Sunday, September 30, 2018

Human/decency

          My concern is that even if through some miracle of human decency (an oxymoron) Kavanaugh is not confirmed, there will inevitably be another candidate plucked from the Republicans’ long list of potential Supreme Court nominees. The political system in this way functions as a highly efficient and adaptive machine— no matter what adverse conditions may arrive in the political theater, the algorithm will always be able to produce a coherent and rational response in order to stave off destruction or defeat. 

I use the word “coherent” in particular because a base level of coherence and legibility is required of the subject that emerges within the political theater in order to be believed or even heard. Thus, if a subject is perceived to be incoherent, illegible, and therefore split, they are read in the political theater as ontologically tied to deceit, shiftiness, irrationality, and hysteria (among other subject-eroding classifications). The problem is that the category of the human has always been utterly divorced from decency and thus steeped in greed, vicious cruelty, exclusion, and abuses of power. I draw my critique of the category of the human primarily from Sylvia Wynter’s work on Man as an overrepresentation of the idea of the human and Tiffany King’s work on black fungibility and transformation. I am very interested in Wynter’s dream of the “re-enchantment of the human,” but for the purpose of this piece, I exclusively use the term “human” to refer to that toxic category of Man that Wynter articulates in “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being.”

 I use the word “rational” in particular to invoke a larger genealogy that surrounds the category of Reason, a fundamental concept that appears in various forms throughout philosophy, Christianity, critical theory, and science. To be rational is to make (common) sense—Reason is supposed to be something that we believe in and blindly trust, a concept that becomes dangerously entwined with whiteness and patriarchal power, something that Deleuze and Guattari investigate further in Anti-Oedipus. Reason is what makes Hegel’s philosophy of history “right”— that time is a forward moving progress narrative, that Spirit works to push forward the ambitions of “great men” (such as Napoleon, but not Toussaint L’Ouverture) for the benefit of mankind, that the “slaughter-bench of history” is actually a good thing, and that the “Negro” never had any history at all. I would also link the coherent/incoherent and rational/irrational binaries with the similarly dialectical relationship between order and disorder. In The Terms of Order (1980), Cedric Robinson lays out the relationship between order and disorder in the broader context of global political systems:

"I have probed the ideational structure which both bourgeois and radical thought share: the pre-eminence of political order. I have sought to expose from the vantage point inherited from a       people only marginally integrated into Western institutions and intellectual streams, those             contradictions within Western civilization which have been conserved at the cost of analytical            coherence." (Robinson xii)

           "Currently, at the centers of this civilization, what are now frequently referred to as the core-states: America, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, social crises are extensive and structurally quite deep. Paradoxically, that intelligentsia which has marked as its special province the explication of social organization, has in large measure ignored both the disruptive character of our times and         the fundamental nature of social disorder. Its members persist in the delusion that, beneath the     chaos, ordered systems reign administered by stable political institutions and fundamentally             resilient cultural and economic integrations. As such, the existential experience of the individual        is denied by resorting to an heritage as citizen of a politically maintained social order rationalized       by the authority of leadership. Greater social cohesion, we are instructed, is dependent upon better      leadership." (Robinson xi)

            If we use this framework, disorder is something that is no longer stigmatized—or rather, we can point out that disorder is identified as a negative because the dominant epistemology or world system needs the façade of order to maintain its grip on power. This opens up an additional discussion of how disorderly bodies come in and out of the archive and how disorderly bodies are represented in media, but that’s another essay. My point is that the Kavanaugh hearings and media representations of it rely on maintaining the façade of order quite a bit more than we are told to believe. However, maintaining order is not merely about railroading a keg-standing rapist to the highest court in the country. It is also about controlling the relations of power and conditioning those who are “minorities” (in this case, both those who are population minorities and power minorities in America) into limiting their political imaginaries and reactions to the field of the rational.

When I use the term “political theater,” I am referring to the events in American politics that are presented to us via the (corporate) news cycle and other forms of media, including social media platforms like Twitter and satirical expressions like Saturday Night Live. The particular use of the word “theater” allows us to think about how material political events are so often based in performing relations of power and identity formations (such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, etc). Political theater is the production and reproduction of a series of codes that seem to be sentient but are actually artificially intelligent (I would be interested in thinking/writing more about the intersection of the posthuman, neoliberalism, and politics). 

The realm of politics is a space that generates the laws and norms that govern our lives. This does not mean that I am not questioning the sovereignty or legitimacy of the American State. In fact, I am doing just the opposite— when we abstract politics from the realm of the social, it makes it harder for us to articulate how historical ideas of discrimination and subjugation are materialized through laws meted out (sometimes by force) by the State. There is a symbiotic relationship between the existing power structures that benefit from racialized global capitalism and the realm of politics (an example of this would be Citizens United or the selection of a former Exxon-Mobile CEO—Rex Tillerson—to the position of Secretary of State), and it is important that we use that as a heuristic when attempting to read new developments in the political theater. 

