Reduce the Rate

So, after a strange series of events that included Jesse Jackson kissing me on the forehead (twice!) and being in a press conference (airing this evening on Chicago stations) I’m apparently handling the viral marketing for Reduce The Rate. I’ll be pestering you all to plaster info all over creation about this movement to:

* Reduce the interest rate on all student loans to 1%.
If banks can borrow at 1% or less, then so should our students.
* Extend the grace period before loan repayment begins from 6 months to 18 months for students who graduate.
In these tough economic times, it takes a college graduate an average of 6 months to 1 year to find a job. The rules should reflect this reality.
* End the penalties assessed to schools for student loan defaults.
Schools should not be held accountable for students who don’t pay back their loans.
* Increase Pell Grants to cover the average yearly cost of a public
4 year institution instead of the amounts in the current stimulus package–$5,350 starting July 1 and $5,550 in 2010-2011

Also, if you’re in Chicago you should come out to the Town Hall meeting at Operation Push Headquarters at 6 pm this Friday. I’ll be there and you can meet all sorts of nifty folks.

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

A few years ago at WisCon (the feminist SF convention) there was a panel about Cultural Appropriation that sparked an online discussion about the topic that is generally referred to as the Great Debate of DOOM. This was partly due to the wide-ranging nature of it (over 20 blogs, I believe) and due to the great abundance of wank, ignorance, and utter fail on the part of some participants.

At every WisCon since, there have been other CA panels that attempted to fix the issues raised by the first. But it was clear to those of us who have these conversations and panels all the time that a 45 minute or 90 minute debate/discussion/whathaveyou was not going to get really deep into the topic. Judging from the stunning amount of ignorance and defensiveness associated with such discussions, obviously a longer, more in-depth treatment of the topic was necessary. Thus, this series of posts on the ABW.

At first I thought that we could contain everything in one post. But this topic has so many facets and aspects that I quickly realized this could never be. That’s fine with me, because it will help us get really deep into the issues in the comments (which are slightly unwieldy due to the lack of threading).

I thought it would be appropriate to first define what we mean when we talk about Cultural Appropriation. What is it? What do you mean when you apply that term? If we can all express that and put up a few loose boundary markers around the subject, that will make discussing its effects and manifestations a little easier.

As a writer of color, I’m used to discussing cultural appropriation in the artistic sphere. Remember, though, that the issue extends beyond art – spirituality, style/fashion, speech, attitudes and more. Let’s bring them all in.

A note on participation:

Everyone is invited to contribute to this discussion. But if this is your first time here, I suggest you read The Rules (linked at the top) before wading in. There are bannable offenses here, and I will not hesitate to bring the hammer down if you bring bullshit to the table.

A note on comments and moderation:

By default, all comments by first-time participants are automatically moderated. This is a measure to keep the drive-by crazies out, not a tool to suppress anyone’s voice. If your comment doesn’t show up by midnight or so, please use the contact form to query about it. It may have ended up as spam. To avoid being put in the first-timer box, please use the same name/email combination every time you post. That way WordPress will recognize you.

We will try our best to keep up with the moderation queue, but remember that we have jobs and lives away from the Internet!

Things You Need To Understand #10: The Dictionary Is Not A Perfect Rhetorical Tool

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, but one of the comments on the Avatar post finally pushed me to do it.  I am just so tired of people using the dictionary in discussions of complex issues as if the dictionary definition trumps, well, everything.  No, people.  The dictionary is a good tool, but a very simple one.  It will not help you understand complex concepts and it will certainly not win you a debate.

This happens a lot when white people try to have a discussion about the word racism.  Any time the concept of Prejudice + Power comes up, certain folks rush to to prove that racism means exactly what it says online.  “See!!” they shout triumphantly, while anyone who’s had this conversation hundreds of times merely rolls their eyes and prepares to begin another session of Racism 101.

Dictionary definitions are problematic, particularly online definitions.  Merriam-Webster Online’s free version is abridged.  For those unaware, abridged means:

1: to reduce in scope : diminish

2: to shorten in duration or extent

3: to shorten by omission of words without sacrifice of sense : condense

Most inexpensive print dictionaries are abridged, too.  And though I don’t think they say so on the site, some definitions are even more abridged than the print version.  Most of the time people looking to get the gist of a word don’t need the full, unabridged definition and etymology of a word. However, anyone looking to prove that a word does or does not mean something absolutely, or to say “You’re making up definitions, X word doesn’t mean that!”, cannot turn to the abridged definition to prove their point.

