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.

Black Lesbian Excitement in Tejas

So … it seems two of my favorite people and/or their work will be featured in co-sponsored events by Allgo this week. For those who don’t know, Allgo is the place for queer people of color in Austin TX, a place I do not reside but Allgo often makes me wish I did. They sponsor artists in residence, film and discussion series, performances and activism, and just generally conscious-righteous stuff for the qoc.

This week they are featuring a poetic play by one of my favorite black lesbian authors, Sharon Bridgforth on Friday March 4 (TODAY PEOPLE):

8pm, The University of Texas at Austin, Winship Drama Building 2.180, 300 E. 23rd Street, Austin, TX

AND

Tomorrow after the amazing conference Performing Lesbian Archives, Allgo will be hosting an intimate dinner and discussion with  fellow blogger and newly minted PhD Alexis Pauline Gumbs (who I love and you should love too) and colleague in revolutionary black lesbian praxis Julia Wallace.

Bring a dish to share and get a chance to see footage from their amazing intergenerational project on black lesbian lives @ Out Youth 7:30pm 909 1/2 E. 49th Street, Austin TX 78751

And hey, if you can’t be in TX for these events, then consider getting your local college, women’s center, queer center, or feminist bookstore to invite these people out to your town.

Telling to Live: Natascha Kampusch New Book

missing poster for Kampusch age 10/AP/unattributed

In 1998, 10 year old Natascha Kampusch was kidnapped by Wolfgang Priklopil on her way to school in Austria. She was kept locked in his home, often in a small cellar in the basement, and emotionally and sexually abused for the next eight years. During that time she was often frequently denied food and suffered from malnutrition resulting in her being almost the same weight when she was found as she was when she was taken at age 10. The malnutrition impacted her physical and brain development as much as the sexual and emotional abuse impacted her emotional one. According to Kampusch, Priklopil referred to her as his “sex slave” and himself as “the master”. He made her clean his house half-naked when he was not humiliating or violating her in other ways. In 2006, she finally escaped when Priklopil took a phone call while she was outside in the garden cleaning his car. Despite her repeated calls for help as she ran through the neighborhood where she had been held, no one actually called the police, until Kampusch stopped at a 71 year old woman’s house and asked her to use the phone to call the police. The case sent shockwaves of  horror throughout the world and an SVU episode was loosely based on her story. Wolfgang Priklopil committed suicide shortly after her escape to avoid prosecution. When he died, so did the information about why he did what he did and how he had gotten away with it for so long.

Kampusch revisited her story recently when another girl, Elisabeth Fritzl, was discovered being held captive in a similar hidden cellar, by her own father for 24 years, also in Austria. Josef Fritzl did not commit suicide and continues to harass his daughter from behind bars. According to his friends and neighbors there had been some suspicions about his behavior and renters had also noticed things, but no one looked into it further. His wife, Elizabeth’s mother, continues to deny any knowledge of it though she helped raise several of Elizabeth’s children by Josef Fritzl.

Josef Fritzl, last known image of Elizabeth & the cellar apartment were he kept her for 24 years/unattributed

Kampusch shared her stories of rape, sexual humiliation, and captivity from childhood with Elizabeth in the hopes of showing her and the world that you can survive horrendous sexual abuse and enslavement. Telling her story, also prompted Kampusch to write a book about what happened to her to help other women and girls surviving childhood sexual abuse and rape. The book, 3,096 Days, chronicles Kampusch’s 8 years in captivity, focusing on her survival skills and her emotional process throughout the abuse. The book was published this month and is the first time Kampusch has told her story to the world.

When Kampusch first escaped, she did several interviews but was wary of news reporters digging into her abuse history. In an interview with the Sunday Times, she spoke about feeling violated by people looking at the small room where she had been kept and picking over the details of photos from Priklopl’s home and police reports in the national news:

“… above all, I’m annoyed about the pictures of my dungeon, because it is nobody’s business. I also would not look into the living rooms and bedrooms of other people. Why should people be able to open up a newspaper and look into my room?

