Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Some Things to Ponder

1. JC Penney pulled a young girl's shirt from their online store today . It says, in bubbly multi-colored letters "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me." You can see it here.

2.This product drew comparisons to another shirt, this one sold online (in junior's sizes) by David and Goliath.

3. A recently released study of two groups of people from rural India suggests that the math "gender gap"  is not biological, but nearly completely attributable to cultural differences. In the strictly patriarchal group, where women cannot own land, men completed block puzzles (linked to science and math abilities) 36% faster than women. But in the more gender equal group, "the difference between men and women was so small that it was not statistically significant."

4. This 2007 study suggests that women undergo physiological stress when faced with the gender imbalance of math, science, and engineering fields, fields in which men outnumber women 3 to 1.
Ponder away.

Social Media, Rape Jokes, and What It Says About Society

Perhaps you've caught wind of the mess involving a (ex-)Second City employee in Chicago who got on a comedy open mic and told a story. In the story, an older, slightly drunk female customer gives a Second City waiter her number and tells him to call her. The waiter has a girlfriend, isn't interested, and passes the number off to the "joke"-teller. He calls the lady, pretending to be the waiter, and she invites him over. When he shows up, clearly not the man she was expecting, she tells him to leave. He tricks her into letting him stay long enough to use the phone, and takes advantage of her open hotel door (a moment that prompts him to say "Bingo!") and forces himself inside. As she repeatedly tells him to leave, they end up on the bed. He assures the audience she's physically stronger than him, as if that makes it okay to force himself on her. They end up having sex. When it's over, she again asks him to leave, and he finally does.

You can watch the video of this monologue here (WARNING: it is very disturbing, and I kind of wish I hadn't watched it.)

The most obvious problem is that this man is describing an account of rape. It might be fictional, but he's still describing rape as funny. (And I don't want to hear the defenses that it's not actually rape, which is what many commenters on these different articles are arguing. The woman said "No." He forced himself in and had sex with her. That's rape.) Jezebel discusses these problems. Blue milk does a great job of talking about how the whole thing is indicative of a larger cultural problem that allows rape to be viewed as acceptable, even humorous.

These are serious issues, and I'm glad the discussion is taking place. In fact, the spread of this video through blogs has led to an investigation from police and the man losing his job. It's also opened up some interesting discussions about consent, legal clarity, etc.

In addition, it opens up some interesting issues with open speech and social media. This NPR article by Linda Holmes uses the incident to take a look at these issues.

Holmes is interested in the way that the openness of social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. changes the way we tailor our delivery for different audiences:
But who you are talking to no longer has anything to do with who you think you're talking to. You can tell a story to your narrow circle a hundred times and have nobody bat an eyelash, but the minute you step outside that circle, everything is completely different. And that can underscore the way that a sudden explosion of your audience can give what you say a completely unexpected reception.
This is not a new issue; it's just a new spin on it. The problem of authorial intention and audience perception is as old as text. Or older. As old as speech. The moment that your thoughts leave the protective bubble of your own mind, you no longer have complete control over them. The audience (however small or big it is) becomes complicit in the interpretation. You have to deal with the fact that some of your audience won't get the same meaning you intended. You have to deal with the fact that some audience members will get something else from it entirely. Sometimes the responsibility for this misinterpretation lies with them: they don't have the necessary former knowledge, they didn't listen very carefully, they don't have the same vocabulary. Sometimes it lies with you: you assumed too much about your audience, you didn't speak (or write) clearly, you gave a faulty example. Sometimes it's a combination of the two.

So, of course, when your potential audience becomes anyone with internet access, you are opening yourself up to this risk ten-fold. What does this have to do with this rape monologue?

Holmes explains:
If Eric thought telling this story in public would open up a serious public back-and-forth about whether this is a story of sexually assaulting this woman, he wouldn't have done it. He thinks he looks cool in this story, and indeed, a certain number of people in the audience keep laughing the whole time.
He had the wrong expectations for his audience. He expected them to respond like his friends, and some of them did, but most of them didn't. The comedians on the stage frequently point out that this sounds like assault, but he just keeps going. By the end, many in the audience are booing. And those are just the people who were there with comedy in mind. Now his monologue is being linked on feminist blogs, and these audience members are even further from the audience he assumed he had.

