Time Adds Stealing Youth’s Lives in CA

The declining U.S. economy has led many to wake up to the fact that prisons are increasingly warehouses for “unwanted people” in the U.S. Whether they are people of color, immigrants (usually also people of color), poor women, trans, subsistence level or homeless youth, mentally ill, differently-abled, etc. the prison system is ready to take them on the most minor infraction. Once there, the system is designed to keep them through a combination of degradation and punishment that includes added time. The assumption that people in prison belong in prison has served to shield most N. Americans to the realities of mothers separated from nursing babies for nothing more than crossing a border or Latino youth clocking time because they were hanging out on the wrong street corner together or trans women praying they make it to prison instead of the infirmary because of “unexplained injuries” while in custody. While more information has come out about U.S. prisons becoming the largest state funded mental health facilities in some state’s, very few discussions outside of activist circles have centered on the interconnectedness of marginalization (“unwanted people”), incarceration, and income and job generation. Prisons are becoming one of the largest employers across the nation, providing jobs in food service, medicine, administration, sanitation, as well as guards and counselors. They also stimulate local economy because all of these new workers have money to spend at the local diner, coffee shop, clothing store, etc.Yet, as some small towns have argued, this stimulus restructures the entire economy toward the prison in ways that stunt alternative economic growth and econ sustaining diversification. Put another way, if the prison closes towns that were struggling before it opened would become ghost towns. So the prison must stay open. And to keep the prison open, there have to be criminals …

For those familiar with the prison-industrial-complex, or already working on the issue, this is not new information. Yet new ads inundate the local television with calls to join the ranks of border patrol (immigrant prison guards) and law enforcement careers (non-immigrant prisons) and my own uni has seen a massive increase in enrollment in the prison related degrees. It’s big business. Big business that is shielded by the national level discourses of citizenship and criminality.

Enter California.

While scandals about youth prisons are nothing new, the California prison system has one of the longest incarceration rates for youth offenders in the nation. Most of those offenders are originally arrested on misdemeanors, though there is a large percentage involved in hard core or gateway crimes. The issue is not whether or not incarcerated youth are “perfect victims”, ie completely innocent, but how they move from every day youth, to criminalized populations upon whom the prison-industrial-complex depends to generate money and jobs at the expense of lives.

Many youth in California prisons are people of color, second or third generation immigrant youth, and/or poor. 84% of youth in California prisons were people of color in 2007; while some will take this as proof people of color are more prone to criminality than white people, more than enough studies of race and racism in the legal system have proven that this overrepresenation has more to do with racism and classism than anything else. 1/3 of the youth serving time in CA prisons are there because of “time adds”. This means they have already served their original sentence and are serving time for behavioral issues ranging from talking back to guards to being involved in a fight (the application of the law has made little distinction between those who were targeted in those fights and/or defending themselves against bullying and harassment and those who intentionally caused a fight). The system is similar to that applied to people with mental health issues in prison who are often picked up on misdemeanors or petty crime and then warehoused for years based on behaviors related to their MH issues (talking back, ignoring lights out, fighting, etc.)

According to Books not Bars:

In the United States, 90,000 youth find themselves in juvenile detention centers on any given night and 2.2 million youth are arrested each year. In California, the state youth prison systems cost $216,000 per child per year while a mere $8,000 per child are allocated to Oakland public schools.

Once again, needed resources are funneled away from programs and services that help people succeed and deliberately moved into ones that require them to fail.

5 years of organizing in California against the inhumane treatment of incarcerated youth, including court cases finding the prison system or its employees guilty of beating, raping, or harassing youth prisoners, some times with the goal of goading them into time add violations, has had some positive effect on the system. According to Truthout, the number of youth arrested in 2009 was 1500 down from 5000, 5 years earlier.  Ella Baker Center introduced a bill, AB 999, in CA that would eliminate time adds all together, replacing them with incentive programs that provide time reduction or other privileges to youth who take anger management, participate in counseling or work retraining programs, or otherwise show good behavior during their sentence.  The bill has not yet passed but you can help by sending a letter to the California Legislature letting them know that intentionally incarcerating youth for years beyond their original sentence is not only inhumane it often causes irreparable damage to their education, self-esteem, and life choices.

The fight does not end with California’s youth however. As I’ve been trying to show, the problem is the system itself. The same tactics used to criminalize, round up, and retain youth in the prison system is similar to that of any other marginalized population. The correlations become all the more apparent when we map how policies about criminalizing normal behavior, like hanging out, and adding time to sentences is used on differently targeted populations, ie how these policies are used against Latin@s and immigrants in the Southwest, youth in California, black men in Chicago, and mental health patients in the U.S. Drawing connections between the groups least wanted, or in some cases least employed, in any given region and their treatment in prison to disparate least wanted populations in other regions shows a clear map of state sanctioned discrimination, violence, and economic gain on the backs of not only criminalized populations but the cities and towns that house the prisons. The problem is often worse for queer populations criminalized for their gender or sexual “transgressions” as well as the ways their identities often intersect other targeted populations. While Californians have been working to change this, Gov Schwarznegger has vetoed the the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Prisoner Safety Act and its predecessor, leaving queer people, particular trans women, extremely vulnerable to violence and murder in the prison system. According to the documentary Cruel and Unusual, trans people are incarcerated at 3 times the rate of cis people and many of them begin their time in prison as youth picked up for loitering, homelessness, or petty crime.

