This Needs To Be Said: Americans Look Like Everyone

Who didn’t watch the news coverage of the senseless terrorist bombings in Boston with a mixture of horror and sadness? After coverage shifted from deaths and injuries to the Federal Bureau of Investigation releasing photographs of the suspects, some news anchors suggested that you couldn’t tell by the pictures if they were American or not.

Clearly, this needs to be said: Americans look like everyone.

Americans come in every skin color, hue, and shade that pigment and sunlight know how to put together.

Americans are girls, women, boys, and men. There is not a gender identity or sexual orientation that doesn’t look American – in military uniform, in scouting uniform, or in casual clothes.

Americans have faith. Americans don’t have faith. The Constitution contains a declaration of faith that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means that Atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and EVERYONE get to look like themselves and look like Americans at the same time.

And American hairstyles, oh so many variations! Sometimes hair is curly, nappy, straight, short, long, or not there for you to see under a traditional head covering.

Americans are short, tall, skinny, fat, and every shape and size that life is able to put together. Americans have ability and disability. There are more than 11 million people here who already look like Americans and are waiting on documents to back them up. Good people are working on that, because diversity is our strength, not our weakness, and it’s freaking amazing gorgeous.

Americans look like everyone. There is not a single American who doesn’t look like an American, because the bottom line is that diversity – which includes so much more than the most privileged white men whom journalists are used to talking to on television – is what America looks like.

Difference, and diversity, and standing up for diversity are what make us look like Americans.

Standing against racism, and sexism, and homophobia, and xenophobia, and ableism are what make us look like Americans.

It is laws and assumptions that separate us on the basis of our skin, on the contents of our underwear, on the accent in our voice that look, frankly, un-American.

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This post is part of the YWCA Stand Against Racism blog carnival – we invite you to join the dialogue! Post your comment below, share your story and follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #StandAgainstRacism.

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Getting To Sorry: Why Apologies Matter When Someone Says Something Bigoted

Last night, while you were either watching the Oscars or sleeping, The Onion tweeted the following about a nine year-old girl up for Best Actress:

“Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a cunt, right? #Oscars2013”

Later that night, the tweet was deleted without comment. Today Steve Hannah, CEO of  The Onion, apologized.

I was one of many of using all the social media channels to tell The Onion that comment was unacceptable. Cunt is a hate speech word, and to use it against a child — it is too much. It is almost unimaginable to believe so many hours would have crawled by without an apology for a little white girl. The comment revealed as much about racism as it did sexism. What happened last night was public, technological sexual harassment: The message of calling Quvenzhané a cunt was that she should know her role, and not get too big for her britches after being the youngest-ever nominee for Best Actress. It was also a glaring example of promoting and condoning rape culture by forcibly and denigratingly sexualizing others and declaring them dirty — child rape culture, at that.

Outcry was the correct response. Why? Because apologies matter when someone says or does something bigoted. Apologies validate the humanity and human rights of the targeted individual(s), and those who by the same accident of birth belong to the same systematically under-privileged groups. Further, they set a standard for what will not happen again. Finally, they offer a chance for rupture – a change in how things are done by the offending individual or institution, and a change in how greater society approaches the problem.

So briefly, let’s cover how to get to an apology, what to ask for in return and how to move forward constructively.

First, if you see something that sucks, say something sucks. Right away. You don’t need to write a thesis paper about why a given practice is offensive. Simply acknowledge the offensiveness of the comment and immediately let the offender know. And don’t just do it in a vacuum – let others know you’re letting the offender know. Social media is genius for this. But if you take the time to, for example, write an email to an offending company or individual, be sure to then post it on your blog and/or Facebook, and encourage others to write their own comments. Or give everyone a synopsis of the voicemail you left, and encourage them to do the same. (Make it easy for others to take action by providing the contact information in your open letter or notes.)

While you’re going at this first step, don’t feed the trolls. You know who I’m talking about. The people who tell you you’re an overreacting whiner, etc. “Language police” or “political correctness” is a frequent charge leveled by a number of sloppy right-wingers who don’t want to do the work to grapple with a counter-argument of why a practice judged dehumanizing or offensive should be considered alright, or not such a big deal, or part of tradition. Don’t feed these intellectually lazy trolls. They aren’t your target anyway. Your target is the actual offender.

Second, be reasonable. Asking for an apology in response to bigotry is a good step and one you should be proud of. Do so with your shoulders held high.  But I also urge you to think one step ahead — ask for something that will guarantee this won’t happen again. For example, in the case of The Onion’s horrific slur about Quvenzhané, you’ll notice I asked for a two-part solution in an accessible way:

(Ultimately this is close to what The Onion did, although they not only apologized, they said they would implement new social media procedures and discipline the writer.) When I say be reasonable, however, what I mean is to be approachable. Don’t make it impossible for your target to agree with you by acting like a total jerk yourself. And also use your faculties of reason: Offer a step beyond sorry that could sidestep the problem in the future. Once you have made sure to cover this ground, you should feel free to explain all the ways a bigoted comment is offensive. Just remember that persuasion/education by itself does not spell out an action. Make it possible, practical and productive for your target to say “sorry, plus …” in such a way that you should feel confident they are taking steps to eliminate a bigoted practice from their future repertoire.

