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How many more?

Three more police officers were killed today, in Baton Rouge. Three injured. The same word used as in Dallas— “ambush.”

The fear and despair I’m feeling right now are mostly due to three beliefs: that such killings a) might have been inevitable, b) will certainly only make things worse, and c) may well happen again.

Black Lives Matter is of course both a slogan and a movement, and the movement’s leaders have disavowed violence against police officers. But America is certainly fond of binary thinking of the “you’re with us or against us” variety. Onlookers have gathered in a circle around this conflict like a group of children yelling “Fight! Fight!” Especially those who have drawn a line of allegiance between BLM and The Police, and have donned their #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and “I Can Breathe” t-shirts to signify which side they’ve chosen.

My friend Ed Brayton remarked that he was experiencing writer’s block in the wake of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, followed by the killing of five police officers in Dallas.  But he still managed to make the following observation that I think should be preserved:

This is not the least bit surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the problem over the years. And so we have the Black Lives Matter movement protesting against such injustice and brutality. And while you may dislike some of their tactics, they are right on the core issue. Our criminal justice system really is racist from top to bottom. Anyone who denies that cannot possibly have seen all the data that supports it, data that I have been presenting for more than a decade. And then we have two men who gunned down 11 police officers in Dallas on Thursday night, at the end of a long and peaceful protest against this injustice. What they did is horrifying and wrong in every possible way and it will do nothing but undermine efforts to address the problem. But unlike the unjust and racist treatment of black people in this country, that is an incident that is merely anecdotal, not systemic. But let’s also recognize that it was virtually inevitable. I have been saying this for years: When you oppress people, you radicalize them. If you do nothing to address legitimate grievances and fix problems, it is inevitable that some small portion of the victims of that oppression are going to choose violence as a response. That doesn’t justify it, but it does help explain it. If you cannot change as a result of non-violent protest, you make violent protest inevitable. And here’s the real problem: All this does is perpetuate the cycle of violence. Like the Hatfields and McCoys, every act of violence is then used to justify the next reprisal, which is then used to justify the next one, and the next one. At some point, the violence has to stop. But the only ones who can really stop it are those with power, which means law enforcement, courts and politicians. Violence on the part of those who protest against state-sanctioned killing is a response to the misuse of power, not an expression of power. It is up to those with power to fix this. No one else can.

What I fear is that Ed is right…but that those with power will not fix this. That they will just double down, using the killing of these officers as justification.

By all accounts, BLM and the police of Dallas actually had a decent relationship prior to the post-protest ambush, and hopefully will manage to repair that relationship in the wake of it.  The same probably cannot be said of Baton Rouge. But that’s kind of the point– these things differ from state to state, city to city. Police departments have different approaches, including Richmond, California police chief Chris Magnus’s decision to stress de-escalation and the development of a positive relationship with citizens above all else.

Here in Wichita, a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally last Tuesday led both protesters and police to declare the event a success, and they’re holding a cookout tonight, in lieu of another march, in the spirit of improving community relations.

All of which tells me that progress is being made on a local level. Quantifiable measures like the increase of police departments using body cameras are one way to recognize this, but of course body cams aren’t a panacea– no simple increase in accountability can be, though we still absolutely need increased accountability!

But what we also need, so very desperately, is a paradigm shift.  Nationally, we have to recognize that being opposed to racism and brutality in a police force is absolutely not the same as being anti-cop (any more, as one meme noted, than being anti-child abuse is the same as being anti-parent).

We have to acknowledge that the more police officers are different and separated from the communities in which they operate, the more empathy for people in those communities is diminished. No police department is an occupying force. Every police department is composed of human beings entrusted with tremendous power and authority to enforce the law, who are still human beings.  For better and for worse.

The “for betters” like the examples of Chris Magnus, like Wichita’s police chief Gordon Ramsay (yes, our police chief’s name is Gordon Ramsay and he’s organizing a cookout– what?) should be encouraged, rewarded, and perpetuated.