When we think intersectionally it is impossible to ignore how the prison system in the U.S. upholds the idea of who has a right to be considered N. American and who is part of Palin’s “other [N.] America”, the one we lock up and throw away.

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New Documentary on “Hidden” Dis/Ability

htp What Sort of People

There is a new documentary out by and about people with traumatic brain injuries called Brain Injury Dialogues. From what I have seen, it seems like a good teaching tool for expanding the discourse surrounding ability. The documentary tells the story of several people with TBIs as well as the types of support available and coping skill development they need, while also highlighting how certain aspects of their lives/thinking are impaired in ways that other people excuse, minimize, or otherwise fail to recognize. It also points out how the divides between hidden and visible may be keeping people with TBIs from receiving needed services and developing needed skills and support networks to thrive. It also discusses the import of disability rights activism for shifting the way differently-abled people see and advocate for themselves and how people with TBIs fight into this activism community.

For me, the documentary represents an important entry point for talking about what it means to move from able-bodied to differently-abled and to understanding the nuances of hidden disabilites which are assumed to be easier to cope with because of an ability to access able-bodied privilege but in fact are hard in a different way because the lack of recognition or the willingness to ascribe personality or social problems rather than physical and mental issues to people with hidden disabilities impedes them in similarly disabling ways. It also sheds light on a growing population in the differently-abled community that remains largely underserved by both mental health services and disability services, especially on college campuses in the U.S.

The Documentary is on sale now for $25 and can be bought here.

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Link Luv Sunday

A lot went on in our world while I was sick and/or overworked (yes including all the late diss chapters I had to read during Spring Break, cue violins) so I thought some link love was in order to cover some of the issues I have not here at the blog and to honor some of the voices holding it down across the internet. Since it is still Women’s History Month and yours truly has failed so miserably in doing her own feminist spotlight posts, I have linked to several folks who did use their blogs to honor and highlight specific women throughout the month.

  • Swandiver – Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow highlights a talk by Alexander about her new book and the civil rights inequities that remain in the U.S. through the loopholes provided in the prison-industrial-complex
  • National Center for Transgender Equality – breaks down what the new Health Care Reform Bill means for trans communities trying to meet their health care needs
  • Guerilla Mama – “The Buddha, The Dharma, and the Sangha” – a painfully poetic discussion about the intersections of race, class, gender, nation, love, and family through the eyes of a black immigrant who survives an attempted rape (trigger warning)
  • Alexis – Happy Birthday Toni Cade Bambara – another informative and celebratory contribution from Alexis and her Black Feminist Mind Project
  • Vivir Latino – “19 years without justice” – 19 year old hate crime against a Dominican youth still not solved, yet his mother keeps the pressure on
  • Vegan About Town – Nacho Cheese Dip and Nacho Cheese Nachos because I was sick most of the week and unable to eat much, I got really enthralled by blogs about food (what the comic industry has referred to as food porn blogs b/c they make you drool) and I was particularly excited by how yummy Steph made this recipe sound since I am a picky eater & don’t eat anything with too much melted vegan cheese because of the melt quality (I like almond based cheeses for eating & soy based for melting but the latter only in small amounts)
  • Asian American Lit Fans – much like Feminist Review, this livejournal site offers accessible reviews of new and old fiction by API Americans and should just be a must read in general for anyone who loves books
  • Nezua – “Invisible: Thoughts on Immigration Rally in DC” – not only does Nezua look at the complexities of the reform in succinct text but he also has a powerful slideshow of photos from the event at the bottom of the post.
  • Viva La Feministe – “The Fly Girls are Finally Golden” – learn about the civilian women who helped win world war II but got little back for their service
  • The Green Belt Movement – “GBM Celebrates International Women’s Day” – truthfully I am just sending you to this blog to give you an example of what decolonized grassroots feminist environmentalism looks like.
  • Claire @ Hyphen Magazines – “Women’s History Month Profiles” – spotlights on Asian American feminists and women activists
  • Mark Anthony Neal  – “Women’s History Month Classic: Say My Name” – I happened to love this film and I teach it pretty regularly as a counterpoint to “the video ho” image of hip hop (of course I also like to trot out Tawny Kitaen for that purpose as well) so it was nice to see someone review this classic as part of women’s history month.
  • Annaham “Invisible Illness and Disability Bingo” – this post is old, but I just got sent there by vegans of color blog, and I have to tell you that as a person with “hidden” disabilities, not only have I experienced everything on that list but, like Damali Ayo’s rent-a-negro cards, I wish I had a stack of these to pass out to co-workers and family members whenever they made light of what it is like to be differently-abled

Happy Reading!

Go Ask Alice Pt I (Burton’s Alice in Wonderland Review, Spoilers)

I’ve recently returned home from a disappointing Alice in Wonderland. Like many other people, I think my expectations were too high. When you hear Tim Burton and Johnny Depp in the same sentence it almost always means something magic, add to that a mythical world of upside down that is really right side up, and how can you go wrong? Well …

Alice in Wonderland/Burton

Plot

An adult Alice, age 19, returns to Wonderland to avoid a forced marriage proposal and finds herself a key figure in the counterrevolutionary plot to overthrow the Red Queen and reinstate the White one. Accompanying her on her journey are all of the familiar characters from the original novel and a few new ones.

