Not Much Has Changed

Image

I was reading Breeze Harper’s piece on racist and misogynist trolling of her website Sistah Vegan a few days ago and thinking how little has changed for black intellectuals in North America. Breeze mentions how she has advanced degrees from prestigious universities, honors, and awards that should make her word hold some weight. However, as a post-colonial reading of Merleau-Ponty quickly points out the imagined black Other supersedes that of any disconfirming information. So we are always ignorant until proven smart. Always race baiting haters until we allow racism to run rampant on our sites or bow down to the know it all white expert who is likely reading an uncited bastardization of our own text back to us incorrectly. And so on.

What struck me most reading Breeze’s article was not just the long list of educational credentials that amount to nothing in the face of whiteness, but also the fact that she has been harassed by so-called Buddhists for daring to participate in decolonizing wellness practices. Not only does this seem decidedly anti-Buddhist, but it touches very close to home. You see, I have a white male Buddhist in my life, through no fault of my own, who is consistently harassing me about my intersectional politics and my desire for equal treatment at the university. He denies that there is any sign of discrimination in the classrooms he oversees and yet there are multiple complaints about racism, sexism, and homophobia overheard in the halls, claimed to be written on the evals, and most importantly several students and one faculty member have threatened to sue over oppressive behavior or pedagogical choices. He calls me unstable when I advocate for myself or others, and has literally told people to stay away from me if they want to succeed in our profession. Once, he even maligned my family and allegedly physically threatened a gay male colleague. But when anyone who he cannot menace asks him about the rumors about his behavior, he laughs and falls back on his Buddhism as proof that he would never harass students and faculty of color, queer students and faculty, women, or differently-abled people. He talks about his spirituality and its call for authenticity that he takes seriously and even publishes about. When backed into a corner, he even beats his chest and talks about his own experiences of being bullied in school and all the poor black families he worked with when he was young.  He, like the Buddhist in Breeze’s post, is accessing whiteness through the lens of “good person”, i.e. the idea that because he practices benevolent spirituality he has already conquered oppression not only in his own mind but in any arena in which he enters or controls. As such, he has the right to silence and deny evidence of oppression and the need to heal from it coming from the people most likely to know what it looks like: the oppressed. Unlike the spectres in Breeze’s article however, he is not a pimple faced kid hiding at an internet cafe or in the back room of the Women’s Studies class he hopes will get him dates all the while resenting nothing else was open in this time slot. He is a tenured department chair. A real live, living breathing man, with the power to shape minds and marginalize and oppress those he does not see as fit to complain.

This is why I started with the image above. You see, it was not too long ago that schools were segregated and people had to fight to get access to good educations. It was not too long ago that students had to walk out to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. And in fact, despite these huge gains often met with unspeakable emotional and physical violence from the “good people” brigade, the reality is that very little has changed. Key historical figures in the history of social justice in this country are slowly being removed from history books. Important people of color, queer people, and women are being slowly erased and their contributions being usurped by the assumption that the men in the books did it first. Differently-abled and trans folks have very seldom if ever seen themselves in the textbooks and when they do, it is often with their identities completely washed away. The demographics of schools are also showing a rise in re-segregation and the middle and high school level which leads to even more “Real World encounters” at the university level. Just last year I had a student tell me that she had never had to be in a class with a black person before meeting me and another tell me that she lived in a neighborhood where the police would escort me out if I ever visited. But the Chair swears this is a safe place for students of color to learn and faculty of color to teach, all though there are no faculty of color to speak of in his department if you do not count us fellow cross-listing faculty, none.

So, what does it all mean? Ultimately, while Breeze’s piece resonated with me on so many levels from shared experience in and outside of the blogosphere to the myths I internalized about education and meritocracy without even realizing it, I have to disagree with the premise. I do not believe that trolls are the stuff of the internet. I work with trolls every day and in this climate they are empowered to troll me with the goal of making me break without any consequences. Like the girl pictured above, I sit in classrooms with students who literally point and say snide things about the way I smell, how I do my hair, the things I find important and meaningful, etc. and when I discuss it with other faculty, I often see folks who are lead by the likes of Dr. Crackhead or worse Mr. Buddhist-light, whose capacity for emotional sadism rivals any white supremacist in the history books or outside of it. (Material added 4/27/13) To be clear, the N word, “black bitch”, and the like have all been said to my face or the face of my colleagues at one time or another in our careers; one can only wonder what these “colleagues” and instructors call us behind closed doors or with the not-so-invisible veil of the internet. (End of added material)

Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a nation when we have already fought the battle of equal education and seen its toll, only to let it slip through our fingers. Something has gone horribly wrong with us as a people when we have looked on lynching images and read about how group think works, and we let our classrooms slip back into seethingly invalidating environments egged on by the person in the front of the room or their boss. I write this, with no answers, as one person trying to change it, speaking to all of you readers who I hope are doing the same. Let’s join our thoughts and our voices and our strength because otherwise it will be too late.