Holmes concludes with this:
Certainly, the fact that he told this story may be a good thing if it gets somebody to deal with whatever is going on here, whether there's a crime to prosecute or not. But the idea that somewhere, there is a guy who thinks this story makes him look good, who apparently had no idea that it would make him look to a lot of other people like a criminal or at best a revolting heel, makes me wish the always-on video had never been invented, because part of me just didn't want to know.

And I get her point. I wish I hadn't seen the video, but my wish is different. I don't wish that it hadn't been videotaped for me to see. I don't wish that the audience at the comedy club had stopped the man before he finished by illustrating just how disturbing it was. I don't even wish that the man had the sense to recognize his audience was different and not tell the story in the first place. I wish that I hadn't seen the video because I wish that there wasn't a man who thought a rape story was funny, and (if it's a true story) I certainly wish it hadn't happened.

While Holmes laments the fact that the internet's openness sacrifices gatekeepers and opens us up to the filth of the world, I'm a little glad. It's only when we see what people are truly thinking and doing that we can begin to call for change. It's easy to dismiss the feminist movement as a moot argument if all you see are carefully edited stories demonstrating equality. It's easy to dismiss racism as a thing of the past if all you get from the media are carefully-crafted images of our biracial president and the increasingly multi-racial interactions of everyday people.

The smothering of these overt signs of oppression makes it much more difficult to recognize the (in my opinion, more pervasive, and therefore, more dangerous) subtle ones. If you don't know that plenty of people in America still scream racial epithets at their neighbors, you're less likely to listen to complaints that black children are getting sub-par education opportunities. If you don't know that there are people who think that rape is funny, you're less likely to take seriously claims that perfume ads objectify women. If you don't know that there are millions of real people thinking oppressive thoughts, it's easy to think that oppression isn't happening. The subtle is easy to ignore, and these are subjects most of us would rather not have to think about.

Shutting down the video cameras doesn't shut down the beliefs, and it's the beliefs I fear, not the documentation of them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lil Wayne Made Me Cry!

Have you seen the video for Lil Wayne's "How to Love"? If not, check it out.

Now, I'm not going to act like Lil Wayne is a source I expected to be analyzing for commentary on motherhood, but hey, I'm just the messenger. (To be fair, I doubt Lil Wayne himself had much to do with the script of the video, but he's the public persona associated with it. I stand corrected. Don't stereotype, kids; even people who love Purple Drank can create complex commentary on social issues.)

So, the video starts in a clinic where a woman is about to get an abortion but tearfully changes her mind and runs from the room. This is followed by a series of shots of the woman's subsequent daughter. We see her (the daughter) undergo a series of trauma as the screaming infant while her mother is beaten, a sad pre-schooler visiting her mother's boyfriend (possibly her father? possibly the same man who beat her? though the "lot of crooks" lyric suggests these are different people) in prison, a pre-teen being sexually assaulted by another of her mother's men, a teenager wearing torn fishnets and making out with a man in public, a young adult with two children (one very light-skinned, one dark-skinned, suggesting different fathers), a stripper who goes home with a customer, and finally a patient in the same clinic getting positive HIV results with her mother by her side.

Then we're treated to a quick rewind through the previous scenes and we're taken back to the one of the infant crying as her mother is beaten. In this new trajectory, the pre-schooler witnesses her mother's wedding, she then becomes an attentive school girl, followed by a flirty teenager (instead of fishnets, she's wearing leopard-print tights, sneakers, and glasses; instead of making out on the steps, she's engaged in casual conversation with a guy). The would-be stripper is now in beauty school, now graduating with her mother and another woman (grandmother? the same woman who takes her mother in when she ditches the abuser?) at her side. We end back where we began: the clinic. The daughter waits anxiously with her mother for the test results. She's pregnant, an announcement they both greet with joy. The daughter then thanks her mother for teaching her how to love.

First of all, I have to give the video credit for pulling off a pretty complex narrative in a short space. Look at how much writing it took to summarize the plot. And it's done very well, with smooth transitions between time and a clear trajectory that's easy to follow both forwards, backwards, and forwards again. It's skillfully put together.

