Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Maxing Out on Intimidation (A Woman in the Weight Room)

Remember when I told you I was signing up for an obstacle course and was going to be able to do a pull-up by year's end? Well, it's just about August, and I'm making progress.

My progress, though, has come to something of a blockade.

I've been doing a weight lifting routine that I'm happy with. It includes the use of barbells for squats, but I need weight that's heavier than what I can safely lift over my head to put back on the floor. I need (gulp) a squat rack.

Power Rack

In my gym, there is a clear segregation going on with the weights. On one side of the gym, there's cardio equipment and a set of lightweight dumbbells, some medicine balls, some lightweight machines, and some kettle bells. On the other side of the gym (separated by a wall and a hallway), there are heavier weights, freestanding barbells, and more substantial machinery. 

It's probably no surprise to you that there's something of a gender divide in their use. The lighter side has a good number of men, but it's often dominated by women. The heavier side is almost always men and one incredibly badass looking woman (there's more than one woman, but there's only ever one at a time. It's some kind of physics rule, I think). 

I want to be the incredibly badass looking woman, but I'm not. I have, however, forced myself to make the trek from the light side to the heavy side because that's where the weights I need live. It makes me feel out of place. I am always intimidated and afraid that I'm standing in someone's way, doing my measly twenty-pound dumbbell curl while the guy next to me bench presses a small horse worth of metal. 

I don't think anyone's actually judging me. I've never gotten rude looks or comments. Everyone has always been nice. The problem here is in my own head, and I know that, but I don't know how to get it out. 

It's time for me to get in the squat rack, but all I can think about is what happens if I put on too much weight and drop it or if I do it wrong and look ridiculous. I'm not even really afraid of hurting myself (unless you count an injured ego).

You know that feeling you get when you accidentally walk into the wrong restroom? That's how I feel when I'm lifting weights: a vague sense of not belonging. Walking up the squat rack feels a little like walking up to a urinal; it makes it clear that I'm not just accidentally in the "wrong" space, but actively declaring my right to be there for its intended purpose. I know that's exactly why I need to actually do it, but it still makes my heart race and my palms sweat, and that makes it harder to hold the bar.

Blogging to My PhD: We Always Judge From Where We Stand

I'm reading Methods and Methodology in Composition Research and I'm on Patricia A. Sullivan's chapter "Feminism and Methodology in Composition Studies." (I know those are all very boring titles, but I promise it's interesting. Stick with me.)

Sullivan reflects on the need to consider the history of composition studies' egalitarian aims and then question how those aims have been enacted in actual teaching practices:
Many composition scholars and teachers served as advocates for all students' rights to literacy regardless of a student's age, race, gender, socioeconomic background, or national origin. It is composition's humane disregard for difference under an egalitarian ethic, however, that now renders it pervious to feminist inquiry and critique. For the assumption of equality tends to mask difference.

She goes on to give an example of a time she herself fell into this trap while evaluating a student's work. A female graduate student with a male professor was not doing well in class. When Sullivan looked at her work, she focused on "the disjuncture between her writing performance and her teacher's expectations." The student's style was more exploratory (a style we often consider "feminine" because of its sometimes passive exploration) while her teacher was insisting on a more critical mode of inquiry (a style we might call "masculine" for its aggressive nature). 

Sullivan admits that she "'saw' deficiency where she might only have seen difference."

"Had I interpreted her experience through the lens of gender," Sullivan notes, "I might not have concluded that I had observed a substandard writing performance born of inexperience, but only a nonstandard performance in a course where male conventions of discourse were allowed to define the standard." 

Substandard v. Nonstandard

There is a standard. There is a normal. There is an expected. 

In some ways, there has to be. We are social creatures, and we learn a lot in the aggregate. We combine differences until they are blurred so that we can rest on a set of comfortable assumptions about how things are "supposed" to be. It is a meaning-making shortcut. 

op shop quilt

So while it may be impossible to do away with the concept of a standard, it is not impossible to question how we use it. Instead of seeing every deviation from the norm as "less than" (substandard), we need to consciously force an inquiry that determines whether that deviation may simply be different (nonstandard). 

This has real, important, life-changing impacts. 

When I had that debate with the aldermen about the proposed sagging pants ban in St. Louis, I was on the phone with my ward's representative. One of my arguments was that this law would be enforced along racial lines. I pointed to the fact that St. Louis arrests black people at 18 times the rate of white people for marijuana offenses despite similar rates of usage. He quickly countered that he knows white people who smoke marijuana, but they do it in the privacy of their own homes where no one can see them. "They're not out on their front porch doing it!" he cried. 

Obviously, he's making some pretty sweeping generalizations about who uses marijuana how, but let's go ahead and take him at his word for the sake of argument. White people smoke weed behind closed doors; black people do it on their front porches where they can be seen. The implication is that the white choice is the standard ("Sure, everyone does it, but these people do it the right way.") To then say that a deviation from that choice is substandard (and thus deserving of an arrest) ignores the inequality present in what gets read as a "criminal" act. 

In fact, that's what was at the heart of the sagging pants ban to begin with. Sure, sagging your pants is a nonstandard way to dress, but to criminalize it assumes that it is a substandard way to dress. Meanwhile, fashion trends that are also nonstandard but aren't racialized are not treated the same way. 


We might snicker or be amused by a nonstandard display of a man walking around in lederhosen, but it's highly unlikely that we actively criminalize the act and devalue the person as substandard. 

These assumptions of substandard acts get used along lines of power all the time. 

Consider this woman who was kicked out of a water park for wearing a bikini. She was surrounded by women who were younger and thinner than her in the same attire, but her body was considered substandard instead of simply being nonstandard. Similarly, women are frequently harassed and harangued for breastfeeding their children (need proof? Go to the Twitter feed of @BoobsR4Babes). The amount of exposed breast during a nursing session is usually far less than that on display in every grocery store magazine aisle, but sexualized female bodies are standard, so nurturing bodies are seen as substandard. 

