Death Salon LA: A Recap

death salon skullIf you know me well, you know I like me some creepy things. I used to park myself in front of the Discovery Health Channel, watch Disney’s So Weird as a kid, and browse websites for tales of the supernatural. During my gawth intellectual phase, I listened to Cradle of Filth, googled all the fancy words and characters in their lyrics (e.g. Gilles de Rais, Erzulie, Lillith, Faust, Walpurgis, and so on), and ended up writing a term paper about Elizabeth “The Blood Countess” Bathory. I even thought I wanted to become a forensic scientist of some sort once I graduated high-school.

Instead, I ended up going to Brown University and concentrating on gender and sexuality studies, but the passion for these issues lived on. Nowadays, this interest in the “creepy and dark” manifests more obviously in things like my love of the TV series Hannibal, unique earrings (e.g. baby doll arms, a bobcat’s jawbones), and the history of medicine. I’m still entranced by mortality, rituals, bodies, and how we deal with all of these, so it must have come as no surprise to my friends and colleagues when they heard I was attending Death Salon LA.

After avidly consuming tons of posts from The Order of the Good Death website (finding it via the founder’s Ask a Mortician series on YouTube), I heard about this event and promptly freaked out with joy. I immediately told one of my colleagues (the inimitable Megan Andelloux, or “Oh Megan”) who shares my fascination with these topics. After some deliberation because our schedules were pretty packed, we booked our trips from Rhode Island to Los Angeles and got ready for a weekend full of intellectual stimulation.

In just one day at Death Salon LA, I learned about demonic semen transfer systems, the mortification of female saints, cadaver saponification, decorated Bolivian and Peruvian skulls that are said to be miraculous, the mummified Capuchin hanging wall friars in Palermo, the democratization of images via post-mortem photography, anthropomorphic taxidermy, anatomical Venuses, St. Bartholomew’s flayed skin that he held as a sash, death cabarets in 20th century Europe, and more.

The experience was wonderful and illuminating, and it balanced subjects so there would be something for everyone. Still, there was definitely a big emphasis on gender and sexuality, which I obviously really appreciated, and the interdisciplinary, multimedia approach catered to a variety of knowledge levels. I’m terribly excited to see where it goes from here, and though I probably can’t go next year (it’s in Europe in 2014), I’m looking forward to it in 2015 when it comes to Cleveland.

As a demonstration of my obsession with documentation, and as a means to share information with those who couldn’t attend this year, I tweeted up a storm while I was there, and upon returning to RI, crafted a recap of the media bits I nabbed in LA. You can check out the 2 days’ worth of relevant images, tweets, and pieces I corralled:

You can also see the version posted on the official Death Salon website. I was sadly unable to attend all the events, so I wasn’t able to recap the Atlas Obscura trip to a local cemetery or the Death Salon LA Soirée with death-themed food and drinks. I’ll leave you all to dig up those resources, no pun intended.

When “Going East” Is Code for “CHERRY BLOSSOM RACISM”

A friend posted this article about the recent launch of the “Go East” Victoria’s Secret line on their Facebook page, and a comment exchange ensued between some folks, myself included. I thought some points that were raised deserved a response (and a public one at that, not caught up in the FB privacy settings). I’ve paraphrased and bolded them here + added some responses.