What we see in the political theater via the actual events (such as Kavanaugh’s hearing) and in society’s responses to them (via Twitter and SNL) is only a very small part of the myriad operations (both overt and covert) by the American government. However, if we are able to use the precise tools to observe these developments in the political theater, I believe that it is possible to see the larger symbolism or mythology (Barthes again) at work in order to predict future theatrical and structural developments. The strategic chaos of the Trump administration colludes withthe 24-hour news cycle in order to generate feelings of panic, hopelessness,rage, and retraumatization in those on the left. Often, the immediate and primary response of the left to perceived brutalities performed by Republicans is to open up pain-driven, identity-based personal commentaries through the think-piece industrial complex.

The idea, presumably, is that we are supposed to group ourselves around this experience of shared trauma as a form of coalition building. The voice of this coalition is then meant to appeal to the humanity or decency of the offending Republicans in the hope of forming a more perfect union in which we are all recognized as civil subjects, just as the Founding Fathers envisioned (my sarcasm here is bordering on acerbic. One day I would like to write something about Barthes and the mythology of the Founding Fathers). Two years in, that is clearly not how things work, though the left shows no signs of stopping or developing an alternative and politically viable strategy. I think that a major inhibitor of the left’s ability to respond effectively to Republican actions is that there is not enough consideration of how we internalize the law and the sovereignty of the State in ways that we do not even realize. The law and the idea of sovereignty are just another epistemology, just like science or religion or philosophy. The pervasiveness of this epistemology within our lives is not an indicator of its objectivity or truth, but rather in its ability to enforce its supreme legitimacy through violence and various other biopolitical maneuvers. 

I find it useful to read the senate hearings and our consumption of it as a panoptic experience that, rather than aiming to uncover any kind of “truth” or “justice,” instead serves as a mechanism for passively disciplining the American population, particularly the left for our purposes. I place Senator Chuck Grassley in the position of the anonymous administrator in charge of surveillance, even though his identity is not explicitly concealed. I would like now to trouble the idea of transparency in relation to officials in the political theater. Yes, we certainly know Grassley’s name, biography, and voting record, all of which are meant to distinguish him from other humans generally and other politicians specifically. However, when one reads all of this specific information through the lens of Wynter’s concept of Man, Grassley takes on a level of opacity and ontological power that is immediately disturbing. Because his political beliefs and gender/race identity places him firmly within the category of Man, he also becomes a candidate to be taken up by Spirit (thinking of Hegel) in order to carry out a civilizing progress narrative and add more casualties to the slaughterhouse of history. 

Thus, in addition to chairing the hearings, his actions can also be abstracted to a larger task of maintaining Reason, coherence, and order through his physical body that has been imbued with political power by the State and “the people.” This is getting into chicken-or-egg territory now— are the senators in the hearing supposed to obey his doddering authority because he is chair of the hearing or because he is an old, heterosexual, rich white man? These two positions are inextricably linked within our public imaginaries and material histories. Even though we would sometimes like to imagine that we can “humanize” certain positions of authority by inserting people with marginalized identities, it is crucial that we recognize how these seemingly “objective” positions of authority are tied to the ontological power seized by the various iterations of Man throughout time. 

Order is the material form of Reason within the epistemology of the law. The fact that the Senate’s procedural guidelines (as well as guidelines used in debate, other levels of government, and many community gatherings) are called “Robert’s Rules of Order” is no small thing. Although Grassley is over a century apart from the creator of Robert’s Rules, he is able to use both his subjectivity and his political position in order to make these rules seem contemporary, coherent, rational, and legal. Thus, my issue with these hearings is not merely the fact that Kavanaugh was nominated, but also that there is an entire epistemological system that is simultaneously arcane and hyper-contemporary that is able to set the parameters of what makes a “fit” candidate for the Supreme Court (not to mention the fact that I would like to delve deeper and critique the legitimacy and fairness of an institution like the Supreme Court as an arbiter of “justice.” The fact that we aren’t even able to get to that level of discourse in response to these hearings is further proof of how these epistemological systems contain us and limit our ability to operate on different terms in the political theater). 

To make this more material, I turn to the CNN video of a small portion of the Kavanaugh hearings titled “Fireworks erupt at beginning of Brett Kavanaugh hearing.” Interestingly, in the video, Kavanaugh barely speaks. Instead, senators debate around him about the existence of unreleased documents regarding Kavanaugh’s record. With Robert’s Rules of Order firmly in place, Grassley does much of the talking in the video. But what he does is not as much talking as it is reciting code or performing an act of ventriloquization or divination. He reads off a prepared statement (written by whom we do not know), stumbling over words that seem unfamiliar but necessary. He is a puppet in a big suit, carrying out the long game mission of Spirit in the panoptic space of the (recorded) courtroom. Reason— like Deleuze and Guattari’s Oedipus—can inhabit many forms, and for the sake of the Kavanaugh trial, Grassley inhabits that shell, that armor.

