Re: The White Elephant in the Room

This is my response (edited from my Tumblr version of it) to Black Girl Dangerous/Mia McKenzie’s post about The White Elephant in the Room. (Please go read that first!)

When “woman of color” includes Latin@s of all stripes, then yes, I am a woman of color.

When “woman of color” is just shorthand for “African or African American,” then no, I am not a woman of color and would never claim to be. (And I mention this because many spaces I found, especially initially, were for WOC and QWOC but only had African American folks in them—no other groups were represented/part of those spaces).
When “woman of color” includes people born in the Caribbean and Latin-America, whose culture and upbringing and politics were not those of white U.S. Americans, whose heritage includes slaves and indigenous folks and colonizers all wrapped up in one, whose native tongue isn’t English, who don’t have the privilege of NOT thinking about their race/ethnicity/culture, then yes, I am a woman of color.
When “woman of color” means that I’m oppressed based on my skin color, then no, I am not a woman of color and would never claim to be. (The kind of shit I get for my skin color is not oppression, and now that I’m living in the U.S., is even less of a talking point.)
Though it’s not the same thing (obviously), I feel there are important parallels to sexuality and gender here, the feelings from folks who are “visibly” queer in one or both of those arenas vis-a-vis those who can “pass.” The important thing is for those who can “pass” as a dominant group to ACKNOWLEDGE their (our!) privilege, use it for the best (cross-reference that video I posted a while ago about using white-privilege), and help speak for our communities, but be aware that we should also help to centralize folks of the most marginalized positions instead of just repeatedly highlighting the same voices who are “most palatable” to dominant groups. It means being aware of WHY we have privilege and HOW we have privilege, and striving to do something about it instead of going “oh well, I can’t help my privilege!” or “it’s so HARD to be privileged!” It means not being content when something that claims to represent queer folks really is just “cisgender/normatively-gendered white-looking queer people” or feeling all self-satisfied when we work for the inclusion of POC in white spaces and all the POC are suspiciously white-looking. It means we need to try harder and step back more sometimes, and it means our identities are never at rest.
At the same time, for ALL of us, it also means knowing that there are people within and behind all those long laundry lists of identities, and that identities can be painful and joyful and help us build communities but also keep us out of communities that once felt or should have felt like home. It means knowing there will be rage and sadness and hope and laughter and that we need to have at least a little understanding and compassion in our hearts, but that our feelings are valid and don’t need to be 24/7 crafted into tasteful, polite little snippets.
For someone who can pass as white (though I am usually on a mission to make it clear who and what I am), I don’t get harassed on the basis of my skin color on the street. For someone who can pass as heterosexual (if I try/when I have male partners/etc.), I can go without getting harassed for my choice of partner.  These are things that make my life easier. A lot of POC and a lot of queer folks and a lot of people at those intersections don’t have those privileges, and so I need to own them very clearly. Heck, on a more “superficial level,” I can purchase makeup and not wonder about how it will look on my skin because the models on the ads have the same skin-tone as I do. I can listen to love songs and not have to *always* switch pronouns and genders around. I can watch movies and see people that look like me on the surface. On both life-or-death as well as day-to-day levels, I have a ton of privileges that make my interactions with the world similar to those of a white, cis, hetero person. Still–that doesn’t suddenly make me a white, cis, hetero person, and it doesn’t erase all the ways in which my identities as a Latin@, queer, genderqueer/fluid/hotmess do affect my day-to-day experiences in ways that clearly align with those/my communities.
If we’re building community based on our culture and background and queerness, it’s not okay to be told “oh wait, you’re not queer enough, please leave” or “you’re not enough of a minority, this isn’t for you” or “whatever, even though your heritage is X you look like Y so let me erase your entire experience.” It DOES mean people can tell me to shut the fuck up if I’m speaking about an experience that’s not mine though, for sure, and it means that we might all be POC/queer/whatever, but that our intersecting identities make it so that all our experiences aren’t the same, and that we can’t hold hands and pretend that we all experience the same level of oppression. We need to learn to build our communities, as complex as they may be, and also learn to stand in solidarity with those that are different from us, be they part of certain spaces we inhabit or be they complete outsiders.



And re: the OP, relating to that last point about light-skinned privilege vs. white privilege—what would “visibly POC” mean? Very curly hair? Slanted eyes? A wider nose…? Or…? I also ask because the idea of separating “white skin” from “light skin”doesn’t make sense to me unless we’re saying that using the language of “light” vs. “dark” poses dark skin as its “default” and so you can have a “dark black/brown” skin tone or a “light black/brown” skin tone and beyond that, it’s just “white skin.”

