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. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Secret Lives of Internet Racists

Several weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to help coordinate and participate in a die-in demonstration on my campus. Our goal was to bring awareness to racial injustice on campus and nationwide following the killings of people of color such as Aiyanna Gardner, Ryo Oyamada, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford. Our demonstration was staged in two parts-- for the first segment, we stood in silence for four minutes (representing the four hours that Brown's body remained in the street) in the university student center as we held signs containing facts about police brutality and racial inequality. For the second part, we moved to a corridor of the student center and staged our "die-in" portion for several minutes in silence.

Prior to the demonstration, many of the organizers and participants were concerned about the threat of racial retaliation through physical or political attacks from White students on campus. Our campus is disappointingly familiar with home-grown acts of blatant racism, so it was reasonable for many of us to be concerned either for our physical or social safety. However, we were pleasantly surprised during the demonstration as the White students who did not participate in the protest did not heckle, accost us, or attempt to violate the sanctity of the demonstration's message through other vulgar actions. In fact, many students murmured polite "excuse me"s as they worked their way through our silent group. At the end of the protest, many of us expressed our awe and pride that the students of our university were possibly beginning to accept and understand the struggles and perspectives of individuals who exist outside of their tiny microcosms. Could it be, as Langston Hughes mused nearly a century before, "Daybreak in Alabama" (and, in a larger sense, nationwide)?

Nope just kidding. People are still horrible.

After the demonstration, we immediately turned to our social media accounts to upload photos and details about the event in order to raise awareness and stand in solidarity with other similar campus demonstrations across the country. One of these social media platforms was Yik Yak, which succinctly can be described as an anonymous version of Twitter that allows people within a set radius of each other (typically on a college campus) to upload short statements called "yaks." And in this freshly typed set of yaks, dozens of students angrily labeled the demonstrators "niggers," "porch monkeys," "coons," "nigger lovers," and other offensive epithets that are the bedrock of the vocabularies of the permanently uninformed. Threats to "roll over those damned  _________ (insert race-based unoriginal insult) in my truck" made several appearances in the newsfeed, and variations on the ubiquitous "Black people are racist too!" and "Black people are just a bunch of criminals anyway" were strewn throughout the ideological wasteland.

 I am certainly quite aware of the persistence of racism and other forms of intolerance in our society-- most (if not all) people of color are subjected to some form of passive-aggressive or direct racism on a daily basis, and for the time being, there is nothing that I can do to end or alter this deeply embedded practice in our society. I was, however, taken aback by the sheer virulence and intensity of the hatred and disgust that many of my White classmates continue to hold toward Black people. Taken out of the context of social media, the bigoted statements that these adolescent and twenty-something individuals were making in 2014 easily could have been spewed from a segregationist's megaphone in 1954. Racism is still a very real issue in 2015 (and perhaps an even greater issue now in the wake of so many demonstrations against racial inequality), but because of the taboo associated with publicly holding racist views, these same racially problematic ideologies have simply migrated to the relative anonymity (or so people think) of the Internet.
Actual rare footage of an Internet racist

By deeming it “socially unacceptable” to be a racist, sexist, homophobe, or elitist in public simply ignores the underlying systemic issues of inequality in our society, rather than forcing them to be brought to the forefront to be discussed, analyzed, and ultimately eliminated from our culture. It would be naïve and remiss to assume that simply because it is “unacceptable” to publicly express racist (or otherwise offensive) ideologies, racism has suddenly disappeared from the American social fabric. Many, many people in American society are still wildly racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist in the privacy of their own homes, and by shaming those who hold these views into silence, it becomes impossible to subdue their ignorance and hatred before it can spread to the following generation.

Society is swift to condemn those who break the verbal taboo and publicly express their racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic views (Donald Sterling, the cast of Duck Dynasty, and Mel Gibson come to mind) because it gives the overly idealistic image that American society has somehow “conquered” hatred and intolerance, rooting out the few exposed bigots who camouflage themselves within a suspiciously idyllic post-racial, post-homophobia, post-classism, and post-sexism society. Not talking about discrimination by making it “socially unacceptable” does not solve the problem. It merely dusts it under the rug and forces it into becoming an even more systemic, multi-generational issue.

The appearance of racist or racially questionable Facebook statuses, tweets, Instagram posts, and yaks by relatively young people in response to national or local stories of police brutality or racially motivated crimes is significant. This is not only because it shows that racism is allowed to continue because of certain environmental factors that people are exposed to during childhood, but also that the way people express racism is evolving in order to stubbornly root itself within the cracks of our lofty ideological designs of a post-racial culture. Until it becomes standard fare to openly discuss the inherent moral, social, and intellectual wrongs of racism and other forms of intolerance, there can be no hope of us truly expunging these toxic ideas from our society.