Now I'd like to look at some of the themes it's exploring:

Responsibility of Mothers
The implication is clear. The mother's choice to give her daughter life is followed by a series of choices that ultimately take it away. It's clear that we're playing with the word "choice," here. Choosing to keep a pregnancy is just one choice that affects the unborn child; there are a plethora of others, and this video makes the argument that the following ones are equally important.

What's more, the mother of the woman in the video isn't shown to be an unloving mother. She's often shown comforting her daughter. She's asleep when her daughter is molested, so she isn't a willing bystander. She's there for support when her daughter gets the HIV results. She's not some horrible person who has a child she's not taking care of; she's just a person who makes decisions that make it impossible for her to take care of her child in a positive way.
The Role of Marriage/Love
The second sequence suggests marriage as a cure-all to host of social ills: multi-father pregnancies, molestation, promiscuity, prostitution. I can see how this can be criticized, as there are many people in committed relationships who choose not to (or can't legally) marry. And, of course, there are overtones of the "black marriage crisis," which is a topic of social debate in many spheres, academic and non.

Those larger issues aside, this video is still getting at a very real message: life is a lot easier when you have the support of someone else, if you--such as it is--know "how to love." And love is not something that you can discover on your own. It doesn't matter how much you want to love properly; if you don't have someone loving properly on the other end, it doesn't happen. In this song "love" is not a one-way emotional response (like the unrequited love or immediate lust so often the subject of songs), but a mutually crafted relationship.

I don't want to start an abortion debate, but did anyone notice the nurse's cross? In the final scene (the one that ends with the announcement of a wanted pregnancy) she's prominently wearing a gold cross. In the other clinic scenes (the ones that result in an almost-abortion and an AIDS diagnosis), the nurse is either shielded from view or not wearing the cross.

Men's Roles
I can see an argument that this video puts too much blame on women as the one's perpetuating cycles of social plight. It is the mother, after all, who is thanked in the second sequence for teaching her daughter how to love, which implies that she is also the one who failed to do so in the first sequence. Even the man the mother marries in the second sequence is a mostly faceless character who is never shown interacting with the daughter. However, if we take the "love" message as being a two-way street, men (or the other partners in any relationships) have just as much responsibility for crafting healthy families. (However, the scene where the daughter happily finds out she's pregnant has no father present, so even in the positive worldview, the women are the ones dealing with children).

Also, no matter how much commentary there is that men should be equal partners in child-rearing, the reality of the situation is that women do most of it throughout the world. And there are millions of single mothers raising children, and they do--fairly or not--have the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to making decisions about the environments those children will live in, even if they don't have the bulk of the control.

Some Qualms
Some of the lyrics: "I just want you to know you deserve the best/You're beautiful"

Now, you could say that this is a reference to beauty in an abstract sense. All women are beautiful. That sort of thing, but I still think there's a message that this woman deserves better because she's beautiful. Surely women who don't meet the societal standards of beauty also deserve better.

A connected lyric: "And I want you to know you're far from the usual/far from the usual"

Again, a woman doesn't need to be unique to deserve to live free from abuse and have a loving partner.

One last thing--girls in torn fishnets can be smart, too.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Downside of Breastfeeding?

At dinner tonight, I poured some juice into a sippy cup and sat it in front of my daughter. Her face lit up with glee as she looked at the cup, shrieked "Mama," and started drinking.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Teaching Our Children to Navigate Digital Landscapes

Way back in 2001, Marc Prensky wrote "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" in which he argues that children born into the digital world are native speakers of a different language than their older, and less digitally-submerged, predecessors. I was 16 when this was written, so I guess I'm one of those kids that Prensky says "have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age." Actually, I didn't spend quite my "entire life" with these things, but my dad was an early adopter of computers (I have fond memories of playing Zork on a Commodore 64), so--if we carry out Prensky's definition of natives and immigrants--I immigrated at a very young age. 

This is important, as Prensky points out in his second part of the essay, because studies have found that language learned as an adult is stored in a different part of the brain than language learned as a child. So, if we look at digital information as a language, I'm in the group that speaks it more like a native than an immigrant.

Prensky's ultimate thesis is that the people teaching these native speakers are resisting the inevitable change that has occurred. The digital natives learn differently (and even have different brain function) than their teachers. Taking Prensky to his most extreme conclusion would leave the inflexible unable to communicate at all with the youth around them. His call to action is for the immigrants to learn the new language so that they might impart "their still-valuable knowledge and wisdom in that world's new language."