 I pay much attention to the structure that props up Grassley because I am pushing back against the media’s sensationalization of Kavanaugh and his crimes. Yes, he is a terrible person who is probably never going toe punished for his myriad crimes. Yes, Kavanaugh’s existence as a serial rapist is representative of a long history of privileged white men who rape and use their power to silence victims. In addition, I think it is simultaneously important to understand how Order, Reason, and coherence persist as enablers and protectors of a violent patriarchal-political system. I specifically use the term “sensationalize” because I believe that all the corporate/24-hour news stations and print/online media want to extract a traumatized affective response from us in order to keep us feeling blindsided, sucker-punched, helpless, and utterly incapable of autonomous action that will have substantial results. Our entire contemporary media structure—with its paywalls, wine clubs, overpaid talking heads with ties to the military industrial complex, and sound-bite friendly panel screaming matches—is utterly dependent upon its ability to extract trauma from liberal/left audiences. They do this by sensationalizing specific identity-based crimes committed by the Trump administration without giving any substantial analysis of the structural causes or in-depth reporting.

So, we are culled into becoming panicked surveillers in the panopticon of the political theater. Ironically, the belief that we can lay claim to some kind of agency by obsessively consuming each sensational story is actually what reinforces the arbitrary epistemology of the law and limits us to performing only reactionary measures that are based in excavating our own pain to people (usually wealthy cisheterosexual white men) who are operating on an entirely different plane of ideology. Why did we ever think that Rex Tillerson, Steve Bannon, or “Mad Dog” Mattis would ever give a fuck about videos of Latinx children being abused in an American detention center? Their suffering is proof that their ideological trajectory is going exactly according to plan.

Circling back to the CNN video, I found it interesting to trace how different senators used the terms “order,” “decency,” and “minority” and how their interpretation of these words was received by the court (and by the court, I halfway-sarcastically am referring to Grassley. Though I do not believe him to be anyone’s objective arbiter of justice, I do believe that he and other like him wear that lie in order to bludgeon their opponents with the language of Reason). For the purposes of this piece, I am most invested in the performances given by Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, and Mazie Hirono. I select these senators not because I want to idolize them and suggest that they be sublated by the office of the presidency in 2020. Rather, I am interested in how their identities interact with Reason/the court/Grassley.

First, Harris raises the issue of the excluded documents, saying that there are “42,000 pages of documents that we haven’t had a chance to review.” He begins interrupting her almost immediately: “You are out of order. We will proceed.” In that moment, it seemed that Harris’ shallow induction into Reason (through her Senate victory) had run dry—now that she was “out of order,” she was eligible for the erasure, marginalization, and egregiously patronizing disrespect that all black women are forced to endure at some point in their professional lives. Grassley continues speaking over Harris even as she pleads that there has not been a sufficient opportunity to assess Kavanaugh as a candidate. Grassley spits over her appeal with a portrait of the Oedipal family—he drones about Kavanaugh’s “two daughters” and the handful of other people who give a rat’s ass about him. Kavanaugh smirks through the entire exchange.

Next, undeterred by Grassley’s blatant racism and sexism, Booker makes an “appeal to [Grassley’s] decency and integrity.” Booker then states that the events in the hearing seem to contradict the “values [Booker] has heard [Grassley] talk about time and time again.” In this moment, Booker formulates a pretty cut-and-dry liberal argument in the age of Trump—his argument is based on a mutual recognition of humanity and a belief in the myth materialized by slaveowning Founding Fathers in the Constitution. This argument is doomed to fail because not only do history and time exist, but they are also nonlinear—the inclusion of obedient tokens does not “modernize” the political theater as much as it enables its camouflaged existence in the present. In this moment, the ontological split-ness of Booker’s black body reveals itself when he confronts Grassley, the authority-imbued (but coherent and rational) puppet. Almost instinctively (or just the product of years of orderly debate), Grassley exposes this split-ness and calls on histories of anti-black racial stereotypes that depict black men as untrustworthy, swindlers, aggressive, and threatening. Rather than actually responding to Booker’s argument, Grassley instead says that Booker is “taking advantage of [his] decency and integrity.”

Then the screaming begins.

Their words are hard to decipher because they lack the privilege of a microphone, but it is clear that they are speaking in opposition to Grassley’s role in the proceedings. They are women protesters (mostly white, but I’ll give credit where it’s due), and the camera only cuts to their obscured bodies as they are being physically removed from the courtroom by police officers in the interest of maintaining order.

Hirono takes this disordered gap as an opportunity to speak. However, instead of inserting a different possibility of relation (aka something other than asking to be recognized or making an appeal to decency), she pivots back to order. She said that “it is regular order to receive all the documents that this committee is entitled to.” However, she unknowingly exposes how symbols of the epistemology of Order and Reason (like the Senate) are fundamentally incompatible with true equality and decency toward those in the “minority.” She says, “it is not regular order for the majority to require the minority to pre-clear our questions, our documents, and video we would like to use in this hearing.” Though she is not speaking in racial or gender minority/majority terms, the distinction takes on these connotations through the spectacular visual contrast between Grassley and Hirono, Harris, and Booker in the courtroom. This is not just a discussion about documents in the Kavanaugh case. When abstracted, it is also a discussion about the difficulties that people of color and women face in spaces governed by Reason and Order—the responses we are able to give when we encounter egregious acts of racism and sexism are always already tempered by the epistemological system that created Man, the category of the human, and the various symbols and myths that cause us to elevate this specific epistemology to the level of sacred law and common sense.