Return to Kyrgyzstan


AFP/Unattributed

In June, I wrote a post about violence erupting in Kyrgyztan and its impact on women. For those who do not know, an unidentified number of Kyrgyz systematically targeted Uzbek neighbors for several days, including nearly burning down one of largest cities in the state and moving slowly out to the rural areas. Homes and shops were burned and women and children fled through the streets, being trampled, caught in the crossfire, and potentially targeted for sexual and emotional abuse. They were herded toward the border even though the Kyrgyz had intentionally blocked the ditch they would have to cross to flee to safety; in other words, the women and children were intentionally forced together in a holding area while Kyrgyz killed off the men. The first female acting-President, Roza Otunbayeva, begged for direct military action from international governments that came too late. Her ascendancy to power and proposed reforms, including the use of Kyrgyzstan by U.S. troops stationed there, is said to have sparked the ethnic cleansing attempt targeting her fellow Uzbekis and potentially fueling the inaction of the U.S. Base. Like the current scapegoating of Latin@ and Muslim immigrants in the U.S., the Uzbekis were targeted because of Political turmoil, unemployment, growing migration, criminal activity, and growing religious intolerance and at the center was the belief that an ethnic minority female president was not only unqualified to lead but also playing favorites by nature of shared identity.

A month later, women were at the center of rebuilding both the burned out communities and the sense of trust across ethno-religious lines. The city itself maintained a curfew and tensions continued in general, flaring up in small acts of violence on both sides. Like so many communities who experienced unchecked ethnic cleansing then end of major violence has left the population weary, scarred, and angry. Women in particular are surviving the scars of being raped, beaten, disappeared, taken hostage, forced to flee their homes, wounded, and killed. Many are trying to rebuild families that were separated only to find that most of their missing relatives are dead. And yet, according to Dr. Nurgul Djanaeva, the founder and president of the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, no one had created bureaus specifically for dealing with women’s trauma, the potential for ongoing targeting of women in the aftermath, or the documenting of gender based violence against women during the conflict. One other major hindrance has been the stigma of rape and sexual assault that is making women wary of being counted or exposed while seeking treatment.

uzbek women voting amidst the ruble of their burned out home/unattributed

Women’s NGOs are at the forefront of bringing women together to heal. They are taking a lesson from other ethnic cleansing incidents in Europe, Africa, and Latin America to address specific gender based violence and support the centrality of women’s voices and experiences in rebuilding the nation. The hope is that rather than sparking ethno-religious misogyny in the future, women’s leadership will become a regularized part of Kyrgyzstan life.

While the conflict has led to opportunities for women, the trajectory of that conflict and its specific use of gender based violence largely unchecked by international peace keeping forces is becoming all too familiar. The strategic location of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan and the ties to Russia were leveraged against the proposed autonomy of the people and the safety and security of women, children, and ethnic minorities. The rhetoric turning neighbor against neighbor is no longer the stuff of “never again” (WWII) but instead the common day occurrences that allow “good Americans” to burn other people’s holy books regardless of its impact on them or the U.S. troops they claim to support and have radio broadcasts using racial “puns” about rape and sexual assault of Latinas while others form vigilante groups and beat immigrants, often to death. What is the dividing line between those whose fears and misplaced envy is harnessed by radio stations and politicians into a lethal genocidal force and those who claim their references to “re-loading” are metaphorical? And why is it that despite what we know about how women are targeted both during these conflicts and in the makeshift camps built to keep them safe in the aftermath, why do we still fail to take this knowledge into account to ensure women’s bodily integrity? And why, after all the genocide we have seen in this world, are the military and economic interests of major Super Powers more important than safety and security of women’s lives? Haven’t we learned that societies where women have access to education, family planning, and representation and poor people have access to jobs, food, and shelter free of discrimination, are more stable than places where both populations, and their intersections, are exploitable? But then asking these questions might make us have to look at foreign policy through the lens of humanity rather than profit and ask when and where we are culpable and how these “exceptions” are in fact just more extreme versions of behaviors that permeate our own society.

On Feminism, Liberals, Black Folks and Antione Dodson

For those who do not know, Antione Dodson is the brother of a potential rape victim. He, his sister [whose name I will not use in this post], her daughter, and his mother lived in low income housing, Lincoln Park,  in Huntsville Alabama until recently. According to Dodson a rapist was targeting Lincoln Park because no one was doing anything about it. He said several young women and girls had been raped, and had either received no assistance or not asked for help because they knew the police were not going to do anything. Dodson also says the same thing happened to his family.

In late July, a rapist broke into their small home through a window and attempted to rape his sister. Dodson managed to scare the assailant and force him out of the apartment. He then called several of his friends in the area to look for the person because, like everyone else, he did not believe the police were going to do anything about an assault in low income housing. Later Dodson called both the Housing Authority Office that runs Lincoln Park and the Police. Hours went by before the police arrived and according to Dodson and others no major search was mounted by them. Also according to Dodson and others, the Housing Authority issued a statement but has made no improvements to security or safety in Lincoln Park to help protect them from being targeted. In fact, an attempted rape following a similar m.o. (rapist came through bedroom window, advanced on girl inside) occurred the following evening.