This interesting argument is now a decade old. Many of us near-native speakers have since entered the workforce and I think we are seeing a lot of changes to the digital landscape. In my field of education, many textbooks are online. Many of the texts (electronic or print) are set up more like websites, with information that can be consumed in non-linear ways, "links" to other texts, short bursts of information, and lots of visual elements.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On PETA, Oppression, and Porn

Mary Elizabeth Williams has a recent article on Salon about PETA's new advertising tactics or, more accurately, the renewed manifestation of their tried and true advertising tactics. PETA has a pretty steep history of objectifying women to help raise awareness about animal cruelty. Naked female bodies do have a way of drawing people's eyes, but that doesn't make it acceptable.

PETA's newest tactic is to buy up the domain and use it  "as a pornography site that draws attention to the plight of animals." Williams compares this to PETA's earlier "Veggie Love" campaign that featured scantily-clad women sexually interacting with vegetables.  

Williams points out many of the problematic aspects of using objectification of women to promote the ethical treatment of animals, but she doesn't spend much time talking about one of the biggest ones.

PETA's treatment of women is a form of oppression, and promoting oppression (of women) to eradicate oppression (of animals) just doesn't make sense.I'm not equating women to animals to make this analogy. Instead, I'm interested in the way that all forms of oppression feed into the same system, a system built on hierarchies, power struggles, and rhetorical posturing.

By demonstrating the way that women can be turned into objects for pleasure, PETA is tapping into the same base nature that allows us to justify cruelty to animals.  This is why the "oppression Olympics," as they're called, are always counterproductive. Trying to determine who is the most oppressed group just leaves everyone licking their own wounds while side-eyeing everyone around them. Truly facing oppression means recognizing the commonalities of the oppressed and demanding fairer treatment across the board. Until PETA does that, I don't see how they can be taken seriously.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tangled Up In Criticism


My little girl is sick--not seriously so, but she's got a stuffy nose and a horrible cough, and she won't sleep unless she's physically touching my husband or me. So while she held me captive, I flipped through the new movies for instant watch on Netflix and found Tangled.

I'd heard some positive things from parent friends of mine, so I decided to watch it. It was entertaining enough. Now comes the question I'm constantly asking myself when I'm watching programming aimed at children: would I let my daughter watch it?

As has already  been documented, I'm cautious about the Disney princess franchise for all the commonly cited feminist reasons (promoting an unrealistic body image, basing self-worth in beauty and marriageability, making women subservient to men, and so on and so forth) as well as for the rather disturbing lack of racial diversity in the land of Disney make believe (and the even more disturbing racism inherent in some of the attempts to deal with racial diversity.)

So, I watched Tangled and my initial reaction was that Rapunzel is portrayed as a more capable woman than many of her princess counterparts. The film's tension revolves around her finding her own voice and the ability to say "no." (Spoiler alert, though, honestly, I'm a little behind the times on watching this, so I shouldn't be ruining anything.) When her hair--the source of her magic and the reason others (especially men) are said to desire her--gets cut off, it could be read as symbolic of her escaping the confines of societally-imposed beauty standards. (Though, I must say, I found it disturbing that "magic" hair is blonde while "non-magic" hair is brown.) She's also portrayed as physically strong and intellectually inventive (though, really, did her weapon of choice have to be a frying pan?)

Also interesting--from a gender role perspective--is this scene:

In it, the ogreish, terrifying men break into song sharing their inner desires to play piano, knit, decorate, and bake cupcakes. At the end of the film, most of these men get to realize those dreams in a public forum, making their new livings as pianists and mimes. It's this ending for me that added some nuance to what could have been problematic. As Our Turn points out: "While part of me likes that there's this expectation-reversal, the making of big-scary-men into sensitive (effeminate?) characters, it's also kind of a tired theme that crops up too often in children's movies. (Men can only be secretly sensitive when they're actually physically intimidating as well. . ." But by allowing the men the chance to realize those "secret" desires in public, it moves towards a normalization of roles based in ability and interest rather than gender stereotype.