Scrambling to Maintain Power

The benefit of making something substandard instead of nonstandard is that it gives the powerful a greater chance of maintaining their power. If breastfeeding is stigmatized and even outright banned, then it is much less likely that women will do it. If women don't do it, then it doesn't become normalized and there's less risk to those who maintain power by keeping women locked into a sexualized role. 

If sagging pants are stigmatized and criminalized, then it is easier to criminalize and stigmatize the entire culture with which they are associated. Making sure that the hip hop culture is seen as substandard instead of nonstandard ensures that the valid political and socially-conscious messages coming out of that culture remain in an echo chamber. 

That scramble for power is then maintained throughout the layers of American culture. When someone like Don Lemon comes forward to blame black social problems on the inability of black people to act in the "right" (read: white) way or we say that breastfeeding mothers should simply take their hungry babies into a bathroom, we ignore the systems of oppression at play in making us believe in those standards to begin with. We begin to accept the standards as inevitable and set rather than mutable and constantly negotiated. 

We, in short, ensure that the people in power won't have to share any of it. 

Question and Conquer

Let's go back to the quote I used at the beginning of this article: "the assumption of equality tends to mask difference." 

We are told over and over again that everyone is equal. We are often told that we live in a post-feminist, post-racial world where women are graduating from college at higher rates than men and we have a black president so the social ills of the past are just that, in the past. 

This is a nice narrative, and I understand why someone would want to just accept it and move on. The belief in an egalitarian meritocracy where everyone gets what they deserve based solely on his or her individual merit is an attractive one. 

But we have to make sure that believing everyone has the right to equal treatment doesn't translate into believing everyone has access to equality. We have to make sure that we haven't put on blinders to any oppression that doesn't personally touch us. We have to make sure that we haven't just taken our own experiences as "standard" and decided to read anything else as "substandard," a sign that the people acting that way have made a poor choice and are thus responsible for their own victimization. 

It's easy to stand on our own perches and decide that everyone else could stand there if they wanted to, that it was easy for us to get there so it should be easy for anyone else as well. 


It can be easy to ignore how much fitting into the standard is really just a matter of luck (and privilege) and not the matter of personal choice we like to think it is. It can be easy to try to create "equality" by insisting that everyone else stand where we stand. 

But the world is big, and there are lots of places to stand. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Links Round-Up, BlogHer13 Edition

I normally post a links round-up every week, but this week has been a little different. First, I was finishing up the final grades for my summer class so that I could be free to travel on Friday. I spent the weekend at BlogHer 13. It was a phenomenal conference, and I was impressed by the organization, quality and quantity of the content, and overall presentation. The thing I was most impressed by, though, had nothing to do with the conference organizers and everything to do with the people who attended. I met so many fellow writers. Some of them I already follow and read, but many of them were completely new to me.

Since I've been checking out all of these new (to me) blogs, I thought I'd use this weeks round-up to share some of them with you.

BlogHer '13

Discovering the New

BonBon Break is an online magazine that curates blog content from across the web and situates it in an easy-to-follow format for busy parents. You can browse the "rooms" to get content in different topics and submit your own work for inclusion. I also love the way that the site redirects readers back to the respective blogs, ensuring new readers for bloggers. Here are some of the links I found through BonBon Break that I loved:

  • CragMama's post on why you should let your kids go barefoot (full disclosure, I am barefoot as often as society will let me be, so I am a bit biased).
  • Awesomely Awake has a post on biting our tongues to make sure we don't say things to kids that will have a lasting impact we didn't intend. 
I had read much of Rita Arens work on BlogHer, but I had never been to her personal blog, Surrender, Dorothy. I was particularly inspired by her post on how following her writing instincts (despite advice to the contrary) led to her position as an editor at BlogHer. 

I saw Nicole Blades speak on a fantastic panel, and then I went to her blog Ms. Mary Mack and was further impressed by her voice and intelligence. I especially connected with this post about strangers insisting that having an only child is "unfair":
It’s those close relationships that were the main pull towards possibly having more kids. I wanted my son to experience what I have with my siblings.
But my life is not his life. And there are other factors — important ones — that needed to be weighed in this longstanding, internal debate.
Sarah at Toddler Summer does a beautiful job of capturing the little moments in parenting and turning them into thoughtful reflection. I especially like this post about the evolution of children calling their mothers' names.

Kludgy Mom is funny. Need proof? Read this hilarious piece about writing and promoting blog posts

Busy Since Birth (a name I have a lot of empathy for) is run by Cheryl Pollock Stober. I especially like her series of guest interviews on "having it all." You can find all the links here. I enjoyed this one from Allison Berry, a rabbi and mother of two.

Veronica Arreola is another blogger I had the chance to see on an excellent panel. She writes at Viva La Feminista about the intersections of parenthood, feminism, and race. I was looking through her site and was impressed by a lot of the issues she tackles. I know this is an old post, but this discussion of the responsibility people in the spotlight have to use their own stories for change is really intriguing.

Meeting the Familiar

I also got to meet some bloggers that I was already reading, and they were all just as kind and funny and smart as I imagined them to be.

PhD in Parenting is a fantastic site that looks at issues of feminism, humanism, parenting, and ethical consumption. I love the way it combines statistical analysis, stories full of heart, and in-depth questioning. For example, check out this 50 Reasons for Breastfeeding Anytime, Anywhere.

Ellie from Musing Momma writes about multiracial parenting. Here's one of her posts that I love about talking to her children when they notice racial differences.

Kristen at Birthing Beautiful Ideas is a feminist mother and a doula. She is a great storyteller who takes an informed, scholarly-but-accessible look at the world around her. She recently had a great post about talking to her sons about their privilege.

Finally, I didn't get to "meet" her in any real sense of the word, but I did see her once from a distance and since I'm such a fan of her writing I am going to include her here. Erika from Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss writes about weight loss from a socially-conscious and feminist perspective. One of my favorites posts is this one about how losing weight made her a feminist. (She also just had an article in Salon about the lack of diverse voices--and thus diverse perspectives--in America's debates about food.)