And when it comes to the “for worse,” to the biases and cover-ups and abuses…there are ways to counteract these. We absolutely must work to counteract these.  Our local communities and our national community depend on it.

Nothing more spectacular about him

The BBC has a profile on Omar El-Hussein, the man who carried out Saturday’s killings in Copenhagen. He apparently was assisted by two other men, who have since been taken in police custody. They were charged with providing El-Hussein with weapons and helping him escape after the attacks.

We know El-Hussein was not an immigrant– he was a native Dane. He first attacked a gathering of people discussing free speech and blasphemy, and then a synagogue, in what looks like a clear attempt to emulate the Charlie Hebdo masscre in Paris in January (Charlie Hebdo offices in that case and then kosher market). Lars Vilks told the AP that he believed the Charlie Hebdo attacks “inspired” the shootings in Copenhagen.

According to the BBC, El-Hussein had in fact just been out of prison for two weeks before Saturday’s attacks. He sounds like a rabble-rouser and anti-Semite:

El-Hussein told psychologists he had a happy childhood and a good relationship with his parents and younger brother, according to a report obtained by Danish broadcaster TV2, but he failed to graduate from school or win a place at university. Classmates who spoke to the Ekstra Bladet newspaper (in Danish) remembered a loner with a hot temper who loved to discuss Islam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews, said one. As a young man he was a criminal rather than a radical – reportedly arrested twice for possession of cannabis but let off with a warning. He took up kickboxing and began to smoke cannabis heavily. He was arrested once in a Copenhagen nightclub with a knife, and another time with brass knuckles – earning him a night in custody, according to Ekstra Bladet. But things took a much more serious turn in November 2013 when El-Hussein stabbed a 19-year-old man on a subway train. He evaded capture but was arrested by chance two months later in connection with a burglary, the Politiken newspaper reported (in Danish). He escaped an attempted murder charge, convicted instead of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to two years in prison. 

I’m sure the response by many Americans to this would be that El-Hussein just didn’t sit in prison for long enough, but short prison sentences (compared to in America, that is) are normal in Denmark, and it has worked out pretty well for the country so far.

Rather, some people are arguing that the problem– at least, I hasten to say, concerning last weekend’s killings– may have been that he went to prison at all:

Prison guards in Denmark fear Hussein, 22, was the latest case of prison radicalization — in which criminals become devotees of militant Islam. Union leader Kim Østerbye said that Hussein had been housed in Copenhagen’s Vestre Fængsel alongside extremists including convicted terrorist Said Mansor, who had previously tried to radicalize other inmates. He said many young Muslim inmates at the facility were openly anti-Semitic and cheered in happiness at news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January. He said they often chanted and called for the execution of cartoonists who depict the Prophet Muhammad. The prison service would not comment on the claims when contacted by NBC News. A reporter who covered Hussein’s assault trial told NBC News that the young man had seemed liked “just a hardened criminal” rather than an Islamist extremist before going to prison. “Omar, at the trial, didn’t seem religious at all. Almost the opposite,” Jesper Braarud Larsen said earlier this week. “He just seemed like a callous, hardened criminal … nothing more spectacular about him.”

Interesting phrasing there, when “religious” in this case means “interprets his Muslim faith to justify murdering Jews and blasphemers.” That isn’t the opposite of being a callous, hardened criminal at all, is it? That’s being a callous, hardened criminal whose choices of worthy targets of crime have shifted to focus on perceived enemies of religion.

Or maybe it wasn’t that much of a shift? The passion for Islam was already there. The anti-Semitism was already there. I can’t seem to find any further details about the identify of the 19 year old man El-Hussein was imprisoned for stabbing, but if he had also been a blasphemer or Jewish (or both) it wouldn’t exactly be incongruous with either El-Hussein’s previous character or his post-imprisonment terrorism.

It’s tempting to say that Larsen, the reporter, was valorizing religion– claiming that religious people are somehow by definition not criminals– but I think it’s more likely he meant that they are not petty criminals. That “spectacular” Islamist extremists are a fundamentally different sort of person than thuggish pot smokers who carry brass knuckles to clubs.