And I think that's basically what I see Tangled doing in general. It moves toward a more feminist-friendly princess while not quite making it all the way there, as NOW argues in this post. And I like that. Not everyone does.

Feministing was pretty harsh on the film, claiming that Disney had ditched a female protagonist to turn it into a prince-film geared at getting little boys to watch. Their criticism was based largely off the trailer, but I don't think the film did that at all. And I certainly don't see anything wrong with a film that appeals to both boys and girls.

Slate's KJ Dell Antonia reviewed the film (pretty positively) and complained that Rapunzel was not allowed to "tell her own story" because the film was narrated by her male co-star. But this seems like a weak argument to me. Flynn (the "prince" character) does open and close the film with a voice-over, but he serves as a frame story, and it's not as if he's speaking over Rapunzel's every move during the film. Also, the film is not told through his perspective. We often see Rapunzel in shots no one else could see: alone in her tower, singing during monologues, etc. I don't think that the frame story does anything to take away her voice.

Overall, yes, I'd let my daughter watch the film, and watching it and reading the criticism makes me wonder what the goal(s) of feminist criticism should be. While there are certainly ways that Tangled could have promoted a more feminist perspective, ignoring the strides that it makes seems like a poor move to me.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why Talking About Race is Part of Parenting--And My Fears That I'll Do It Wrong

Growing up, we talked very little about race in my house. I received platitudes based in vague notions of equality: "everyone is equal," "don't judge people by the color of their skin." These messages I took in as truth, but a distant, unapplicable truth. There were simply no people of color around to test the boundaries. There were a few black families in town and a few biracial children who were identified as black, but I didn't live in town. I lived on a rural gravel road, and I was painfully shy. My interactions with anyone who identified as non-white were extremely limited.

That made it easy to believe all those platitudes. It made it easy to ignore the race-based jokes I heard growing up, dismissing them as playful banter. It made it easy to believe the simplified version of race relations I received in school: racism used to be really bad, but it's better now, and anyone who tries to bring up racism as a problem is trying to stir up trouble. I didn't spend any time spreading this viewpoint, but I didn't have any reason to question it, either.

That's why Tomas Moniz's post Beautiful on All Sides really resonated me. It's part of a series at The Good Men Project  that examines race and racism from multiple perspectives. Moniz's contribution looks at a series of questions he's fielded from his multiracial children, questions like “Why is it that boys get into trouble in school more than girls, especially the black boys?” and “Why can’t everyone live in north Berkeley, if it’s this nice?”

The post is beautiful and nuanced, and I can't do justice to the whole here, so you should go read it.

Moniz explains that his "youngest daughter has entered the stage of seeing ethnicity for what it is—socially constructed symbols of meaning, ways of inclusion and exclusion; she now actively looks to associate things with ethnicity." And he sees her working in ways to align herself with whiteness, which he feels conflicted about:

And as an adult who has identified with my Chicano history and worked to understand my bicultural sense of self, passing has always been the bane of my existence. In this U.S. culture, race is fixed, static—you’re black or Mexican or Asian. And for white folks, U.S. culture (read: whiteness) refuses to see itself, and instead, white folks tend to buy into the belief in the universal, which of course is whiteness; that’s the privilege of being white in the U.S.—you don’t have to see it.

He ends by explaining that he "wanted to create an environment where ethnicity was so visible that it lost its meaning, and we became who we wanted to be, not limited by definitions but not a nebulous attempt at universality."

And that's why race is (or should be) an issue for every parent. It's forefront in my mind as someone who studies rhetoric and race and as the white mother of a child of color, but my own upbringing left me ill-equipped to deal with the reality of a multicultural world, and it's left me scrambling to catch up.

Understanding identity is a complicated maze of meaning that we all have to traverse in one form or another, and having conversations about the way identity is created and maintained is something we, as parents, should do.

That doesn't make it easy. I have a lot of fears about these conversations. I fear that I will say the wrong thing, as it is a complex topic that has left me shifting perspectives often. I fear that I lack the ethos to do it justice. I fear that I will expect too much analysis from my daughter, or not enough. But none of those fears outweigh the sense that this is my responsibility, and it is one I take seriously.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Bedroom Confessions

My daughter sleeps in my bed. . . every night. Not all night. But every night. I'm a bed-sharer.