This story of systematic rape of young black women and girls left to fend for themselves because they are poor and the failure of the police or tax-payed for housing programs to protect them has been totally eclipsed by the spectacle made of Dodson. Dodson’s interview outlining the attempted rape of his sister and the sexual violence and rape other women and girls endured was put on youtube, not to highlight the problem but rather to highlight how “ghetto” and “effiminate” Dodson was. While youtubers across the racial spectrum showed up to laugh, police failed to capture a serial rapist. A white hipster-nerd comedy troupe known as the Gregory Brothers, made up of 3 white men and 1 white woman, recut Dodson’s interview to make “the Bed Intruder Song” which was played on black and alternative radio stations and sold on itunes. The song appeared on Billboard’s hot 100 list and made a considerable amount of money for the Gregory Brothers. As far as I know, none of their proceeds were used to help track down the Lincoln Park rapist. None of the attention the song garnered sparked national outcry about rape, the unchecked rape of low income women, or national feminist rallying around changes in policing and housing options for poor women of color. Nor did many make connections between these erasures and the latent homophobia and gender policing embedded in many of the comments.

In fact, many people have counted the Dodsons as lucky. The attention allowed Dodson to become an internet star and make enough money on interviews and fought for profits from the autotune song to get his family out of low income housing. His sister will not be targeted by the Lincoln Park rapist again. But what about everybody else’s sister? And does moving out of low income housing on an unstable economic source negate the fear and trauma related to the attempted rape of Dodson’s sister that both she and her mother, who witnessed the attack, are now experiencing? To me it seems kind of like the politicians who say “in a way Katrina was a good thing” because of all the services and new construction people received. The idea is predicated on the assumption that black people’s, especially poor black people’s, lives are so worthless that if several of them are tortured, murdered, sexually assaulted, or traumatized, so that 1 or 2 of them can live better lives that is acceptable because those 1 or 2 were never meant to live better lives anyway. Only people who imagine they will never be abandoned by their government to die in a un/natural disaster or be raped or have their children raped in a government funded housing project would imagine that these things are trumped by a few months-1 year of free housing (much of which was contaminated) or a few short months of internet fame.

In the midst of this institutional racism are the actions of three groups that cannot be ignored:

  1. the viewers and listeners who openly mocked Dodson, completely ignoring the rape survivor narrative embedded in his story
  2. the white middle class hipster-nerd comedy troupe that made money off of the rape and attempted rape of poor black women and girls and the one man willing to stand up for them
  3. the mainstream feminist blogs and feminist communities who have remained largely silent on Dodson’s sister despite the core issue of rape

The multi-racial viewers and listeners spent their time laughing at Dodson and mocking him and his sister in print in the youtube comments for days. The video received some of the largest hits of the week when it first went up. The auto-tune version played black radio stations and a black marching band even did their own rendition, laughing at the “ghetto” in ways that I personally cannot excuse as “black humor as survival”. Instead, I would argue for many it represented black humor as classism, homophobia, and internalized hate though some of it was certainly mixed with the understanding of our “throwaway lives” in the United States. Amongst the 100,000s of people commenting on Dodson or the autotune song, very few talked about the heinous act of rape, the existence of a serial rapist in the area that had gone unchecked for an unspecified amount of time, or the engineered tragedy of the state’s willingness to abandon poor women and girls to predators. In other words, the chance to mock an uneducated black man was more enticing than the fact of violence against women and girls. The very thing that allowed systemic racism, classism, and sexism to do nothing about a serial rapist in state owned low income housing was manifesting in individual viewers of Dodson’s story.

Once again, liberal, middle class, white hipster-nerds also failed to act on the tenets they claim to be central to their very beings, ie social justice, in the face of the opportunity to be “clever.” Thus three white men, and one white woman, cut and remixed Dodson’s interview in order to point and laugh at the uneducated black man in crisis. His crisis at not being able to get help for his sister, his sister’s attempted rape, and the targeting of poor black women and girls were either edited out or remixed in order to highlight the “hilarity” of blackness and poverty and for some, gender transgression. Dodson and his sister’s story were pimped out by white liberals for a few bucks a pop on itunes precisely because they fit all of the stereotypes of blackness that liberals are quick to criticize in the mouths of conservatives but embrace as “clever” in their own. (It should be noted that Dodson did eventually receive 50% of the profit after advocating for himself and saying in a radio interview that his words and experience were being used to profit everyone else and it was “time he got paid”. Without this advocacy Dodson, like the Katrina victims whose words were taken without permission to by poet/adjunct Professor Raymond McDaniels for his book Saltwater Empire, would have simply been a cash cow for white male “poets” and “artists”.) Once again, like the systemic racism, classism, and sexism allowing the state to do nothing about a serial rapist, these white liberal hipster-nerds, who no doubt think racism and sexism are wrong and probably volunteer in low income neighborhoods or women’s crisis lines, let the reinforcing image of poor blakness whip them up into such a frenzy of hilarity that it never occurred to them that rape is not funny, that serial rapists targeting black women and girls because the police are doing nothing should not be the subject of comedy but rather social action, and that the real clever thing to do would have been to cut a song that actually highlighted oppression and gave the proceeds back to the impacted community.