Feminism


I was almost immediately taken out of the film by the trite mobilization of banal “feminist issues” in the beginning of the movie. Don’t give me a sad morality tale about a “poor girl” and a boorish aristocrat, “spice it” w/ a cheating husband, and expect me to be politically moved, especially if you intend to drop the whole thing for “the real story” later anyway. Let’s get clear, Burton’s re-imagined Alice is feminist enough without this transparent packaging. She is courageous, strong, clever, and loyal. She also single-handedly bests or subdues several beasts in this film and stays true to herself no matter what others want or expect of her. Though powerful in Wonderland, Alice is reduced to caricature by a script that has her rehashing a trite marriage plot at the beginning of the film, then simply dodging it at the end by telling off ever single person involved, one after the other, in a far too tidy ending.

Worse, Alice’s seeming empowerment when she rejects the marriage, fails to empower any of the other women present. She does not tell her sister about her husband’s infidelity, though she does warn him that she is watching him, nor does she stand up for her mother or her aunt. Instead, she tells her “crazy aunt” whose “crime” is not getting married, and being driven slightly crazy by the judgment she endures as a result, that she needs to get over her fantasy life because no one is coming to marry her. What could have been a moment of shared triumph between Alice and her Aunt as self-directed women with active fantasy lives, turns into an ugly and dismissive gesture that seems to utterly contradict the empowerment Alice is supposed to have gained through her own fantasy world.

Nor is Alice’s empowerment very meaningful in and of itself. Moments after claiming the right to go her own way, she proposes a plan to the man who has bought her father’s company to increase their profits. There is no attempt by Alice to get the company back, presumably bought because women cannot be left in charge. While this is at least historically accurate, in the next breath the new head of the company offers Alice an “apprenticeship” for her ideas. It’s her father’s company and her ideas, yet she is not offered anything like the inheritance she would have gotten were she a man nor that she has earned on her own. You can’t have it both ways. If we are going to stick to history, Alice could not have been an apprentice sailing off to China on her own and if we are going to offer fantasy with a feminist twist, then why not give her mother back the company or at least partnership in it?

Race


There are no people of color in Alice in Wonderland. There is however colonialism. Not only does Alice resolve the unwanted marriage proposal with an individualized rant at various people, but she also proposes that her father’s company expand to China. This seems harmless enough, but colonial and Asian historians will shutter at the image of young blond blue-eyed Alice helming a boat to “open the markets in China” at film’s end. What is sad is that this is the way many white women in Victorian England escaped marriage and found empowerment, ie boarding boats and participating in colonialism to increase their station in life.

I also found myself thinking for the very first time: are there ever people of color in Tim Burton’s films? The answer that came back was telling since it hits on the next issue, dis/ability … The only film I could think of was Big Fish in which two Asian American women play conjoined twins.

Dis/Ability and Physical Difference


One of the things I have always loved about Burton is the way he embraces the strange, unique, and different. His worlds have always offered us characters that live outside the norm and often invite scorn from normative characters who turn out to be the more flawed. In the magical worlds of Burton unique characters are central, movingly human, and illuminating. While Alice in Wonderland gives us some of that in Johnny Depp’s Hatter, there is very little elsewhere.

In fact, the story hinges on a conflict between two Queens, the good one is able bodied and all white (except for some black eyebrows and black nail polish) in an all white world, and the bad one is best known for her big head and even bigger temper. The Red Queen’s head is the source of endless speculation, mockery, and even an ablist comment from the White Queen about her mental health as evidenced by her physical appearance. As if the emphasis on the Red Queen’s physical difference were not bad enough, everyone in the Red Queen’s court has some kind of physical issue. There are women with huge noses, ears, and pointed breasts, and men with paunches and eye patches. No human in her court is without some visible physical difference and everyone in her court is in some way morally corrupt.

Even though it is later revealed that most of the people in her court are faking it, the film fails to make the connection between their passing and their fear of the Red Queens judgment. While it would be easy to interpret the court as sycophants who exaggerated their features in order to suck up to the Red Queen, 1. this continues to center physical difference as a sign of corruption and failure and 2. Burton and the screenwriters do not do enough to depict the Red Queen’s court as three dimensional characters who both fear and loath her enough to act this way. Instead, the exaggerated body parts are played for comic effect and then torn off when needed to move the plot forward, much like Alice’s real world feminist dilemmas. Worse, the only two people punished at film’s end have actual physical differences while all of the able bodied characters on both sides remain free.

(It should be noted however, that characters with mental differences are actually on the side of the White Queen. While this does balance out the dis/ability issues on one level, mental health issues are no less positive in this film. Instead, we are given a hare who looks like someone chewed it up and spit it out, who mutters to himself and throws things at everyone’s head, while he is universally ignored and the Hatter whose bouts of PTS are often sharply corrected by Alice as if his abilities are a choice. Thus while their presence contradicts the differently-abled=bad, able-bodied=good paradigm, they do little to correct ablism in general nor the emphasis on physical difference as evil. Honestly, the ablism in this film is incredibly jarring given Burton’s classic, Edward Scissor Hands, and his wonder-inducing embrace of difference in all of his films.)

Character development in general is one of the major flaws of this film. Very few human creatures in this film are three dimensional. As a result, Burton’s attempts at visually deconstructing them is often lost. Like the ablist portrayal of sycophants in the Red Queen’s court, the White Queen’s constant pose with her hands “just so” like a fairy from Cinderella fails to resonate as a critique of her “overwhelming goodness” precisely because she herself never moves beyond the flat representation she embodies. Since the film ends with her win over the Red Queen, there is no structural critique of the “good queen” archetype either. Burton’s more subtle reference to the White Queen’s decision to study undead arts does a better job, but it is a fleeting glimpse at his genius that is otherwise sorely absent here.