It's weird to me that it's hard to write those words, but apparently I'm not the only one who feels that way. This article from Time suggests that many people bed-share and hide it, fearing the response they will get in a culture where bed-sharing is viewed as a bed decision. In the U.S. the cultural norm seems to be tied to both the SIDS fear and to our high value of independence, which we cultivate early and often.

I'm not against independence, but I do like sleep.

My bed-sharing, I'll admit, grew out of necessity. I went back to work part-time at seven weeks and full-time at twelve. My daughter had a brief period of sleeping thought the night between weeks eight and thirteen. Then she just stopped doing it. She'd wake up at two or three in the morning, and nothing--I mean nothing--would get her to go back to sleep in the crib. I'm not a proponent of cry-it-out methods, but even if I was, I don't think it would work. My daughter's emerging personality suggests that she's at least picked up my penchant for self-expression. She will be heard. Sleep be damned.

So, after several nights of little to no sleep in a row, I was nursing her in the bed. I had avoided nursing lying down because I knew I would fall asleep if I did. But I was so tired. So, mind-numbingly tired. So I decided to just close my eyes for a few minutes. And she slept, peacefully, curled next to me. I made sure to remove blankets and pillows and I slept lightly enough that when she moved, I woke up. But she didn't move much. It was bliss.

I felt guilty immediately. I didn't want to tell anyone about my new strategy. And, wow, did they ask. "How's she sleeping?" "Is she sleeping through the night yet?" In the parenting Olympics, this seemed to be an event that drew a crowd, and I didn't want to admit to cheating.

I read books like Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent and The Attachment Connection: Parenting a Secure & Confident Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory. There, I found opinions that supported bed-sharing as a positive part of child-rearing, a decision that led to well-adjusted, healthy children. But I have to admit that I sought these books out after I was already bed-sharing. Talk about locking the barn after the horse gets out.

The pattern remains. There have been a few, sporadic nights when she's slept all the way through, but most days she goes to sleep in her crib around nine. Then she wakes up hungry at one or two and comes to bed with us. Sometimes I wake back up and put her back in the crib, in which case she'll sleep another couple hours before waking up again. She pretty much always wakes up in our bed.

I still feel guilty sometimes, though I can't quite explain why. I don't believe I'm "spoiling" her, and I don't believe I'm doing psychological damage. And we all definitely get a lot more sleep.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sifting Through The Paradox of Race-Based Selection

I work in a program that has race-based criteria. Race isn't the only criteria. We work to give underrepresented students opportunities to help them succeed in college and graduate school. Other ways to be underrepresented, for the purposes of the program, include being from a lower socioeconomic group and being the first person in a family to go to college. And I believe in what I do.

That doesn't mean that I don't see complications with having race-based preference.

To begin with, I don't belive race exists--not in any biological sense. I believe wholeheartedly that race is a social construction, and it can (and has, and does) shift constantly. I believe that social construction is manifested in communication signals sent and received, and there are signals we can control sending (hairstyle, clothing choice, etc.) and ones we can't (skin color, family background, etc.) As a society, we want to believe that race is a matter of "blood" because that makes it more real, and we have spent a lot of time making decisions and connections based on race. It can be scary to think that something that has affected basically every domain of American life is a social construction. It's a little like learning the boogeyman won't really get you if you step off the bed in the middle of the night. You suddenly have to deal with the fact that your own mind imprisoned you in that bed every sunset, and that takes a lot of personal responsibility. When that personal responsibility has to be accepted collectively, well . . . Let me just say that I think our "post-racial" society still has a long way to go.

Loni Steele Sosthand writes in "My Affirmative Action Fail" about some of the tensions inherent in race-based selections, particularly in a time when multicultural heritage is fast becoming the norm.

As a struggling sitcom writer, Sosthand's agent suggested that she use her biracial identity (African American and Jewish) to pitch herself into "diversity writer" positions, positions set aside by many networks and paid for separately to ensure a diverse crew. The problem (or one of the problems) is that Sosthand has a hard time communicating that identity to people who don't know her because she doesn't look black. It led to some pretty disturbing conversations during the job interviews:
When I told another that my paternal grandparents were interracially married in the 1940s, having met as founding members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), she said, "So really, you are only a quarter black. You have more white blood than black blood."