  • How is this racist? A geisha is a sexual figure in East Asia already. 
This line isn’t just sexualizing the geisha—the entire LINE is all about “sexy exotic Asian-ness,” and it’s all predicated on a commodified, simplified, and inauthentic view of “exotic asian culture.” For the purposes of Victoria’s Secret, “going east” means “let’s put some cherry blossoms and red on some lingerie and make our models wear chopsticks in their hair and OH OH don’t forget the kimono!” Of course it brings in the geisha as one of the lingerie styles because that’s one of the easiest things to sexualize here in the U.S., since so many people are familiar with the concept. Speaking of which, most of us have a pretty simplified and misinformed idea about what being a geisha entails anyway, and the level of education and training geishas got/get as well as the diversity of their actions/professions is not something a lot of people know about. Most folks just think “yeah, a geisha, a Japanese prostitute with the white face and stuff, like in Mulan or something.”
  • Sexual fantasy doesn’t indicate personally racist/bigoted beliefs. Wanting to dress like a geisha doesn’t make someone a racist.
Sexual attitudes and desires don’t happen inside of a magic bubble. We all have the responsibility to ask ourselves why we like what we do instead of just saying “AH WELL I JUST LIKE STUFF WHO KNOWS WHY.” Just as we adopt racist, sexist, etc.-ist beliefs in other areas of our lives, we adopt them in our sexual life and sexuality too. It’s our responsibility to interrogate what we want and how that intersects with the world around us. It’s like saying “yeah I only date white people, I dunno, I just find them more attractive.” Beauty is not this magically 100% objective thing–it’s very conditioned by our upbringing and cultural surroundings, and if those have racism embedded into them, you betcha your ideas of beauty will also have racism embedded unless you actively work to fight that and deconstruct it as much as possible.
And even if someone doesn’t want to dress like a geisha due to “explicitly racist” reasons, it involves a degree of subconscious entitlement to do so–that “yes, I can wear this, because I can do whatever I want, I have access to these pieces of this culture and I don’t have to think about the context or the impact of this choice.” It’s that dismissiveness, that disregard, that idea that all things are possible/accessible and OK because “I’m not actually a racist.” Racism isn’t just lynchings and cross-burning and denying people jobs; it’s way more complicated and pervasive than that.
  • Taking this line down and not carrying foreign-oriented lines of lingerie = just as offensive as carrying them.
There’s a difference between carrying a line catered to a particular community and appropriating that community’s culture. There’s also a difference between actually trying to provide positive and accurate representation of a culture for that culture (or even for society) and doing something simplified to purely make profit and create the newest fashion collection. Here, the intent as well as the outcome are important. Furthermore, no, these things are not “equally offensive.”
Of course, product advertising and these sexy lingerie things are never going to fully capture the entire history of whatever they’re symbolizing/hinting at, but when it’s done along already tense axes, where there have been lots of struggles between those who are creating the products and those who they are “depicting,” it’s a problem. Why? Because it’s once again a reiteration of the same power dynamics. In a climate where there are still a lot of anti-Asian feelings (check out this website for example!), it’s just one more way in which U.S. culture, especially non-asian/specifically-white U.S. culture, asserts that it can take whatever it wants from these cultures for its own purposes, demonize the fuck out of those same cultures, and not be held accountable.

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.”

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.

Dear White Friends, Lovers, Strangers

No, I don’t hate you as a person because you’re White.

I hate the structural inequalities that put White people at an advantage. I hate the legacy of racism in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. I hate that people of color can’t try to create a safe space for themselves without some White people commenting on how that’s “reverse racism” and “discrimination.” I hate that when people of color talk about race and inequality, many White people respond defensively, negatively, and/or with guilt that then makes them focus on their “feeling bad” and impairs them from seeing the realities we’re bringing up. I hate that many respond with “well, we’re not ALL like that” because I already know you’re not all “like that”–“like that” being overtly discriminatory and horribly racist, but most of you to some degree still perpetuate racism even if in small ways.

I don’t need your guilt or anger; I need your support and your allyship in action.

I don’t need you to hate other White people, but to call them (and yourself) out when something racist happens. I need you to stand up for people of color even when there are none in the room. I need you to examine your privilege and see how it affords you certain things that are not accessible (or easily accessible) to people of color. I need you to look at the history of how racial difference was constructed in the United States and understand the context of race.

I need you to LISTEN.

I do NOT need you to feel guilty, but I understand if you do. I can understand if you feel bad, uncomfortable, awkward, or anything in that realm, but those feelings are a byproduct of examining privilege and usually they can even be part of the process of becoming an ally.

No one said this would be easy, and we must not confuse safety with comfort.

Young and Silly

Let’s lighten up the mood of this blog!
What better way to do that than by posting ridiculous pictures of myself when I was a kid?

Yes, folks, there WAS a time when I didn’t have boobs.

With my mom.
OH THE GRAND FINALE. OH YEAH. 
I WAS SUCH A COOL KID.
The end.