What Not To Do When Housemate Hunting

As it happens, I was housemate hunting recently. The following is text from an email-exchange that ensued after a very singular dude replied to the posting. See, while humor is awesome, using this kind of humor when you’re a cis-dude and we don’t know each other at all = not the best choice.


Hey girls!
In response to your CL listing, here I am.  Your listing and requirements are almost exactly what im looking for!
– Im LGBT-friendly (Im currently traveling Europe with a gay friend and a couple straight ones).
– I like to share household utilities (down to groceries, netflix, bar tabs)
– I throw occasional extravagant parties (maybe twice a year).  Dinner parties are great too.

Im a 28 y/o male engineer going in for a masters in entrepreneurship at Brown this fall.

So a little about me.  To sum it up, im a social, spontaneous, sporty, clean(ish) and nerdy guy.  I was born in Oregon, lived all over the US, but living in Boston for the last 5 years working at a tech startup managing the manufacturing and various engineering aspects of our products.  When im not working I enjoy cycling, hiking, snowboarding, ultimate frisbee, inventing/building random things, traveling, meeting new people, and going out with friends.

Now that you know a little about me, id love to hear a little more about you guys.  The only concern that I have at the moment is… living with THREE girls?  But you guys sound pretty awesome.

Best, XXX


Hi XXXX!

What does an “occasional extravagant party” mean to you? That sounds fancy! 😀 Is it more on the “fancy fabulous party” or “beer pong rager” end of things?

And yes—three girls. Have you been primarily living by yourself or with guys…? We’re pretty awesome if I do say so myself. The question is—are we all compatible? That’s what we have to find out! Do you think you could Skype with us for a chat tomorrow or in the coming days?
On our end, we’re all sociable folks with Venn-diagramming lives. We have our own things going on (and it seems like all fervently love our jobs and doing good for society), but do like to spend time together. For example, we hosted a couchsurfer these past two nights, all of us had dinner together yesterday and then watched a movie about an evil Santa Claus in Finland. Then, today, one of the housemates (Jenna) and I got home from work, chatted over some pineapple-y wine, and watched an “offbeat romantic ghost story” about a married fisherman who has to reconcile his love for a man with his life and society’s social mores. Sometime in August we’ll be hosting a monthly (or so?) feminist book club, and there are plans to go down to Newport sometime because I’ve never been and that’s quite a tragedy.

If that sounds at all interesting, let’s set up a time to chat!


Hey Aida,

The occasional extravagant party means I like to throw epic memorable parties which i invest fairly heavily in.  These are no ordinary beer pong ragers, I dont even allow it.  These are epic themed parties where massive props are made, fog machines, disco balls, candles, blacklights, meticulously created playlists, dance floors, etc. and funded by the young professionals who like to show appreciation to their good friends a couple times a year.  Youve never been to a party like this before.  (Note from Aida: I am simultaneously intrigued and put off.)

Ive been living with 3 boys and 1 girl in boston for the last 5 years.  A few people have cycled, but the ratio always remains the same.  I like to live with at least one girl to keep the place in check.

Im daunted by your “feminist book club” and three “social justice minded” women.  Im pretty sure you guys will want to kill me by the first night if you take my asinine crass humor seriously.  Im pretty over-the-top.  While I appreciate your time, I think im going to have to respectfully decline.

Good luck finding someone!


The problem is, while this guy sounded kind of interesting in a way, he can’t expect me to trust his intent once I’ve already been slammed with sexist bullshit over and over. And even if I WERE to think “well he’s just being ironic/funny,” this kind of shit is not funny to me anymore 99% of the time, especially coming from men, and cis, straight men at that.

If we do not have a relationship, do not have a rapport, and do not have ANY remote smidgen of comfort with each other and knowledge about where we’re coming from, this kind of humor doesn’t make sense and doesn’t make me feel good about our interactions. A lot of what he said just sounds like regurgitations from shitty conversations I’ve had with people who have been clueless, sexist, and/or disrespectful. Does anyone think that’s cool or comforting? That it’s funny or cool to make people feel like they might have another person in their life who devalues them, even if only just for a moment, for the sake of humor, and reenacts the daily sexist bullshit they face?

People can’t expect folks from an oppressed/marginalized group to trust the intent of people from a majority/oppressive class when the latter are going down the same path of shittiness. “Oh oh oh, but I was being FUNNY/IRONIC” is not an excuse. Still shitty. When experience has told me and my communities that this kind of behavior is indicative of sexist and misogynist beliefs, WHY in the world would I just “hope” that this person would be different? Why would I even TRY to excuse them and give them the benefit of the doubt, especially if it’s about living together? Come on. Doesn’t make sense.