The media interest is too much, but on the other hand through this fame I have some responsibility and I want to use to this advantage to help other people, to make a foundation and do charitable projects. For example to help lost people who were never found like me. And I want to work with the hungry [in Africa].” (Sunday Times 2006)

Like many survivors, Kampusch initially minimized her abuse and tried to keep details to herself. Her limited education, provided through newspapers and radio stations given to her by Priklopl also gave her a sense of worry for “the starving kids in Africa” despite having never seen any and actually having been motivated by her own starvation at the hands of her abuser. She later referred to them as primitives while again making a connection to her own thoughts as equally so because of hunger. The racism she expressed, especially in the context of being referred to as a slave by her abuser for 8 years makes one wonder about the racial overtones of her abuse and the connections between racism and sexism even in the life of an blonde blue-eyed Austrain girl who had likely never met any people of color or learned very little about the world before or during her capture and assault.

When she talked about gender, she also seemed to have internalized messages that women were weaker and/or powerless:

And this female lack of power that I couldn’t do anything against him.

These thoughts too, likely came from Priklopl to both subdue her and groom her for ongoing abuse. These gender disparities also made her identify with Priklopl’s mother and worry about how she would get on in the world if her son was prosecuted. At the same time, Kampusch talks about promising herself that when she got older and stronger, she would escape.

Much of her story about how he convinced her that he was harmless and that her parents did not love her, in those initial interviews, follow a similar pattern to the stories other kidnapped children and trafficked child sex workers tell. In these stories, kidnappers tell children their parents gave them permission and/or are coming to pick them up as soon as they pay a ransom or get a check they need or new job, etc. and then after time goes by kidnappers switch the story to say parents are still unavailable, finally following up with stories of how parents no longer want them, abandoned them, or even are dead all the while slowly grooming the children to trust or become dependent on them so that they will resign themselves to the abuse. In Kampusch’s case, Priklopl not only did all of this, but also forced her to take a new name to divorce her from her past and possibly hide her better.

Kampusch/The Star/unattributed

Now Kampusch speaks about her abuse with the insight of someone who has had time to talk and heal. She no longer looks at people’s interests in her case as invasive but rather an opportunity to help others avoid or survive abuse in their own lives. In place of her the survival skill of minimizing abuse, is a forthright tone that waivers at certain memories but is committed to telling her story and moving forward. While she still shows signs of what I would consider unhealthy attachment to her abuser, she bought his car and his house, she is trying her best to tell a story she spent 8 years being trained never to tell and she is doing, not for fame or fortune, but to help other women and girls.

Two other books about the incident were published prior. In  2006, an English-language book Girl in the Cellar was published by two journalists who had worked part of the case. Kampusch’s mother also published a book about her own story looking for her daughter two years later. Both books were controversial because Kampusch disputed the material in the former and even threatened suit. While her mother’s book capitalized on the media attention Natascha’s escape was receiving but did only tell her own story. Though both mother and daughter had a strained relationship at the time, Natascha did attend her mother’s release party and has never disputed information in her mother’s book.

So far, the 3,096 Days is not available in English and though there is a planned movie based on the book to be released in 2012, it is unclear if there will be an English language version of the film either. While there are things that are specific to Austria, like the basement cellars that so many predators seem to be using to hide their assaults on women and girls, the story of surviving child sexual abuse and rebuilding one’s life is unfortunately universal. While I have always worried about the way these two girls-now-women’s stories have been turned into spectacle by the media, I do think that hearing their stories in their own words is critical for rape survivors and people invested in ending child sexual abuse, rape, and torture of women and girls. There are lessons to be learned in how and why these men were allowed to continue abusing women and girls, despite some public unease, signs of potential involvement, and in Fritzl’s case previous conviction or suspicion of sexual assault. If we stopped talking about these cases as exceptions dominated by monsters and started asking how these men succeeded and how our investment in women and children’s inequality helps pave the way for heinous acts of violence we might make huge leaps forward in moving beyond the non-profit industrial complex, which, mind you, helps save women’s lives, to a world safe for young girls to walk to school or live in homes without every needing to fear their own fathers or male relatives. And while many of us are lucky to have lived in such homes and maybe even walked to school without knowing about predators, the fact is many of us were not and are not.

If an English-language version of the book comes out, I will update this post and/or announce it. (If you want to know more about Kampusch, there is an extensive link list at the bottom of the wikipedia page on her, though of course I would tell you to read those links and their sources directly, not just rely on the wikipedia page itself.)