Finally, the mainstream feminist blogosphere and national level activists also remained largely silent on the plight of women and girls in Lincoln Park. A quick search of the top feminist blogs and magazines, with blogs, showed that at most, they linked to black women bloggers talking about the situation. At the least, they said nothing or openly laughed at the Dodson video themselves, commenting solely on his patriarchal attempt to recenter himself and his boys protecting his sister rather than her story of rape. And while this critique is important, ie that male rage about rape taking center stage to women’s attacks is a function of patriarchy, I do not think that was the point of Dodson’s larger story. Nor does that critique have the same meaning in the face of complete and total lack of action on the part of the people charged with preventing rape and tracking down/stopping rapists. They did however, contribute some of the most salient critique about gender policing and homophobia when they weighed in. When the critique of masculinity and patriarchy supersede any discussion of state inaction to catch a serial rapist then it seems all the more suspect. Once again, the failure to recognize the humanity of black women and poor women, and especially poor black women, allowed mainstream feminists to miss another opportunity to call attention to violence against women and demand action to make women’s lives safe(r) in this nation by rejecting a culture of violence, oppression, and inequality based on gender. That failure not only colludes with the white male establishment that runs and fails to address rape in low income housing but also looks the other way when middle and upper class white women are beaten, raped, or otherwise abused or treated unfairly or unequally in their workplace, home, or lives.

So what is the lesson of Antione Dodson and his sister. For many people, it will always be that poor “black people are funny”, “white people are clever”, ” ‘girlie men’ are funny”, and the spectacle of blackness is really a benefit in disguise because after all the Dodsons are out of the projects.  Some will even use Antione’s comment that he was happy with the song because the proceeds he received actually helped move his family out of the projects to justify not discussing the intersecting oppressions that puts women and girls in Lincoln Park in danger. Not only does this stance ignore rape and the realities still enduring it but it shows little regard for how earlier interviews underscore Dodson’s hurt and anger about people not taking the situation seriously and making money off of him or the reaction the song itself elicited outlined in this post. (ie people laughing at a story of attempted rape, and a serial rapist that the police and housing authority have made seemingly little effort to track down and stop, is ok because Antione ultimately decided he liked the song for getting him out of low income housing). This narrative will always mask how sexism, racism, and classism allows women, especially poor women of color, to be targets of unchecked violence by both individuals and the state. It will always excuse away liberals who not only do nothing but laugh along with everyone else because “its funny” or “clever” but also helps perpetuate the myth that liberals can’t be racist or sexists or classist. Except, these moments prove that they can be and often are as racist and classist as neo-conservatives. And it will stand as a shining example about how intersecting oppressions and the ongoing failure of the feminist movement(s) to fully and radically address them makes all women’s lives less safe.

And yes, for each of the groups I have singled out here, from black radio to white mainstream feminists, there are people who did stand up against rape, did talk about the intersections of poverty, gender, and state level or state sanctioned violence. My point is not that everyone is evil but that collectively, these particular groups failed to discuss violence against women in favor of laughing at the spectacle of poor blackness that reinforces existing stereotypes and allows state level, systemic, inaction and violence. Nor does the existence of black people behaving in sexist and classist ways negate the existence of white people behaving in racist, sexist, and classist ways.

Here are some links to people discussing what we should all have been discussing these past few months, ie violence against women and the intersections that mask it:

If You Win at this Bingo, You Get a Cookie

Because I am sick and tired of Scott Pilgrim fans coming on the blog to literally call me a “hater” for pointing out that all of the API people in the film are stereotypes and the jokes related to them are almost all based on racial stereotypes or ethnic puns and justify or excuse away racism with such classics as “racism is everywhere so what” and “you’re the real racist”, I thought we could all play a game today instead of the usual post. Pick any post on this blog about racism in the media, especially the Scott Pilgrim post, and look for all the comments that reflect basic racist tropes used by racism apologists to get out of addressing racism. The first person to fill their score card gets a cookie.

amptoons.com

I particularly like the Bingo card above because it is derived from comments justifying racism in science fiction and fantasy and I would describe most of the films I review on this blog as fitting into one of those categories. However, you may be more familiar with the version below:

Now seriously, I asked a series of questions after deleting comments that violated the comment policy in that thread that I think everyone who has to deal with anyone who has ever felt the urge to justify racism in the media could modify to fit their particular issues. The questions have to do with the motivations and benefits of supporting or excusing away racism in fandom. I’ve posted them below as well.

