person of any gender.

While I understand the whole Besieged From All Sides feeling, I don’t think that men should be allowed to use this as a dodge when the problem is brought up. Of course there are black men who don’t disrespect black women as a matter of course. But there’s a lot of music, television, and film that does. There are a lot of individuals who do. Any time anyone anywhere has a conversation wherein a black man states that he prefers to date white women because black women are too “angry” and “demanding”, they are being complete asses and should probably be smacked for their own good. Most of those black men are only alive today because some black woman (who was probably angry a lot, even if it didn’t show) put up with them for 18 or more years, nurtured and loved them, and probably still does.

We–and by we I do mean black people–need to get out of this habit of cutting slack and ignoring the problems in our own community because we are under attack from outside forces. We cannot become stronger and better and more powerful if we ignore our own faults. And we certainly can’t do anything if half of us are constantly under siege from the other half.

This does not, however, give white folks a free pass to talk shit about black men. Nor does it mean that I am on their “side” against black men or even agree with their assessment of what, exactly, is broken in this equation.

What the hell is wrong with i-D Magazine?

You’ve all seen American Apparel ads, haven’t you? The ones with the skimpy girls lolling about because they haven’t eaten in days and expended the last of their energy shaving their pits and pubes? The company owned by the guy with questionable morals and crappy attitudes about women (explanation [PDF])? Yeah, that’s the one. Anyway, the fashion industry adores them, apparently. Some outlets have taken the AA aesthetic to the next level. Take a look (click to read the text):

American Apparel Ad

Jaw not on the floor? Don’t see what’s so wrong with this image? Well, let me break it down for you.

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Moral vs. Pragmatic Arguments

Last week I finished reading an amazing SF novel, Alanya to Alanya, by the brilliant L. Timmel Duchamp. If you’re interested in feminist science fiction, dystopias, and thought experiments on social change, you should definitely pick it up.

In the afterword, the author wrote something that caught my attention:

“…I’m chilled and sobered by the reflection that just as it never occurs to Kay Zeldin to argue to Sedgewick, Torricelli, and Vale that their tactics are just plain morally wrong–for her arguments with them are always pragmatic, rather than ethical–so today, in the US, questions of morality seldom enter into discussions of social, economic, and political policies.”

It reminded me of something Nora and I talk about every now and then–that when exposing and debating about racism, we often find ourselves making pragmatic arguments instead of moral ones. While we both find this to be annoying, we recognize that this is often the only way to reach certain folks.

Still, it chafes. Because the bottom line is that racism, sexism, prejudice, whathaveyou, are just plain wrong. It’s morally wrong. Yet discussions inevitably turn to the pragmatic. I suppose that’s because morality is so fluid. While I believe that all people have morals, whether they are religious or not, not all morals are the same. So going with a pragmatic argument is like going for the objective instead of the subjective. But then even pragmatic arguments can be subjective.

So let’s start from the moral viewpoint, shall we? Racism, sexism, prejudice, are wrong. They’re bad. Supposedly, most people in our society agree that this is true. You be hard pressed to find anyone who will say the opposite in public. Yet even those who don’t secretly disagree don’t understand this fully, I think. Because when you talk to them, they’ll say lynching and separate lunch counters is definitely wrong, but only having one black person on a television show set in Southern California is just a matter of casting or lack of actors or or or… you see? The sense of wrong is explained away.

It’s all about identifying racism as racism (or sexism as, homophobia as, etc.) and not just an unfortunate way some people think or act. It’s about getting people out of the mindset of “It’s just a ______.” Because for non-privileged people, it’s never just anything, is it. It affects us. Sometimes harshly. Once you push aside that mindset, it’s another step toward getting to the moral core of it all.

But how do you get people entrenched in their privilege to take that step? Thus far, I’ve used pragmatic arguments. But while those are usually good and objective, they don’t go deep enough. Moral arguments, forcing people to be conscious of right and wrong, that is where the key lies, I think. How, though?