Does finding this problematic make me humorless? No. It makes me someone who prefers a more sophisticated and less oppressive brand of humor. I used to be one of those “you can joke about anything! bring on the dark humor and horribly offensive shit!” kind of person, especially before I hit college… but once one’s been exposed to how this kind of thing actually plays out and is the lived reality of people, it’s hard to find that shit funny anymore. That shit is REAL and EVERY DAY and EXHAUSTING. The harm these jokes and cracks make is far higher than their funniness, and from a purely utilitarian perspective (as well as one that focuses on kindness and respect more so than momentary wittiness), IT’S BETTER TO REFRAIN FROM SUCH “JOKES.”

And before someone says “well that’s censorship,” welcome to the world. We all have to “censor” ourselves sometimes. We should HAVE the freedom to be shitty people to some extent and say whatever we want, but consciously CHOOSE to not be shitty to others. We need to strive to be better, and create a world that’s a safer place to be. Just because we “can” do something doesn’t mean we SHOULD do it.

Humor that relies on oppression and marginalization, no matter how small, is LAZY HUMOR. It’s EASY to use the pre-existing power dynamics to “make a funny,” and it pretty much requires no thought or wit or spin–just a pretty straightforward mimicry of what’s going on in the day-to-day. Let’s strive for more instead of just rolling around in the muck.

Racist + Sexist “Adult Novelties”

Trigger-warning for gross sexist, racist language and glorification of non-consent.

Those of you who know me know I *love* talking about sex toys. Not only do I find them personally stimulating (har har har), I’m also just fascinated by how they have evolved, how technological developments have impacted their growth/design, and the ways in which people and the media conceptualize them. I’m fortunate enough to have attended some “novelty expos” in the past for work and I’ve seen a wide array of products. Some have blown my mind with their stylish marketing and innovative designs, but I’ve also had the misfortune of encountering some REALLY horrible toys (read: unsafe materials, terrible packaging, offensive marketing, and more). I wanted to highlight 2 particular companies producing some pretty egregious toys.

Why?

  • Because I want to hold toys and companies to higher standards and share what I know with the people who read this blog
  • Because consumers deserve to find good resources for their sex toys and know which companies are fucked up
  • Because there are some damaging and oppressive stereotypes and ideas being bandied about, and the sex toy industry usually gets a “free pass” because people think sexuality is some magical arena where politics and kindness don’t apply
  • Because we need to acknowledge the pervasive sexism and racism in our fields and see how these things connect to our daily lives

BUT FIRST: some background. Pipedreams and Nasstoys (the ones I discuss here) are part of what’s known in the industry as “The Big Five” (Doc Johnson, Cal Exotics, and Topco being the other three in the club). These are the companies that churn out toys like nobody’s business–the “giants” in the industry. There’s no real sense of “coherent” brand identity to the average consumer because these huge companies have a lot of toys under their belt and a wide array of different lines. Unlike smaller independent stores and companies, these organizations are faceless and commercial (not inherently a bad thing, but it’s not a positive thing for me personally). They also put their profits before their consumers, as evidenced by their practices and the stuff I mention in this post.

Disclaimer: I own a glass Pipedreams toy because I was asked to review it years ago. While the line has a TON of products, and some of them are actually nice, I don’t support them as a brand.

 

Pipedreams

When I went to the ANME Founders Show, I was introduced to the Pipedreams Extreme Toyz line. My immediate thought was a big WTF. They have toys like Flip a Sista Over and Junk in Tha Trunk. If the names and the “cum in her ghetto booty” slogan slapped across the package of the latter aren’t enough to get you riled up, here’s the copy that goes along with these ridiculously offensive toys:

Fuck her first in her tight mocha twat, then Flip A Sista Over and bust a nut in her booty! This handheld honey is the answer to every man’s chocolate fantasies…a sweet black pussy on one end and a big ol’ bubble butt on the other, with nothing getting in the way of you filling her with cum! 

If you love thick black asses, this sista’s got enough Junk in tha Trunk to satisfy your cravings! Fuck her first in her phat booty, then stick it in her snatch and bust a nut in her tight mocha twat! This bubble butt beauty is the answer to every man’s chocolate fantasies…two big round ass cheeks to slap and pound on top, with a sweet black pussy spread eagle underneath! 

Flip her over, insert the vibrating bullet underneath, and enjoy thrilling vibrations in her coochie and ass. When you’re finished, cum inside either hole and never worry about knocking her up!