  1. what is so disturbing about a 2 page movie review that mentions racism in 1-2 paragraphs that you feel the need to reduce it to a post about racism?
  2. What do you gain by calling a person of color angry, bitter, or a hater when she brings up racism?
  3. What system of beliefs do you hold that makes you think that as white people you are better qualified to determine what is and what is not racist than the people of color who experience it?
  4. What investment have you made in Scott Pilgrim (the book or the film) and/or your view of yourself related to this narrative that it is so important to shut down any discussion of race or racism related to it? 5. Finally, why is it so important for Scott Pilgrim to be absolved of racism and for anyone who says otherwise to be vilified

Obviously, this post is a sign that I am sick and tired of reading the same comment written a new way by a new person as if this time they will convince me that smug comments about interracial dating broken up by a villain breaking into a Bollywood dance are not racist because the white person writing the comment says so.  One reader even tried to help by posting a link to a film review that talks about the depiction of APIs in the film in far more depth than my paragraph and a half, but no one bothered to address that either. So yeah, I am taking off my professor hat and being childish as a result; and I don’t doubt someone will use this as proof all those racism deniers were right all along. “Why are you so angry?”

Nevertheless, if you want your cookie, you just let me know.


Super Quickie

britanica.com

You may have noticed that there was no wordpress wednesday post this week. Last Thursday, the day after the regular breakdown of race, gender, and sexuality issues with wordpress’ highlight page, wordpress staff chose to highlight a post about “not seeing race”. The post, written by a white male heterosexual middle class author about his white male middle class son’s trip to the library blended his son’s questions about race with the historical experience of a black child who had been denied entrance/use of the public library for years. One child, experienced state sanctioned discrimination exacerbated by individual actions, the other was reading a book about him in which he took away one question “dad, am I black?” Which led the father to ask him why he would ask such a question and then praise the “race blindness” of his son who just assumed people were “different shades of the same color”. Neither his father nor the post questioned the underlining issues here:

  1. there is no comparison between a black child actually being discriminated against and a white child who fears he would be (& let’s be clear, that is what the child was asking)
  2. race blindness in children is possible minus the issues we normally attributed to such a stance, but this child was not “race blind” he just did not know that “shades” had names
  3. more significantly, while he was clearly unaware/uninvested in white supremacy (the idea that white is best),he had already internalized the idea of white normativity because his shade theory depended on a norm – white; white normativity is necessary for white supremacy
  4. race blind liberalism is not only a form of erasure, in which we are once again all consumed by an unmarked normative (ie white) but also has been a key tool of conservatives to deny people of color financial aid, equity in education and employment, etc.

The father’s response was to praise his child’s “shade theory” rather than to give his child the tools he needs to understand AND embrace cultural differences and histories of discrimination (which I assumed was part of the reason he checked out the book about the black child and the library in the first place). In other words, he took a teachable moment and used it to reinforce misconceptions and misinformation about race that will continue the patterns of racial conflict that exist on the left, ie between people who “don’t mean it” but do it all the time and their targets, and upholds those conflicts on the right, ie the people who do mean it and don’t care. (Of course these left-right categories are arbitrary here since the operational aspects of racism on either side of the political divide can be unintentional or intentional depending on the person.)

In conclusion, the post asked us all to emulate this child, because there is too much emphasis on race in our world and just not seeing it or understanding it would solve everything …

After such a post, how could I possibly continue to mark out how wordpress’ “race blind” policies on their highlight page translate to elevating posts written almost exclusively by white heterosexual middle class parenting white cis people for the same and at least bi-weekly praising a post that insults at least one group of people of color, was … RACIST. Clearly if I just stopped seeing color and thought in terms of shades, I would not possibly notice that there is only 1 shade represented most days and very rarily 2 but seldom 3 and then the people who were that shade could continue to think of themselves as “good people”.

Next Wednesday, the wordpress fail posts will be back.

“From Text to Film”

blogging librarian flickr/ http://libraryofdigress.files.wordpress.com

One of the great perks about blogging is that you get to have conversations with a wide range of people about things you may not have thought about or about which you had not thought of in the ways you do as a result of those conversations. I’ve been joking around for a while now that I wanted to teach a class on novels adapted to film. While many people have done this before, and I get a lot of leeway in my department(s) with my cinema courses, novels to film is fairly clearly in the realm of the English Department, the one place at this uni I don’t teach. The other issue has always been that since my courses tend to meet both the gen ed and the specialization cores in several fields, there are certain expectations about the material my courses contain. In thinking about the novel to film genre, it means that I would likely have to expand to Made for Television movies to incorporate enough diversity into the curriculum and then the discussion becomes not only about shifts from one medium to the other but also the freedoms or lack there of granted television vs film. I did not want to get bogged down in discussions solely about the latter to the detriment of the overarching questions about identity. While I knew I could probably pull this course off if I modified the time-frame, ie set it in the historical period I teach, that would mean having to read novels that would ultimately get us bogged down in discussions about period and expectation around identity vs the movement from one form to the other. Ugh, does your head hurt yet? Mine certainly did. So I let it go.

Enter Scott Pilgrim and his bevy of fans + the book meme, in which I mocked the film “Bram Stroker’s Dracula” for not actually following the story and rewriting some key characters. Like an aha moment, I found these two blogging conversations combining to make me question the age old encoding/decoding debate in new ways. In other words, there is a metaconversation taking place about the meaning of movies that is radically changing the discourse of how see and understand film. This post is about those changes; if you want my movie review of Scott Pilgrim look here.