How Prejudice and Bias works

One of the things that always crops up in vast discussions of racism, sexism, or prejudice of most kinds is the argument that businesses would never engage in biased, bigoted actions because it would be bad for the profit margin. The recent flare up in the Geico Caveman post sparked my thinking on this, but it’s found in many areas, including in the debate surrounding Gender Bias in SF fiction markets. Magazine editors would never be biased against women because they want to sell to women says Doug Cohen. The problem with this stance, in all its forms, is that it’s short-sighted and based on an ignorance of how prejudice, bias, and bigotry work in America.Privileged people often don’t understand how prejudice works because (surprise!) they don’t experience it. Yet privileged people are usually the first to step forward and proclaim that something isn’t racist, sexist, etc. As we’ve already covered here, only those to whom the prejudice is happening can rightfully declare the prejudice to be over. They’re usually the only ones who fully understand how it works as well. Add to that, most folks who claim that “No Business Would Ever” aren’t actually in a position to know.

So let me try and school some folks on how racism/sexism/prejudice works. First of all, there’s less overt bigotry in American business than there used to be. Not very many signs that say “No Niggers or Mexicans” or Colored fountains. (Not to say that these things don’t exist at all. They do, just not as much.) However, that does not mean that racism is over. There are still plenty of companies that have discriminatory hiring and promoting practices. The glass ceiling hasn’t disappeared. To say that this doesn’t filter down to their marketing practices is to live in ignorance. Just looking at the commercials on network TV, how many feature white people only? How many feature just token people of color? When is the last time that you saw a commercial that featured all people of color that wasn’t on a specialized network (CW, BET, etc.) or during a “black show”? Some may argue that companies would be shooting themselves in the foot by being racist, and yet they advertise non-race specific products without nary a whiff of non-white people on the screen. What those companies understand that many consumers don’t is that this works. They can employ this subtle racism, wherein they cater to the privileged and ignore the not-privileged, and not suffer financially for it. People of color will still buy the products.

Why? There are lots of reasons. The main one being that many people of color just don’t notice. After all, our culture is a white one. It is centered around the most privileged in our society, the white male. It’s ingrained into us from childhood that whiteness is normal and maleness is better. So why should we question that there are no brown people on the TV? After all, we are inconsequential.

Those of us who do notice these things have little recourse. Because every time we dare to speak about it in public, there are plenty of people around to tell us that we’re being stupid, or oversensitive, or playing the race card, or seeing racism where it doesn’t exist. All of this from people who’ve most likely never had to consider if something is racist or not. They don’t see it, therefore, it doesn’t exist.

Which is the next component: the training of white people who, while not malicious or overtly prejudiced themselves, aren’t taught to notice their own privilege or to notice prejudice when it doesn’t present itself at Hitlerian levels. This training is mostly taken up by the media, who hold up the pillars of privilege while giving all consumers the tools to ignore the effects of such. Like the Geico commercials that poke fun at people who are “too sensitive” to legitimate grievances. Or 24 hour news channels whose anchors can’t say the names Sharpton or Jackson without making a face or spitting to the side. Or even popular entertainment, which is the biggest culprit. Sitcoms set in NYC with nary a brown face, even in the background. Or shows where any brown people are there to uplift the white protagonist or are just a step above minstrel shows. Grown women portrayed as large children, over-emotional harridans, meddling mothers, or sexless career drones. Not every show on TV is like this. Not every network engages in this base stupidity. But if I were to take a count right now, this crap would be in a comfortable majority.

It seems like there aren’t too many network execs that worry about “shooting themselves in the foot” when it comes to green lighting a show with no people of color whatsoever. Sure, they want lots of viewers so they can sell advertising slots. But which demographic do advertisers care about? Males. White. 18 – 40 years old. If a show skews too female (and it’s not on Lifetime) or, god forbid, too black (if it’s not on the CW or BET), how long will it last?

This applies to other corners of the media as well. Radio, music, book publishing, and magazines. In the gender bias discussion, I acknowledged that the bias most people were aware of was probably unconscious. After all, most people are not aware of their own biases. Particularly white men. They don’t need to be aware of biases because they aren’t affected by them. But even if Shawna McCarthy or Gordon van Gelder were consciously biased and have made editorial decisions based on a desire to draw more male readers without regard to female readers, (or readers of color of either gender) what would the results be? For decades the magazines and, to some extent, the big publishing houses, have catered to the white, male fan and it’s earned them a lot of money. Why should they change?

The only reason to change is because something changes in the consumer base. For magazines, the readership is changing. There are more women interested in reading SF than there were 20 years ago. There are more women writing. There are more men with wider interests than the narrow offerings of Golden Age SF. There are more people of color consuming spec fic. That’s when you start to see some outrage, some discussion, some outing of biases, unconscious or not, and calls for change. That doesn’t mean the magazines change right away. After all, they have done well so far. What the readers are starting to point out is that change has to happen, or they will go somewhere else.