I think it is important to analyze how Republicans in particular but all contemporary political figures more broadly are operating within the framework of Reason, something that is insured by the existence of particular political procedures (such as hearings, Robert’s Rules, etc). Our national commitment to this framework is only intensified by the sensationalization of news stories such as the Kavanaugh hearings—we are constanly force-fed images of singular Democratic elected officials pushing back against Republicans while still using the language of Reason. There is little substantive analysis that accompanies these de-contextualized images, and our political imaginaries are shrunk more and more with each news cycle that is dependent upon us cultivating a trauma-based relationship with each story. In short, we are left petrified, broken, “gutted” (I see that one a lot), and hopelessly horrified as our search for political action becomes increasingly frantic and desperate in an ever-shrinking space. 

At best, we idealize individual figures like Booker, Harris, and Hirono and make them into liberal myths, ignoring the fact that their participation in the American political system requires that they collaborate with and defer to various financial and political institutions (Wall Street, the criminal justice system, big donors, etc) that harm great swaths of people in all political parties. At worst, we reproduce so-called “conservative” hierarchies of power on the left that reproduce white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and classism (examples of this include the Bernie Bros, the non-intersectional pussy hat-wearing white feminists at the Women’s March, and the hyper-masculine white male factions in Antifa who are aesthetically indistinguishable from Aryan Nation supporters). 

So how do we move forward from here? Rather than suggesting reactionary and Order-based “solutions” like voting (though it is certainly important), calling senators (I promise your passive aggressive voicemails don’t matter as much as what the various lobbies want), I would hope that we can analyze developments in the political using Wynter’s idea of Man and Robinson’s critique of Order. This way, we will not be taken aback and wounded every time Trump and his cronies do something horrifying (which is often). We shouldn’t be surprised that the Trump administration believes that a serial rapist, liar, and all-around douchenozzle like Kavanaugh would be fit to serve on the Supreme Court. Most men are rapists, whether they realize it or not. This fact only becomes apparent when we examine how the dominant epistemology codes certain bodies as irrational/hysterical and therefore positions them as incoherent objects that can be acted on at will by Man (as an overrepresentation of the coherent subject and the human). Rape is an act that is inextricably linked to a desire for power and domination, and it should be unsurprising that we see these ideas that are tied to rape be reproduced in a seemingly “objective” space like a courtroom.


An “orderly” discussion would never yield this kind of conclusion because Order is designed to hide the crimes and inadequacies of those who belong to the category of man. Both Kavanaugh and Grassley are classified in that category, and therefore are bound to each other in a way that is eerily similar to Locke and Rousseau’s ideas on social contracts. Grassley’s loyalty and consideration is to Kavanaugh in a way that makes him decidedly non-objective and forecloses the possibility of “belief” as a political tool. It is not a question of whether or not Dr. Ford or the other brave women who have come forward are believed. Rather, this hearing is evidence of a larger problem of women being coded as hysterical, irrational, and incoherent. Women cannot be believed or read as legible within the dominant epistemology because our disorderly voices rising to crack the façade of order is a threat to the false placidity of the American constitutional myth. I believe that if we are able to read these horrific events as a large system predicated upon Order trying to minimize the influence of disorder in the political theater, we will be able to anticipate future actions taken by the Trump administration so we can focus on building a better leftist political platform that keeps no traces of the violence inflicted upon us by Reason.

Monday, March 23, 2015

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

I am not  ashamed to say that for much of my compulsory education, I was a token. I was usually the only black student in my extracurricular activities, my summer programs, my friend groups, and several of my AP classes. I was the proverbial "fly in the buttermilk," the lone dark face in yearbook group pictures, and the unofficial spokesperson of Toni Morrison's complete bibliography, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the entire continent of Africa (it seems that people tend to take the social classification of "African American" quite literally). I was always the only one.

And I loved it.

I loved the thrill of being recognized by my white classmates, teachers, and friends as somehow "different" or more "special" than other people in my ethnic group, as if the accomplishments of my other black classmates who refused to tokenize themselves were less valuable or significant. I loved being the lone representative of the black community in my literature and history classes, spouting off my carefully race-neutral analyses of Beloved and the transatlantic slave trade as everyone else in the room heaved a sigh of relief that I wasn't one of those black people. I loved being the only black person in my academic extracurriculars because I believed myself to be an exemplary representative of "my people." I truly believed that all of our problems with race would be fixed if we as a people just spoke a little better, dressed a little preppier, joined the right clubs, and laughed along jovially when our white friends called everything that was broken "ghetto" (Martese Johnson would say otherwise)

I was wrong, and I was a fool for thinking that I was ever right. 