Hopefully you'll find someone new to read that you like. I know that my reading list just got a longer, and I am so excited to find people who are doing such inspiring work. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reflections on White Privilege While Raising a Child of Color, Part 2: I Am Not Trayvon Martin's Mom

Yesterday, I wrote about how the Onion tweet about Quvenzhane Wallis made me confront the intersection of recognizing white privilege while raising a child of color. Today, I want to explore how that intersection is driving my reaction to the Zimmerman verdict and the larger topic of recognizing that I have a privilege I cannot give to my child. 

I remember the very first time that I felt the complete and utter helplessness of motherhood, the ability for the flipside of all that love to bubble up as terror at the thought of what you cannot control. My daughter was two days old, and we were checking into a hospital because she had elevated bilirubin levels and needed some time on the UV lights. I hadn't slept for more than thirty minutes for over 70 hours, and I had just given birth. When the nurse told us we were being admitted, I burst into tears. All I could think about was how much I wanted the tiny baby I was clutching to my chest back inside of me where she was safe. It was a children's hospital, and I watched the helicopter touch down on the landing pad outside our room. It was carrying some other parents' nightmare, and I realized just how scary and immensely huge the world had suddenly become.

Elizabeth Stone once said “Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ”


But that doesn't quite capture it, not really. See, if my daughter needed new lungs, I would want to rip mine from my chest and give them to her. Of course I believe that I am an autonomous person who has an important identity outside of motherhood, but--at the end of the day, when the chips are on the table--I would die for my daughter. Being a parent is raw and all-consuming. It makes the simple joy of watching bubbles pop in the front yard into a profound act of spirituality, but it also makes every revving engine and nearby pond into an ominous threat.

What does this have to do with being the white mother of a child of color? Well, that's what I hope writing this post will help me figure out.

I've turned to the public forum of blogging in the past when I've had something to unpack that has been difficult for me. That's what I'm doing here, and I hope that I can do it with grace and finesse, but I think I'm on a particularly precarious tightrope, dangling at the intersection of parenting and race.


Since the Zimmerman trial, many people have taken to the public outlet of social media to vent and channel their anger and pain in a productive way. Some even hypothesize that letting our voices be heard on Twitter and Facebook helps prevent riots in the non-cyber world. 

Among the most touching and heart-breaking pieces I read in the wake of the verdict were posts from mothers of black children who reflected on what this outcome meant for them and their families: 

  • Nadirah Angail wrote at My Brown Baby about the fear she felt when she found out the child she's now carrying is a boy:
I’m having a little brown boy, a member of the most targeted and feared demographic group in the country. That’s when the fear and worry set in.
  • Melissa Harris-Perry talked about the relief she felt over having a daughter and how messed up it is to live in a country that makes her wish her sons away
Reid also remarked that while black families are accustomed to warning their children about being suspected by police, now the conversation will have to include civilians.
  • This powerful quote from bell hooks  Audre Lorde (sorry, had the attribution wrong!) started making the rounds on the internet: 
Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.
As I was reading those stories of parents who felt the visceral fear of watching their children grow and interact with a racist system, I also found moving stories of people who recognized their own privilege during the aftermath of the trial. Most notably, the We Are Not Trayvon site became a landing place for people to tell stories of how their own racial and class privilege has kept them from getting the treatment (both by Zimmerman and the public at large) that Trayvon Martin received. And (as I wrote about when it happened), I read some great Twitter conversations about how important it was for white allies not to appropriate the story of Trayvon Martin. 

And here I am, on the tightrope. 

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am not a black woman. I am not a black mother. 

As blue milk wrote about recently, white parents are often in for a wake up call when they see the fears and worry that go into raising children of color--fears and worry that they never have to face. She titled her post collecting some links on this topic "More hard thoughts for white parents." And that's me. I am a white parent. 

I am privileged and naive and only able to understand the depths of the system I am fighting against in little flickers of recognition. 

But my daughter is not white.

Just as I would have given anything to put her back inside me when she was hours old and hurting, just as I would rip the lungs from my chest if they would let her breathe when she needed to, just as I would die for my child because she is the world to me, I would--if I could--give her the privilege of walking through the world the way that I did, the way that I still do.

In one of the conversations following the verdict, someone said that even indignation was a white privilege because people of color aren't naive enough to trust the system. I'm sure this isn't true for all, but I was definitely indignant as I watched the jury render their verdict, and I am definitely privileged. 

There are, indeed, many hard lessons for white parents in this story. It brings to light that the world is unfair in ways we may have never imagined.

But the lessons for those raising children of color are even harder. If children are our hearts beating outside of our bodies, the Zimmerman verdict demonstrates that they are walking through the crossfire of a barren war zone. 

I am learning both lessons at the same time, and it is hard. I know that does nothing to strip away the privilege that I have, and I hope very much that I am not appropriating the pain of racial victimization because I am not the victim. 

But I am hurt, and I am scared. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Reflections on White Privilege While Raising a Child of Color, Part 1: The Silences I Don't Hear

A few days before the 2013 Oscars, I was reading some online commentary about the nominees. In the middle of the page was a picture of Quvenzhan√© Wallis from the set of Beasts of the Southern Wild. My two-year-old daughter peered over my shoulder, pointed to Wallis’ face, and said her own name.

I could certainly see the resemblance: the beautiful, untethered curls; the brown skin; the big, shining eyes. My daughter literally saw herself in this amazing young woman, the youngest person nominated for a Best Actress award and one of the very few people of color recognized by the Academy that night. I was happy that there are representations in media for my daughter to see that will remind her of herself. The tagline from Miss Representation (a documentary on the state of women in media portrayals) tells us “you can’t be what you can’t see.” My hope—like the hope of most parents—is that my daughter can be anything.

Little Miss Rockstar

I didn’t think much of that moment. It was fleeting and sweet. Then The Onion tweet referring to Wallis as a “cunt” popped up in my feed. I had already muted the Academy Awards show itself because I was so worn out from the constant misogyny on the screen, and the tweet literally made my jaw drop. I joined the chorus of voices on social media urging people to unfollow The Onion and to voice their disapproval. Some of the comments that I got back shocked me. People that I love and respect, people who identify themselves as feminists and fight for equality, those people told me that they understood where The Onion was coming from. They said it was satire aimed to demonstrate the way misogyny operates in Hollywood. When I protested, saying that aiming that sexualized word at a young Black girl was beyond the line of satire, that young Black girls are already sexualized and abused disproportionately in our culture, I was told that race had nothing to do with it. I was told I was being oversensitive.