Don’t stop until you get your apology and a commitment to taking a productive step forward to help address whatever caused the problem. Persistence is your friend. For that matter, rope in your friends for additional backup.

But when you do get your apology and a commitment to taking a productive step forward to help address whatever caused the problem, be respectful. Don’t start hating on your target in a whole new way, saying they are “insincere” or “it doesn’t matter.” By honoring a meaningful apology you are sending a message as an activist to others that you are in this to win this for the cause — not to be a jerk and target an individual because you’re so needy/clingy/stuck on a being a pain. It makes it more likely you will help contribute to other successful reversals in the wake of bigoted comments and actions. And that’s what we want, right? A better world.

Feminism, as a practice, is not about gotcha and declaring some people good and other people bad. It is about eliminating bigotry from our lives — something all of us will have to work at — and moving forward in new ways that honor the full potential and human rights of everyone. So getting to sorry is a big deal, because it is that first step toward honoring people and making change.

How have you gotten to sorry after someone’s bigotry was showing? What changes were you able to bring about? Share your stories and tips in the comments below.

NRA President David Keene’s Rape Joke Isn’t Funny

“We [the NRA] could be serial rapists and have a higher favorable rating than Congress.”

David Keene, NRA President

When will the rape jokes stop?

Wednesday, National Rifle Association (NRA) President David Keene spoke at Harvard and popped a rape joke in defense of his increasingly indefensible organization.

Why doesn’t he compare their favorability rating to Congress anymore? Let’s not draw attention to the NRA’s slipping numbers. Let’s have a laugh about rape and “government” instead.

This comment has gone virtually unnoticed.

This is exactly what rape culture looks like.

Rape culture hides in plain sight.

Rape is not a punchline.

Rape is rape.

Rape happens every day. Someone, often a woman or a girl, is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes.

She may be screaming right now. She may be crying as quietly as she can. She may be closing her eyes and praying to live through this.

Can you hear her?

Rape is violence. Dismissing gun violence with rape violence is missing the entire point. All violence against women must end.

Rape culture feeds gun culture and gun culture feeds rape culture.

Rape culture and gun culture are part of the same culture of dominance and violence — and men exercising power without sharing it equally and equitably with women.

Strangers are not the danger, and let’s be real, the face of the stranger our culture says to be afraid of is an African American man who, like a woman of any ethnic background, rarely gets to contribute to public policy debates about guns, rape, violence and, for that matter, everything else under the law.

Racism has never lessened the epidemic of violence in this country.

Racism is a form of violence in itself.

Racism feeds more violence.

Racism is used to stoke fears by those who make piles and piles of money

from racism

and sexism

and violence.

The faces to be afraid of are the white men who lead our country almost totally by themselves while insisting there’s nothing wrong with that.

While not passing the Violence Against Women Act.

While not doing something about the fact that women are more likely to be shot by an intimate partner than a stranger.

While not doing something about the fact that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they know.

While parading out a woman who will say that guns are fashionable, which they are not.

While parading out a woman who will say that guns will protect a woman from rape, which they do not.

While parading out a woman who will say that they have a “second amendment right to choose” that means everyone — women, men, criminals — is eligible buy a gun without a background check, or military-style weapons, or military-style ammunition.

A rape joke is not going to make this go away.

A rape joke makes it worse.

Shame on the National Rifle Association.

Shame on gun culture.

Shame on rape culture.

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Keep Beloved: Banning Books About Rape And Slavery Won’t Help Affluent White Boys

Today’s Washington Post brought the headline “Fairfax County parent wants ‘Beloved’ banned from Fairfax County school system” above a photograph of a white woman with her arms crossed inside what appears to be a very tony home.

It seems last year Laura Murphy’s son had nightmares after reading Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, an important yet difficult story about race, rape and slavery. Now she wants the entire school system to ban the book. The article goes on to quote her son, Blake, presumably also white and affluent, on reading Beloved during his senior year at Lake Braddock High School in Virginia:

“It was disgusting and gross. It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

Quoting straight from the article:

Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read. But the policy should be stricter for books with mature themes, Murphy argues.

Laura Murphy tried and failed to get the book dropped entirely from the AP English curriculum, after bringing the matter to the superintendent, the school board and the taxpayers who subsidize their time. Today she is working to have  the entire state of Virginia change reading policies to mirror “family life” (sex ed) policies in which parents are able to receive notice before certain topics come up, and remove their children — some of whom may be legal adults — from the class.

And with that, it’s all here in this real-life story: Race, class, privilege, elitism, sexism, sexuality taboos, rape culture, male dominance, control, the power of omission, science taboos, ignorance, euphemisms, ‘family values,’ religious right policy frameworks, censorship, fear of ‘the other,’ teaching slavery in a former slave state, public education in the suburbs versus public education everywhere else, the promise of an elite Advanced Placement program most frequently realized by those who don’t have the largest issues paying for four years of college.