What Happens in Iraq, Stays in Iraq: Remembering Lavena Johnson

This is a post in progress. Trigger warning for rape survivors, some descriptions are graphic.

unattributed

I’ve spent most of the morning trying to write a post about the contrast in attention in Hollywood to stories about murdered male soldiers and raped and/or murdered female ones. My main argument is that white male soldiers exemplify a narrative about the nation and citizenship that makes their stories reaffirm “americanness” even as many of their stories also critique war in general and especially the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and I will continue to include Iraq until every soldier and government paid mercenary has left). Stories about female soldiers however challenge notions about gender and the nation by subverting the strong white male in uniform with a normative gender crossing female face (since the definition of masculinity being sold here is one that depends on pretty girlfriends and wives who stay at home to care for the kids and cook dinner). More than that, the number of female soldiers and “consultants” who have been raped or otherwise sexually harassed in the military refuses an easy reading of military culture and subsequently “americanness” as exclusively heroic and just. The female soldiers whose deaths and abuses have been covered up further illustrate the links between sexism, violence against women, the war machine, and the state.

Gone is the tragic narrative of the “good soldier” who after doing all for “love of country” is murdered, like rising football star Tillman who gave up his career “stop terrorism”. In its wake is the story of women hazed along sexist and/or racialized sexist lines, abused and harassed for daring to do what their male counterparts are praised for doing, and some even murdered for daring to speak out or seek help. You cannot valorize a female soldier without confronting gender stereotypes that are embedded in the meaning of the nation. Nor can you talk about cover ups surrounding the abuse and/or murder of female soldiers without exposing the ways that violence against women is mapped onto military culture and war. This is not to say that all men or male soldiers are rapists, but rather that rape is a tool of war and that women’s bodies are the terrain by which men in war claim conquest and re-establish manhood. In the face of this truth, the narrative of the nation that depends on valorizing soldiers and seeing them as definitive images of the nation crumbles under the weight of oppression.

The farther away from the white male all-American soldier we get, the less likely the story will be told. In 2007, In the Valley of Elah was released to a moderate-sized audience. The movie told the story of Richard Davis, a third generation soldier who had fought in both Bosnia and Iraq who was murdered by fellow soldiers a few days after returning from war. Davis’ story garnered attention in the media because he was a legacy and covering up his death was much harder to do with so many other high ranking soldiers in his family. Yet, in order to tell his story, Hollywood execs decided he had to be white. They cast Susan Sarandon as his mother, a woman of color, and Jonathan Tucker to play Davis himself. No similar white washing of his assailants, which included men of color, was done. In order for the narrative of “good soldier” to hold, he needed to fit the myth of “americanness” that increasingly ignores the presence of Latinos as legitimate citizens.

Pat Tillman/wikipedia

Yet Davis’ story still got told, partially because of power within the military held by his family and partially the fact of his maleness. Re-written as white, he could still embody the hyper-masculine pseudo-sanctity of the State. Pat Tillman offers the same opportunity to Hollywood, all the more so because he was a football star turned patriot gunned down by friendly fire. The subsequent government cover up went all the way to the Bush White House. Hollywood is positively giddy at the thought of: a rising football star with a square jaw and a John Wayne sense of justice going off to inexplicable war only to be killed in a massive government conspiracy. It’s the kind of movie that helps win hearts and minds in the peace effort all the while nodding appreciatively at the hawks. In other words, both of these stories allow us to keep the image of N. America and heroism intact while underscoring the adage that “war is hell”.

No similar films have been made about Shoshana Johnson, Jamie Leigh Jones, or Lavena Johnson and there probably never will be. You may recall that Shoshana Johnson, a Panamanian immigrant to the U.S. and food service specialist in the military, was the first black female prisoner of war. She was caught and held for 22 days in Iraq along with 5 other soldiers from her unit. When they returned to the U.S., the media focused on Jessica Lynch, a young blonde, blue-eyed soldier who became emblematic of the war effort. In this role, Lynch re-affirmed gender norms by becoming the face of why we are fighting rather than the fighting itself. In the discourse of war, small boned, blue-eyed Lynch desperately tried to hold off the enemy only to be captured and held prisoner for days, possibly even raped during her ordeal, reinforcing the idea of the region as barbaric and a threat to valiant women and children everywhere.  Lynch never fired her weapon. Some reports even claim her lack of action during the conflict may have gotten another soldier killed. She also denies being raped, all though her biographer says her medical records are consistent with sexual assault. The media frenzy surrounding her, quickly died when the military cover up of what actually happened stripped her of her “innocence”. Shoshana Johnson was permanently disabled in the incident and had to fight the U.S. Army for benefits. She received no media attention and her fight to have her injuries recognized and paid for by the military, to receive her pay for her service, and to leave the army with an honorable discharge were all unreported. While the experience of both of these women is part of a larger racial discourse in the nation where big boned black immigrant Johnson could never stand in for the nation nor garner national sympathy in the quest for definitive americanness in war time, both women also had their stories manipulated or neglected because of their gender.

