A Message to Non-Profit Social Change Organizations in 140 Characters

citation in frame

My 140: creative & exploitation are not synonymous; when they r used interchangeably there is no revolutionary change going on

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I tweeted this in response to the idea that part-time and volunteer workers at non-profits are being asked to foot more and more of the bill for social service provision at a time when people need more services than ever. My problem is both with the idea that nonprofits cannot afford to hire full time grant writers because they are too expensive and that somehow the burden should be placed on the backs of the lowest paid workers instead.

While grant writer salaries are incredibly high, most grant writers can and do write grants to continually fund their positions while at the same time working on large and targeted funding for agencies as a whole. Though the money can and does dry up, they generally help ensure a much steadier flow of capital into the agency which in turn ensures better pay for and retention of workers. When you recruit workers with existing skills needed by service seekers and then are able to retain them over an extended period of time, your services improve, your clients are better served, and workers have more than their ideals to keep them going.

Underpaid workers have always been a cornerstone of social service. What galls me however is that many social service agencies have taken to humiliating or undermining workers who cannot and should not have to take on additional burdens to offset agency costs. For instance, at a late afternoon meeting today I overheard a young woman tear into her volunteers for not printing out needed materials on their home computers. She implied that their failure to make their own printouts and copies was tantamount to sending homeless women back out into the street with neither clothes nor food and water. When one of the volunteers pointed out that her printer was old and could not print multiple copies for the agency as well as print the papers for her classes, her supervisor insinuated that it was a matter of care and credibility. Either she cared about their clients and was committed to the work they were doing or she was selfish. There was never a thought that maybe asking volunteers to pay for an agency’s printing and copying was where the selfishness lay.

The situation reminded me of a conversation I had at the end of my own volunteer service for a women’s crisis drop in center as an undergraduate. I had a broken down two seater car inherited from my grandfather. It barely drove and broke down regularly. Yet I spent so many hours at the drop in center that most women seeking services and other agencies thought I was staff. My name was consistently at the top of the “rock star” list, a list that praised people for contributing more than the minimum hours. And many nights I had even gone in on 10 minutes notice to sub for other PAID workers and even trained a few.

Yet one particularly bad car week, I had had to cancel my shift 3 times because the car would not start and I was unable to get home in the wee hours of the night when my shift would end. Suddenly my 30-60 hour volunteer week had no meaning to the Coordinator who had to scramble to take my place or transfer crisis calls to my home. I was instantly transformed from a rock star to a loser who did not care about women in crisis.

In fact, the Coordinator said to me “Well maybe you should buy a new car already because this is pathetic.” 20 year old me was stunned. She was a lawyer, I was a student on financial aid driving her grandfather’s car. How could I possibly afford a new car? If she’d just been being inconsiderate out of frustration that would still have been rude and inconsiderate, but as the conversation went on it became clear she was serious. In fact she went so far as to say maybe “people like me” should not volunteer if we could not “meet the minimum standards of volunteerism.” Apparently those standards include being middle to upper class but not working more hours than most paid staff.

The idea that I might need to cut back hours at night in exchange for doing more hours in the day or early evening when alternative transportation was available was beyond the elitist framework in which the discussion was couched. When I suggested that maybe I should simply cut back my hours from 60 to the required 10 to make a point about how class expectations were clouding the issue, she suggested I consider quitting if “I wasn’t going to take volunteering seriously.”

Everyone at the agency was in agreement that the Coordinator, not I, was in the wrong here. Apologies were made and plans to switch shifts were floated. The immediacy with which they tried to make amends was heartening but also tinged with discussions of how they would make up for all those late evening hours “no one else wanted to do” and comments like “maybe they would have to just pay someone.” Despite their mostly positive efforts to fix the situation, in light of the original conversation and the side chatter, the damage was done. I no longer looked at the agency the same way nor felt my labor had value to them beyond their immediate gain. While this was likely only slightly true, I was now wary of the next time an emergency would take me away from scheduled hours, hours that it is the Coordinator’s job to schedule a backup volunteer for by the way, because I never wanted to be in a conversation again where my working class background was seen as tantamount to not caring about homeless women’s lives.

I quit that day. But as I watched the young woman tear up in front of her supervisor at my luncheon, I did not think she would. Worse the demands did not end there. Before we had finished eating, this same woman tore into another volunteer because she had shut off her cellphone. From what I could gather, the agency was running several of its intake services through the volunteers phone and was now in a supposed bind because the girl could no longer afford to pay her cellphone bill. The girl explained that she had lost her job several months earlier and let the agency know sooner or later she would likely have to switch phones but the supervisor did not care. She kept demanding the girl figure out a way to pay for extended coverage because the fate of all immigrant women everywhere hung in the balance. Never mind that the agency itself had to have phones and voicemail they could have and should have been using.