It is a perverse twist on a scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird  that made me uncomfortable, and never left me, where the tattered books from the rich white children are sent off to the poor black children. In that I read a juxtaposition of good intentions and/or a ‘desecration is appropriate for certain people in certain contexts’ mentality on one side, and a longing for better conditions on the other. And no difference in essential humanity between the two, just unquestioned customs and the accident of what body you were born in.

What I’m saying is that as a child in an affluent, primarily white suburban public school system, I read To Kill A Mockingbird and began to think about race and racial privilege in a more critical way. It was life-changing. Continuing to push myself into more of that discomfort is a lifelong process. That lifelong process began by reading a difficult book about race in public school.

Rather than use the space of this post to ridicule Laura Murphy and Blake Murphy and those who believe censorship is a good idea, or that the real experiences of oppression should be sanitized, or that whitewashing history will help everyone to sleep better, I’m going to observe instead the power of the written word and specifically fiction to further realize the promise of a democratic society.

It is in reading the immersive stories of others that we learn empathy for those we are segregated from, those with less than us, those with different experiences than us, those with more resources than us. Emotions are important, yes, but this is what democracy and pluralism are all about. Rather than insist everyone be the same, we all need to know how to work together. Further, by learning about injustice, creating a language for injustice, having a framework to talk about injustice, we can help unravel the secrecy it requires to continue.

Toni Morrison is one of the best novelists alive today. For Beloved she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. This bizarre story in Virginia feels almost like something she would write into one of her novels, so that we might embrace a little more fear and learn a little more compassion.

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Stop Trivializing FLOTUS, Media (And Feminists)

Today Michelle Obama announced a new organization, Organizing for Action, that will take hold of the much vaunted list of names built by the Organizing for America Obama presidential campaign, and press the president’s agenda (which pieces and how strongly remains to be seen).

It is, as Joe Biden would say, a Big *#:D*C@ Deal.

In response, The Wall Street Journal is comparing her to Kim Kardashian because she just got a — breaking news — haircut, CBS News is all over the birthday bangs, and FOX News is running a poll about her new bangs: Do you guys like them?

Meanwhile the Washington Post took the opportunity to headline the Style section with a big story: Four years later, feminists split by Michelle Obama’s ‘work’ as first lady.

Does it need to be spelled out that Michelle Obama isn’t taken seriously by the media, to say nothing of the government that doesn’t pay her for her work as an official representative of the state, and that’s a national crime?

But I would like to return to the Post article about some white feminists’ less than enthusiastic appraisal of Michelle Obama. I am familiar with what the article refers to, and it extends beyond outcry when she proclaimed herself “Mom in Chief.” I have seen some criticism of her within white feminist quarters because she is into gardening.

Meanwhile the media is breathlessly covering her bangs and her arms and her clothes.

As I see it, this is not what feminism was supposed to do: Judging women for how they self-define, rather than judging the mainstream culture for devaluing women.

Any woman, any person, any human being, should be respected to self-define. This belief is at the core of my feminism. Michelle Obama wants to call herself “Mom in Chief” – great. Marissa Mayer wants to go right back to work after she has a baby – she alone knows best how to navigate her own work and family life. Oprah Winfrey wants to give Lance Armstrong another opportunity to be a total jerk in front of everyone for two nights in a row – okay, here we can draw the line (public actions are different than private life choices).

Michelle Obama is not respected because she is First Lady. The First Lady position has never been respected, and it has always been constrained. That’s a national crime. But, Michelle Obama is also not respected because she is a black woman, and that is equally a national crime.

Feminism is a social justice movement that is inextricably entwined with the racial justice movement, but the road has not been without hiccups, and there is still a long way to go. One of the spaces where I most see fellow white feminists tripping up is assuming that things frequently rejected along some (but certainly not all!) white feminists’ path to empowerment — motherhood, religion, sexy clothing — must be rejected by every woman, or empowerment is impossible for that woman and all women.

This is one of those areas where I think feminism is changing. The pressure to say an experience must be universal to be valid doesn’t hold as much water in an Internet-enabled era. In fact it is the sea of heterogenous particulars that makes us strong. The concept of feminisms, versus a feminism, is nothing new, and yet now more than ever before we are able to hear from different people, and realize that it’s okay — preferable — to be diverse in our emotions and interests and thoughts just as in our ethnicity and gender expression and sexuality (historically prized by feminists, however imperfectly).

Listening, and not telling, is at the core of where modern feminism is headed. Offering support, rather than requiring approval, is at the core of where modern feminism is headed.

The sub-par way that Michelle Obama is treated, both by the mainstream culture, as well as within some pockets of feminism, presents a major growth opportunity. Let’s take it.

PS – Are you into the broader ‘feminism is changing’ discussion? Mark your calendars to join me, Andrea Plaid, Gloria Feldt, Shelby Knox, Stacey Burns, Steph Herold, Veronica Arreola and tons of other activists and advocates for an #InterGenFem TweetChat on Thursday, Jan. 31 from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. EST. Save the date and tell your friends.