Shoshana Johnson & Jessica Lynch/unattributed

Think about the story as told by Hollywood, devoid of gender reference. Young, innocent soldiers, take a wrong turn into a fire fight and are then terrorized by the enemy as prisoners of war; when they return home, the military quickly concocts a story of heroism elevating one of the soldiers who may have been implicated in the death or capture of a fellow soldier while forcing the others to keep silent. Sounds fascinating doesn’t it? Now add in gender and race: a multi-racial unit of soldiers is captured during a firefight, including two women; they are held captive, and upon return to the U.S. the stories of the soldiers of color quickly fade into the background to highlight the plight of a single white female soldier until the truth surfaces and it turns out she was just an exploitable “pretty face” for the war machine. While I find that story interesting, does that sound like a Hollywood blockbuster to you or a Lifetime Movie? And what are some of the defining differences in those two genres?

Like Pat Tillman, Jamie Leigh Jones story went all the way to Congress. Jones was a KBR/Halliburton employee, a consulting firm in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan who has filed suit against 7 KBR mercenaries and employees who drugged and raped her while in country. Her gang rape was so brutal that at least one or more of her assailants ruptured her breast implants and tore the muscles underneath. The rape kit that confirmed 7 men had raped her both anally and vaginally throughout the night was stolen from the military infirmary. When it was later recovered, all pictures of Jones’ injuries had been destroyed. Jones herself was kept in locked up by KBR/Halliburton employees as punishment for seeking medical attention until one soldier snuck her a cellphone she used to call her dad in the States.

The investigation into Jones’ rape claims briefly exposed the legal issues surrounding the use of contracted “consultants”, mercenaries, in the U.S. war effort. They operate outside of military law and in international territory making the application of U.S. laws questionable.  At the same time, rules limiting the governing power of Iraq over soldiers and contracted mercenaries makes it almost impossible for Jones’ to hold them accountable in Iraqi courts either. In December of 2007, the DOJ decided they had were not going to press charges. From 2007 to 2009, KBR/Halliburton did everything in their considerable power to prevent Jones from filing suit or having an open court case if she was able to do so. In the meantime, Jones’ testimony before Congress forced them to change their rules about contracting with companies that require mandatory arbitration but as of January 2010 Halliburton/KBR was still fighting Jones’ right to have an open court trial against them.

Again, imagine this story devoid of gender in the hands of Hollywood. A young idealist consultant arrives in a war zone and discovers violence and corruption for which they are held prisoner and then spend the next 4 years fighting to expose in court that takes them all the way to The Hill. Again, this is the kind of story you could see at your local movie theater if starred someone like Jake Gyllenhaal or Matt Damon. (Matt Damon, by the way, appeared in one of the few made for Hollywood films about a female soldier’s mysterious death and the cover up surrounding it. Unlike the stories outlined here however, the soldiers were trying to cover up for her because she was incompetent and they “had to frag her” to save everyone else.) But when you add gender back in, centering the brutal rape of Jones, it once again makes move to Lifetime.

If we compare Lynch’s story to Jones’ the gendered aspects of “americanness” and war become all the more evident. Lynch was seen as a national hero because she supposedly bravely fought of the enemy who punished with rape and torture. Her victimization at the hands of the enemy was all the more valorized because she was song, small, blonde and blue-eyed. She exemplified the Birth of a Nation narrative that casts men of color as barbarians and rapists unable to govern and helped elevate it to international discourse justifying war. Jones’ was also blonde and blue-eyed and also fairly young. But these attributes were consistently used in a victim-blaming narrative that argued “she should have known better than to show up in a war zone pretty” and that her implants meant she wanted it … Why the difference? Because Lynch’s assault fit the war narrative of us=good vs they=bad. Jones’ story blurred those lines and implicated not only “us” but also the Bush administration who was intimately tied to Halliburton. Further, her story would have once again centered violence against women as a fact of war on all sides, undermining the image of America the Savior, and potentially privileged the Iraqi government over the U.S. one since the Iraqis made some indication that they were willing to prosecute the mercenaries for violence against women. This would hardly fit with the image of sexism that has underlined both pro-war and even some mainstream feminist interpretations of the Middle East and women.