Even with all this you still get people who claim there could not possibly be this problem. Why? Not only because they can’t see beyond their own prejudice but because they think things are fine the way they are. They don’t want to change. They are happy and comfortable. It doesn’t matter if other people are or not.

Lucky for the genre, those people are about to be squished like little bugs under the collective heel of enlightened people.

This is what needs to happen on a massive scale for things to change on a wider front. It won’t be until a vocal majority of people decry racism in all its forms that something will be done about it. We’ve been lulled into a false belief that, because of the Civil Rights Movement, there’s nothing more to do. We’ve been told that it’s all okay because we have BET and businesses would be stupid to continue with racist practices. Meanwhile, executives laugh all the way to the bank, profiting off ignorance and apathy.

Racism, sexism, bias, prejudice, and bigotry work when people in power are smart about the implementation. As long as it’s subtle, quiet, and only truly discussed amongst people who are secure in their power, everyone else is left to either suffer from it or argue about when and where it actually exists. For me, the discussion about whether prejudice exists is over. I know it, I see it, I experience it. The discussion isn’t even about in what way it exists. For me it’s about how we can eliminate it.

Which level of the discussion are you having?

Things You Need To Understand #7

That which does not affect you, you often do not see or understand

In other words, if you are White, 99% of the time Racism doesn’t affect you. Therefore, you may not see nor understand Racism when it happens.

If you are a Man, 99% of the time Sexism doesn’t affect you. Therefore, you may not grok Sexist behavior when it occurs nor will you always see Sexism when it is plain to others.

This goes for any –ist or –ism or –phobia you can think of. This goes for you, even if you’re a minority, when it concerns people who are not like you.

What does not affect you personally often will not impact on your consciousness unless you’ve trained yourself to see and understand.

Therefore, the next time you feel yourself declaring something “not racist” or “not sexist” or “not offensive”, think about whether you feel that way because you’re not the one on the receiving end of racist, sexist, or offensive behavior/words/actions/images.

My final thoughts on Language

Note: I’m off meditating in the woods until April 30th. This post was written beforehand and set to go live in my absence. Feel free to comment and discuss as you normally would. Just be aware that I can’t take part until I come home.

By the time this post goes live we’ll be a week or more away from the whole Don Imus thing. I’m sure people are talking about something else now. The Virginia Tech shooting or the war or something stupid a politician said/did.

I did not comment on the issue back when it was new and fresh and happening. And I don’t plan on saying anything about it now. Not directly. The only thing I have to offer is the words of others:

“Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” – Rush Limbaugh, host of a radio program syndicated on nearly 600 radio stations nationwide

“Many, many, many of the poor in New Orleans are in that condition. They weren’t going to leave no matter what you did. They were drug-addicted. They weren’t going to get turned off from their source. They were thugs, whatever.” – Bill O’Reilly, host of a radio program syndicated on over 400 radio stations nationwide

“A woman not only who was distasteful physically, but is distasteful mentally. […] This hag, this hack, this brisket maker has the audacity to say that we should be having a dialogue with the Hitler of our time — coming from that hag who happens to be Jewish is a triple disgrace.” – Michael Savage (on former Secretary of State Madeline Albright), host of a radio program syndicated on 400 radio stations nationwide

“She looks like a ghetto slut. It’s just — it’s hideous. No, it’s not braided. It just flies away from her head in every conceivable direction. It looks like an explosion in a Brillo pad factory. It’s just hideous.” – Neil Boortz (on U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney), host of a radio program syndicated on over 300 radio stations nationwide

“I didn’t think I could hate [Hurricane Katrina] victims faster than the 9/11 victims.” – Glenn Beck, host of a CNN Headline News television program and a radio program syndicated on over 250 radio stations nationwide

from 5 Statements Made by Radio Personalities Who Have Not Been Fired on East Village Idiot.

Don’t grok me? How about this:

…the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority.

from Politics and the English Language, George Orwell

Language is Power. What are you going to do with it?

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Link Roundup and Open Thread

My folder of links to share with you all is getting rather full. I guess that means it’s time for a link roundup. It’s a little long, so I put it under a jump.
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