Where…would I even begin criticizing this? Jesus.
This one also creeps me out due to the way it fetishizes virginity, and while I’m down with most fetishes and fantasies, the problematic thing about this toy and its accompanying text/ideology is that for many people this “virgin ideal” leads to a lot of slut-shaming  (among other things). Similarly, there’s the misogyny and idealization of youth in this other toy, which bears the lovely slogan “I’m young, dumb, and want your CUM!” And while I’m actually a fan of consensual face-fucking, the images for this toy are just downright creepy. They hit super close to home re: the dehumanization of women in day-to-day experiences, and the copy is also atrocious and reeking of rape culture:

She’s all yours to enjoy and there are no rules! Best of all, she never says no to a good time because she always has her mouth full! 

Watch her eyes roll back into her head, then gag her with a taste of your man meat!  If your girl never deep throated you before, now is your chance to enjoy the thrill! (…) She won’t gag or choke, and there’s no annoying teeth to get in the way or bite.  When you’re about to cum, don’t worry about pulling out–blow a fat load right in her mouth and let her swallow!

At the expo I attended, they also had a “shemale” torso (Note: this was their offensive language, not mine–or it was something else but along these lines, like tranny or hermaphrodite)–headless with a huge penis and huge breasts, though I haven’t seen that one being sold…

 

Nasstoys

They have an entire “Latin” section. Don’t even get me started on the packaging. The fact that they have “se habla español” on their company page makes me think that perhaps these folks are in part, men of color? I’m not sure, though! Either way, it’s fucked up.

Their “Isabella Pussy” is described as “super realista pussy” that’s “siempre lista / always ready,” so we once again see gendered language and the idea of constant sexual availability, but this time with racialized connotations to boot. The other model is “Maria,” and I could see that stupid name coming from ten miles away.

The one that is most unnerving to me, though, is the one called “My First Pregnant Latina ‘Knocked Up’ Pussy.” With the history of seeing women, especially women of color, as baby-making machines; with the history of  colonial rape; with the widely-held racist notions/images that Latin@s are “welfare queens” and “promiscuous” and all have a billion babies and get pregnant at 12…this kind of shit does not sit well with me.

BUT WAIT, they also have a racially unmarket one (read: a white one). The difference is that the “Latina” toy is slightly darker and the model on the front has dark hair and a more “Latina-looking” face (which…is another post entirely) vs. the white model who is pale and blonde. *facepalm*

I’m focusing on the things that strike me the hardest as a Latin@ female, but never fear, they also have some delightfully racist dolls that target other groups, like the Mai Li Asian Love Doll, the Geisha masturbating sleeve, and the Asian Geisha Love Doll.
Men aren’t left behind entirely in this racist circus, though, since when it comes to the “lifelike dongs,” there’s a section just for those, and there are Latin, Black, and ones without an adjective which are, you guessed it, the white ones. Because white is normal, once more. Anyway. The “super realistic dongs” are all faux-clever (read: actually just racist and lazy) plays on words that insidiously dehumanize actual Latin men (little pistol, top stud, big bull, wild bull, little bull, and more). And this banner below I think can just speak for itself (especially the “ALL American” part):

 

Again, I know these toys are selling a fantasy and a product, but we need to see how our daily lives connect to this, and how the daily lives of women and people of color are affected and mirrored by these toys and the attitudes toward them. It’s not “just a toy” or “just a fantasy.” These are all created and reflected by the society in which we live, and we can’t afford to just ignore sex (and art, too, for that matter) because it’s some special snowflake (which it’s not).We need to think about what messages these toys send and why people buy them. We need to be critical consumers and media-viewers/makers.
If you want to buy fabulous toys from reputable sources, though, check out the stores in the Progressive Pleasure Club.

 

I asked a friend “Do you think I’m just slowly turning into a pissed off lesbian separatist stereotype?”

Our conclusion was that no, I wasn’t, but I think I’ve more recently come to fully understand those “angry, humorless feminist/woman of color/queer” stereotypes ‘cause I feel that ish right down to my bones. Things that maybe I didn’t care about before, or just let slide by, are no longer okay. Once you start seeing inequality and start realizing how pervasive racism and sexism and homo/trans/biphobia and all these things are, it’s hard to ignore.

Of course I’m angry, after cis-men feel entitled to my body/time and don’t ask for consent, after my queer community is denied rights, after people feel like they have the right to tell me how I can or can’t have sex.

Of course I’m angry when women, especially women of color, make less than men in the same positions; when people of color are vilified in the media and whiteness is insidiously and subtly upheld as the standard; when companies produce skin-lightening creams that reap the benefits of colonialism and ideas about how precious pale skin is.

Of course you’ll think I’m “humorless” when I don’t laugh at the jokes that come at the expense of women/queers/POC, that trivialize inequalities and the fucked up shit some of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

Sorry, but my definition of “funny” no longer encompasses things that rely on oppressive stereotypes and judgments, and yours shouldn’t either. It’s not just being lazy with comedy; it’s outright being a privileged piece of shit who cares more about making a joke than about the harm that joke can cause to people.