I would go on to read several articles about the tweet and the feminist response to it over the following days. I watched many mainstream feminist sites ignore it completely. I watched several mainstream feminist voices defend it. Even on sites that criticized The Onion and used intersectionality as a framework for that criticism, I watched the comments fill with self-proclaimed feminists explaining to the rest of us how we just “didn’t get” the joke. I fought and argued online until I couldn’t sleep at night, angered by the responses, frustrated with the community of feminists in which I had found so much comfort and support in the past, and terrified about the revelations I was making about myself.

I am a white feminist. I am privileged in many, many ways. The parts of feminism that resonate the strongest with me are the ones that touch my own life. Having always been an equality-minded person, I didn’t consciously define myself as a feminist until I became pregnant and suddenly saw that so much of the “everyone is equal” mantra I had been hearing and ostensibly living was lip service. When I had a need for feminism, it was there, and I clung to it gratefully. The friends, support, and ideas I have found in the feminist community have been nothing short of life affirming. 

Soaring Group of balloons

In my journey through feminism, I would read and hear women of color saying that they felt left out of the movement. I would watch in-fighting happen over whether breastfeeding was feminist or anti-feminist, whether a mother staying home with her children could be a feminist act, and whether feminists could wear makeup. I always thought that these women who told me they felt unwelcome in the movement because of race were taking a segment of the movement and extrapolating it to the whole. Perhaps they’d met a single woman who identified herself as a feminist who had a blind spot to race issues and let her stand in for all of us. Surely, I told myself, a movement predicated on recognizing privilege and oppression could not be blind to racism, could not be blind to the intersection at which women of color sat, could not be blind to the fact that race matters.

I was wrong. 

A Hot Air Balloon Landed in My 'Hood

It took the tweet about Quvenzhan√© Wallis to show me that I was wrong, and then I began to examine everything I could within the movement I love. Suddenly the silences, the gaps, and the missing pieces were evident everywhere. Suddenly I found all of the posts from women of color discussing these flaws, and I know that they were there all along, and I hate that I didn’t see them before.

More than anything, though, I hate that I will never know how much my daughter pointing to Wallis’ face and seeing her own made that recognition possible for me. Did being in an interracial marriage and raising a biracial daughter make me more likely to get outraged? If that tweet hadn’t touched on my life in a personal way, would I have stayed silent, too?

I want to say that of course I wouldn’t have stayed silent. Of course I would have stood up to the misogyny and racism in that tweet whether I had a daughter or not, let alone whether or not my daughter looked like Wallis. The truth is, though, that I can never know that. I can only live within the life I actually have, and I am now left constantly asking what other experiences am I unintentionally ignoring. What other silences am I letting pass? What else has my privilege blinded me against? Most importantly, how do I make sure I break those barriers down? How do I make sure I see without putting the burden on another little girl to be objectified and oppressed in order for me to learn a lesson I should have already known?

Note: I wrote this immediately following the Oscars, but never published it. I am publishing it now as I try to unpack some of the same tensions I've seen in reactions to the Zimmerman verdict and my own anxieties about what that case means for my parenting. I hope to follow it up with a Part 2. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

Here's what I've been reading that made me smile (the Good), cry (the Bad), and think (the Curious). What have you been reading (or writing)?

The Good

Arin Andrews and Katie Hill are both transgender teens who met and fell in love while transitioning.

The "Genderbread Person" helps explain the difference between gender, sex, orientation, and presentation in an easy-to-follow format.  

This is fun:

I've never seen Adventure Time, but I love this discussion of BMO as a post-gender representation and it gives a great breakdown of the different waves of feminism:

The Bad

Ken Cuccinelli, who just might become Govenor of Virginia, wants to ban oral sex (despite the fact that such a ban has already been found unconstitutional) because, you know, kids or something

The Curious

The Toast outlines the 16 stages of reading a mean comment about yourself online. I can definitely say I've been through the whole cycle a time or two, especially this step:
Self-hatred, part III: Seriously, why did I even read the comments? Idiot! You know better.
Think Progress provides four charts of statistics that demonstrate their is no "race card" being played, but there's plenty of racism.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer reminds us that judging other mothers is hardly ever a fair game when she writes about the time she forgot her baby in a car.

This personal trainer sometimes hides her muscular arms to keep from scaring away potential clients:
Some women just have this fear of “bulking up.” A fear of looking like a man. A fear that growing muscles will slide them down to the wrong end of the masculine-feminine spectrum. And no matter how cute I looked in my lululemon gear, if I wore make-up and a ponytail, too, my bulbous biceps always led these women to believe I was somehow less female and they backed away from me.

That's what I've been reading. What'd I miss?

Monday, July 22, 2013

How Does Orange is the New Black Handle Privilege?

I'm watching the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, and I really, really like it.

For context, I should tell you that I watched Jenji Kohan's other show, Weeds, from beginning to end. I did, at some point, enjoy it, but by the end I felt a little like I was watching the show the same way I finish the vegetables that I scooped onto my dinner plate: out of obligation. The sex as power play, racial stereotypes used for kicks, and mishmash of characters so unlikable as to make me almost apathetic to the conclusion of any of their story lines made me so weary by the end that even the witty writing and entertaining absurdity felt stale.

Orange is the New Black is way better than Weeds. Way better.

The plot is based on the true story of an upper-middle-class woman named Piper who ends up sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security prison because of some poor decisions she made while exploring the boundaries of her own sexuality and the legal system after attending college. The deed didn't catch up to her until a decade later, long after she had given up the life of adventure for one much more typical of her WASP background: lemon cleanses, an engagement to a Jewish writer, and a on-the-edge-of-success artisan soap making business.