I've heard from older black people that every young black person (particularly naive tokens like myself) would experience something called a "nigger moment." It would be the moment when the veil of the post-racial utopia would be abruptly lifted, and one would have to come face-to-face with his or her blackness and how that positioned him or her in relation to society. Of course, no one's nigger moment is meant to be gentle or kind or welcoming. It's certainly a rite of passage, but it isn't one that welcomes you into a culture, but rather shows you which one you will never be a part of. A black person's nigger moment happens when it is made abundantly clear to a black person by one or several white people that their blackness is a crime and a burden, and that they are inherently inferior because of it. A nigger moment can be passive or direct in its execution, and either long or short in duration.

Mine lasted a year.

It all started with Yale. My father, realizing that my token status had allowed me to accumulate a decent collection of accolades, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and high grades, urged me to apply to Yale early to "test my chances." I was accepted in December, and from that point, everything began very rapidly to change.

At my high school, it was tradition for high school seniors to tape their acceptance letters to their lockers as a symbol of pride and four years of hard work. The morning after I was accepted, I happily taped my letter to my locker, and a few of my white friends congratulated me. Some surreptitiously eyed my letter with disdain as they walked by, still waiting on a response from the in-state schools that they applied to. Others ignored me outright, anxiously waiting to leave with their friend groups as one or two paused to congratulate me. Odd.

As the school year progressed, I applied and was accepted to more schools, most of which my other white classmates had also applied to and had been rejected from. Their animosity toward me and my other POC classmates who had been accepted to similar schools or received prestigious scholarships became almost palpable.

In February, I received a "likely letter" from Dartmouth (this just means that they are leaning toward accepting you). I mentioned the letter to one of my teachers, and he congratulated me. Then I heard a voice from the back of the classroom.

"Likely letters are probably just something they send to minorities anyway."

They weren't, and I knew that. But this was long before I had established my own self-awareness and lack of interest in the white gaze. I was crushed. I didn't consider the fact that this student had failed to receive a likely letter himself/herself-- all I could think of was the possibility that my success, my acceptances were totally contingent upon my ethnicity. Were my hard work, consistent focus, meticulously planned application essays, and good grades all meaningless because of the "advantage" of my ethnicity? 

No, of course not. I was a good student then and a good student now, and nothing could have changed that. But my peers were insistent upon convincing me and my other POC classmates otherwise.

Two weeks later, I was inexplicably discussing college prospects with a group of my white classmates. I knew they were resentful of my slowly growing list of letters on my locker, but the faithful token in me still sought their companionship and approval.

"You know you only got into Yale because you're black." There it was again.
"No, I didn't," I said, unsure of myself. "I worked hard. If I wasn't smart enough to get in, they wouldn't have accepted me."

We bickered like this back and forth until our teacher approached us. I felt relief-- finally someone who would stand up for me. 

"Mr./Ms.___________, why did I get into Yale?" I asked, hoping to feel vindicated.
He/she looked me in my eyes and frowned after exchanging a conspiratorial glance with two of my white classmates. "You know why." He/she walked away, and I was left again to fend for myself.

In April, after the final verdicts on all application statuses had been doled out, things only got worse. Only three students in our class had been accepted to Ivies, and two of them were students of color. It was all coming to a head.

"Black people are overrepresented in history books," said one of my white classmates to me during class. I and another black student had been accepted to Northwestern the previous day, and I had heard bitter rumblings about which white students had been denied admission throughout the school day.

"How can you say that? In our AP US History book, there's only one section on slavery and one section on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. W.E.B. Du Bois isn't even mentioned!"

He/she continued. "So? I think the amount of representation in our history books that blacks get should be proportionate to the amount that blacks have contributed to this country. They haven't contributed much, so they shouldn't get that much representation."

Our voices became gradually louder during our exchange, and the class turned to face us. I was becoming bolder in the face of my white classmates' animosity, and I was no longer afraid to say what I truly felt. But, of course, my words had unexpected consequences.

"Are you kidding me? Think of all the contributions and inventions that black people have made in American history-- you're blatantly disregarding everything that they've done."

My classmates were silent. The teacher was silent, save a few pacifying remarks on race and the value of equality. Class ended, and the student with whom I had had the exchange turned to face me before sauntering out the door. 

"This is why you people will never amount to anything. You're always blaming other people for your own failures."

I nearly cried.

These were people I had known since I was nine years old and participated in activities, volunteer work, parties, classes, and friendships with. We had grown up together, all the while being raised by our progressive teachers to believe that "color didn't matter." We'd read Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass and actually celebrated Black History Month every year. Why were they suddenly behaving this way? They owed Obama campaign t-shirts, shopped at Whole Foods, and listened to NPR religiously. How could they possibly be racist?

I thought I was going mad. Was it all in my head? Was the cruelty of their remarks about "the blacks" simply being exaggerated by my "sensitivity to racism" that they often accused me of expressing? Did I even deserve to attend any of these schools, or would it truly have been more fair and just to allow my white classmates to take their "rightful" place in the Ivy League?