Finally, Lavena Johnson’s death has garnered the least amount of attention in mainstream media of all of these women and yet hers is also a story of brave soldier and cover up.

As the news report shows, Johnson’s parents were told that she committed suicide in Iraq to cover up what medical reports indicate was a rape and murder. Not only did the military once again try to hide the fact that female soldiers are being raped at the hands of their own fellow soldiers, but their tale of suicide demeaned Johnson’s memory and denied the family benefits she had earned as a soldier.

Lavena Johnson was a high school honor’s student with a bright future ahead of her. She enlisted in order to pay for college. She was killed by fellow soldiers at 19 years old. Like Lynch, she was small (5 foot, 100 lbs) and pretty but as a black woman her rape and murder did not fit the national narrative of americanness and “family values” that the war was supposedly meant to uphold. Like Jones’ her rape may have been the result of hired mercenaries working for Halliburton/KBR as her body was found in one of their tents. And her death sheds new light on what may have happened to Jones had a soldier not gotten her a cellphone. According to the autopsy, Jones was beaten, shot at an angle that would be impossible for her to do on her own, and then, unsuccessfully, set on fire. While her breasts were not as severely damaged as Jones’, they showed signs of scratches and bite marks meant to abuse and torture. Someone had also poured lye into her vagina, something I can only interpret as an act of racialized violence since Johnson had pressed hair.

Sadly, Jones and Johnson have one other thing in common, the DOJ is refusing to investigate. Johnson is dead and her parents are working class African Americans with no ties to the military or to Halliburton/KBR. Unlike Jones, they do not have the kind of clout or momentum behind their cause in mainstream media to force the issue. Once again the disparities between how the nation views white women and women of color has left Johnson with only a handful of mainstream activists and mostly black activists on her side. And both women, by nature of being women have had to fight, Johnson through relatives, to even have their stories of rape validated precisely because their stories undermine the nation’s image of itself and its mission in Iraq and Afghanistan.

1 in 3 women who join the military will be raped or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers or U.S. hired mercenaries. According to Time Magazine, The Pentagon estimates nearly 3,000 women were sexually assaulted in 2008, up 9% from the year before. Among women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number rose 25%. Women’s advocates in the military estimate the rate of rape and sexual assault in the military is nearly twice that of civilians living in the U.S. The same Pentagon report determined that 80-90% of sexual based crimes in the military go unreported and only 8% of those that are actually end in prosecution of rapists. Of the 94 N. American military women who died in Iraq, 36 died from injuries unrelated to combat. Many of these were ruled as suicides by the State Department, while 15 deaths remain shrouded in suspicion. Given that Lavena Johnson’s death was ruled a suicide it is hard to say how many of the other deaths attributed to suicide were in fact examples of violence against women or military sexism. At least 8 women died due to “non-combatant injuries” in the same base in Iraq and all 8 had shipped out from the same base in Texas. Moreover, these numbers do not include women who died for other reasons that may have actually been related to violence against women, like the 3 women who died of dehydration in Iraq in 2003 because they were afraid to drink liquids provided to them on the base after a certain hour. Given the incidents involving date rape drugs, their fears may not be as paranoid or as limited in scale as their case implies.  Interview data by Salon author Benedict shows that female soldiers are consistently warned not to go the bathrooms or showers by themselves and on some bases, not to go out at all at night. At least two women have come forward with claims of brutal rape at the hands of KBR/Halliburton. The contracts forcing them to remain silent and seek arbitration rather than legal options may be hiding any number of additional abuse cases. No data is available on Blackwater, though Iraqi citizens have claimed that some of their employees have raped Iraqi women and girls unchecked.