In talking about my experience of the film/reviewing it and  its racial and gender content, I have received multiple comments here and elsewhere that reference the graphic novels as counterpoint. In looking at commentary on the internet, I found the same thing. In other words, people reviewing the movie have largely talked about the movie itself: its content, the acting and directing, and the overall plot, and occasionally, its niche appeal. The people responding to their reviews have pretty much all gone back to the source material to contradict what people say is in the movie. Yet, what most have reacted to in the film: (1) the absence of female perspective, (2) the focus on a largely unlikeable character or characters, and (3) confusing or choppy plot, have all been fairly consistent. Are we to believe that because the original graphic novels make clear that Scott Pilgrim is meant to be unlikeable that the film does a good job of telling its uninformed audience this information when so many did not get it? Or are we meant to excuse the absence of female subjecthood in the film because the graphic novels apparently center them and their thoughts?

brian o’malley/oni press

As I said in my review, should Scott’s supposed growth, reduced to a few minutes in the film that I argue are undermined by the way he once again treats Knives at the end, negate racialized and/or racist depictions of API Americans in the movie? This is an issue that most reviewers and comment makers have yet to address precisely because one of the film’s more stereotypical scenes is taken directly from the pages of the graphic novel without any editing or changes; sadly, the reviewer from the Harold seems to explain it best when he says that as a white surbuban gaming male who fits the intended demographic he was easily able to overlook the bollywood scene until a comment on twitter about race in the film made him think through the movie with race in mind. Like it did for me, the meta-conversation surrounding this movie, ie between novel, film, and multiple internet and social network sites, is creating a radical rethink of meaning on all sides. And for everyone who has gone off the deep end over Dr. Laura’s comments, tell me, what is the difference between Dr. Laura  calling a black woman “oversensitive” because she does not like the racist jokes made by her white husband’s friends in her home and white fans of Scott Pilgrim saying “hater” to anyone who mentions the racial depictions of API Americans in this film?

Race issues aside, there seems to be a struggle going on between those who saw the film on its own and fans who saw the film and read the graphic novels or simply read the graphic novels but have not gone to the film. The latter have been quite vocal about the fact that people criticizing the film “don’t get it” despite the consistency of the reviews. This reaction varies considerably from earlier fans who willingly critiqued films for failing to represent the text upon which they were based. Films with huge fan bases in fact, have almost always had to address fan expectations in order to be successful at the box office. When fans say the film is not accurate enough, movies generally tank at the box office.

(note the Asian mom’s broken English)

Brian O’Malley/Oni Press

Scott Pilgrim is tanking at the box office. Yet fans are defending it and the studio is blaming it on Michael Cera. Apparently, several of Cera’s last few films did not do well, so he is an easy whipping boy. Yet I can think of no one better to play a 20 something year old slacker who quips about life, resents having to defend himself, and looks like the kind of guy you expect to see in the arcade and root for when attacked. I think he was a perfect choice and his comedic timing are spot on as always. Even if we factor in the people who have just had enough of his t-shirted, saggy chords, skinny boy schtick, there is still something more interesting going on here.

The cry from fans of “you don’t get it”, seems like a generational issue to me. In this context, the film becomes irrelevant. What is at stake is youth who identified with Scott Pilgrim as a graphic novel and see it as a depiction of their generational angst in the same way people thought of American Graffitti, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, or even The Big Chill or Diner.  Their embrace of the graphic novels at a gut level combines with the total rejection of the movie by accredited film reviews who are all over the age of 30 (to riff on that old adage “don’t trust anyone over 30”). These “older” reviewers have combined their general dislike of the movie with comments about largely negative comments about the slacker generation and in some cases outright ageism. This stance makes them easy pickings for youth who already feel screwed over, ignored, or condescended to by the generations before them. The more these youth respond with “you don’t get it”, the more older people bristle. Yet the mode of this conflict is not one in which either side is openly talking about age and stage but rather cinema vs text, with one group pointing emphatically at the failings of the movie and the other willingly filling in the blanks or omitting those failings with the original text in order to maintain their stance.

I find this fascinating.

First, I do think there is a generational issue in the reception of the film. I walked out of the moving clear that there were at least two cultural reasons why this film did not appeal to me and that they overlapped. I also know there were other people in my theater who felt the same way, because they kept looking over at me in confusion. And when I frowned at the racist parts, they were so attuned to my presence that they reacted as well. Nothing like being a zoo exhibit or a fossil at a movie screening …

Second, I’m wondering what it says about the nuances of marketing that they can graft a film so carefully onto an identity as to make those who identify with it ignore the disconnects present. In other words, when other movies have differed from the text people have complained. These films were marketed as stories or true adaptations not as cultural artifacts. This movie seems to be encoded and decoded by its core audience as the latter and therefore omissions and lapses are forgiven or ignored. Even the feminist viewers in this group have been largely silent about the absence of well-rounded female characters in the movie. Those fans who acknowledge it, only bring it up to once again point to the source material as a way of avoiding the critique of the film.