It wasn't all in my head I realized, especially after I began speaking to other students of color who experienced the same-- if not worse-- treatment from childhood friends who were intoxicated with jealousy and privilege. My happiness-- and, more importantly, my sanity-- did not lie with the principles of tokenism that I had followed for half my life. 

I had to wake up. I had to accept the fact that racism was not dead, and that any attempt to upset the existing social paradigm through either intentional or unintentional acts would be greeted with suspicion and outright resistance. I was not special or better because I was a token-- all I succeeded in doing was ignoring and disrespecting the extremely valid experiences of other non-token people of color. I needed to find some form of solidarity with both white and non-white individuals who were interested in combating racism and racial microaggressions, and I knew that I would not be content until I did.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Real Reason Why Beyonce Didn't Win Album of the Year

After the debacle that was the 2015 Oscar nominations, in which POC-centric movies such as Belle and Black or White were denied nominations for Best Picture in favor of the always scintillating Middle Class Heterosexual White Male Makes a Privileged Commentary on His Society, many of us were hoping that the Grammys would offer the unbiased recognition of diverse talent the Oscars so staunchly avoids.

Then Beck beat out Beyoncé for Album of the Year, and everyone collectively realized that in 2015, privilege will always trump talent when the time comes to make decisions about recognizing excellence at the highest level.

(As a side note, I would also like to point out that Eminem won his sixth Best Rap Album Grammy for The Marshall Mathers LP, which is an album that features him threatening to rape, kill, and otherwise abuse women, as well as his usual homophobic slurs. This album beat out works by Common, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Childish Gambino, and Wiz Khalifa. It is particularly significant that Eminem beat Common, who has gained attention for taking a public stance against police brutality and discrimination against people of color in his award acceptance speeches and on social media.)

The phenomenon (but is it really a phenomenon if it has become wholly expected?) of White (male) artists winning Album of the Year over Black female artists whose albums are complex, controversial, and commercially successful is nothing new. In 1987, Janet Jackson's Control, which was widely regarded as an innovative work of Black feminism, lost the Album of the Year award to Paul Simon's Graceland. Then, in 1998, Jackson's The Velvet Rope, which was praised for its introspective lyrics about Jackson's struggles with anorexia, mental illness, and her sexuality, was not nominated for Album of the Year at all, the award ultimately going to Bob Dylan for Time Out of Mind.

Similarly, Beyoncé's self-titled album features the artist praising her own sexuality, grappling with the emotional trauma of a miscarriage, motherhood, marriage, and emphasizing the value of the unique Black female aesthetic ("I woke up like this" is a reference to Black female beauty and was never intended to become an ironic twee catchphrase). Beyoncé released the album with no prior promotion and subsequently changed the music industry in her refusal to submit her work to the inevitable possibility of its message being misconstrued and appropriated during the promotional process. Beyoncé is, in short, a nuanced self-portrait that examines the limitless possibilities of what a Black woman can be (a wife, mother, sexual being, businesswoman, artist, etc.) that was produced and released in a way that very adamantly rejected the assumed superiority of a patriarchal society built upon White privilege. Beyoncé, over the course of her eighteen-year career, had placed herself in a position in which she had the wealth, influence, and notoriety to make an attempt to subvert the existing power structure in both the music industry and American society, and the very content of Beyoncé subtly encourages its listeners to work to do the same.

So you can see now why Beyoncé was never going to win Album of the Year.

Of course, Beyoncé did end up taking home a couple of Grammys. Three, to be exact, in the categories of Best R&B Song ("Drunk in Love"), Best R&B Performance ("Drunk in Love"), and Best Surround Sound Album (Beyoncé). However, upon closer inspection, these accolades are not the benign "wins" that they appear to be, but rather a social representation of essentialist ideologies that prevent artistic works by people of color from receiving the large-scale recognition that they deserve. Essentialism is basically the idea that groups in our society (may those groups be classified by gender, race, or ethnicity) have certain "essential" inherent qualities that shape the way they think, act, and interact with other social groups.

The creation of "Urban" and "R&B" (and to an extent, Rap) categories for award shows like the Grammys perpetuate the idea that music that is traditionally produced by African Americans is so drastically different from "typical" (meaning White) music that it requires its own category and a different standard of evaluation. While it is true that R&B music differs from certain types of pop, rock, and country music in terms of beat, rhythm, and melody, shoving an artist like Beyoncé, who clearly has achieved crossover appeal, into such a category implies that no matter how successful she becomes, the "essential" qualities linked to her race and gender will always prevent her from achieving the same recognition as White males (who have positioned themselves as the "default" for identity in American society). Additionally, allowing her to win only in those categories as a quasi-consolation prize isolates the Black feminist message of her album to one stereotypical racial category and prevents it from being acknowledged by a wider White audience.