Testimony Around Reproductive Health and Abortion Bills in RI

On Wednesday, I went to the RI Statehouse to testify because there was a hearing for a group of bills around reproductive health. I’d gone last year and found it important to go once again and have my voice heard. Being part of the political process in a room with passionate people (even if they’re not all in my camp) is invigorating and bizarre, especially stuck up in a balcony…but anyway. More on my feelings, thoughts, and observations about the process later. I wanted to capture my testimony (which I wrote as I waited to speak) and share it with y’all.
(BEFORE PROCEEDING: Look at the bills and their text! Check them out here.)
The following is my testimony:
My name is Aida Manduley and I’m here in support of bills 7754 and 7041, and in opposition to the rest of the ones on the docket.

Before I discuss my support of those 2 bills, I want to address what previous speakers have mentioned around intent <Note: For context, this was directed at the legislator who proposed the bill around mandatory ultrasounds and “informed consent.” She kept talking about her intent this and her intent that, how we were “misinterpreting” her intent and blah blah blah>. In making major political decisions, we need to look at context, intent, AND effect…and ultimately, effect trumps intent. Even “well-meaning” legislation can have unintended effects, and THESE effects are what can create barriers to care, misinformation, and unnecessary political interference with personal, medical decisions.

As someone who works at a domestic violence agency, as someone trained in dealing with sexual assault and crisis assistance, as a sexuality educator, and as a woman, I have personal as well as professional experience in what these bills would mean to women across Rhode Island.

In regards to bill 7754, this is a bill to keep our youth SAFE. This isn’t a bill to take parents out of the equation, but to give pregnant teens bodily autonomy–to give them the option to, through contact with trained professionals and authorities, make personal decisions about their future and care. 

In my work, I educate, and encourage parent-child conversations around these issues, but must admit that these conversations are NOT always possible, and not always safe. I’ve encountered minors who are NOT supported by their families, who regardless of their own wishes, would be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term if this bill did not pass. I’ve encountered young women abused by their own families (emotionally, physically, and sexually), for whom it is not safe to require parental consent for an abortion, for whom it is even re-traumatizing to event attempt to do so.

I’ve served and counseled young women, scared and pregnant, some already with children, who are in abusive relationships where condom negotiation isn’t possible, whose families don’t know about their relationships or who are even buddy-buddy with the abusers–women who are already experiencing health disparities and barriers to care…am I supposed to tell them I must repeat the patterns of their abusers? Am I supposed to tell them our legislators have decided that they ultimately have NO choice about what happens to their bodies? Please consider what I have said, as someone who has both personal and professional experience with these issues, and support bills 7754 and 7041.

Privilege, Blackface, and the Burden of Education

(This post is coming as a result of a debate on a listserv of which I’m a member)
The first reaction to a claim of “that’s racist” or “that’s fucked up” or anything in that vein should not be kneejerk defensiveness + “I AM NOT RACIST” + “LOOK AT ALL MY MINORITY FRIENDS.” In instances where someone is calling us out, we need to listen before trying to defend ourselves
No, blackface is not an homage, even if the wearer intended it as such. Blackface and any other cultural appropriation can be deeply offensive, even under the guise or art and political commentary. Have any of you heard the “We’re a culture, not a costume” poster campaign? If not, you should check it out. A poster on Autostraddle summed it up pretty well:  “The problem with racially insensitive Halloween costumes: While people who dress up as racial stereotypes might be able to take the disguise off the day after Halloween, people who are minorities can’t. And the resonance of everything from a geisha to a terrorist stereotype persists long after the end of October.”
Another interesting discussion? This video from The View. It’s interesting because two folks “of the group being discussed” don’t agree on the matter.
My takeaway points?
  • Just because some folks in a minority group are not offended does not mean that the action is suddenly okay or shouldn’t be construed as offensive to other members of that community. In this case, just because Whoopi was fine with it doesn’t discount (and shouldn’t minimize) the point that the other person was making.
  • People can be very aware and sensitive around some issues, but entirely clueless about others. Also, let’s remember that just because someone makes fucked up OR super intelligent statements doesn’t mean they are fucked up OR super intelligent across the board. For example, in the Halloween video I was totally on board with the speaker opposing Whoopi, but in this video, I’m totally on board with Whoopi and her defense of Sasha Grey.
  • Being ignorant about an action’s cultural baggage and the stereotypes that come along with it is UNDERSTANDABLE when folks come from a position of privilege where they have never had to think about that baggage. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean the ignorance is OKAY or that it should be allowed to continue and be perpetuated. *This is an important distinction.*
  • At the same time, people with privileges shouldn’t just expect that people from oppressed groups educate them one-on-one and on-demand. This is what happens a lot, though, and it’s exhausting as fuck. For a person who’s asking to be informed about privilege, it’s just one question; for the person getting asked, it’s sometimes a constant stream of “please educate me.” And EVEN if the people come with great intentions, they need to understand that minority groups don’t have all the time/energy to educate every single person. There needs to be empathy on both sides, of course, but we need to understand how these things work so we can see where the anger comes from. There are many resources out there at our disposal. Let’s use them. Let’s also not be *afraid* to ask our friends who are part of minority groups to help us learn, but let’s understand their potential reluctance/rejection and not take it “personally.”
  • Aside from the issues around education, folks in minority communities DAILY have to deal with the systems that fuck them over. Not trying to paint this as “woe is me I’m so oppressed,” but honestly–we need to think about all the daily stressors people face around their social positions and identities so we can be more compassionate and try to understand where they’re coming from. 
Finally, here are some more resources:

Reverse Racism DOES NOT EXIST

REASON 1: 
If you ascribe to the simplest and broadest definition of racism, which means “discrimination on the basis of race,” THERE IS NO WAY FOR IT TO GO IN “REVERSE.” Racism doesn’t mean “hating on minorities”–it means “hating on ANYONE because of their race.” Thus, “reverse racism” is a ridiculous concept/idea because any instance of racial discrimination would just be racism.

REASON 2: 
If you ascribe to the definition of racism as institutionalized discrimination/oppression, “reverse racism” (which again, is a term that does NOT MAKE SENSE ANYWAY, AHHHH) doesn’t exist. Discriminatory actions can be perpetrated by anyone, but racism needs the institutional backing. Racism is not a one-off moment of discrimination; it is a cycle, a web of power and structures that affirm one group’s dominance over another. Racism has deep roots and a wide reach.

At the end of the day, a discriminatory action can stay encased in that moment where it happened, or it can reverberate throughout a person’s life and be repeated over and over.

Of course, racism and discrimination don’t play out in the same ways in every person’s life because their other circumstances and identities affect their experiences. Still, the point is that if you can leave your moment of experiencing racialized discrimination relatively unscathed and without having great odds that it will be repeated, it was PROBABLY NOT RACISM. If you leave that moment and go back to a place where you are inherently valued more because of your race, where systems in place privilege you, IT WAS NOT RACISM because you live in a society that has the scales tipped in your favor on the axis of race.

Your Ignorance Is Showing: Ridiculous Comments on Empowerment, Objectification, and Domestic Violence

 Alternatively titled: “A Response to Cate Stewart and Lisa Lansio”
For those of you who don’t know, I’m one of the two co-leaders of SHEEC this year–a group with which I’ve been heavily involved since its inception in 2008/2009. I was at a conference in Colorado this week and sadly had to miss 3 of our events, including a showcase/open-mic in honor of Wear Purple Day/Spirit Day and Love Your Body Day that would benefit Sojourner House, a local domestic violence agency founded by Brown students in 1976. The Showcase featured 2 local poets, the Gendo Taiko (Japanese drumming) crew, Attitude (a dance troupe), as well as a few other performers (of the singing/acoustic-guitar variety).
After a set of great performances, the last two individuals who signed up for the open-mic portion took the stage and began to attack the event and the people who were in it, saying that having a campus pole-dancing troupe perform was “not respectful” and that “it just perpetuated gender roles and objectified women.” One said that “she came here expecting to be empowered, but that’s not what happened for her at all” and that we “need to stop singing about gendered things” (and I believe the example was getting kissed in parking lots? Which…what?). 
The other added that “women need to stop playing the victimized role, stop blaming men for our problems, women bring it upon themselves” and that “women have the power just as much as men and are as much to blame for abuse as men, that women are not chained to the floor and can just walk away from abusive situations.”  That same one mentioned some of the performers who talked about abuse or abused women and their mindsets have no right to speak issues that they were not physically a part of (which is actually inaccurate, but I’ll get to that later).
This is my response, not only as SHEEC’s Co-Chair,  but as an individual:

First of all, the controversial pole-dancing performance. I’m tired of defending and explaining this one, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Empowering women doesn’t mean desexualizing them. Objectification is only a problem if it’s not paired with due subjectification (read this post as well as the comments). Finally, we support a group of educated women who want to “stretch the boundaries of pole dancing as something far more than simply sexy,” who “want to create a place where people feel comfortable, athletic, and yes, sexy!” and who “consistently challenge the stereotypes that surround vertical dancing, and seek to bring together a wide range of art forms through experimentation and openness in [their] performances.”