While I wanted to believe that this was another case of an overly self-involved middle class “doo gooder” clocking time for her resume and not an agency wide situation, I knew better. In these economic times the number of agencies serving the same population’s needs is diminishing while the need is growing. The number of paid jobs are also shrinking so that for some, the only way to get into the work that they love is to be volunteer staff. Its a dilemma that holds funders, volunteers, and especially service seekers hostage to a system that is no longer serving people’s needs to the best of our abilities.

Often agencies in economic binds are told to “get creative” about their funding issues. That creativity seems to translate not to looking for new funding sources or finding new, cheaper, ways of doing the same thing, but instead to exploiting workers. Every day I see job descriptions that are actually 4 or 5 jobs for the salary of less than one advertised in the service industry. Every day, I get emails and phone calls from students worried they cannot feed their kids, themselves, or pay their basic bills because they dared to go into helping fields. And as I watched this 20-something, upper class, recent grad berate the multicultural cast of working class and student volunteers and part timers, I could not help but wonder what kind of social justice can come out of exploitation masked as economic “creativity.” If one’s own workers and volunteers have no human value than what value do service seekers have in this model? And how exactly are we striving toward a world where everyone has value, equality, and justice when we are not even providing it for the people on whose labor we depend?

It seems to me that a critically unexplored part of the non-profit-industrial-complex is the exploitation of labor and the subsequent exploitation or diminishing of useful services to clients. After all, nothing can change at cash-strapped agencies who have come to take their workers for granted without a critical paradigm shift in the thinking of social justice agencies. As long as money is tight and the answer is to shut down services and rely on underpaid or volunteer workers for everything from phones, to printing, to salary related donations, neither funders nor workers can escape the cycle by which we all poor money into dysfunction to ensure at least one place remains open for service seekers. Agencies know this and so do the supervisors who lament attrition rates in both clients and volunteers without ever asking themselves why.

So I put it to you again, in another way: what kind of social justice can you possibly be working for when you are providing no justice to your least paid workers?

WordPress Wednesday

brittanica.com

Last week, WordPress Freshly Pressed highlighted a post written by a white female author about “turning Asian” in which she listed a bunch of anecdotal behaviors that highlighted the “strangeness” of Asian people. This post concluded with a reference to the way Asians speak English as “a special regressed level of English.”

It was the second time in less than a month that I had been deeply disturbed by what WordPress staff thinks is the best blogging WordPress has to offer. The first time, the highlighted post was written by a black woman excusing away black face in the fashion industry. Surprisingly, my twitter followers were more upset about the former than the latter even though both seem extremely racist, or internalized racist, to me.

When one of my twitter followers/blogging colleagues took the initiative to contact WordPress about their decision to highlight “racialized posts” on the Freshly Pressed page, the response she received was “what does ‘racialized’ mean?” In other words, not only are the people at WordPress picking posts with racialized and/or racist content as the best of the best blogs on their site but they are not educated enough about diversity to even name what they are doing and own, defend, or change their decisions.

So I decided to help them. Ok, well only indirectly. What I decided to do is document the disparity for all of you and to ask you to link to these Wednesday posts as a way to raise awareness about the problem. Hopefully, instead of getting further marginalized by my blog hosts, this will foster some learning and growth. If not, I’m sure it will make for great publication and presentation material the next time I am asked to present on social media at a conference or write about it for a journal or anthology.

simplyzesty.com

The Project: Every Wednesday I will present several stats related to highlighted posts on Freshly Pressed designed to show who and what is being valued and who and what is being erased.

The Method: The same questions will be asked of, data collected on, each Freshly Pressed post and the information will be made available here in both raw and analyzed form

While I have tried to remain consistent with the questions I’ve asked, the first week of collecting data has raised some important questions about unmarked distinctions in what I have been tracking. For instance do posts that have been marked as “white identified”, ie those that assume a white audience without racializing that assumption in offensive ways, always reflect race or does it some times reflect race and class together? Why did I choose to track sexism but not gender, when both of these seem like salient variables? And when a post is marked down as having photos of white people, should the number of photos be counted? ie if there are 12 photos and only one has a white person in it, then is it misleading to say this is the same as a blog that has 5 photos all of which are of white people? And should a photo be counted twice if it has a white person and a person of color (ie once for a white photo and once for a poc photo) or should there be a third category for mulitcultural photo? It seems to me that these distinctions matter when trying to quantify the identity politics, particularly racial ones, that seem to underpin the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress and ultimately the success of certain bloggers over others and the face of WordPress overall. So I;m still tweaking the questions/data collection process and it will likely look different from week to week until I am satisfied with a core set of questions. What this means is that some sets will not be comparable to others when all is said and done. For blogging purposes however, the key information will remain the same.