Beyond that, not all dictionaries are created equal.  Merriam-Webster is a good dictionary, yes.  But comparable to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?  Not quite. Will you find a more thorough definition of racism in the OED than M-W unabridged?  Probably.  (I can’t say for sure as I do not own an OED.)  It certainly won’t be less complex.  These are not the only two dictionaries of the English language around, either.  And while they certainly will have many of the same definitions, there is a reason why there are more than two.

And then we come to words whose many facets are beyond the scope of a dictionary definition.  This is what encyclopedias are for, in part.  If you’re looking for a deep understanding of a word or a concept, the dictionary isn’t going to provide it.  That’s not a dictionary’s job.

In his essay “Defining Racism“, Daniel Hindes points out that “dictionary definitions are all short and unambiguous (traits desirable in a dictionary),” and take a lot of key things for granted (due to shortness).  For the definition of Racism, this includes the existence of Race.  Hindes then brings up the functional/sociological definition of race, something that requires a lot more words than you’ll find in most dictionaries.  The functional definition is a lot deeper and more involved — not a surprise — and is the result of people’s actual experience with racism and many, many discussions about the issue, amongst other things.  Sociology is complex.

One final point to consider:  I’m sure that the people involved in editing and updating various dictionaries strive to be impartial and unbiased.  After all, it’s just about the words and what they mean, right?  There’s no way that could be biased or skewed in some way.


Though I don’t ascribe some vast conspiracy by “The Man” to “Keep us down” or anything like that, I am well aware that if you’re a member of a majority or privileged group, the fact that racism is not just about how one person feels about another might not occur to you.  If it doesn’t occur to you, then having that as a definition wouldn’t strike you as odd or incomplete or even wrong.  The thing to remember is that not all definitions are absolute or true to the core.  The English language is mutable, changeable, evolving.  Don’t believe me?  Then go throw a faggot on the fire and rape your neighbor’s lawn gnome.  The former will not require having to interact with a gay person and the latter has nothing to do with sexual assault.  Look them up.

Bottom line: whipping out a dictionary definition during a discussion of complex issues is ill-advised at best.  I would even go so far as to say it’s dumb.  It doesn’t put you over on anyone else and it doesn’t win the debate.  It usually shows that you don’t have any kind of true understanding of the concepts under discussion and usually leads to people either working to educate you or dismissing you outright.

There’s a fine line between trying to understand a foreign concept or different point of view and just being an ignorant ass.  Avoid the latter by leaving the dictionary alone.

Update: Here’s video of an amazing talk lexicographer Erin McKean (who is an editor of the OED) gave at the TED conference.  Really amazing stuff on language, dictionaries, and the English language.

BlackBird Browser — Because The Internet Isn’t Black Enough

I know I put this in the BlackLights yesterday, but I’m still so appalled by it that I think it deserves its own post.

In case you didn’t see it, there’s a new browser out called BlackBird, aimed at the Black community.  It’s essentially Firefox but rebranded, a new black and white theme, and some add-ons that put buttons in the bar at the top.  There’s a whole explanation of the thing here.

The website says that people should use this browser because it will help create and coalesce the online Black community.  It will also bring you news from a Black perspective, which many Black people want.  The real purpose behind this effort is to make money, but we’ll put that aside for a second.  Because the real question, to my mind, is: do Black people need a special piece of Black software in order to reach these goals?

I could rattle off the 20 different ways in which a person could mimic the tasks that BlackBird does — finding black news sites and putting them into your feed reader, finding the social networks and social bookmarking sites aimed at Black or POC in general, and finding relevant video and video news via YouTube and other, similar sites.  But I am well aware that a lot of people aren’t very Internet-savvy or don’t want to take the time to do all that.  They enjoy having things handed to them already collected and vetted.  This is why portal sites are popular.  This is why social networks are popular.  This is why AOL is still in business (somewhat).  So even though I do not need what BlackBird has to offer, I can see why others might.