Institutions like the Academy and the Grammy selection committee have proved themselves to be consistently uncomfortable with change and racial difference. There's a reason why African American actors and actresses typically only win Academy Awards for portraying criminals, prostitutes, maids, enslaved people, and villains. The same reason applies to why African American musicians such as Common, Beyoncé, and J. Cole are regularly snubbed or under-rewarded for their musical talent as soon as they begin to take definitive and public stances on issues relating to racism and discrimination. It is unsurprising for people who hold racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist personal beliefs to dislike or condemn those who actively work to dismantle systems of oppression. However, issues arise when these same people are in control of deciding who receives the highest accolades in a particular field and, along with that, national and international recognition. Admittedly, it would be impossible to expect the selection committees of shows such as the Grammys and the Oscars to become institutions that accurately represent and respect the cultural differences that exist in our society today. However, as individuals it is entirely possible to explore these differences ourselves and promote the validity of variation within a cultural, musical, and artistic aesthetic.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why Do Girls Hate Each Other?

"She's such a slut."

"What a bitch."

"I can't believe she's wearing a short skirt and a crop top. She looks so trashy."

"Why is he going out with her? Whatever. Boys only like sluts anyway."

"I'm so glad I'm a virgin and not a whore like those other girls."

"He cheated on me with her so I'm going to ruin her life."


It is a fact that is universally acknowledged that girls really don't like each other. They may form alliances based on a common goal (partying, befriending a group of boys, taking attractive Instagram group pictures) or develop a mild affinity for each other based on a shared loathing of another woman, but generally, women are incapable of forming genuine, lasting friendships.

Or at least that's what the social stereotype says about us.

The idea that women either can't or won't form friendships that are equal or superior in duration or depth of feeling to those formed between men is one that is deeply rooted in Western culture and literature. There is a scene in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in which Orsino claims that women cannot feel love as deeply as men, and Mary Wollstonecraft explains in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman that women are barred from creating lasting friendships because they are constantly pitted against each other as romantic, physical, and social rivals.

Though originally written in 1792, Wollstonecraft's words still remain one of the most accurate descriptions of the issues that plague female friendships as women passive-aggressively compete with each other to have the best bodies, the best makeup, the best hair, and to be the most popular (Mean Girls, much?). On both television and in real life, it seems that women will, with little provocation, tear down the aesthetic or intellectual achievements of another woman, judge her for her individual sexual or clothing choices, and generally attempt to make each other feel bad about themselves through subtle put-downs and not-so-humble brags.

But why? What do women have to gain from sneering at a bad dye job when issues such as rape, birth control, abortion, and unequal pay are, on a larger scale, much more important unifying factors?

It's the P-word (And by that, I mean the patriarchy).

The use of words such as "slut," "bitch," "whore," "hoe," and "prude" as a way to verbally classify women into certain easily identifiable social categories is a practice originated by men in order to belittle, insult, demean, and coerce women into having sexual relations with them. On a larger scale, the use of these slurs by men against women is an easy way to reinforce and perpetuate the existing gender power dynamic. It is clear that historically and socially, men have overwhelmingly held positions of political, social, and academic (and by this I mean designated academic positions or titles, not measures of intelligence) over women, and for the average man who does not possess any of these tangible positions of power over women, using these words becomes his only leverage piece to assert some form of dominance over women.

Similarly, the "madonna/whore" dichotomy, in which women can only be classified as pure, morally sound virgins or amoral, sexually free harlots, is one that was created by men to control and objectify women. There is absolutely no scientific proof that an either an excess or a lack of sexual experiences has any impact on a woman's intelligence or morality, and it certainly does not have an impact on a woman's value as an individual. However, the social cultivation of the madonna and the whore archetypes developed over the centuries (which came to a frenzied fever pitch during the Victorian Age, in which women were instructed to believe that they were sexually dormant) was really a result of male power structures wanting to control female sexuality in primogeniture-based societies (meaning a system in which the first-born child-- usually the son-- inherits everything). In short, men wanted to make sure that their children were biologically theirs in order to ensure the correct line of succession, so they had to figure out a religious and cultural justification to stop women from having sex with multiple men. Now, in the twenty-first century, we no longer officially have American systems of primogeniture, but the male desire to classify women as either "good" madonnas or "bad" whores is still deeply ingrained in our society.

But what does that have to do with women and, more importantly, why they hate each other?

It's the H-word (and by that, I mean hegemony).

Hegemony, in short, is the dominance of one social group over another. However, hegemony does not merely constitute dominance or control-- it also includes the adoption of the cultural practices and beliefs of the dominant group (in this case, men) by the non-dominant group (in this case, women). There is absolutely nothing in a woman's genetic code that says she is biologically obligated to hate another woman because she's having a good hair day or because she's wearing a miniskirt and thigh-highs. However, as as result of the hegemonic structure of our society, women, as the non-dominant social group, adopt male ideas of female sexuality, purpose, and social value and, in turn, use those ideas against each other within the group. So really, you don't call other girls sluts behind their backs because women are inherently devious or disloyal. You do it because you've been socially conditioned to adopt misogynistic cultural practices against women.