Not everyone is happy with the show. I mentioned that I was thinking about watching it, and several of my Facebook friends told me they had started it and couldn't get into it. 

That also seems to be the case for Colorlines writer Jamilah King who says:
I’m still very early into the show, but so far I just don’t think it’s all that funny. I felt the same way about “Weeds”, another show that was created by Jengi Kohan.* I get that I’m supposed to be laughing at the irony of white folks in black situations, but to what end? Both shows seem to traffic in tired racial tropes.
I'll admit that the first few episodes do seem to play up the shock value of its subject matter, hinging on the incongruity of our protagonist being placed somewhere she "doesn't belong."

But the whole show is dedicated to subverting that incongruity. We see the experience through Piper's eyes at first, but the show layers on more and more character development as it goes. I am only seven episodes in, and there has already been a lot of work to demonstrate that Piper belongs in prison just as much as anyone else does. Once we've made that connection, we begin to question who belongs there at all and to what end.

Piper's character is a vehicle for permeating a host of privileges. King says that it is about the "irony of white folks in black situations," but that's not really a fair assessment. There are, after all, twice as many white women in prison as black women in prison. Of course, black women are incarcerated at rates disproportionate to their population, so there is definitely racial bias at play in the system (and explored in this show). To say that prison is a "black situation," though, misses a lot of the picture. Almost half (44%) of the women in prison have not completed high school. Female prisoners are more likely to report being on drugs at the time of their incarceration than male prisoners. And almost two-thirds (73%) have a mental health issue (compared to 55% of male prisoners). Prison is definitely a place where privilege gets checked, but it is not just racial privilege. Education, access to health care, environmental, geographical, and class privilege are all in play. (Source: The Sentencing Project)

And just as all of those privileges are in play in real life, they are in play in this show. As individual characters' stories get woven into the fabric of what was originally just Piper's perspective, our view of the world enriches right along with hers. We begin to see that the show's tagline--"Every sentence is a story"--resonates deeply.

Every number on an infographic, every statistic you learn about in a class or on the news, each of those are made up of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of real lives, real stories.

As the Ms. Magazine review of the show says:
This is what the show does best: As the narrative tends to each character, it debunks Piper’s prejudices and feelings of superiority and unpacks her privilege. It reminds the audience that each woman is a full person, not an oddity, and it does so with unwavering and addictive wit.
Others have also reflected on how the stereotypes are placed there only to be knocked down and the diversity of the cast (in body size, race, sexual preference, and age) is allowing actors who seldom receive major on-screen representation to shine.

If you've heard negative things about the show or even if you started watching it yourself and didn't feel the connection, I urge you to give it another shot. Just as in real life, it can sometimes take a while to start unpacking all of those intertwining complications, but my hope is that both in fiction and in reality the wait will be worth it.

Have you seen the show? What do you think? 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Technological Devices and the Human Experience

I'm reading Post-Process Theory: Beyond the Writing-Process Paradigm. One essay in this collection is Barbara Couture's "Modeling and Emulating," a discussion of how recognizing that writing is not merely an act that a person does to express an already formed humanity, but part of the process of becoming a human in the first place.

Hand with Pen

In other words, writing is not something you do to express the person you already are; it is something that helps you become the person you will be. Communication is a transformative act. We discover more about ourselves, the world around us, and our place in that world through a constant feedback loop of speaking and listening, writing and reading. 

The entire collection is a criticism of Process Theory, or the teaching method that boils writing down into a recursive process of prewriting (brainstorming, outlining, etc.), writing (drafting), and rewriting (proofreading, revising, editing). Couture suggests that turning writing into a "device" strips it away of its humanity and makes us lose sight of its transformative properties. 

I want to set aside her larger argument for a moment (as I certainly agree that writing is a transformative act but that pedagogical practices and the utilitarian constraints of the classroom don't always make that easy to champion in educational settings) and focus instead on something she says about devices and humanity, an idea she adapts from Albert Borgmann. 
Devices make things available to us without requiring any investment from us; they reduce human activity to the mere process of acquiring a commodity
An example is the technological advancement of forced air heat, which gives us heat "without the user's investment in the physical skill or the building of social relations to reach that goal. With the wood-burning stove comes the effort of chopping wood, involving oneself and others in keeping the wood box filled and fire tended, learning the skill of starting and maintaining fires, and incorporating these activities into the fabric of a shared family or community life."

chopping wood 

There's definitely a lot that rings true in this criticism of our devices. Being able to instantly download a single song and listen to it on my computer without ever leaving my seat is certainly a different experience than venturing out into the community and finding a live band. There is certainly an element of isolation and a lack of communal exploration involved.

This understanding that some conveniences are causing us to lose touch with communal skills and values is also something I see at the heart of things like the modern homesteading movements. Those homemade chicken coops, carefully-crafted compost bins, and hand-churned butter all point to a desire to be physically involved in the processes that make up our lives.

Of course, nothing is ever simple (not even baking homemade bread, which I think is the quintessential image of "simplicity").

As I've talked about before, there's a lot of tension between "homesteading" movements and movements focused on progress toward equality (like feminism). This NY Times piece is probably the best I've read on the interaction between those two schools of thought and one way that we could hold them simultaneously.

Here's the root of the tension. On one hand, technological advances provide an equalizing impact on society by reducing the amount of work that's needed to be done in spaces that are traditionally undervalued (and unpaid). If people (traditionally women) do not have to spend hours every day washing clothes and scrubbing floors because we have Whirlpools and Swiffers, then those people are now free to contribute to society in other ways (like by entering the paid workforce).

You can see why some feminists (especially second-wavers) would bristle at the idea of a woman who wants to go back to a time where making a jar of jam took all day instead of hopping into the store and buying one. They question what's happened to feminist ideals. They question if these women understand the cost of their desires.

Here's the thing, though, capitalism has snuck into this equation without us even questioning it. Couture warns us that devices turn our previously hard-won products into "commodities." The feminists who rail against homesteading do so because it compromises participants' economic potential. We frame all of these arguments in terms of money.