I’m afraid– really, this thought frightens me– that they’re not. That’s the banality of evil for you.

Brief summary and context of yesterday’s violence in Copenhagen

Yesterday a symposium to discuss blasphemy and the meaning of free speech was held at a cafe in Copenhagen called Krudttønden.

In attendance at this meeting was Lars Vilks, a 68 year old Swedish man upon whose head the Islamic State placed a $100,000 bounty for his 2007 depictions of Islamic prophet Muhammad as a “roundabout dog” (As a dog, basically. An Invasion of the Body Snatchers-reminiscent creature standing on four legs with a human head, bearded, wearing a keffiyeh).

According to the BBC,

A description of the event asked whether artists could “dare” to be blasphemous in the wake of attacks by Islamist gunmen in Paris last month against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In an indication of the threat faced by the cartoonist, a note was included on the website saying there was always “strict security” whenever he spoke in public.

Inna Shevchenko of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN was reportedly speaking when the shots were fired. She said later:

I was talking about freedom of speech. I said that sometimes one has the illusion of being able to take advantage of this freedom, but it is an illusion and it is at this moment that we heard a burst of gunfire. 

 According to Jenny Wenhammer, who was in attendance [roughly translated]:

Gunfire when Lars Vilks Committee today held an international meeting in Copenhagen on “Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression”. During the Femen International’s leader Inna Shevchenko’s speech for two hours, then were fired 20-40 shot outside the doors and all started running. The French ambassador was also there to discuss Islam. Vilks was able to escape into a cold room, and Inna fled with others out through the back door.

The French ambassador, Francois Zimeray, tweeted during the attack that he was “still alive in the room.” One attendee, however, was not. The shooter reportedly fled the area in a black Volkswagon Polo while pursued by police, leaving behind one murdered civilian, Finn Norgaard, and three wounded police officers.

The shooter, identified later as 22-year-old native Dane Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, wasn’t finished.

A few hours later and some miles south in Copenhagen there was another murder outside the Krystalgade Synagogue, of a 37-year-old man called Dan Uzan who was a member of the local Jewish community and was guarding the synagogue while a bat mitzvah was going on inside. Two additional police officers were shot and wounded in their arms and legs.

Copenhagen police reportedly killed el-Hussein last night after he opened fire on them in the Norrebro district. The officers had been staking out the address they had identified as his, and when he returned home he pulled a gun and fired on them. They returned fire and shot him dead.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt did not hesitate to call el-Hussein’s acts terrorism, saying

We will defend our democracy. When the Jewish community is attacked, the whole of Denmark is attacked. The Jewish community does not stand alone. We don’t know the motive for the attacks but we know that there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty. We are not facing a fight between Islam and the West, it is not a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims.

My friend and former colleague Anders Lisdorf, who lives and works in Copenhagen, had this to say:

Our company office is 100 meters away from where the “terrorist” apparently used to live and was shot. I have lived and worked in the area for 10 years. I like the neighbourhood a lot, so first of all I can tell you that most people are not terrorists, but in general very nice and decent people, so I am not afraid to go there tomorrow. I can also tell you that you cannot walk in peace with a jewish Kippa there, because you will be harassed by certain Muslim residents and violently so. The Mosques in the area have been known to preach a less than tolerant agenda. It is a poor neighbourhood with the typical problems of such a neighbourhood. The attacker was also involved in gangs and illegal gun possession. These problems are everywhere. In Norway it was a fundamentalist nationalist who was the terrorist (Breivik). The real issue is not the west versus Islam, I agree, but to protect tolerance and fight racism. We have to take issue with racists no matter whether they are Western Nationalists, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

How many fallacies can one shirt hold?

Let me count the ones I see.