The conflict between the two Queens and how it plays out also contradicts the trite nod to feminism at the beginning of the film. In Wonderland, we are given a world in which female leadership is reduced to “who is more loved.” Though the Red Queen makes references to the difference in the way she and her sister, the White Queen, were treated growing up, no real attention is paid to her complaints. Her desperation to be loved is played for comic relief and scorn rather than presented as a possible counternarrative to ablism linked to physical difference. And while Alice’s entrance into the conflict re-centers female power, both Queen’s wage their war with male champions, male spies, and male heroes prior.

Animals


On the positive side, most of the animals in Alice and Wonderland are far more complex than the 2-D humans. For the most part, their motivations and their desires are well thought out and their loyalties and actions convey a complexity that the original story relied upon. Alan Rickman’s caterpillar is appropriately condescending and wise. I think his casting was a stroke of genius even if his delivery of the famous line “who are you” was not slowed down enough for my liking. The Cheshire Cat’s comedic timing was also a highlight of the film.

The animation related to the animal characters is where the creative team shines. For the most part, I don’t think this film needed to be in 3 D as much of its wonder is no more spectacular than any 2D Burton film (which is both a compliment to Burton’s previous vision and a slight against the rush to 3 D film in Hollywood). While some of the animation for the dog was somewhat questionable at times, the animation for the Cheshire Cat made me fall in love with this character all over again.

Interestingly, despite their centrality, the Red Queen only keeps animals who can help her oppress others and like the humans of her court, she keeps them in line through cruelty. At least one of the animals in her court has its eye torn out and nothing is done to heal it. When Alice returns the creature’s eye, it in turn heals Alice’s wound. So there is some subtle comment on animal rights here as well, it is just too bad that it is still couched in the physical difference narrative of the film.

Conclusions

Ultimately Alice in Wonderland is another visually stunning film from team Burton. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter give two of the better performances in the film, though Depp’s in and out brogue is distracting. The newcomer playing Alice also does a good job, but the rest of the human actors are either wasted or phoning it in. The people in the real world are particularly two-dimensional and it is hard to separate the failures of the writing from those of the actors because their time on screen is so brief and insignificant.

The storyline is updated and yet retains much of the interesting lyricism and quirkiness of the original while losing the stark class critique. As long as the movie stayed in Wonderland it was compelling, but when it leaves that magical world it falls as flat as matzoh (unleavened bread). In the real world, the story is contrived and borderline offensive in its easy attempts to mobilize a throwaway feminism that never really comes to fruition.

With regards to diversity, there is very little, and what is there is sadly invested in oppressive narratives.

If you haven’t gone to the theater yet, I’d suggest renting Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or at least going during the matinee. Only pay for 2D unless you have a thing for 3D b/c it isn’t necessary for the majority of the movie and in my theater several people complained of eye problems or headaches during and after the showing, including my movie companion and myself. (This may have been a result of human error at the showing, but still, if you go to the 2 D version, you don’t have to worry poorly calibrated tech is going to cause you pain for no reason.)

And if you want my honest advice: skip this movie until it comes on cable and go rent Alice, a SyFy Channel import that was far more creative and interesting despite a much lower budget. (Review of Alice forthcoming, see: Go Ask Alice Pt II.)

BHM: Teaching TABs to See

Ever Lee Hairston is the first African American Vice President of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Federation for the Blind.

unattributed

During her childhood she helped her parents and grandparents on a Cooleemee Plantation in Winston Salem MA, where they were sharecroppers and took the bus to a segregated school 18 miles away from home. As a teen she went to New York to work as a live-in caregiver to a terminally ill child; when the child died, her parents offered to help put Hairston through nursing school. Unfortunately, the school would not let her attend due to the discovery of retinitis pigmentosa. Hairston refused to be deterred by ablism, so she went into the teaching program at a different college. Unfortunately, 4 years after she started teaching, she was fired because of her rapidly deteriorating eye sight.

While Hairston initially let repeated incidents of ablism and racism get to her, she ultimately fought back. Once in college she became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Building on her own knowledge of discrimination and unfair labor practices in the South, Hairston was committed to ensuring African Americans had better choices and equal access to education and employment in the future. She recalls her involvement in the Sears and Roebuck discrimination case sit-in as the proving ground for her disability rights activism, By the time she was being ridiculed in public with other blind colleagues, she felt she had endured enough sanctioned identity based hate that she knew she had to stand up and stand strong.

In 1987, she applied to do entry level social service for the state of NJ and confronted the ableism of the hiring committee head on. When they claimed her blindness would get in the way of her ability to intake clients properly, Hairston pointed out that it takes more than one skill to understand people and that she had developed quite a few skills during her time as a caretaker and a teacher. She not only got the job but then exceeded her peers expectations by moving up the ranks. While her time as an advocate continues to be marred by workplace discrimination at the intersections of race, ability, and gender, Hairston holds her co-workers accountable as well tries to educate them. She feels her presence both as a Supervisor for State Health and Human Services and as an advocate in the court room has been essential to changing the way people think about both black women and differently-abled people.

Hairston’s work also allows her to continue working for working class women and people of color’s rights by working for social justice in the courts. She is also a club woman, and her advocacy and mentorship of other black women was recognized in 1999 when she won the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Woman of the Year Award.