And honestly, do you really want to spend the rest of your life getting into Facebook arguments with that friend from high school who genuinely thinks President Obama was born in Kenya?

Monday, January 12, 2015

What About Your Friends?

Photo via
It is common for us to initially and exclusively associate concepts such as dysfunction and emotional abuse with romantic relationships. However, it is true that these behaviors are just as (if not more) prevalent in platonic relationships as well. We believe that it is easy to condemn and pity the woman who allows her boyfriend to mock the circumference of her thighs or the quality of her outfit, but we are all uncomfortably silent when asked to respond to the idea that an individual with whom we are not in a romantic relationship is more than capable of committing the same offense. One of the most common issues that I hear about from both men and women is dysfunction or unhappiness within a friendship, yet we pepper our vocabularies with comforting colloquialisms ("boys/girls come and go, but friends are forever," "chicks before dicks," etc.) that are meant to help assure ourselves of the correctness of our ideological stance. However, sometimes these phrases work against us, functioning as harmful justifications for the persistence of a damaged or psychologically damaging friendship.

It is, naturally, a given that romantic relationships are brief and transient segments in the much larger picture of our lives-- lives in which healthy, loving friendships are often capable of transcending time and distance. However, it is also true that some friendships are simply not meant to last forever, constituting of individuals bound by circumstance rather than mutual admiration and respect.

In an ideal world, pairs or groups of friends are drawn to each other because of common interests or struggles, and they form platonic relationships that are based on equality and genuine concern. However, it is unfortunately common that many friendships-- especially in the early years of nascent adulthood when our permanent identities are not yet fully formed-- are based on imbalances of power or a need for internal validation. Toxic friendships can easily be identified by this skewed power dynamic, as well as one individual's need to control or manipulate another person. These relationships ultimately end up being a drain on your resources, abilities, and emotional and psychological ability, and they ruthlessly consume valuable time that you could have spent investing in yourself or other healthy relationships.

If you are having trouble deciding whether or not your friendship could be classified as "toxic," here are eleven questions that you can ask yourself about the state of your friendship:

1) Do you find that you are learning or growing as a person as a result of this friendship?

2) Do you feel that this person regularly and intentionally makes you feel inferior about your body,
appearance, clothes, makeup, socioeconomic status, race, or life/intellectual choices?

3) Do you feel that you are being used or taken advantage of either economically, socially, or physically?

4) Does this person truly understand and and respect your social, political, religious, intellectual, or sexual choices or beliefs (you don't necessarily have to agree completely on every topic, but it is important that there is some degree of mutual understanding)?

5) If you are a person of color, do you feel that you are being presented as the "token ________ (insert minority group) friend"?
      -Sub question: If so, do you feel that this person uses your ethnicity as an pass to make racially  questionable (read: racist) remarks or as a way to sexually objectify other members of your ethnic group?

6) Could you see yourself simply spending a quiet evening alone with this person and actually enjoying yourself? Would you still want to spend time with this person without the distraction of a bar, a club, loud music, or drinking?

7) Does this person truly want you to succeed in your academic and business endeavors? Or does he/she actively work against you and your dreams?

8) Does this person truly want you to succeed in your personal and romantic endeavors? Or do you find that this person makes a concerted effort to hinder you from dating and entering relationships?

9) Do you and this person find that you are constantly trying to one-up each other (i.e.- with demonstrations of wealth, clothing, makeup, relationships, etc.)? And if you "lose," do you view yourself more negatively as an individual?

10) Is your friendship based on an equal and mutually beneficial system of give-and-take, or do you find yourself constantly donating your own time and energy to solve this person's problems with no expectation of receiving the same care in return?

11) How does being around this person actually make you feel? More specifically, after hanging out with this person, do you feel good about yourself, or do you suddenly think that you've been made to feel inadequate or less confident?

As much as we are all loath to see the deluge of "New Year, New Me!" posts on every single one of our social media accounts, the sentiment is still incredibly valid and useful as we either consciously or subconsciously begin to decide our personal and professional life trajectories for 2015. A new year can be viewed as a valuable opportunity to start fresh again with a clean slate, and as we rush to make our (at best, temporary) resolutions to improve our physical health, it is also imperative that any detrimental factors to your emotional or psychological health are examined and evaluated as well.

Besides, life's too short to be friends with Regina George.