We wanted to showcase individuals who would address the core of our event, who would speak to their relationships with their bodies via song/dance/poetry and would show us a bit of themselves through their art. This event wasn’t meant to empower every person, but provide a space so people could share what empowered them and talk about what didn’t. Sorry, Cate and Lisa, if this didn’t empower you personally, but that’s not what the event was for. We wanted to start the conversation and show the varied emotions people had regarding their bodies, trying to focus on the positive, but also trying to highlight the complexity and (thus billing it as something “silly and serious and complex” in our advertising).
Now, what I consider the most egregious part of this evening (again, from what I’ve been told) was the commentary around abuse and the power women do or don’t have.
  • As a CLASS of people, no, women do not have the same power men have. This, of course, is affected by the intersections of people’s identities and how they affect their place on the social ladder/s, but if we’re only considering it on the axis of sex, no. We are not seen as equal and we do not have the same power men do. Some individual women may have more power in specific contexts, but ask yourself–is that because they’re women or is it because of something else? And furthermore, think of the difference between winning a battle and winning the war. Few and exceptional individual cases of powerful women don’t erase the massive inequalities across society.
  • We are not blaming individual men for “our problems.” First of all, they’re EVERYONE’S problems. Second of all, what we *are* blaming is a system that in most instances, privileges men and masculinity and devalues or even punishes women and femininity (not that the two–m/m and w/f–are inextricably joined, but are often thought to be). It’s not the fault of individual men (or women) acting in a vacuum; it’s the fault of everyone taking actions that contribute to this system, and that’s why EVERYONE has to work against it.
  • “Women bring it upon themselves” is such a problematic statement, I don’t even know where to begin. My first reaction is to say “Your privilege and ignorance are showing.” I’ll call upon the words of S. Biko: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” READ ABOUT OPPRESSION AND POWER. Expand your myopic view. Your personal experience as a a woman and even as a victim/survivor of abuse does not qualify you to invalidate the experience of others, particularly women who have experienced trauma.
  • Abusive situations are DEFINED by a power and control imbalance, so NO, if the abusive partner in a male/female couple is the male, the female partner does NOT have the same power. She is also NOT TO BLAME for the abuse; no victim of abuse ever is. Read up on slut-shaming and victim-blaming to educate yourself on this. Intimate partner abuse is also often reinforced by other forms of institutional abuse/power; again, these things don’t occur in a vacuum. Context is important!
  • Many circumstances make it difficult for women (or any abused partner) to walk away from their situation, and the comment about them “not being chained to the floor” is offensive in its disrespect and flagrant ignorance. This an excellent resource that answers the “why doesn’t she just leave?” question so often posed to and/or about victims. Also check this  out for more information. I personally hate this question because it blames, shames, and disenfranchises victims, though I understand where it comes from (because I once asked it too).
I commend Jenn, Chay, Linh and the other SHEEC planners that were there and handled this as gracefully as they could given the circumstances. Thank you for positively representing SHEEC and doing damage-control, for letting those two girls know that you respected their right to have an opinion and their desire to share it, but that they did not have to attack other performers to express them. I also want to thank the performers for weathering that storm and for reaching out to us after the event with very touching emails.
Having a conversation or constructive dialogue is not the same as being argumentative and rude. Debating a point is not the same as attacking a group of people and not listening to their defense. Constructive criticism is no the same as ignorant remarks made to shame others and devalue their experiences. Learn the difference, Lisa and Cate, and then try again. We’re willing to listen if you are.
SHEEC is a group that was made to address issues of gender, sex, sexuality, and all the things that go along with it. This means we aren’t going to shy away from difficult conversations, controversy, and tackling the taboos. In fact, it means we’re more likely to address them because we come from a place that sees addressing those topics as a PRESSING NEED instead of as something to be avoided. We want to make people feel challenged and productively uncomfortable while also nourishing those who need it and providing support for folks marginalized due to their sexuality or desires. If you are looking for a “safe” group that doesn’t push envelopes, this is not it.

A Paragraph on Sex-Positivity: GO!

At its core, sex-positive individuals like myself see sexuality as a potentially joyful and productive aspect of human life, one that should not be rooted in shame and relegated to whispered conversations. I find it such an important and boundary-breaking way of looking at the world because it doesn’t dictate specific courses of action so much as it promotes comprehensive education and the availability of options for people to make their own decisions. Thus, there is no “one correct” way of experiencing pleasure and/or expressing one’s sexuality, but instead plenty of room for nuance, fluidity, and difference. For me particularly, sex positivity is deeply tied to ideas about feminism, anti-oppression work, and notions of intersectionality; it’s about the individual, but also the community. Bringing a sex positive attitude into practice means striving for the liberation of individuals from structural forms of oppressive control—recognizing that these don’t play out in the same ways for everyone—and asserting the right of people to pursue their sexual pleasure in ways that feel right for them, as long as they do so in a consensual, informed manner.