Anti-Asian Racism in South Philly Schools

NBC Philadelphia/unattributed

Racial violence at South Philadelphia High School has been at the center of a month long discussion/struggle for Asian American students’ safety at the school. According to students, the situation began over two weeks ago when 30 API students were attacked at South Philadelphia High School sparking an 8 day boycott of classes.

According to members of the Asian American community who are helping students heal and organize, the December 3rd attack was actually day two of the violence. They believe the same African-American students, 14 in total, attacked a lone Vietnamese student off school grounds on December 2nd and then brought the violence into the school the following day. (see Philly.com)

What was initially reported as widescale violence against Asian American students by African-American students may have begun with an attack on a differently-abled African American student off campus. According to school officials, some API students harassed and subsequently beat up a lone African-American student off school grounds sparking racial tension inside the school. That tension erupted on Dec. 3 when 30 API students were brutally attacked in the cafeteria and the hallways of the school by a multi-racial group of assailants, many of whom were African-American.

Several of the attacked students had to go to the hospital and many API students were too scared to return the following day for fear of being targeted again. Their parents worried that the violence was not over and that it was becoming all too common. While advocates warned that the language barrier many of the students targeted experienced in the school meant that they could not or would not accurately report everything that had happened to them; they also pointed out this is an ongoing problem in getting clear documentation of violence against API students in the school.

Very little is known about the differently-abled African American student because the school chose not to disclose this information in the initial days of reporting on the Anti-Asian violence within its walls. The failure to address this student’s rights and the combination of ableism and racially motivated unilateral violence from the API community has made it that much harder to address the increasing racially faultlines in a school run by an African American principal.

A History of Anti-Asian Sentiment

However, the idea that South Philly High would have been safe for API students if it hadn’t been for the off campus incident is inaccurate at best. Regardless of what sparked the incident, several things have become clear in its aftermath:

  1. According to students, there is a consistent pattern of anti-Asian discrimination at South Philly High
  2. API students were targeted on Dec. 3 regardless of their involvement in the incident against the differently-abled African American student, ie they were targeted for being Asian
  3. newly arrived first generation immigrant students bore the brunt of the Anti-Asian violence

Philly.com/Jason Melcher

According to Ellen Somekawa, Executive Director of Asian Americans United, students at South Philly High reported several racist comments against them by school teachers and administrators. These comments included references to speaking English, derogatory analogies to Asian American characters in the media, and a general sense that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not “real Americans” or perpetually foreign. (You can see some of the comments here.) The fact that these comments were allegedly made by teachers and administrators is not only reprehensible, it also helped to create a climate in which targeting of API students would seem acceptable.

That climate seems to be coming from the top. While school Principal La Greta Brown is new to South Philadelphia High, she has already gotten into trouble with various racial and ethnic groups at the school according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. A Jewish teacher says he was harassed by Brown for asking for a religious holiday off and Allan Wong from the Mayor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs says he tried to schedule a meeting with Brown to discuss last year’s anti-Asian school violence but got nowhere.  Other members of the API community said Brown had appeared open to discussing the problems in the school, even setting up a community meeting schedule, but when it came time for the meetings themselves Brown appeared to have forgotten about them and after keeping the attendees waiting for 40 minutes had failed to schedule additional meetings. (see Philadelphia Inquirer, link above, for full story) While Brown has not commented on these complaints, she vehemently denied Somekawa’s accusations at the meeting where the two discussed the Dec. 3 attack with the rest of community leaders.

If both the principal and teachers are accused of being anti-Asian and/or minimizing anti-Asian behavior amongst their peers than will they really stand up against students who are also Anti-Asian?

According to both students and community leaders, the answer is: No.

According to Xu Lin, a community member who helped students recovering from PTS related to the attack, violence against Asian American students has been a regular part of the school day since he was a student at South Philly High.  He reported being beaten up in what was implied as racially motivated incidents himself.

Current student, Wei Chen, Founder of the Chinese American Student’s Association at the school, also reported ongoing violence. In fact, he started CASA after racially motivated violence in the school last year (see NBC Philadelphia). Those incidents were supposed to have sparked improvements in the school to ensure that anti-Asian violence did not erupt again. Despite violence, school officials claim that the violence agaisnt Asian American students is down 50% (see NBC Philadelphia)

Given the failure to ensure students’ safety from last year until now, the question of what tone the administration had set was at the forefront of some 50 API students who boycotted the school in the hopes of getting concrete lasting reform and an end to racism in the school.

Policing Solutions?

What started as 5 students being scared to return to classes the following day after the violence(Philly.com), swelled to 50 students on an 8 day boycott of the school and active community involvement demanding the school be made safe. API students and community leaders asked that the school:

  1. install more cameras
  2. hire more security guards
  3. report racially motivated violence as hate crimes
  4. implement stricter punishments for students involved in violence against other students on or off school grounds

In a rally and march against anti-Asian violence in the school, API students from South Philly High also made it clear that they were less interested in racial narratives about the incident on December 3rd as much as they were invested in a radical paradigm shift amongst the administration. In other words, unlike the media that was reporting the incident as unilateral violence between Asian Americans and African Americans, the students felt the issue was a failure of the school itself. Many of them carried signs that said “It’s not a question of who beat who, it’s who let it happen” and, as pictured at the top of this post, “Grown Ups Let Us Down!”