These stories are not headed to Hollywood. In some ways, this is a good thing because like the story of murdered soldier Davis, there is no way to know if Hollywood would do their stories justice or simply reinforce the same old narratives in a kinder, gentler, package. Nor do I think equal attention from Hollywood would make the fact that both women and men are dying under suspicious circumstances in Iraq all better. Instead, I am trying to argue that the war effort is based on an increasingly insular definition of N. America and americanness which reflects marginalizing traditions in our nation while deepening them. This in turn makes women’s lives less safe by allowing them to be targeted and even killed by fellow soldiers and mercenaries. The sexualized violence they experience, which often gets carried on racial lines that erases the plight of black and brown women as well as Iraqi women, is part of war culture that has historically come to visit on the mainland with returning soldiers. The failure to tell these women’s stories, particularly those of women of color, at a national level has helped allow this process to continue. Moreover, the desire to on the one hand, not vilify soldiers who are trying to do their best in an inexcusable war and on the other, to not validate the war effort by either focusing exclusively on the plight of N. American women (as I have done in this post) nor elevating the lives of soldiers above those of the 100,000s of civilians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, has left us worrying about moral dilemmas and ideologies while women suffer unchecked.

Ultimately, this what motivated me to write this convoluted piece today from the perspective of Hollywood where for art thou. I am concerned about the lack of attention to women’s stories and experiences in war in general. And the constant refrain of how amazing Pat Tillman was and how great the movie about him was going to be finally pushed those concerns to the surface in a new way than the posts I have done about sexism, sexual assault, and sexualized racism against both N. American women and women and girls living in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Tillman’s story is important, I think he embodies everything we tell ourselves is the definition of American, everything makes this country great, and yet it is the narrow space he occupies as a “family values”, nationalistic, white heterosexual male football star that allows us to vilify women and people of color in this country and outside of it. It is the focus on that face as definitional space of the nation that makes it possible to laugh at the rape of poor black women in this country and to excuse away the rape and murder of them in another one as “suicide”. Until we better confront the meanings of nation, heroism, and war in this nation we cannot tell the stories of female soldiers because their stories undermine those images. And if we do not tell their stories, than violence against women as a weapon of war will continue precisely because we don’t talk about it and when we do, it is only to prove the barbarism of others.

WordPress Wednesday Aug 18: The Fail Continues

Think about this as you read these stats, blogging is not only the new way of publishing it is increasingly the way to access the old way of publishing as well, it is also second only to twitter as a go to source for media pundits looking for “the pulse of the nation” or the “important story”, and it is one of two media sites that form the basis for much electronic research. When we are not included in the places that legitimate and draw attention to the voices on the internet we are in essence once again being erased and shoved out. Since blogging is a medium that so many diverse people have made their home, and wordpress among the top places to do it, doesn’t it warrant at least a question about why they choose such a narrow focus in representing both their brand and all of us?

brittanica.com

Here are this week’s stats:

Images

  • men of color: 18
  • women of color: 6
  • TOTAL PICS OF PEOPLE OF COLOR: 24
  • white men: 40
  • white women: 32
  • TOTAL PICS OF WHITE PEOPLE: 72

The number of white people pictured on chosen posts outnumbered people of color by almost 3xs as much this week. All of these images were of able-bodied cis gender people. Images of white women were 5xs more likely than images of women of color and even more were likely to be seen on the Freshly Pressed page pointing you there because images of women of color appeared in posts with images of white people and the latter were almost always chosen for the Freshly Pressed page image. White men outnumbered men of color two to one and would also have been overrepresented on the Freshly Pressed page for the reasons listed above.

Authors

  • men of color: 3
  • women of color: 2
  • TOTAL AUTHORS OF COLOR: 5
  • white men: 12
  • white women: 30
  • TOTAL WHITE AUTHORS: 42

The number of people of color featured remained constant from last week representing an average of 1.7% of the total available bloggers for highlighting. The number of people of color blogging on wordpress is unavailable but they certainly make up more than 2% of the 280,000 bloggers from which to choose. There were also three authors of unknown race, only one of whom was a woman and one author who identified as asexual gender neutral, who was white.