In some ways, it reminds me of the limited critique of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Despite including episodes in which Native Americans were evil genocidal ghosts on Thanksgiving, spreading syphilis and needing to be killed because “they were engaging in genocidal revenge”,  resurrecting “the primitive” in discussing Buffy’s origins, or including rape of beloved characters by other beloved characters, fans of Buffy refuse to address race and gender issues embedded in the show. Those who breach them are summarily dismissed as “not getting it”. And like Scott Pilgrim fans, when footage of these events or director’s script notes are actually shown to an audience as proof, as happened at two conferences I went to in the late 90s, fans simply make up elaborate excuses based on the overall storyline of the show. And of course there is always the a line or two that are included in these scenes to mask the overarching racism that they can glom onto.

So what is that spark needed to so thoroughly fuse audience with product? And why does it work so well at erasing or allowing for the justification of marginalization even for audiences who are quite savvy about how marginalization works? What makes something off limits? And why do these conflicts seem to take on generational significance whether it is between reviewers and fans or fans and older non-fan directors?

I’m going to be mulling this over for the rest of the term because, as I said, I find it fascinating but also because now I really am going to teach that course in a way that places it firmly in my disciplines and gets at some difficult questions about race, gender, sexuality, class and fandom. In Spring, the campus bookstore is going to be full up on graphic novels, required itunes passes for videos of tv shows, and classics on Race, Class, Gender and the Media. I can’t wait!

Dr. Laura: Free Speech Hero

Wait what?!?

(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

I’ve been watching the Dr. Laura drama unfold with the same disdain I hold for most celebrity racists. Perhaps, I’ve even had a little more cynicism when it came to Dr. Laura precisely because she is a conservative radio host in an era in which they can say pretty much any racist, sexist, homophobic thing they want and continue to make a career out of it. Even when they get fired, public discourse continues to support them and sooner or later they end up back at work, spreading their special brand of hate-entertainment, on a different station. The mid-80s take over of radio by hosts who did nothing but fan fear and division while they belittled and berated their callers proved that hatred sells. Conservative talk radio is better at encouraging and providing open forums for fear, hatred, and violence than the famous Orson Wells broadcast that made people arm themselves against aliens. (No not immigrants, actually little green men.) The difference of course being that Wells was joking and sincere when he apologized later.

Under these circumstances Dr. Laura saying the n-word more than 10 times on her radio show made me shrug and think “another day in post-Bush N. America” I didn’t even care enough to compare her to John Mayer or diagnose her with Mel Gibson Spectrum disorder, which you know is my favorite thing to do these days. Ultimately, I knew she’d issue a meaningless apology and turn the incident into bank.

What concerns me more is all of the racism on that particular show that is going unreported so we can focus on the use of the n-word. Like John Mayer (told you), Dr. Laura said an endless array of racist-sexist things to her African American caller that have been swept away so that everyone can express their deep disgust at the use of the n-word. I don’t use that word. I don’t like that word. I know the history of that word and do not believe it can be reclaimed. That said, if that word had been omitted from her radio show or John Mayer’s interview, they still would have been racist and they still would have mixed that racism with particular fear of interracial relationships and sexism that no one is talking about.

Dr. Laura’s tirade was prompted by her stated belief that

  1. a black female caller was not only “over-sensitive to race” because she did not want racist jokes told in her home
  2. black women should not be in relationships with white men unless they are willing to “be flexible” about racism

In Dr. Laura’s world, it is the victims or targets of oppression who are responsible for the violence they endure. More than that, they ask for it by crossing racial boundaries that legally have not been in existence since Jim Crow and Loving vs the State of Virginia. In other words, her tirade was predicated on the idea that black people and white people should not interact socially nor NEVER EVER EVER date or marry. She simply softened this statement by adding the caveat: unless you are willing to laugh at being the target of racism.

See no one wants to talk about that part of it, just like they did not want to talk about John Mayer’s racialized sexism at a national level. If the message boards during the John Mayer incident are any indication, the sad fact is Loving be damned, people in N. America still hold eugenicist believes about race and interracial relationships. And in a post-Bush N. America, they feel incredibly safe and confident expressing those beliefs in public. In that way, Dr. Laura is no different than the grocery store clerk who refuses to hand you your change or goes on a break if you are with someone outside your race.

Until we have this conversation, we will have racism in N. America that travels along gender lines. Both women of color and white women suffer when a nation invests in the concept of “miscegenation” (the eugenicist term for interracial relationships that implied degeneration and predicted children’s civility or lack thereof). Women of color are demonized and pathologized which spills into economic, housing, and job policies as well as responses to domestic and sexual violence against them. People who desire them then fetishize them, work out colonial fantasies on their bodies, abuse and rape them in the name of white supremacy (and yes there is a whole genre of porn for those folks, thank you overzealous RCG student & Jerry Springer), or simply trot them out like prized possessions to prove they are not racist. White women in interracial relationships are seen as race traders or that they are slumming, their relationships are never real in this context. Men of color who date them or refuse to date them also run the risk of being called rapists or simply being beaten for crossing that color line Dr. Laura was policing on her show that day. And all of this works together to enforce the idea of racial and sexual difference that allows segregated neighborhoods and lives to exist and for real people to be disregarded or erased in favor of their symbolic meaning as objects of forbidden desire, proof of enlightenment when called out on one’s oppressive behavior, or a place to count coup. And those of us who are actual products of interracial relationships or members of multi-racial families can just fade away in the great miscegenation debate ever to be vilified for our proof that love matters even in a racist, racist, country or world.