Is it a good thing, though?  BlackBird is a sneaky application.  Because while there is all this talk of building online communities and bringing Black People together, the real reason this browser exists is targeted marketing.  There are ads in the browser — oh yes — and ads on the pages the browser helpfully points you to.

I also worry that the people behind it, about whom there is little information, will be more concerned with serving the advertiser’s needs than the users.  What if links start disappearing from the Share function because it points to something an advertiser doesn’t like?  Or links are promoted falsely?  The news comes from GoogleNews right now, but who is determining what news is revelant to Black people?  And will the nature of that news change with the advertisers.

Honestly, there are other, better ways to create and foster a Black community online.  As I said, portal sites are popular and can do a lot of what the BlackBird people are doing but without the browser itself.  When pondering the reason why they felt they even needed a rebranded browser in the first place, I have to admit I got a little suspicious.  This is just my gut feeling and not based on anything but a hunch and a small experience: I think BlackBird probably tracks users’ Internet usage without telling them.  Possibly even something worse.

One reason I started feeling this way is that, when I first installed BlackBird, it asked me if I wanted to make it my default browser.  I told it no, it did it, anyway.  When I reclaimed the defaulkt state for my regular Firefox, that took.  But when I shut BlackBird down, then clicked on a link in my email, BlackBird came back, having made itself my default browser yet again.

This is not good in any way.

So, what do you all think of BlackBird the Black Browser?

Open Thread

As usually happens when a post blows up like Friday’s Thank You, White People, there is a lot of off-topic chatter that doesn’t need to be there. However, some of that chatter is interesting conversation, it’s just not about what the post is about. So here is an open thread, where people can talk about what they want. I’m moving the whole Jewish as White People thread over here wholesale once I wake up.

The Politics of Hair (the kind not on your head)

In my other life I work for a fashion magazine, as I’ve mentioned. One of my newest assignments is to find the best products to remove hair, whether cream, blades, electric shavers, waxes, whatever. I’m going to surprise you all by saying that I jumped on this assignment. Asked for it, even. Because, you see, I don’t shave.

When the topic of shaving comes up (and it does, every now and then), I usually say that I don’t shave for political reasons. That, as a feminist, I am opposed to the notion that beautiful = hairless below the eyebrows. I am annoyed by our culture’s insistence that hair is gross unless it’s coming out the top of the head. It’s gotten so bad that there is now a war on eyebrows that leads some women to go so far as to shave them off completely only to draw them back on. I find this insane.

I also find it insane that women voluntarily put themselves through something as painful and damaging as waxing for the sake of beauty. Beauty should never, ever cause one pain. No, really.

But beyond all that, I just can’t be bothered to shave random areas of my body. Who would I be doing it for? Not myself, certainly. And not for anyone who might be seeing me naked. I will not be naked in front of a person who fears hair. Because they will probably freak out when they find my hair in the shower, and they always will. It’s a tedious, time-consuming process that has few merits, so I don’t shave.

But every now and then I wonder if there is some product out there that will remove my hair, if not permanently, then for long enough that I don’t have to worry about it much. But hey, home permanent removal will work, too. Why? Because, as much as I rail against our culture for disliking hair and raise that old bugaboo, patriarchy, as the source of this evil, I have to admit: I don’t like hair below the eyebrows much myself.

This makes me feel like a hypocrite, though a very smart friend of mine says not. Still…

As you read this, I am embarking on a quest to find a hair removal solution that keeps hair away for a long time and isn’t painful in any way. (Though I must say i am extremely disturbed by the epilator that just arrived int he mail.)

When I mentioned this over on my LJ, my friend veejane asked some very interesting questions:

How do other women feel about hair on different parts of their bodies? Do other women have differential opinions about kinds of hairiness? How do the products on the market conform to these opinions? How do the politics/anxieties of hairiness on each body part play into the products made available to combat hair?

Almost nobody I know does bikini waxing. (I don’t know any swimsuit models, alas.)

Most women I know shave their legs, daily or weekly or for a special occasion, but it’s something they’ll let go and not feel too bad about one way or the other. People talk about unshaved legs, as a political statement.

Armpit hair is more like talking about farts: everybody knows about it but it’s vaguely embarrassing so we all pretend it never existed.