1. Obey the law, and you have nothing to fear.
2. Break the law, and you deserve to be tortured to death.
3. Rules #1 and #2 are applied equally to all Americans.
4. Police never break the law themselves.
5. When they do, they are never protected in ways civilians wouldn’t be.

Oh wait, I get it…this shirt is for police officers!

Breathe easy, cops– and hey, don’t break the law. But if you do, and murder one civilian after another in horribly gruesome ways, breathe easy…you won’t suffer the fate they did.

Especially if they’re black.

Letter to the editor

Justice system ignored facts  I don’t know whether to feel saddened or enraged from reading about the man choked to death on a New York City street. The sources indicate this type of restraint by law enforcement officers was banned 20 years ago, yet a Staten Island grand jury saw no problem with the outcome of the officer’s action (Dec. 4 Eagle).  Quite a few years ago, I was hired to be the summer school librarian at an alternative high school in Wichita. An African-American student came in frequently to finish up his homework, so we began to share stories. One day he revealed that the glasses he wore were just plain glass. He said he wore them so he would look less threatening. On more than one occasion when he entered an elevator, a woman would get off rather than share the space with him. He hoped the glasses would render him less aggressive-looking.  I have never forgotten his story. Evidently, after all these years, we haven’t made much progress in seeing past a person’s color. I see myself as a problem solver, but I cannot come up with a solution to the problem of a justice system that can ignore facts with such a degree of capriciousness.  SUZANNE KOCH

Suzanne Koch is my mom. Did I mention that my mom is amazing?

Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Or, why good storytelling requires good representation:

When the story doesn’t contain the “why,” the audience looks to the author.

Let me back up.

Writers are often advised to “write what you know.” That’s good advice, because you can’t write believably about what you don’t know. However, authors who took this advice to a logical extreme and wrote only about people just like themselves would suffer for it. They wouldn’t tell very interesting stories– or at least, they would have only one interesting story to tell, and it would effectively be a memoir.

Rather, fiction writers write what they know by research. If they want to write a story about a marine biologist, they would research marine biology. They would research what working as a scientist in that field is like, what kind of person goes into that field, what kind of education and training it requires, and so on.

Because even though it’s fiction, believability is key. Fiction writers create worlds that are not identical to this one for the entertainment of the reader, but those worlds contain things that exist in our own world– like people. If the people in the story don’t act like people do in the world world, and no reason is given for this, the audience is confused. The story falls flat. It’s bad storytelling.

So this is a kind of constraint on the author. When writing fiction it’s literally true that an author can write any story he or she wants– nobody is going to come in and hold a gun to his/her head and demand that he/she not write the story. However though the author is entitled to write whatever story he/she chooses, he/she is not entitled to the audience’s reaction. The audience is not required to think highly of the story. The audience is not required to think highly of the author.

As an example, imagine an author who writes a book whose story involves the sole white occupant of a town being lynched by the rest of the town’s population, which is black. If a believable explanation for this plot line can’t be found in the story, the audience is going to guess that either the story is satire, or the author has some serious issues with black people. Their likelihood to understand the story as satire is a blend of their own knowledge and the author’s adeptness at storytelling. Bad satire happens when the audience can’t be expected to have the knowledge that will tip them off to its satirical nature, or when the author doesn’t wink hard enough in the writing of the story to make it clear. Or both, of course. When the audience doesn’t detect satire (it doesn’t provide the “why,”) then they quite reasonably look to the author’s own beliefs for the explanation.

Good storytelling involves researching the elements in your story if you don’t know very much about them. Bad storytelling involves misrepresenting those elements or leaving them out altogether in a way that isn’t believable. An author who wants to tell a story about a world congress, in which multiple leaders from every country gather together to exchange ideas, isn’t practicing very good storytelling if his/her story depicts this congress as containing only white men, unless a reason is given for this. Was there some mass extinction of women and people of color? Did the white men totally take over the world, including the government of every country on the planet, and if so….how did that happen? The extraordinary event requires an extraordinary explanation. In fact in this case, it would be such an extraordinary explanation than it might as well be the story. If it isn’t, but is treated as a totally unremarkable circumstance by the characters in the story, the audience would rightly look to the author with a “WTF?” expression on its collective face.