Dr. Laura’s n-word tirade takes on whole new meaning in this context. It seems that the excessive use of the n-word was Dr. Laura’s subconscious attempt to exercise the fear of blackness, blackness in her midst, blackness mixing with her pristine whiteness, blackness that not only dares to cross into her gated community but then demand to be treated equally, and yes, because of the way miscegenation works, blackness that made her feel less sexually desirable in its wake. That is what we are not talking about and that is why she implied the caller was an n- and that all white people think so.

Wait? All white people?

Remember, Dr. Laura told her caller that she”should have known” that if she was going to date a white man that she was going to hear racist jokes and racial comments. In other words, white people are racist. White people make racist jokes. White people speculate about black people’s sexuality based on their racism. Dr. Laura’s comment implies all of these things are a given and that no person of color is safe from them unless they stay in their own segregated communities. That’s the other part we are not talking about.

Now Dr. Laura wants to play victim of “special interest groups” trying to “silence her”. Is that like when John Mayer burst into tears on stage and said he “just wanted to play music” and was sorry he was “just trying to be clever”? First of all, besides all the other conversations we are not having about race and gender, we need to have one about how white, middle class, cis people’s values are no more “family values” than everyone else’s are “special interests”. More than that, marginalized people do not have the power to silence people in the center. We can demand that you follow basic hate crimes rules. We can circulate petitions asking that you educate yourself and live up to the standards that should define N. America, ie inclusion and equality for everyone. We can even rant on a blog post that some bigwig might read. But celebrities from Lady Gaga to Mel Gibson to Don Imus to Dr. Laura will still have a public venue from which to spew their special brand of hate, ignorance, or simple erasure of people who they don’t care about. Remember, hatred and fear sell and this is a capitalist country.

To quote someone on my twitter stream: “The First Amendment does not guarantee you the right not to be ridiculed [when you are being ridiculous].” It also does not guarantee you a job. It guarantees you the right to speak your mind with few exceptions. Dr. Laura did that. According to her own version of the story, she decided to quit as a result of other people speaking their minds about her racism that she thinks need to leave her alone and be quiet. See insults only flow in one direction for people who hide behind free speech when caught being oppressive.

Nor will Dr. Laura be meeting the same fate as people of color who dare to speak their minds about racism in their workplaces. We all know what happens to the majority of them, hello some on please trot out the disparities in unemployment again because I have done it enough. Raise your hand if you or someone you know was fired, ostracized, passed-ove for a promotion, etc because they pointed out racism in the work place. Unlike all of these unfairly unemployed people, Dr. Laura’s parlaying what she calls her discussion about race in N. America into a lucrative book deal or two and some more high paid speaking engagements. And like poor, poor, Don Imus, she can go back to radio whenever she wants once the majority of N. America moves on. She’s been spewing hate against the queer community, domestic violence survivors, and others for years, why would this year be any different?

Finally, we can’t forget what happened after her tirade. After steam rolling over her caller, justifying racism, and using the n-word with abandon Dr. Laura said that electing a black president should have been enough to make black people stop “blaming white people” for racism. The implication: racism is over and black people who say otherwise are “over-sensitive” and “reverse-discriminators”. After going off in an n-word laden rant Dr.Laura was already claiming she was the victim; like so many others in the nation, she’s just so tired of having to school black folks on how not racist the people using racist language and espousing segregation really are. Remember all those “I’m not racist but” or “I don’t think it’s racist to” comments from white people during the John Mayer incident?

The failure to address the substance of Dr. Laura’s, or any other bigot’s, comments has left us in a world where bigotry is subjective and the oppressive get to define oppression. Worse liberals feel just as at ease weighing in on the truth value oppressions that do not target them as conservatives because they preface it by claiming how horrible the n-word is first. As I said on Twitter, “Sometimes I think these people use the n-word on purpose so they can get away with everything else. You say sorry for the n-word & the rest of your bigotry stands.”

So yeah, I don’t care about how many times she used the n-word enough to lose sleep over it. Like I said, it is just another day in N. America. But if you want to talk about the racism that surrounded and/or prompted that word to come out of her mouth so many times and how it is related to the actions and beliefs of so many others in this nation, and you want to deal with what that means and how to have a socially just nation, then let’s talk.

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images

  1. Mayer & Knowles/ Sony-BMG Grammy After Party/ unattributed – I keep picking photos with him standing with black women b/c the look on his face is always the same & incredibly telling in the context of his comments
  2. Birth of a Nation/Griffith/1915