So Here is the raw data for week 1:

Every week there are 11-12 posts highlighted per weekday on Freshly Pressed. On the weekend 1-2 new posts maybe added to the highlighted posts for Friday, knocking off 1-2 Friday posts. The number of bloggers and blog posts available to choose from varies but on average there are between 277,000 and 278,000 bloggers and 300,000-360,000 posts from which to choose from. The number of bloggers of color, queer bloggers, female bloggers, etc. is unknown however several of the more recognized blogs from perspectives written by traditionally marginalized authors as well as academic blogs are housed on WordPress.com or wordpress.org vs alternative sites.

Race

When the racial identity of the author was unavailable, it was not recorded.

  1. pictures of people of color: 4
  2. pictures of white people: 29
  3. authored by person of color: 4
  4. authored by white people: 58
  5. colonial gaze: 4
  6. white normative but non-colonial: 7

Gender & Sexuality

  1. reference to wife/husband, kids, boyfriend/girlfriend (hetero): 13 – this item only counted 4 days
  2. reference to partner, bf/gf (same sex): 0
  3. reference to same sex attraction or queer identity: 0
  4. sexist content: 2
  5. image of big women: 1
  6. feminist: 1 (this post was about correcting disparities in women driving stick not a self-identified feminist post)

Content

This category includes data collected specifically because it violated the rules established by WordPress to qualify for Freshly Pressed status. These rules include: original photographs or properly cited and correct use of grammar.

  1. uncited or improperly cited photographs: 12
  2. grammatical or spelling errors: 14
  3. activist posts: 1
  4. product review: 6
  5. travel: 13

Other

This includes things that we found interesting because they stood out from other posts

  1. second reference to “real Africa” in less than a month, this time positively deconstructed
  2. “I was taught the laws are there to protect our freedoms” example of white normative but non-colonial/non-racist stance
  3. posts with pictures of older people: 3

I don’t have enough data yet to make conclusions. However, as you can see, it is pretty clear that the majority of wordpress posts highlight white, heterosexual, authors over the wide range of authors present on the wordpress format. I am also hypothesizing that the preference for artfully illustrated food blogs, travel narratives, and expensive product review tips the scales toward white and upper class authors and that all though today’s Freshly Pressed included a post railing against the baby products industry that there is an overrepresentation of young, urban, white, parenting authors as well. While I expected to see regularly offensive posts based on my random glance over the Freshly Pressed blogs over the past year, which included racial over tones and sexist images, I was surprised to find far less colonial gaze, outright racism, and outright sexism in collecting the data so far.

WordPress Fail

The one where I question WordPress’ decision to highlight a Black Face apologist post over the reported 297,850 posts made this am from which they had to choose “Entertaining, Enlightening, and inspir[ing]” content

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have seen more diversity of topics and identities represented on the Freshly Pressed page than I have ever seen on it in the entire time it has been in existence. No one at wordpress.com has commented on this post but they were aware of it (I sent in a link).

UPDATE II: it took 2 weeks before they returned to highlighting racialized posts about black people and 1 month before they started in on questionable posts about Asians; today’s Fresh Press included a post by a white woman entitled “I Think I am Becoming Asian PART ONE” (emphasis mine). The insistence on highlighting the colonial gaze as representative of the top .003% brilliance on wordpress is appalling. If you blog here, please ask why authors who are not writing from this vantage point, you know the other 99.997% of us, are not as intelligent, amusing, or brilliant in the eyes of wordpress Freshly Pressed editors because I think just asking that question will make you wonder about what the focus has been here lately.

For those who don’t know, a colonial gaze is a viewpoint in which whiteness is naturalized, central to the argument about other cultures, assumed of the audience, and used to otherize non-white cultures in ways that are either meant to be amusing or belittling but ultimately reaffirm whiteness as normal and right and everything/one else as “odd”, “weird”, and essentially lesser whether it is the intention of the author or not. It can be held by members of the dominant culture and internalized by those outside of it. It operates in a hegemonic way, ie so widespread that it seems natural and normal rather than a biased and culturally specific way of perpetuating inequality.