These examples are extreme, but that’s on purpose– to illustrate how the content of a story can lead the audience to negative conclusions about the beliefs and prejudices of its authors. The less cut and dry it is, obviously the less justified the audience would be in reaching these conclusions. But the audience is not wrong to see an unbelievable depiction of people in a story and assume that the explanation lies in the author’s motives, and they’re going to do it regardless.

The first people to notice when certain groups of people are misrepresented in or left out of a story for no discernable reason are, quite naturally, people in those groups. But they’re not the only people who do notice or should notice. It might take a white guy a little longer to look at the “world congress” and think “Hey, wait a minute….why is it only people like me?” But he wouldn’t be very bright if he never got there. Not very bright, or else like the author in either prejudice or ignorance (or both).

People want to hear stories told about people like them– yes, of course. However, people also want to hear good, believable stories. If a story makes you stop and wonder why the author portrayed characters in a way that rings false, or leaves them out altogether when it seems like they should be there, that’s bad storytelling unless making you wonder these things is the author’s point– and even then, if you can’t tell whether it is or not, that’s a problem.

That’s why diversity matters in storytelling– not just because people want to hear/see it, and they do, but because it makes the story better. Because the story contains the “why.”

More on The Marriage Vow

First, I didn’t talk at all yesterday about the statement of motivations in The Marriage Vow that preceded its fourteen provisions, which included two claims that have since been removed:

  • Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.
  • LBJ’s 1965 War on Poverty was triggered in part by the famous “Moynihan Report” finding that the black out-of-wedlock birthrate had hit 26%; today, the white rate exceeds that, the overall rate is 41%, and over 70% of African-American babies are born to single parent. 

Professor of Religion Althea Butler wrote a scatching commentary on this at Religion Dispatches:

Um, Hell-to-the-yeah slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families. White slave owners broke apart families to sell, raped black women, and often confiscated the babies from these forced unions. Somehow, conservatives like Bob Vander Plaats forget to mention that. They are too busy buying into the fake history of the forefathers from WallBuilders. The statement that a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household is a boldfaced, ignorant lie, designed to tug at conservative white heartstrings and sucker in some African-American Christian conservatives. To wit, let me quote Frederick Douglass from his autobiography: “The practice of separating mothers from their children and hiring them out at long distances too great to admit of the meeting, save at long intervals, was a market feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system… It had no interest in recognizing or preserving any of the ties that bind families together or to their homes” I am really getting sick and tired of the conservative meme about saving marriage, and placing the shaky foundation of their argument on African-American single parent birth and wedlock rates. Conservatives idolize the founding fathers, yet they conveniently forget the legacy of slavery and its atrocities many of the founders acquiesced to. While conservatives tick off statistics about African-American babies born out of wedlock, Teen Mom is the MTV show where teenage white girls can get their cash on by being pregnant and beating up their boyfriends on TV. Bristol Palin is proof that being a pregnant, unwed white girl is enough for a memoir at 20 called Not Afraid of Life. Put this together with all the reproductive rights rollbacks on abortion and the like, and the schizophrenic hysteria of the right doesn’t hold up. When it comes to vows, pledges, and the like, the last thing I want to hear it from is a white male conservative authoring some sappy pledge for candidates to sign. After reading the report on John Ensign and Mark Sandford hitting the Appalachian Trail, and the RNC using funds at a sex-themed voyeur nightclub, moralizing, asinine pledges aren’t going to stop anyone, including the candidates, from having sex and watching lots of porn. Add in the ahistoricism of the right, and it’s laughable that any pledge from this hypocritical bunch could hold water.

I don’t think I have anything to add to that.