After tensions rose between the school and community leaders, civil rights organizations filed suit against the school for failing to protect API students. The school district responded by holding several community and student-faculty meetings and committing to the following:

  1. hiring 4 new security guards including one who speaks Cantonese
  2. installation of 60 cameras throughout the school, especially in identified hotspots like outside the bathroom and inside the cafeteria
  3. transferring the already suspended students believed to have instigated the in school violence to other districts & reporting them to the police for criminal prosecution
  4. the creation of The Task Force for Racial and Cultural Harmony which will include members from the community, students, parents, and faculty

Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman also issued a statement at a community meeting on the incident, disavowing racism in the schools and the “larger community.” She pointed out that this recent round of violence began with an attach on the differently-abled African American student and ended with the violence against 30 Asian American students and was a symptom of ongoing racial tensions in Philadelphia. She said the School District is committed to addressing these racial tensions and ensuring the safety of all of the students at Philadelphia schools and pointed to how the Task Force could help schools across the district address racism both in and outside of the school system.

Like many other stories of racially motivated violence in the schools, the issues at South Philly High seems to have escalated in part due to administrative in action and a climate of oppression. A critical part of the aftermath is the public documenting of violence against API students for generations at South Philly High that mirrors complaints of oppression in the schools in other cases. What is becoming clear is that many of our schools are unsafe, if not the least safe, places for youth. While underfunded schools have glaring problems that make national news, like those of South Philly High, many of the students dying because of the intersections of racism and transphobia or racism and ableism or the individual oppressions of racism, homophobia, sexism, and transphobia are happening in private schools. While we have developed a language for discussing oppressions that language has not brought us any closer to addressing actual oppression, and in many schools that failure has had dire impact on youth.

The South Philly High example also serves to draw attention to two other problems in our so-called post-racial world. On the one hand, the myth of the model minority continues to mask racism against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in national discourse. This myth has prevented critical intervention on many levels and has encouraged people to ignore anti-Asian violence. It has also masked the ways that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also targets of anti-immigrant violence as perpetual outsiders in the U.S. The majority of the API students targeted in South Philly High were first generation, newly arrived, immigrant youth and the advocates quoted above indicated that these students were the least likely to report violence because of language barriers. It is entirely possible that lack of cultural competence amongst new immigrants and African Americans that painted both groups as offensive and potentially racist in the eyes of the other led to some of the racial tension in the school. Teachers and administrators’ own reported anti-immigrant sentiment prevented them from providing this cultural competence to students and further exacerbated institutional racism. It is equally possible that anti-immigrant discourses that paint immigrants as unfairly sucking up limited resources resonated particularly well with subsistence level African American students, transforming this conflict into a decidedly anti-immigrant one.

On the other hand, the emphasis on addressing long buried anti-Asian violence at South Philly High has nearly erased the story of what happened to that differently-abled African American student. That student’s story has yet to be told.  But what has become clear is that the references to the students who instigated the anti-Asian violence in the school as “a gang” or certain parents expressing their fears about the school a long implied race lines, ie that there are a lot of black people in South Philly High therefore it is an unsafe and unruly school, belie as yet unaddressed racial tensions. And while school administrators appear to have hid behind these tensions in order to silence API students complaints, the solution is not to simply flip the script.

Finally, while it is true that API students called for increased policing at the school, I find myself concerned about the increasing presence of the prison-industrial-complex in the school system. Working class and subsistence level students of color are already over-policed as it is. The presence of increased policing in the schools has shown no real track record of decreasing violence or tensions in the schools, and in some cases has increased it. And like other policing forces, questions have arisen about the cultural competence of security guards in the school as a direct result of their involvement in racist and sexist incidents. While the school has committed to ensuring the language competence of 1 of 4 new guards there has been no similar commitment to their racial competence with either API students or African Americans (or Latinos in the school for that matter). while I agree that the youth who instigated this violence should be punished, including with applicable hate crimes laws, I don’t think an increasingly prison like school environment is an answer. Put another way, I am concerned that the answer to school violence is often to adjudicate and permanently brand children rather than to do what schools are meant to do, ie educate and provide youth with the ability to think critically about oppression. And I am not sure the false sense of security these measures will provide will do anything toward addressing the underlining issues at the school or, as the Superintendent put it, the communities these students live in.

There were many lessons that South Philly High could have learned from this incident. The one key lesson they seem to have learned was to listen to, honor, and protect the voices of the API students in their school. Given how long they have been silenced through fear, retaliation, and violence, this cannot be underestimated. But I fear the other lessons available here have been lost. And each time I write these kinds of posts, I watch the narrowing of the discourse surrounding them in the media and know that we as a nation are also losing these key opportunities as well. At least the API students of South Philly High now have an organizational structure, public presence, and finally recognized voice in the school with which to advocate for themselves in the future. It is just too bad that they had to have this instead of the school doing everything it can to make South Philly a safe place for all of its students.

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image on right: Principal LaGreta Brown. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS

When Transphobia Hits Home

a thought piece …

At least once a year, every year, on this blog I have had to write a piece about a child who committed suicide because of transphobic-homophobic bullying in the schools. (I’ve linked these two distinct oppressions together here because the cases I am referring to have included both oppressions blurred together; however, bear in mind, they are distinct and have both caused murder or suicide individually.) After some high profile deaths on both coasts last year, there was a lot of national level talk about ending gender and sexuality based school bullying. The discussion was so mainstream that even Oprah did a special on it and longstanding organizations like GLAAD, PFLAG, and THE offered curriculum to any school willing to take the first step. All of the key secondary school pedagogy magazines carried articles on it and the web also lit up with discussion and lists and pledges on youtube. As a one time diversity trainer (you know back in the good old days when I thought that stuff might help), I even got phone calls from old contacts asking if I could go do trainings in the schools again. And yet, despite all the hoopla, gender and sexuality based school bullying, often spurred on by repeated public expression of hate in states with same sex marriage or partner benefits proposals up for vote (see report by the SPLC abt how marriage debate is increasing hate crimes), continues on.