Similarly, women don't constantly try to one-up each other by having larger breasts (which aren't even sexual organs anyway) or tanner skin because they are inherently petty, jealous or shallow. Men, as the dominant group, had the social ability to sexualize the female body and place it on a pedestal as something that men have every right to pursue and sexually possess at any cost. Then, as a result of hegemony, women adopt this notion that their bodies are designed solely for inspection and appreciation beneath the sexual male gaze and subsequently compete with other women to attract the attention of this otherwise arbitrary and meaningless gaze. Women are reduced to fighting each other for male sexual approval because they have been conditioned to not appreciate their own sexuality and to view their bodies as autonomous subjects that would be perfectly fine without any male sexual influence.

So the next time you're about to call another woman a slut because she "took your man" (another topic for another day) or wore a really nice push-up bra, please be kind, rewind, and f**k the patriarchy.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why We Should All Stop Saying "Problematic"

So you're having one of those deceptively intellectual conversations that all Twentysomethings engage in on occasion, in which everyone feels obligated to say that they like (or have even read) Foucault and indulge in charmingly obscure pockets of intellectualism. And, as you bask in the righteousness of your knowledge as a citizen of the world (thank God you read those in-depth articles on BuzzFeed in between looking at gifs of cats dancing), the conversation begins to stray toward current events that revolve around issues concerning race, gender, class, sexuality, and political beliefs. 

"What do you think about Ferguson, by the way?"

Uh oh.

Everyone tenses up (particularly if you're the only Black person in the conversation, which happens more frequently than you would think), and the time has come for each individual to make a critical decision: Do I argue uncompromisingly against bigotry and injustice and risk either offending someone or sounding like a crazy "radical"? Or do I moderate my responses to the point of being ineffectual, but still maintain my friendships and my pseudo-intellectual clout? And if I did moderate my responses, what word could I possibly use to sidestep verbal land mines like "racism," "misogyny," "homophobia," and "classism"?

"I think the whole situation in Ferguson is entirely too problematic to condense into one argument."

There. You've said it. You sit back in your chair and cross your arms, hoping that you look meditative and wise, and everyone else nods in feigned understanding because you've given them the golden opportunity to circumvent the looming possibility that race could still be an issue in the year 2015.

And after that, "problematic" becomes the word of the hour, weaving itself neatly into seemingly sophisticated arguments that are heavy with idealized promise, but lack any internal structure or significance. But your conversation continues, everyone giddy with the unsubstantial fluff of their own watery convictions. Here's how it goes: 

What you say: " I think Charlie Hebdo's publication history is a bit problematic."
What you mean: "Charlie Hebdo has consistently produced islamophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic magazine covers and articles for years, and free speech and hate speech never have and never will be synonymous."

What you say: "I think the way the media perceives Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus' sexuality is kind of problematic."
What you mean: "Miley Cyrus is a cultural appropriator who objectifies women of color and little people, and the media only condemns Nicki Minaj's sexuality because of historical fears of Black female sexuality linked to the Jezebel trope."

What you say: "I think that the practice of victim-blaming in rape cases is really problematic."
What you mean: "Blaming rape victims is a direct manifestation of misogyny in our culture and our prioritization of the male ego over the physical and mental health of women."

Engaging in conversations that encroach upon sensitive social topics is kind of like playing a game of Monopoly, and the use of the word "problematic" is roughly equivalent to playing the "Get Out of Jail Free" card. "Problematic" is an innocuous, quick, and intelligent-sounding solution to damaging cultural structures that are mired in decades (and sometimes centuries) of oppression. The actual definition of "problematic" merely states that a problem or difficulty is being presented. Noticeably absent from that definition is any suggestion of a possible solution. Saying that something is "problematic" allows us merely to acknowledge the inherent flaws of a situation or a school of thought without having to unpack and examine the broader significance of what those flaws actually represent or worse, whether or not we as individuals are guilty of possessing those same flaws that we wish to so easily condemn or deny.

Yet, in order to deconstruct and ultimately eliminate racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and religion-specific discriminatory attitudes and systems that persist in our society, these issues must be confronted head-on without the comfort of verbal panaceas like "problematic." And, admittedly, this directness will result in quite a few uncomfortable situations that require us to recognize our individual relative privilege, as well as our occasional ignorance of the unique struggles of other social groups.

Similarly, the phrase "problematic fave," which is typically used to refer to a celebrity who repeatedly makes offensive remarks with little signs of remorse, is another term that is used to excuse an individual's insensitivity or cultural ignorance simply because they are famous or a close friend. Giving someone a pass to be racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic simply because you like them, or worse, trying to justify their bigotry ("they didn't actually mean it that way," "the reporter just asked the wrong question," etc) is dangerous not only because it allows systems of oppression to perpetuate themselves on a wider scale, but also because you are then vulnerable to falling into that same vein of antiquated, biased thinking. Choosing to distance yourself from or totally boycott a celebrity who unabashedly makes offensive remarks is not a matter of believing in moral absolutism (and let's not even get into the "slaveowners were people too!" arguments). Rather, it is a conscious decision to refuse to support the further integration of bigoted ideas into all aspects of our social structure.