Gender & Sexuality

  • pictures of cis women: 37
  • pictures of cis men: 55
  • pictures of trans women: 1
  • pictures of trans men: 3
  • female authors: 33
  • male authors: 17
  • gender unknown: 1
  • gender neutral: 1
  • articles about feminism: 3
  • articles about queer rights: 1
  • articles about, related to, or otherwise assuming overt heterosexuality: 17

Interestingly, this week marked the first time since the study began where a photo of a white women used in the post was replaced by a photo of a white man not used in the post to highlight the post on the Freshly Pressed page. In other words, the blogger used an image of a woman and the wordpress staff replaced it on their page with a picture of a man.

On the plus side, this week marks the first time a post about transgender, gender queer, and transmisogyny has been highlighted during the study and in all the time I can remember glancing at the Freshly Pressed page. On the negative side, that post included 4 photos of transgender or gender queer people engaged in a photographic awareness campaign, none of whom where people of color. In looking at the source material I discovered that of the 20 photos in the exhibit the author had to choose from, there was only one person of color photographed. The failing then is both with the author of the blog post who failed to mention racially disparity or choose the only pic available of a person of color to include with the group of other images chosen and the project itself. I also noted that while this post was highlighted, there were several posts, including on this blog, about a similar project specifically highlighting the dual erasure of black trans people from mainstream society and trans communities, as well as highlighting their diversity across the African Diaspora, none of which were ever featured on Freshly Pressed.

There were an unusually high number of feminist posts this week as well given their general absence on the Freshly Pressed page. One of these posts highlighted global feminism but was actually a blog for an organization that features innovative speakers and puts the videos up on its website. The post was literally the name of an international speaker and the theme of her talk accompanied by the video. There was no analysis, no prose, nothing. Given the number of posts written by marginalized people on wordpress about global feminism this seemed like an odd choice to represent the best wordpress has to offer. Another post on feminism praised a movie that was essentially a colonial fantasy in which a white woman finds herself through a vacation in India, Brazil, and other exotic erotic places, complete with hooting at brown men, spending money to “save” poor kids, etc. The point of the post: anyone who disliked this movie was a sexist hater. The final feminist post critiqued the same film and originally questioned the classism and racism involved but was followed up by a non-featured post apologizing and claiming it was really a critique of narcissism.

While we are documenting the number of posts that reference heterosexuality outright, please do not take this to mean other posts are sexuality neutral. With few exception all of the posts highlighted on wordpress are written by or read as heterosexual posts due to their lack of queer content.

As white women continue to gain in the featured section, I wonder if this is why we cannot get any traction on this issue. Like the woman who sees critiquing colonialism as a sexist endeavor, is the fact that white women often dominate the freshly pressed section preventing them from engaging in a feminism or social justice mindset that includes the rest of us? And if so, why is this an all too familiar position for a group that would largely define themselves as socially engaged and inclusive? It should be noted that many of the people making decisions about features on wordpress are also white women who considered themselves social justice folks.

WordPress Criteria

  • grammatical errors: 11
  • copyright: 41

This category counts the items wordpress says will preclude you from being featured. Interestingly, this week wordpress published another post referencing the importance of copyright on images used on blogs at the same time that the number of copyright infringement based on freshly pressed images was at its highest.

This week also saw the largest number of blogs featured that had been featured before and/or were not actually blogs (company “blog” pages that simply pointed people back to the company and magazines that are hosted on wordpress.org) instead of looking at diverse authors who had not been highlighted prior. The number of professional journalists and photographers is also much higher in general on the freshly pressed page than people who blog as bloggers. Given the gender, race, sexuality, etc. disparities in print media, you can see how this would translate to similar disparities on the freshly pressed page.

What a Difference Kindness Makes


I’ve been swamped with volunteer work in social justice organizations for the past few weeks since coming back from our seminar abroad. As my post have shown, the experience has not been the most positive one. Far too often I have seen young women taking advantage of other young women in the name of helping poor women, women of color, elder women, queer women, etc. As I said in a previous post, the idea is that “if you really care” you will foot the agency bill for an endless amount of labor and associated costs. And I have publicly questioned exactly who is served by this exploitation since neither the line staff nor the clients are able to function at their best under such demanding circumstances and scarcity models. Perhaps it is because it has been so much in my face lately, I have really begun to question the social service industry as an Industry or Institution rather than a helping agent for change. This, more than any other feminist conflict I have witnessed in the past 4 years of blogging has made me rethink what feminist activists involved in critical fields of women’s services are really contributing to the end of oppression of women, especially the most marginalized among us.