The disconnect between public outcry and reality hit home this past weekend when my mother called me frantic about my nephew being bullied in school. My nephew is a mild to moderate autistic child who speaks very little and when he does he parses his words and phrases down to their barest available meanings. Like many autistic children, he is a genius in certain subjects, seemingly willful with regards to social interaction, and often tunnel visioned. And like most of the high functioning differently-abled people in our family, his teachers “overlook” or minimizes his disability because he is smart, in the typical ableist manner of equating disability with dumbness and ability with intelligence. Their profound failure to provide him with reasonable accommodations has led to him being placed into a regular classroom with a curriculum beneath his IQ and a social setting far above his abilities. In other words, a recipe for disaster.

One day in gym class (a class I personally believe is the source of far too many childhood traumas to be justified), my nephew’s class was asked to pick teams. When it was my nephew’s turn, the two semi-formed teams could be best described as the boys who were mean to him for being smart and different (ie ableist boys) and the girls who had always been nice to him. Parsing his words in a fashion that was typical to his particular manifestation of autism, my nephew stated “I want to be a girl.”

The tormenting began almost immediately. Even the girls laughed at him. The PE teacher failed to either explain what had happened or intervene. And when the teams were fully formed, the boys targeted my nephew, intentionally slamming him with the ball, each time yelling out “hit the girl” in a way all too close to “smear the queer.” Also in an all too familiar pattern, the PE teacher sat back and watched without comment or correction.

Since that incident, my nephew has been teased from the time he gets on the school bus to go to school until the time he gets off it on his way home. The boys shove him, rub against him and ask if he “likes that”, put pink markers on his desk, and even accosted him with lipstick, once again blurring the lines of gender and sexuality policing. And all the while, his teachers have done nothing. While much of their silence is homophobia and transphobia the ableism that makes them resent his willfullness also no doubt makes them secretly enjoy his being publicly harassed.

The intersection of ableism and hetero & cissexism are exacerbated in this case by my nephew’s father. When my nephew was born, my sister’s born again evangelical husband could not have been more proud. He practically thumped his chest and yelled “Me man, man beget man, hooha!” He went out of his way to ensure his newborn son was allowed nowhere near me and my bevy gay male friends who would “corrupt him” and lesbian friends who would “confuse him.” And then, his child was diagnosed with autism and pride flew away on angel’s wings. In my sister’s husband’s eyes, my nephew was less than a man because he was not temporarily able-bodied. Leaving him behind to play with his sister in a strictly gender segregated household had the added effect of making my nephew far more at ease with the women and girls in his life, who never made him feel less human or ungendered because he was differently-abled.

The sense of comfort he found with women as a direct result of ableism and sexism in his home, made my nephew gravitate to the girls in school as well. Thus the PE incident seemed oddly over-determined by the points of intersection on all sides. And of course, when my sister’s husband found out about it, he only looked at his son through ableist eyes and shook his head as if he had the final proof that the boy is “broken.” Further, his own phobias and ableism, like those of my nephew’s teachers, have combined to keep him and my sister from advocating for my nephew’s safety or calling me to do it for them.

The result of adult inaction both at home and at the school has been my nephew’ deteriorating ability to function. His social phobias related to his autism have increased while his burgeoning social skills have all decreased. He is having accidents in and out of school, coupled with nightmares, and if he were an able-bodied child his grades would no doubt be slipping as well. Where he once learned from his father that being autistic meant he couldn’t “be a man”, he is now learning that “being a girl” is something worse still, especially if you were born physically a boy. The only place he has ever really been at ease is being torn down by an adult pre-occupation with cissexism and homophobia that they have passed down to children. Those children and the schools that have become the place of widescale social torture for many young people, enact violence largely without any real sanction for increasing oppression.

Listening to what my nephew is suffering, my mind cannot help but wander to all of the young boys whose names and photos have ended up on this blog as a testament to a society that unofficially encourages children to behave like Lord of the Flies with queer youth playing the role of Piggie. In most of these cases, the failure and/or encouragement of teachers and administrators made schools the most unsafe places that children, gay, straight, or questioning, trans, genderqueer, or simply quiet or tomboyish, could be in.  And in many of them, the failure or silence of parents surrounding issues of gender and sexual diversity made children feel they had no allies or that they were profound disappointments. In talking about my nephew’s case, we have an added layer of disability that marked him as different, and in the eyes of his father, less, from the beginning. What my nephew is experiencing is a phenomena that is both specific to dis/ability issues and illustrative of how difference of any kind gets pushed through the mill of homophobia and transphobia in schools all the time.

While many of us, myself included, jumped on the bandwagon of parental involvement and school reform, my nephew’s case also highlights how little these reforms do when they are in reaction to sensational cases or when they fail to be intersectional in nature. The fact is, my nephew attends a school district that has an extremely strong anti-bullying policy. That policy specifically addresses best practices with queer or questioning youth. However, like much of the curriculum circulated in the last few years, the policy assumes children are queer or questioning and does very little to impact the overall climate of phobia that targets people regardless of their actual gender or sexual orientation. In other words, kids learn early that calling someone “a girl” is a bigger insult than “shy” or “quiet” or “know it all” could ever be and they are learning from huge anti-gay rights campaigns that being “gay” means being less than human and calling someone “gay” will permanently ostracize them. My nephew has not yet chosen a sexual orientation or gender preference, but he has been painted with a big pink brush by his classmates nonetheless. They did it because he is different and because his ableist teachers never bothered to provide the reasonable accommodations required by federal law that would have made those differences technically off limits.