Talk of black blood and skin color in a job interview for a sitcom?
Her agent had some suggestions:
Wear jeans, he said, an ironic T-shirt, and buy some stylish frames. No matter that I don't need glasses. "You have to make them see you as the stereotype of a comedy writer," he said. We both laughed.
The stereotype of a comedy writer? Perhaps, but I think the stereotype he's hoping she portrays is also something else. See, the "diversity writer" position isn't really about diversity at all. Sosthand realizes this when she decides to highlight her diversity in a different way:
So I altered my shtick. I talked about family members as a source of inspiration for diverse characters. I gave examples of how my mixed heritage gives me a strong sense of irony, particularly when it comes to race. I mentioned that the family I grew up in not only had racial, but religious and political diversity as well. Furthermore, the man I married, in a reformed Jewish ceremony, is black, from Texas, and comes from a line of Christian, gun-toting, self-described Cajun cowboys. If the word "diversity" holds any meaning, I presented my writing and myself as its embodiment.
She goes on to explain that it didn't work:
Race is not a skill. Race is not an insight. Likely this is why I couldn't successfully pitch it as such.

I agree with those insights, but if race is not those things, what is it? And, perhaps more importantly, what are we trying to make it be when we set aside positions with the aim of promoting "diversity." Too often, I think that "diversity" gets boiled down to mean "stereotype" and under the guise of promoting diversity we do little but maintain the status quo, one often steeped in a racist history.

I couldn't help but think of Spike Lee's Bamboozled when I read this article.

This video shows the pitch for a show where a writer hired for his "black perspective" gets so frustrated by the demands that he write only stereotypical  characters that he takes it to the extreme, pitching a minstrel show in the hopes of making a point and the expectations of getting fired. But he doesn't. The network loves the show, and so does America. If you haven't seen it, I highly suggest watching it.

At the beginning of this post, I told you that I believe in what I do. That wasn't just a position of convenience. I truly do believe in my program and others like it, programs that aim to help close the racial gaps in educational success. The difference, as I see it, is that I'm never asking a student to be a stereotype in order to get in. I'm never requiring or expecting a certain performance as "proof" of membership to any racial group. I depend on a student's own self-identification and I know that I do not have the ability or the right to question how that identity is maintained. It also means that, while I recognize race as a social construct, I also recognize that social constructs have an impact.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Keeping Baby Stuff for the Next One?

Image from Bohman

I have a confession: I haven't been keeping things. In fact, I've been purging them with something like a vengeance. I took four boxes of baby clothes to Once Upon a Child, and when most of them were rejected because they were overstocked on spring clothes, I took them to a Goodwill drop off truck and never looked back. Two weeks before, I did the same thing with two trash bags full of my own clothes. Now, the fact that I had two trash bags of clothes I could lose (and still manage to clothe myself the next day) is indicative that there's a larger problem at hand, but that's another post for another day (where we won't talk about my penchant for hoarding books. I didn't go to the Borders closing sale; that's progress. Right?)

No, what I'm interested in talking about here is the fact that many people seem surprised that I'm getting rid of baby stuff. "Aren't you going to keep them for the next one?" they asked, eyebrow raised.

No. I guess not. I'm not sure there will be a "next one"--another baby would be appealing, if I could stomach the thought of doing those first three months again. Maybe with a little more distance, the memory of exhaustion won't be so crisp. But even if I have another baby, it most likely won't be for years. And even if it was going to be next year, I just don't think I could hold on to all of those things.

This is on my mind because I read a budget tip in Parenting magazine to buy gender-neutral clothes so that you can keep them for future children. It made me wonder if I'm being wasteful. It's not like I have tons of money to spare, but I have even less time than money, and possibly even less extra space than time. The psychic toll of keeping, storing, and tripping over stuff I can't use seems overwhelming.

Do people really keep all this stuff? So far, I've kept one newborn-sized sleeper that she wore all the time because I love looking at how little it was and remembering those first few months (yes, yes, those same ones I'm trying to forget--the mind is a weird place). I'll probably keep my breast pump and maybe the crib because those were more expensive purchases, but I can't see myself hanging onto many of the clothes or toys she outgrows.

Besides, if I get rid of the clothes, I have more room for books.