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I came here this morning with a list of smallish posts on current affairs and pop culture to write, ie a typical day @ the blog. I remember having something about

  1. oil protests at the White House by women that didn’t get much coverage
  2. the arrest of Joran Van der Sloot
  3. the return of True Blood and the rewriting of Eggs murder as a key plot point

I was going to close with an amusing video first scene on Rachel Maddow’s blog where a fake border check point was set up by a white podcaster to stop people of European decent on the basis of their appearance to prove a point about racial profiling and AZ. It was a tidy little list that I hoped would generate conversation on twitter (where most of my commenters talk back these days) and maybe even here (like the old days).

However, much of my plans fell out of my head when for the second time in just-slightly more than 1 month wordpress highlighted a racialized, if not [internalized] racist, post on its main page.

BBC Asian Network/ Unattributed

For non-wordpress users, when you log in to wordpress you are diverted to the “Freshly Pressed” page which highlights 11 “outstanding posts” for readers. Unlike other blog formats that allow you to do some level of intelligent searching on your own or rotate through a medium list of newly posted material throughout the day to peek your interest, wordpress offers a static “Freshly Pressed” page and then a series of links inside your blog that are somewhat tailored to you like “tag surfer” and “blog surfer.” The difference between the former and the latter two options is that the former is visible to everyone who comes to wordpress looking to open a new blog or logging in to an existing one. The same 11 posts show throughout the day.

Roughly 1 months ago, 4/28/10 to be exact, I complained on Twitter about the trend I noticed in the “Freshly Pressed” section of highlighting content I felt was radically different than what was highlighted in the past. Before “Freshly Pressed”, wordpress highlighted both the most recent posts posted to the site from any blog and also highlighted specific blog posts they found interesting. These posts ranged in content from fluffy tv episode reviews to environmental disasters, race politics to restaurants to try, etc. In other words, it was wide and varied and often encouraged readers to find people like them and people who were posting completely different but interesting content. It also focused somewhat on new blogs so that you always got a sense of who was signing up.

Vanity Fair

In my tweet, I asserted a marked decrease in the variety of posts highlighted at wordpress as well as an over all trend toward a particular hipster perspective. I felt this trend, though certainly reflective of a section of blogs published on wordpress and often interesting, was leaving out a large cross section of wordpress blogs and bloggers. I pointed out that on that day’s “Freshly Pressed” page I had been directed to a blog that linguistically replaced “African Queens” with a white woman who was dating an African; the post in question also staunchly denied white privilege, basic, documented, immigration patterns, and offered up nothing about her relationship while chastising people for critiquing it from a decidedly privilege-ladden and defensive stance. I was appalled. And so were most of my tweeps. In fact it generated a heated discussion which I myself stopped by saying it wasn’t worth all of the energy we were spending on it.

A few hours later, wordpress’ official blog sent out a list of criteria for how they choose their “Freshly Pressed” posts,which included the general guide that chosen posts “represent how WordPress can be used to entertain, enlighten, or inspire.” (emphasis mine) and the specific criteria summarized below:

  1. “Unique content free of bad stuff” – bad stuff defined as “plagiarism, hate speech, fear-mongering, adult/mature content, improperly used images that belong to someone else, spam or content that is primarily advertorial
  2. includes images – especially your own or those properly cited “We like original images (meaning, your own), but if you don’t have any of your own and decide to use someone else’s, be sure you properly credit the original source” (emphasis mine)
  3. tags
  4. typo free
  5. compelling headline

Since this set of guidelines has appeared, I have seen any number of posts on the Freshly Pressed page that do not meet one or more of the expanded criteria for guidelines 1 and 2. They are especially lax with regards to highlighting posts without proper citation of images or adult content (at least twice in the past few weeks I have seen posts highlighted with closeups of women’s breasts or suggestive shots implying upskirt images). They have also on occasion included arch-conservative political posts that are clearly “primarily advertorial” in content.  I’ve actually applauded the inclusion of the latter, not because I agree with them in anyway, but because I thought it showed an effort on wordpress’ part to represent the viewpoints of more of its blogging community. The seeming lack of the commitment to showing a wider range of blogs and bloggers, especially with regards to “identity based” social justice posts in favor of content that directly negates it, is at the heart of my original complaint. In fact, I would argue that the majority of the posts highlighted during the days I logged in for the last month did not meet 1 or more guidelines. But I don’t work at wordpress and honestly, after noting an overall lack of diversity in the authors and the content they highlight (they do seem to gravitate toward posts about Asian food and Asian pop stars but other than that …) I just kept blogging. After all, it is not like their decisions are any different than any other liberal organization around (which means they are guilty not that they are all excused).