But there's another way to look at the complex intertwining of language, devices, and community.

Examining Clouds

The other day I showed my students Mark Pagel's TED Talk on language and humanity. It's really interesting and worth a watch, but if you're pressed for time, the pertinent part is at 2:55-6:20. 

He questions why chimpanzees, if they're so smart, don't just go to the store and buy a bag of pre-cracked nuts instead of hitting them with rocks (so clearly he sees our devices as an evolutionary benefit). He says that chimpanzees lack the capacity for social learning, and so they continue to do the same thing for thousands of generations, never progressing past that process because they don't learn from each other's mistakes. They don't build on each other's discoveries.

Pagel explains that the ability to learn by imitation and choices, to build on previous wisdom, to progress technology is a "cumulative cultural adaptation" situated in the use of language.

So, it may be true that turning a switch on a thermostat is a less communally-based act that going out into the forest and chopping down wood to provide heat, but that thermostat is a product of a very communal process. We only learned how to make that furnace through the sharing of collective knowledge over multiple generations. Every technological advancement that we have is a testament to the true strength of our communal abilities.

We are not like the chimpanzees, stuck using the same tools for a million years. Our tools are now changing so rapidly that we can barely keep up.

Sure, these advances can seem frightening and definitely (as the commercial above humorously captures) frustrating to consumers, but our ability to grow technologically has coincided with our ability to communicate more broadly. The more people we are able to talk to, the larger our potential social learning. From the printing press to Twitter, we've been consistently and rapidly growing our communal base, getting a broader pool of social knowledge from which to pull. 

Couture definitely points to real issues when she discusses the way that devices can isolate us from our community, but we must always remember that those devices are the products of that very community. We must balance out panic over change and recognition for traditions that work. 

I know that this is a very idealistic way to frame these issues, but I truly believe that our language adaptations have been bringing us to this moment and that they will take us beyond it. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. 

When we go forward, it will be together. 

Money, Blogging, Charity, and CentUp

I don't blog to make money (thankfully. If I did, I think I'd need to be admitting defeat right about now.)

white flag bandiera bianca

I do, however, spend a lot of time writing and researching posts for this blog. I also spend a lot of time reading other people's brilliantly researched and enlightening posts. In fact, blogs have given me the opportunity to learn and grow in a conversation loop that is invaluable. How can you put a price on that?

You can put a price on it because its not free. There are hosting costs and technological investments, but by far the biggest cost for most bloggers is time. This is important because we've gotten to a point where we sometimes expect content for free. I know that I'm a big fan of watching music videos, listening to songs, and reading poems, stories, and journalism online without having to pay a subscription fee for any of it. 

Still, there are a lot of complicated ethical problems surrounding all of these issues. As we talked about on this blog when Gina of The Feminist Breeder moved to a pay model (which she says is working well. Go Gina!), the hidden costs of free online content is tied up with feminism, classism, and the general concern over the value of the humanities and arts. 

I've been looking for a good way to pay for the media that I consume online. It's not that I want something for nothing. (I still buy physical CDs! I never pirate television shows! I care!) But I couldn't possibly pay even a $5/month subscription service for the blogs I read. I just went and checked my Feedly stream. I have over 150 blogs on that list. Even if I narrowed it down to the blogs that I read the most, there are at least 50 blogs that I read regularly, and they are in very different areas covering diverse perspectives. I cannot afford to pay $250/month to read blogs. 

Pictured: Not mine. 
But I can afford $20. Some months I can probably afford a little more. I would never be able to pick just one or two blogs, but I would love to be able to give a little here and there to all of the different blogs I read. 

But there hasn't been any easy way to do that. 

Now there is. CentUp is a new service that puts a share button at the bottom of a blog post, music video, photograph, etc. If you like it, you push "CentUp" and it takes a penny (or more, if you want) out of your pre-loaded account and gives it to the creator. 

But that's not all

CentUp is split between the creator and a charity of the creator's choice. You not only help support great creative content directly; you also help support important causes of all kinds.

So, two things:

1) "CentUp" Balancing Jane- If you read a post on here that you like, and you'd like to give me a penny or two, there is now a "CentUp" button at the bottom of the post. If you click it, you'll first be prompted to make an account. After that, you can use the money you put in that account to reward bloggers, musicians, photographers, etc. for the content you enjoy across the web. Which brings me to . . .

2) Put "CentUp" on Your Own Work- I'm very excited about the opportunity to pay the bloggers and video creators that create work I enjoy, but they have to have a "CentUp" account so that I can give them some money. If you're a creator, consider adding an account to your site so that I (and the rest of your fans) can help support your hard work!

Any money that you give here on Balancing Jane through CentUp will be split with Pencils of Promise, an organization that works to build schools around the world and invest in local teachers to support education. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Not Until It Touches You: Oppression, Allies, Privilege, and Personal Experience

This is going to be a long post that's hard to write.

In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, my social justice and race conscious social media networks appropriately blew up.

There were many intelligent, passionate, and thought-provoking conversations taking place. One of the facets of this complex and emotionally-charged conversation was the tension between being a white anti-racist ally and still recognizing racial privilege. Here are some of the most powerful tweets I saw on the subject:

But by far the tweet that personally impacted me the most was this one: 

Blinded by Privilege 

I grew up in a very monocultural environment. There was little racial, religious, cultural, or ethnic diversity to speak of. It was rural and isolated. News from "the city" seemed distant and dangerous. As I wrote about recently, our understanding of criminality was very different from the urban iterations of it. 

There was a time when I heard reports of racially-motivated attacks (specifically brutality from authority figures) and was dismissive of the experiences of the people who survived them. There was a time when I would have read a story like Cary Ball's, Gabriella Calhoun's, or even Trayvon Martin's and thought that there must be something more to the story. There must be some justification for this kind of violence. Those victims must have done something that isn't being told to the public. Surely they weren't just treated like that because of their race. 

I did not believe these things out of malice. I believed them out of ignorance. Having had no experience with that kind of racially-motivated brutality, I simply did not understand its existence. I heard the stories, but I had not foothold to them. 