Tumblin’ Into Self-Love

The media is everywhere, dictating what we should do, buy, eat, and think. It’s also dictating, subtly and not-so-subtly, how we should look in order to be appreciated and desired. Because we live in a media-heavy world that (overall) uses racist, ableist, sizeist, sexist, homophobic, distorted images in marketing, many people don’t see themselves as represented (or at least not fully). Certain bodies and communities don’t get attention, and if they do, it’s usually negative on some level. Furthermore, based on what’s perpetuated, many people see themselves as flawed and unattractive, creating a barrier to establishing loving, intimate relationships with others and with oneself.

So how can we disrupt the constant signal from mainstream media and learn to love ourselves more? How can we undo some of the damage that has already been caused? Smashing the entire advertising industry and all forms of media is not the immediate solution. There are steps we can take, smaller but meaningful, that involve our media more carefully and surrounding ourselves with positive images and empowering messages.

There are havens for different types of bodies and niches for all sorts of desires and communities out there, and one of those places can be Tumblr.

So what’s Tumblr?
Tumblr is a blogging platform where users can post text, videos, audio, links, images, and quotations to their “tumblelog” and other users can “follow” them. Every member has a “dashboard” where all the posts from the people they follow are aggregated, making staying up to date with other users quick and easy. Its focus isn’t on personal, “journal-like” entries (though those certainly exist in great numbers), but instead on “microblogging” and sharing interesting content. Essentially, Tumblr is both a place and the medium for collage-creation; Tumblr provides the cyber-territory as well as the content that people can use to paste information and build networks.

What makes this different from Livejournal, WordPress, Blogger…?
Unlike other platforms that focus more on the individual’s story (e.g. Livejournal), Tumblr focuses on sharing and dialogue. Due to Tumblr’s structure, it functions as a big social hub for people all over the globe. I think the key is its “reblogging” feature, which allows users to put someone else’s content on their own tumblelog. This, in turn, not only spreads content rapidly (making certain things go viral immediately), but also allows for dialogue between users (when people reblog others’ content and then add on comments and/or more information) that spreads commentary beyond the place where it originated.

And how does this relate to self-esteem?
By making conscious choices about which blogs to follow, people can essentially curate their own little empowerment stream. By providing people with a constant flow of content on their dashboard, Tumblr can help people grow more comfortable with and/or accepting of certain bodies and communities. Like I mentioned earlier, Tumblr can also open up dialogue and facilitate community-building/networking, so people can discuss and come together via this platform. The “dark” side of this is that people can isolate themselves and create a “bubble” that some say excludes and marginalizes as well. However, I’m not advocating for Tumblr to become the one and only tool for consciousness-raising that’s supposed to build community and expand minds and achieve world peace…I’m saying that people can use Tumblr as productive tool to help them in a larger project of self-loving and appreciation.

So where do I go from here? How can I use this tool?
Join Tumblr and follow blogs that you find empowering–blogs that show people like you and/or those that you find attractive. By surrounding yourself with self-selected, positive content, you’ll be able to undo some of the damage that mainstream media has potentially caused, see bodies and opinions that are otherwise invisible, and get in touch with like-minded individuals. Be warned, though, that like any other place where people can post content, you may find certain things offensive and/or triggering, so practice self-care and be aware of what you’re clicking (or what to do in the event that you click something unpleasant). Take the opportunity to also step outside yourself and beyond your comfort zone. Because we all have multiple identities, it’s likely that by following even like-minded individuals, you’ll be exposed to new things that might push your boundaries and/or expand your horizons.

Now that I have Tumblr, how do I start building an empowering dashboard?

  • Take advantage of the fuckyeah[insert noun].tumblr.com phenomenon. Basically, these Tumblrs are repositories for the things they advertise on their URLs (so fuckyeahfreckles would have tons of content related to freckles). There are many useful ones that relate to body image, self-esteem, appearance, sex, erotica, and more! If you want to check for FYs, search for them here: http://isitafyeah.com/. If your desired FY blog doesn’t exist, create and curate it!
  • Look at the Followers Lists for small blogs you find empowering. You can do this with bigger blogs, too, but the more well-known the blog, the harder it will be to sift through followers to find ones that directly appeal to you. Another variant of this is to look at the people who have liked or reblogged certain posts you find empowering and inspiring.
  • Explore Tumblr (http://www.tumblr.com/explore) by clicking on categories or by searching for specific tags (e.g. lace, empowerment, sexy, food, etc.).