It was probably easier for me to shrug off the trend because I have no personal investment in being highlighted. I have my group of loyal readers and I believe in my content enough that I don’t need outside validation. I have also had my previous blog highlighted more than once by wordpress before the onset of “Freshly Pressed.” Not only did that bring in readers I still have, it also gave me faith that the trend I noticed could be reversed at any time and people who write about racism, feminism (non-mainstream feminism), classism, etc. would once again have their numbers reflected in what wordpress highlights. Put another way, I know that people writing about politics from and identity from a social justice standpoint make up a large enough percentage of wordpress blogs that their marked absence from “Freshly Pressed” is both disconcerting and hopefully unsustainable based on the circulated guidelines.

Stern Fotografie/ Karl Lagerfeld

However, this morning, I logged in and saw a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE highlighted in the “Freshly Pressed” section. According to wordpress’ own statistics, there were 297,849 posts besides this one to choose from this morning. That means that wordpress believes a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE is in the top .0003% of its total posts for the day in terms of its ability to “entertain, enlighten, and inspire.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

Done?

If we judge this post on the basis of the circulated criteria it is a whole ball of fail:

  1. it contains an uncited photo that belongs to someone else
  2. while it does not include hate speech, and I do not believe the author meant to be hateful or offensive, it is a post whose primary thesis is that modern day black face in the media, and its current popularity in the fashion industry in particular, is acceptable
  3. the post itself starts by calling up the controversy it is about to examine and then takes a decidedly offensive tack, ie justifying black face (yes I am going to keep saying it), which by definition would make it advertorial by nature

In other words, like so many other highlighted posts in the past year, THE BLACK FACE IS OK POST HIGHLIGHTED BY WORDPRESS THIS AM OVER 297,849 OTHER POSTS DOES NOT MEET WORDPRESS’ OWN GUIDELINES FOR HIGHLIGHTING

What then can we surmise about how this post beat out the 99.9997% of posts to grace every wordpress user’s login page and global dashboard?

  • Was it “Entertaining“? – Minstrel shows brought in a wide audience in their day and were based around the amusement of white people at their own myth – making about the lives, intelligence, sexual appetites, and ability to be a part of society of black folks …

Mammond 1899

The post in question, actually has no stated knowledge of minstrelsy or its history, which is no doubt why it JUSTIFIES BLACK FACE. It does not draw on racist humor that would at least clearly explain the racism behind choosing it as 1 of the top 11 posts available this morning. There is actually no humor, racist or otherwise in this post, unless you find the quoted thesis of the post, listed below, amusing for its pure lack of understanding about how subtlety and hegemony work with regards to U.S. racism:

“Her makeup and hair was well done and she was not dressed, I feel, in a way to construe any negative connotations to the black culture.”

I guess there is something entertaining about seeing Claudia Schiffer’s over the top blond hair (which I believe includes extensions) being completely ignored when the author praises the Halloween-esque Afro she dons in the side image as part of her BLACK FACE because:

“If she had a bad weave … then there might be a problem”

The wig is tacky and she does have a bad weave, but we are trained in this culture to believe white women’s hair is always long and straight and super model white women’s hair is always extra long and thick and straight, while black women’s hair is kinky and short unless they paid for a weave. News flash: from reality tv “stars”, to actresses, to supermodels, weaves are a common part of the job for white women. I can not say for sure Schiffer has some form of extensions in her hair for the image the highlighted author chose, but given the volume of it, I’m inclined to believe she does and that it looks bad.

  • Was it “Enlightening“? Often racism, internalized or otherwise, can enlighten us about how deep racism is in our culture and how willing white people are to search for and then highlight any black person who says what they are secretly thinking themselves, ie:

“The most Schiffer and Lagerfeld are guilty of is not being sensitive enough to the feelings of the black culture.”

I don’t however think illuminating the depths of hegemonic racism is the reason Imani’s post was highlighted today.

Black Friend Gag/Comedy Central

Instead, I think her post was chosen precisely because it does highlight what one or more people making the decisions at wordpress’ “Freshly Pressed” page think about race and racism, ie that black people are too sensitive and that intention matters more than action. Of course, it is a little hard to miss the intentions in the images in question here, but you’ll need to think like a racism apologist for a moment. More importantly it excuses racism and calls out “over-sensitivity” in the mouth of a black woman blogger. It is the classic “see even black people said it” moment that is making my intellectual and personal blood boil.

If wordpress believes there is truth value here, then we have to be serious about the question of “enlightening” content.