With My Own Eyes

I remember the very moment my perspective changed. In two separate instances, I was at bars with my college boyfriend/now-husband (who is black). We were with primarily black crowds. In both instances, isolated fights broke out between two or three individuals. In both instances, the police reacted to the entire crowd as one monolithic group, mistreating and sometimes assaulting people who had nothing to do with the fight. In one incident, the police inside a club were evacuating it, telling everyone to leave. Simultaneously, the police outside of the building were trying to disperse the crowd and started using pepper spray. 

Read that again. The police inside were sending us out into a constant stream of pepper spray. Of course, this caused chaos. People outside were trying to run back inside to avoid the spray. People inside were getting shoved by the people trying to get back in. Elbows were thrown and people fell. I saw with my own eyes the police shove a handcuffed man on the ground and start kneeing him repeatedly in the back. A young woman who was just trying to get out of the stream of pepper spray bumped into a cop and was grabbed and thrown violently. There was absolutely no reason for it. As they screamed at, assaulted, and arrested people coming out of the club and onto the street, white patrons of bars next door stood and watched. 

For Police Use Only

Re-Seeing the World

Between incidents like those, conversations with people who had different backgrounds from myself, and college courses on race, class, and gender, I began to see the world differently. Once I was willing to look, there was no shortage of evidence to demonstrate that the world in general and the American criminal justice system in particular are not "post-racial." 

But I had to be willing to look. Even if I wasn't intending to, ignoring the stories and statistics of those around me with different experiences helped to perpetuate a system of white supremacy and racial oppression. By not recognizing those experiences as legitimate, I was denying the authenticity of the people who lived them. 

I thought I was being "neutral," but I wasn't. I was being blind. 

I'm Not the Only One

There have been two stories circulating lately that are pertinent to this discussion, and neither has to do with race or police brutality. 

In this clip of Dustin Hoffman talking about the film Tootsie (in which he dresses as a woman), he discusses how playing that character made him realize the unfair beauty standards that are placed on women, standards that he had never faced as a man: 

Elsewhere, a man named Kim O'Grady talks about how he didn't get a job until he put "Mr." on his resume and was suddenly much more hireable. 

Both of these men use their personal experiences to discuss a larger, societal issue. For both of these men, personal experience seems to be the key to unlocking their own understanding about a system of oppression that was always in front of them, but previously invisible. 

I've written about this before in other contexts. When some feminists criticized Ashley Judd for standing up to patriarchal standards only after she had benefited from them in her own career, I came to her defense. There, I claimed that getting hit head-on with an oppressive system is often the only way to recognize it. 

It's a trope we've seen in socially-conscious literature. It's the point of experiments like Black Like Me, a "switch places for a day" foray into social awareness that has shown up everywhere from reality TV (like Supersize Me's host Morgan Spurlock's show 30 Days) to kids' TV programs. 

We Can't Wear Every Shoe

These social experiments to get people to see the world differently are great when they work and valiant efforts. They do require, though, a willing participant. Even then, we can't wear every pair of shoes. There will be experiences in the world that are valid, lived, and real that we can never even touch. The world is too complex and too full of lives for us to understand them all on a personal level. 

So where does that leave us? 

It leaves me a little queasy. I am outraged by the Zimmerman verdict. I was also outraged by the Quvenzhane Wallis Oscar tweet fiasco. In both of these instances, I've had to ask myself some tough questions. I am the mother of a biracial daughter. I know that I would be angry about Martin's death and Wallis' mistreatment even if I were the mother of a white child or if I weren't a mother at all, but I can't be sure that I would be as angry, or angry in the same way. I am emboldened and impassioned because these issues now touch me in a way that they didn't before. My connection to my daughter has left tiny cracks in a privilege that used to shield me from such reactions. 

I worry about how many stories I am still unwilling to hear. I think that I am listening, but the real problem with privilege is that you don't have to be aware of what you don't know. 

I think that having a personal connection to someone who experiences oppression that we haven't gives us an opportunity to learn, but that's not good enough. We absolutely must make sure that we are leaving ourselves open to make those personal connections, but we won't know everyone, we won't see everything. 

How, then, do we put ourselves in places where we are able to hear the stories that we haven't lived? How do we make sure that we aren't hiding (willfully or not) behind a buffer of privilege?

I'll turn back to Dr. Jane Doe who tweeted some excellent advice on this topic yesterday:

Here Dr. Jane Doe is talking specifically about recognizing white privilege, but she could just as easily be talking about any number of privileges. Think about how your day-to-day interactions lack diversity. Think about how the media you consume does (or does not) mirror those interactions. 

We cannot walk in every pair of shoes, but we can work to make sure that we are hearing from all of the voices around us. The stories are out there. We have to listen. 

Photo: id-iom

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links for the Week)

Here's what I've been reading this week that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

The Toast introduces feminist-friendly fitness advice!
But training, or working out, or lifting, or whatever, cannot really be approached as a way in which to look a certain way. Training has finally, after DECADES of typical body-malaise, made me love my body, but not because of how it looks. I like how my body looks, sure, but I love what it can do. It has brought me genuine happiness. I train three days a week, now, like a monster each time, and if I don’t get it, I become irritable and bitchy. And so I’d like to talk a little bit about what my bi-weekly fitness coverage is going to look like, and the philosophy behind these choices.
Fit and Feminist has a great post about the complex relationship to race photos and ultimately learning to love them

The Bad

In Illinois, a petite young black woman who graduated high school early to start college a semester in advance and who has never had any trouble in her record (not even a detention) was thrown to the ground, knocked unconscious, and lost some of her teeth when police broke up a fight in a Denny's in which she was not involved. The police say she attacked them with closed fists and that they have video, but no one has released it. 

Of all the Zimmerman verdict responses that tore at my soul (and there were a lot of them), the ones that stuck with me the most were the reflection of mothers on the fear of having a black son. See this post at My Brown Baby and this one from Melissa Harris Perry for the far-reaching implications of this outcome.  

They stopped, but for a while the Texas Senate was confiscating tampons (but still allowing guns) from people entering the floor for the abortion debate.  