Then I read this post:

Hmmmm, I gave the cashier a $20. I looked in my rear view mirror and there were no more cars to pay for. So, $3.18 for my good deed of the day felt a little lack luster. …

When I make these gestures I rarely look back to see the reaction. … But this time? No such luck. I was stopped by two traffic lights in a row and she caught up with me by the second light. She rolled down her window. She searched my face for some recognition. She found none. “Thank you for this,” she said, “You don’t know what this means to me. I’m on my way to an interview. I lost my job a month ago and I HAVE to find work. I’d given these up,” and she raised her cup, “but I decided to splurge today for a little boost of confidence. Your kindness has done so much more.”

I could see that her eyes were brimming and she was fighting back tears. …

This woman’s act of kindness, done primarily out of guilt for not keeping a promise to herself to pay it forward regularly, profoundly changed one woman’s day for the cost of a cup of coffee. It may have helped change her life, by providing her the confidence in herself and in others that most of us lack these days in a world of selfishness and economic uncertainty. Who is to say?

The story reinforced my larger questions about social service agencies and their role in social justice and social change even as they dismantled them. On the one hand, this woman was able to do something I have not seen many line staff be able to do at some of the places I have been working with precisely because she was neither overworked nor underpaid to provide care to others. Her actions came from a desire to do good that was untainted by the fact doing good had become a job in which “there are only so many hours in a day” and a pittance of pay for them. And I do think that money and work are the major distinctions here because I hope that everyone that goes into social service work, especially feminists, are motivated by doing good (even when their definitions are not the best). But I think something happens when doing good is your job and not your calling; something ultimately switches off for you as you work and work and work some more for very little pay and even less institutionalized support. By creating a social service system that depends on your “commitment to the cause” and actively interprets your need for self-care, boundaries, and compensation for work done as a “lack of commitment” justice becomes part of an industrial complex in which funders get tax right offs and young, largely middle class and white, women get training and activist credibility.

At the same time, these agencies are not devoid of value to service seekers. Individual clients get an array of services that help them as individuals but do not actually challenge the system that made them seek out services in the first place. Thus, social service is self-perpetuating and it goes unquestioned in many ways because of the number of individuals whose lives have been profoundly changed (and even saved) through service. In this way, the woman who paid for the coffee and her amazing impact on the women who received it are still metaphors for the larger service industry. An individual woman did good with the limited resources she had available to her and an individual woman was moved in ways that may reverberate throughout the rest of her day or even her life. How do we quantify the impact? Should we? And if you answered we cannot and should not, then what does that mean for creating equitable work and value in social service for workers which as I argued before translates to better and more thorough service for service seekers?

I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. In an ideal world, each of us would operate from a place of radical love with one another, sharing our resources, knowledge, and strength in a way that honored our interconnectedness rather than demeaned. We would recognize that need is relative and that individuals with abundance in some areas have need in others just like everyone else. In that world, there would be no need for social service because we would see someone stumble and collectively help them up without blame or shame or stigma or even self-interest. But we do not live in that world. We live in this one, where banks steal from mom and pop accounts to give to jet-setting CEOs, medical providers quantify the value of lives because insurers care less about whether you are healthy than how much you will cost them, poor people and indigenous people are asked or simply told to foot the cost of businesses environmental degradation,  and people move jobs and industries out of a country hurting for employment because they cannot exploit the labor, children, or reproductive and sexual rights of their workers or pollute the land unchecked, and they care more about profit than they do about people. In this world, where tv hosts and so-called journalists extol the rights of the rich to go on vacations, buy million dollar garbage cans, and everyone gawks at the latest celebrity craze, very few people care or help anyone so whole industries have grown up to do what we as a people have failed to do. And those industries require money to run. And that money is stretched so thin that the workers at the bottom work 80+ hour weeks, paying for phone bills, food, printing costs, etc. for the agencies for whom they work out of pocket for less money than the people at the top who get paid 3xs as much, work just as hard, but move on to middle class lives after a while never once thinking about the line staff who do not. And so we are back at the beginning.

I welcome your thoughts.

——

Images

  1. unattributed/2009
  2. clipart
  3. “China Blue”/unattributed/portable.tv
  4. “Women Gardening”/Deb Vest/2010