Imani argues two things:

  1. Schiffer’s BLACK FACE photo does not have any stereotypically negative content and therefore is not racist – this is presumably based on a classist argument in which dressing Schiffer up as a black escapee from the old tv show Dallas (ie an 80s millionaire complete with shoulder pads and gaudy jewelry) means they are not being offensive. First, class is not race. Depicting her as wealthy does not negate depicting her in a racist manner in the same way that a multi-cultural photo could still be guilty of classism or sexism, or even racism. Second, race and class are intertwined. And while Imani is right to point out that the most stereotypical images of black folks assume poverty, there is also the more subtle class critique of wealthy black people that include “uppity” and “declasse”.  In fact, if we wanted to stretch this analysis to its furtherest point, we could look at the decision to put Schiffer in an Afro rather than braids or puffs in light of the dressing down of First Lady Obama. More likely, though, the image seems to be taking the declasse tactic. In blackface Schiffer’s appearance is at once gaudy, with big flashy jewelry and glittery clothes, and out of time, calling up soap opera divas of the 80s rather than modern business women and economic powerhouses.  Schiffer’s white photo on the other hand, shows her in a classic black suit emulating a madonna-esque power ensemble of sex and money. (You should note the original image is sexist; it replaces Schiffer’s shirt with a black leather bra. Nonetheless she is the picture of modern vis a vis the outdated and gaudy attire of her “black” counterpart.) These images operate on multiple levels, calling into question the class attainment of black people on the basis of race while also sexualizing white women and therefore subsequently desexualizing black ones.
  2. Karl Lagerfeld, the photographer, didn’t have enough black models to use so he made do. “maybe it was the lack diversity in the people involved with the photo shoot” – Imani has no way of knowing who was at that shoot therefore her argument has no basis. More importantly, there are a bevy of black models available and like any other photographer, if Lagerfeld had wanted a multicultural shoot all he would have had to do is call the agencies and request models from the various races he wanted to represent. The same people who represent Schiffer also represent Brazilian, African, and Asian models for sure and probably also Latin American, Latina, Caribbean, and Black British or Black French models, so he would not have even had to make two phone calls to have a multicultural shoot. The bottom line is Lagerfeld chose not to use models of color because his goal was to produce BLACK FACE and that decision is part of a growing trend in the modeling industry right now that at its heart is incredibly racist. Racist because it erases the presence of women of color. Racist because it takes jobs and money from women of color in order to keep it in the hands of white photographers, designers, and models who will not complain about the racism in the images. Racist because often the images themselves rely on racist stereotypes both subtle and covert. RACIST because it calls up a history of oppression whose antecedents are still readily felt especially in the fashion industry.

Not only is the information Imani includes incorrect but she also edited out pertinent information I found only after writing this post while looking for images to illustrate it.

  1. Schiffer actually appears in both BLACK and ASIAN FACE – something Imani does not mention until the very last sentence and does not depict
  2. the photoshoot was done for a conservative German magazine which regularly peddles in racialized fantasies

This information would have been not only enlightening but also added much needed depth to our understanding of what is actually going on in the controversial images. It would also have undermined Imani’s entire thesis without having to do the kind of work I have done here to show its holes.

Stern Fotografie/ Karl Lagerfeld

The full spread speaks to the convergence of sexist, racist, eroticism that is entirely missing from Imani’s analysis. Where I writing this post as a response to her and not to wordpress, I would take time out to deconstruct each of these images for that content and focus on how overt racism and sexism are making a come back as the interlocking tools of choice to express racial fears across the West.

In other words, if we define “enlightening” as something that gives us new, in depth, or profound information this post fails on all accounts because it’s naivete about race, racism, and racial history make its argument wholly unfounded and unsupportable except in the minds of racism apologists. To be fair, Imani never set out to analyze the photos but rather to excuse away people’s reactions to them as racist. But to do one, you ultimate have to successfully do the other.

  • Does it “Inspire“? – it inspired me to rant for 30 minutes in this post and on twitter and encourage people to retweet wordpressFAIL citing racialized thinking as often as possible, but again I don’t think that is what wordpress meant.

Harem Fantasies/Professor Jan Nederveen Pieterse Collection/ BBC

Forgive me while I do something I tell my students not to do when writing a paper. According to Webster’s Dictionary, inspire means:

1 a : to influence, move, or guide by divine or supernatural inspiration b : to exert an animating, enlivening, or exalting influence on

Divinity aside, this definition argues that there must be something deeply meaningful and moving in the posts highlighted by wordpress. And yet the only thing this post gives us is a racism apology from a black woman who actually believes that a famous photography did a black face photoshoot because he couldn’t find models of color to use …

I am not inspired, I am heartbroken.