This woman was kicked out of a water park for wearing a bikini.  


The Curious

J.K. Rowling published an adult crime novel under a male pseudonym. The way critics and the reading public are responding now that the author's identity is known is very interesting. 

This discussion of modesty culture, empowerment, and body image over at Beauty Redefined is enlightening:
 When we begin believing that, we begin acting like it, and female progress in every imaginable way will move forward. We will spend less money on cosmetic surgery (up 500% in the last decade with 92% of the surgeries performed on women) and every other product we need to “fix” our flaws. We will spend less time minimizing and obsessing over our insecurities beneath our clothes. We will spend less time emphasizing and obsessing over our favorite parts on display in our clothes. We will perform better academically, athletically, and in our careers. We will love other women more because we will not be judging them as bodies. We will feel greater self-love, happiness, and power to live authentically chosen lives. We will pass along all of these powerful truths to the little girls growing up in an increasingly sexualized world.
Another response to the Zimmerman trial is this Sociological Images post that shows the racial bias present in "justifiable homicide" verdicts, particularly when Stand Your Ground is involved.

Is the humanities crisis really just the statistical outcome of women having more career opportunities? It's an interesting theory.

Danielle Vermeer has a great post about modesty guidelines and her own evolving stance on the issue that led her to realize that it wasn't the length of her skirt that would keep men from having "bad" thoughts.

Can you name these Disney movies based on the description?
You grow up in a small town where you have a juiced-up stalker and nothing in common with anyone. One day your father stumbles upon a madhouse and is held hostage by an ugly, angry man. While attempting to save your father, you fall in love with this ugly man. Your stalker kills him in order to finally win your affections, but the ugly man comes back from the dead, and he's beautiful, and you marry him.
Amanda at Two Americans in China has a great post on how class privilege doesn't buffer us from pain, specifically when it comes to China's one-child policy. 

Stephen Marche's article in The Atlantic about feminism, gendered parenting roles, and the work-life balance is fantastic. You should really go read it:
We live in a hollow patriarchy: the edifice is patriarchal, while the majority of its occupants approach egalitarianism. This generates strange paradoxes. Even women with servants and powerful jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars feel that they have an institutional disadvantage. And they’re right. Women in the upper reaches of power are limited in ways that men simply are not. Various men’s movements have emerged, purportedly to provide a counterweight to feminism, but this proposition is inherently absurd. The greatest power still resides in the hands of a few men, even as the majority of men are being outpaced in the knowledge economy. Masculinity grows less and less powerful while remaining iconic of power. And therefore men are silent. After all, there is nothing less manly than talking about waning manliness.
That's what I've been reading this week. What did I miss?
I even passed this perfectionist approach onto the girls I counseled at Christian camp. I instructed them to lean over backwards in the mirror, assessing whether too much leg or even their underwear would show. I shocked them with bluntness in explaining what “men are visual” really meant, assuring them that a bit of cleavage or thigh could tempt the boys at camp to fantasize and even masturbate to these girls’ body parts. - See more at: http://www.prodigalmagazine.com/the-length-of-my-skirt/#sthash.HQy9vEt6.iXCpiXsD.dpuf
I even passed this perfectionist approach onto the girls I counseled at Christian camp. I instructed them to lean over backwards in the mirror, assessing whether too much leg or even their underwear would show. I shocked them with bluntness in explaining what “men are visual” really meant, assuring them that a bit of cleavage or thigh could tempt the boys at camp to fantasize and even masturbate to these girls’ body parts.
“Do you want that?” I shouted one day, exasperated that my girl campers were rolling their Soffee shorts and complaining about how they couldn’t wear two-pieces but the boys could go shirtless at the beach. “Do you want your guy friends to think about you in this way?”
It haunts me now to think of how I reinforced the same message for these teen girls that had been so destructive for me at that age. Rather than a message of freedom and hope, I passed on the fear I felt that nothing I did would ever be good or modest enough; and the shame of being thought of in this objectifying way.
- See more at: http://www.prodigalmagazine.com/the-length-of-my-skirt/#sthash.HQy9vEt6.iXCpiXsD.dpuf
I even passed this perfectionist approach onto the girls I counseled at Christian camp. I instructed them to lean over backwards in the mirror, assessing whether too much leg or even their underwear would show. I shocked them with bluntness in explaining what “men are visual” really meant, assuring them that a bit of cleavage or thigh could tempt the boys at camp to fantasize and even masturbate to these girls’ body parts.
“Do you want that?” I shouted one day, exasperated that my girl campers were rolling their Soffee shorts and complaining about how they couldn’t wear two-pieces but the boys could go shirtless at the beach. “Do you want your guy friends to think about you in this way?”
It haunts me now to think of how I reinforced the same message for these teen girls that had been so destructive for me at that age. Rather than a message of freedom and hope, I passed on the fear I felt that nothing I did would ever be good or modest enough; and the shame of being thought of in this objectifying way.
- See more at: http://www.prodigalmagazine.com/the-length-of-my-skirt/#sthash.HQy9vEt6.iXCpiXsD.dpuf

I even passed this perfectionist approach onto the girls I counseled at Christian camp. I instructed them to lean over backwards in the mirror, assessing whether too much leg or even their underwear would show. I shocked them with bluntness in explaining what “men are visual” really meant, assuring them that a bit of cleavage or thigh could tempt the boys at camp to fantasize and even masturbate to these girls’ body parts.
“Do you want that?” I shouted one day, exasperated that my girl campers were rolling their Soffee shorts and complaining about how they couldn’t wear two-pieces but the boys could go shirtless at the beach. “Do you want your guy friends to think about you in this way?”
It haunts me now to think of how I reinforced the same message for these teen girls that had been so destructive for me at that age. Rather than a message of freedom and hope, I passed on the fear I felt that nothing I did would ever be good or modest enough; and the shame of being thought of in this objectifying way.
- See more at: http://www.prodigalmagazine.com/the-length-of-my-skirt/#sthash.HQy9vEt6.iXCpiXsD.dpuf