And stray hairs on your face are, like, not even a question.

I’m intensely interested in having a conversation about these issues. Though it’s all a bit TMI, I feel like it’s something that should be discussed in a group of mature adults, such as most of us are here. As I get and try more products, read more press, and do more research, I’ll have more to contribute to the market aspect of it.

So, ABW readers, what is your opinion on different kinds of hairiness?

The Privilege of Politeness

Posted by: Naamen Gobert Tilahun

One item that comes up over and over in discussions of racism is that of tone/attitude. People of Color (POC) are very often called on their tone when they bring up racism, the idea being that if POC were just more polite about the whole thing the offending person would have listened and apologized right away. This not only derails the discussion but also tries to turn the insults/race issues into the fault of POC and their tone. Many POC have come to the realization that the expectation of politeness when saying something insulting is a form of privilege. At the core of this expectation of politeness is the idea that the POC in question should teach the offender what was wrong with their statement. Because in my experience what is meant by “be polite” is “teach me”, teach me why you’re offended by this, teach me how to be racially sensitive and the bottom line is that it is no one’s responsibility to teach anyone else. And even when POC are as polite as possible there is still hostility read into the words because people are so afraid of being called racist that they would rather go on offending than deal with the hard road of confronting their own prejudices.

When someone is accused of racism/prejudice and they don’t want to address the concern or even think about it, well then the POC accusing is too loud, too angry. But that ignores the fact that we have every right to be loud and angry. If I were to say something sexist/classist/racist/ablist/etc. I would not expect my friends to say “Well I’m offended by what you said and let’s have a calm discussion of why.” (especially with my friends) I would expect their first and most visceral reaction to be “Listen up, what you just said is fucked up and you better research and correct yourself!” Hell, I’d expect the same response from strangers because I don’t expect them to teach me or help me work through my unconscious prejudices. If I have some fucked up unconscious thoughts it’s my job to break it down and deal with it, no one else’s. Sure there are friends I could turn to but I don’t expect people to help me. For clarifications sake in my mind asking friends for help is not the same as expecting people to teach you. A white friend coming up to me and saying ‘Hey I’m writing this story with a black main character can you read it over?’ is completely different from putting some prejudiced writing/thoughts/beliefs out there and expecting me to be nice and teach you when I run across it. It’s the expectation not the asking that is privilege.

So if you say something racist I may write a detailed reply pointing it out and teaching a bit. I may also go off. Or I may just ignore it. It all depends. Depends on if I just spent the whole day dealing with racism, if I know you, if I think you can learn, if it’s something that’s been repeated over and over and I’m tired of dealing with it and think that you as an (assumed) intelligent person should know better. But you know what they say “If if was a fifth we’d all be drunk.” The point is I should not be expected to respond to racism with a happy-go-lucky smile and a will to teach. I’m not saying it’s okay to say ‘You stupid shit how dare you write this!’ There is a difference between being angry when addressing racism (or sarcastic or “rude”) and insulting people.

See this post has been brewing a long time which is maybe why I seem so “angry” or “rude”. I’ve noticed that when discussions of racism happen online the posts that go up in the aftermath, even some of the ones that address and acknowledge the issues of racism in the incident still say “They didn’t have to be rude about it. There was no call for it.” or “If they had just been more polite the person would have listened.” or some other variation (they of course referring to POC). What these people fail to understand is that if you’ve said something racist and fucked up you’ve already been rude to me. You’ve already offended me and ignorance is no excuse because you are a grown person, you can read, you can research, you can figure out how to treat people with respect and equality.

The question I always ask in these situations and no one ever answers: Why do I (or anyone) have to be polite when we are offended? If someone offends me with racism (either unconscious or deliberate) why should I be nice while confronting them? No one has given an answer to me yet because the answer is for the accused’s comfort level, which brings me back around to the title of this post. It is a privilege to expect someone to confront you on any kind of prejudice politely! I go through every day knowing that I will be offended and there is no politeness when it happens but in return I have to be nice? I have to be polite? I have to be willing to teach you is what is really being said.

Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a creative writer and blogger based in San Francisco. You can visit him at Words From The Center, Words From The Edge, where he discusses writing, science-fiction, movies, and more.