For all the work we have done to teach people about oppression and how to analyze, organize, and decolonize around it, we still have young black women justifying their own oppression due to a lack of knowledge and white people justifying their own unexamined uber-subtle beliefs about race through them. Worse, in the last 4-8 years of teaching I have seen a profound failure to understand subtlety, history, or basic critical thinking (ie the ability to look beyond the surface image or first reaction to the deeper meanings and connect them to other information from the past and present) on the rise amongst N. American students. This lack of critical skills relates to any sort of analysis not just oppressions work which is always hard the first time out. I believe the problem stems from the “No Child Left Behind” testing culture of middle and high schools. As so many have already proven statisically and ethnographically, testing culture has thrown out critical thinking for “the right answer” and learning how to deduce it without having to think or engage beyond the flattened out multiple choice options presented students.

I am concerned about how a seemingly arbitrary decision about education has translated into such a wide gap in the ability of younger people to deconstruct huge systems of oppression and what it means for the perpetuation of racism, sexism, etc. Couple this with the TX textbook controversy, attempts to shut down multicultural ed in AZ and underfund/combine/dismantle ethnic studies, women’s studies, and queer studies at the university level across the country and a pattern of planned ignorance seems to emerge that raises any number of red flags. This planned ignorance is then reflected in the increasingly polarized conversations that neither look at facts nor evidence on and off the internet.

Part of mural in London c 1966/ The Latest.com

In the midst of these large battles, blogging was once a way to write back to abusive power. It was used by many to highlight the perspectives, experiences, and analytical skills of people largely left out or ignored by mainstream media, publishing, and academe. As blogging mainstreamed however, the ability for counter-revolutionary voices receded. Now Ashton Kutcher’s fart tweets, Huffington Posts paid posts, and Shock Jock’s witch hunts receive the bulk of attention while people blogging for the sake of writing what is not available or not available in any large and tranformal way anywhere else get relegated to niche.

WordPress has a unique opportunity as one of the largest sites hosting blogs or providing software to independent hosts. As of this morning, there are 293,224 people blogging on wordpress. People who have been repeatedly highlighted on “Freshly Pressed” have received book deals, speaking engagements, invitations to cover important national events, exclusive interviews, and even regular tv commentary spots. In other words, WordPress has the opportunity to highlight a wide section of the population and influence their ability to speak to much larger audiences as well as gain mainstream legitimacy. When wordpress decides to ignore the bulk of its social justice bloggers who blog about racism, classism, sexism and the like in favor of identity neutral, hipster funny, and occassionally sexist or racist posts it makes a critical decision to work against not only a portion of its writers but the social justice I still believe the people behind wordpress would say they support. When it highlights a post JUSTIFYING BLACK FACE, especially on the heals of promoting a post erasing black women and denying white privilege a month earlier, one has to question exactly what the real criteria is for “Freshly Pressed” and exactly what kind of influence wordpress is aligning itself with. WordPresss itself has failed to live up to its own guidelines for highlighting posts and this instance it has done so in the service of racialized thinking if not straight up [internalized] racism and as a 5 year veteran of the wordpress blog I call Bullshit.


Gut Reaction

(the one where I quote the Bible, its rare but I’m going there)

This morning I opened the blog to see a featured image from wordpress of a bird coated in oil from the Korean oil spill off the coast of San Fran several years ago (see below):

unattributed

I literally burst into tears. Two thoughts in my head screamed for supremacy:

  1. WHY?!? Why is our greed and consumption so insatiable that life itself is not a big enough deterrent to any number of atrocious acts committed in our names or desires?
  2. Have “I” not clothed and fed the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (a paraphrase of Matthew 6:26-30)

What I had forgotten about the latter is that the illustration in Matthew is not solely, as I remembered it to be, about how well G-d cares for the plants and animals of the Earth. (That passage is actually Psalm 104 which specifically outlines how G-d cares for all creatures and they all have worth.) Instead, Matthew talks of G-d’s love and care for them as an illustration of how much greater His love and care for human beings must be, because “we are more important.” And maybe that is the problem, while not all of us come from a Judeo-Christian tradition many concepts in capitalism are tied to a manifest destiny thoroughly tied to a mis/reading of scripture that has seeped into the global capitalist culture detached from its Divine mandates. Thus we shed ideas of stewardship (Leviticus 25: 23-24, Ezekiel 34: 2-4, Isaiah 24: 4-6, ), vegetarianism (Genesis 1: 29), and animal exploitation as a sign of our moral depravity (Ezekiel 34:17-18) while clinging to the ideas of being better than the plants and the animals of this Earth (Matthew 6:25-32) and domination over or exploitation of those things that do not produce profit (Genesis 26 & 28). In other words, greedy men found or manipulate religions to justify their greed and end the end, their justifications are so ingrained (hegemonic) that they go unquestioned as the very fabric of our societies and our “democracies.” And then this happens:

Prince William Sound Exxon Valdez Spill/ Unattributed

While the world cries in private because our tears and our truths are too painful or too honest for mainstream media or because the lives of so many lost pales in comparison to a contrived story about the Nation of Islam confronting the Secret Service or your local weather forecast …

But let’s be clear, the devastation in the Gulf is the direct result of over-consumption and dependence on oil in a time when we are entering our 7th year of war in the Middle East. The loss of lives there and here for something we can and should be learning to live without or at least with less rises every hour while we keep driving to nowhere.

rescued bird New Orleans/ AP Photo

Here’s what happens when a wild bird becomes contaminated with crude oil. The instinct to preen their feathers takes over all other needs, including feeding and evading predators.  By preening, birds ingest oil which causes systemic damage to their internal organs.  By not eating, they become dehydrated and malnourished.  And with no ability to evade predators, they are more prone to the Darwinian cycle.

Preening is a bird’s natural way of keeping their feathers aligned, clean and in place, which ensures buoyancy and a watertight seal for proper body temperature.  Much like shingles on a roof, birds’ feathers need to be aligned and positioned just right for protection from the water.

The National Wildlife Federation states, “The Gulf Coast is extremely important for hundreds of species of migrants, which variously breed, winter and rest here during migration. The population effects on birds from this spill will be felt as far north as Canada and Alaska and as far south as South America.” (Care)

Yesterday, 494 dead birds were found in the Gulf area. The majority of them had no oil on their feathers but instead likely died from consuming oil, dispersant chemicals, or other toxins related to the spill in the air, water, or through their food.

Whether you subscribe to a religious belief that we are called to care for every living thing on this planet:

But now ask the beasts and they will teach you; And the birds of the air, and they will tell you; Or speak to the Earth, and it will teach you; And the fish of the sea will explain it to you. Who among them does not know … (Job 12:7-9)

a social justice one, like the ancient Arab Agricultural League, the Socialist League, or the more modern Green Peace who were all born out of concern over existing environmental degredation and a desire to combat it; or a self-interested one:


* where “zombies” are stand in for CEOs of MNCs like BP

The bottom line is that we are all impacted by the devastation in the Gulf (both the Mexican one and the Persian one).

This morning I cried not just for the loss of a single bird or ecosystem or the break in a food chain in which we are all implicated, but rather over the loss of the most sacred parts of what make us human. Little by little we have been sacrificing the best parts of ourselves to capitalist consumption and without a great sea change we won’t be alive long enough to re-learn how great and wondrous we (all of us on this planet) were meant to be.

Drill Baby Drill

Every time I write a sentence to contextualize the oil disaster in the Gulf, I erase it. It would be easy to use this event to further a political agenda, especially given that unlike people pointing to Obama I have a historian’s eye view and can actually point to trade agreements, economic systems, war decisions, etc. that predate him and are almost all made and perpetuated by Republicans. Certainly all of us can remember Palin’s chant to “drill baby drill” from only a year ago. And yet, this partisan politics seem to be both childish and offensive in the face of the devastation. Estimates related to the amount of oil spilled already and the impact on wildlife, fragile ecosystems, and the fishing industry alone should bring all the finger pointing to an end and mobilize anyone who can to get to the coast to help. Not surprisingly, when you stop watching mainstream media, that is exactly what we are seeing. The national guard, environmentalist organizations, activists (including Kevin Costner, who has invested in a machine that can separate water from oil), and volunteers are working around the clock to try and stop further contamination of the Ocean, Wetlands, and Gulf and to clean and rescue as many animals as they can. While mainstream media fans the flames of partisan politics and the President looks perturbed while claiming BP is obligated to do what we want, real people are out there fighting to preserve an already fragile ecosystem.

For the rest of us, there is a lesson in what is going on in the Gulf: global capitalism neither cares about people nor plants and animals. Everything is an exploitable resource and every corner that can be cut will be to make the profit that much larger. More than that, the media and the paid blogging political pundits will always mobilize to distract you from the lives lost (human and animal) and the long term impact in order to get you caught up in finger pointing. Whether it is the distraction of the supposedly criminal “illegal aliens” running amuck that keeps you from questioning how laissez faire capitalism, international lending, and free trade agreements have created a global devaluing of workers, increased exploitation of workers, women, and children, and forced chosen and unchosen massive migration of labor that depends on them being unbound by borders, or the “unmoved President” whose lack of action somehow both caused the spill and failed to address it afterward that keeps you from asking questions about oil dependence, exploitation of already vulnerable populations, the ongoing consolidation of power over governments by corporate interests, and profit over people, the bottom line is that finger pointing is not only futile but also keeps the systems of power that let this happen in place.