And while we live in a culture that has become increasingly aware of sexuality and gender differences, we also live in a culture where both these identities and dis/ability are often the target of oppression based humor on television, radio, and in film. Though schools have a long history of addressing dis/ability, it is peppered with ableist, stigmatizing, and uninformed choices that have often been a detriment to differently-abled children’s development. My nephew was supposedly lucky. He attends a school district that has a mandate to serve all identified “special students.” They have a specific educational planning session for each identified student and that plan has to be followed up on by the school or the parent’s can petition to move the child to a better equipped school. Barring that, the people failing to uphold the plan can be reprimanded or fired. And yet, part of what is happening to my nephew has everything to do with the failure to provide him appropriate services. Not just in the way I have mentioned above, but also because his teachers resent having to modify their lesson plans or do not know how. In his first weeks in his new school, he was in conflict with them regularly because they did not provide enough transition time or instruction for him to follow through and when he acted out as a result (a typical behavior for autistic children asked to transition activities without warning) they punished him and he acted out more (also a typical trait). Filtering his actions through ableist eyes, his teachers judged him as a “willful, spoiled, brat” not a differently-abled child with specific needs. When they were called out for punishing him, they looked to his IQ as proof he was “faking it.” That resentment built up over time, so that when the other students in the class turned on him, the teachers simply sat back and enjoyed it instead of doing their jobs. Their lack of training and accountability with regards to dis/ability issues coupled with some of their homophobia and transphobia to allow my nephew to be repeatedly targeted without intervention. The message their inaction, and no doubt non-verbal enjoyment, sent the children in his school has lasting effects on how both differently-abled and gender non-conforming or same sex desiring students will be treated for years to come. For my nephew, the consequences could be dire.

So what does this mean for similar children trying to get through middle school especially in the post-anti-bullying hoopla? It seems to me that my nephew’s case illustrates how little we have accomplished. Like the newly formed European states that all have anti-discrimination against LGBTQ people in their constitutions but still have some of the most vehement and violent opposition to celebrations of queer culture or the presence of LGBTQ people in their towns, it seems that both anti-bullying curriculum and dis/ability ed have failed to do more than provide legal language for offenders to mask their ongoing bigotry behind. And when we buy into the fanfare without actually working daily to ensure that schools are doing more than just pay lip service, people like Larry King, Carl Joseph-Walker Hoover, and Jaheem Herrera (all pictured here) die.

When parents assume that the schools are following mandates or are simply “safe places” for youth, they often over look signs that their children are in real trouble. Bullying of all kinds goes unreported to parents by their children for fear that parents will either not understand or minimize or that they will go to the school and “make it worse.” This is a failure both on the part of society to properly aid parents in understanding the power of bullying on children’s development but also on the part of school boards to educate parents’ about their rights and schools to work cooperatively with involved parents rather than stigmatizing their kids. Worst of all, as in the case of my sister’s husband, some parents have allowed their own phobias and hetero &/or cissexism to prevent them from standing up for their children. Like the radio shock jocks in California who said they would beat their imaginary children if they were transgendered, some parents actually believe that gender policing on the school yard will be “good for their kids.” But as the parents of the dead children pictured here, some who were homophobic, some who were not aware of their rights or the extent of the abuse, and some who advocated every chance they got to no avail, prove, school based bullying has lasting detrimental effects on children not positive ones. And any church, school or other institution that teaches you to hate your own children and leave them to the mercy of unchecked violence is a place you should actively work to shut down not praise or follow.

On a personal note, as my mother’s frantic calls about my nephew’s situation burn up my phone line and the silence of my sister’s born again husband leaves my nephew out to dry, I can’t help but worry that one day I will be looking at my nephew’s photo posted all over the internet while everyone writes about how wrong transphobia and homophobia are and gnash their teeth about educational reform. And of course, there will be those who will minimize his loss because he doesn’t fit their narrow definitions of who we should and should not care about.

Dialing the phone to his school, knowing they will be able to hide behind the fact that I am not a parent but a relative despite my educational privilege, I cannot help but think there has to be a better way …

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images

  • Lawrence King/unattributed. Killed by a fellow student after experiencing both homophobic and transphobic violence in school
  • Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee/unattributed. Character who uses her power as coach to torment students who are different
  • Pastor Rick Warren/unattirbuted. Notoriously homophobic Pastor invited to speak at Pres Obama’s inauguration
  • Carl Joseph Walkeer Hoover/photo originally provided by family. Killed himself after experiencing both homophobic and transphobic violence at his school & his mother’s advocacy failed to produce results
  • Ben Stiller as Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder/Dream Works/2008. While the Disability Rights Activist community boycotted the film & tried to raise awareness about the advertising campaign that demeaned them, temporarily able bodied people, including feminist and anti-racist bloggers minimized or rejected their efforts.
  • Ny’irah Keene writes goodbye to her brother Jaheem Herrera/Curtis Compton/AJC. Jaheem Herrera’s body was found by one of his sisters after he killed himself unable to endure anymore homophobic school bullying