Also, today Salon published an interview with The Family Leader founder Bob Vander Plaats, who authored The Marriage Vow, including apparently the worst photo of him they could find. I’m really not a fan of that, even when the person in question is someone I despise. Some background on TFL generally Vander Plaats specifically:

The Family Leader was formed after the 2010 elections as a coalition of Iowa social conservative advocacy groups, with Bob Vander Plaats as its executive director and public face. Vander Plaats had become the best known conservative culture warrior in Iowa that year after receiving a respectable 41 percent of the vote in the GOP gubernatorial primary; his campaign focused on reversing a 2009 decision by the state supreme court allowing same-sex marriage. After losing in the primary, the fiercely anti-gay Vander Plaats led the successful campaign to oust three supreme court justices who had voted for the same-sex marriage decision. Now at the helm of the Family Leader, he has brought in presidential hopefuls for a speech series and is openly cultivating an image as Iowa kingmaker.

When asked whether TFL’s support hinges on the matter of whether or not a candidate would sign the Vow, Vander Plaats replied:

What we’ve said is that a primary candidate for the office of president will not get our support if they can’t sign this pledge. If they can’t sign the pledge, we’re going to ask them questions like, “Where’s the issue you have with the pledge?” Because we want to have a discussion and a debate. And if for any reason they point out something we’re just wrong on, then we’d admit it and say “OK, we’re wrong on that.” But we don’t see that.

Are you surprised? I’m not surprised.

Regarding the plank concerning Sharia Islam:

There’s one section in the pledge that says the candidate has to reject — the phrase used is “Sharia Islam” — can you describe what you mean by that phrase and what you want the candidates to reject in that? Well, Sharia Islam — and I’m not an expert on Sharia Islam — but I think just in the brief knowledge [I have] of Sharia Islam, one you can have multiple wives, and two is you can have temporary wives, and three is I think it disrespects women as a whole. And so we see Sharia Islam as being an issue. 

Only a “brief knowledge,” yet apparently it is such a threat that it must be specifically mentioned in a statement on protecting marriage that presidential candidates are being asked to sign. Got it. Are we supposed to assume that the candidates know more about Sharia than Vander Plaats does?

Regarding pornography:

Another part of the vow that’s gotten attention was the clause about promising to protect women and children from a long list of evils. Some of those things were obviously crimes — human trafficking was one — but there was also pornography. What would you say to people who don’t see pornography as a threat to women? And secondly, do you think only women need to be protected from pornography or should men be, too? Well I think if you read in that, there’s also the word “coercion” — “coerced.” I don’t have the vow in front of me right now, but I think if you read that it’s going to talk about coercion as it relates to abortion, prostitution, pornography. What we’re trying to do is have a high standard for women and for children, as well as for marriages and for family. Some people were saying that the pledge was somehow calling for a ban on pornography, is that what it was intended to do? No, not at all. I think if the Family Leader could have its way, we’d probably say we’d like to have a ban on pornography. But that’s not the vow. The vow was [about] forcing women into pornography.

Really? Let me remind you, Mr. Vander Plaats, of what the vow you authored actually says on that:

Humane protection of women . . .from all forms of pornography. . . and other types of coercion or stolen innocence.

Sure sounds to me like you’re defining pornography as a form of coercion, or at least “stolen innocence” (whatever that means), from which women need to be “protected.” Suddenly consent matters!  Just not enough to make it clear in the document presidential candidates are being expected to sign, apparently.

We’ve all got our own stuff

Again on Colorlines (I’m really happy to have discovered that site), Thoi Lu discusses black male feminism:

In light of the recent 11-year-old Latina who was reportedly gang raped by 18 black men in Cleveland and news of Chris Brown’s continuing meltdowns, Texas, a few black male writers have stepped up to the plate to explicitly discuss their journey toward becoming feminists. Byron Hurt of The Root wrote last last week on “Why I am a Male Feminist,” which prompted G.D. of PostBourgie to also write candidly about the topic two days later. Hurt admitted that observing the way his father would invoke fear in his mother during arguments by virtue of his greater size influenced his own relationships with women. He fell into feminism accidentally; Hurt interviewed for a position with the Mentors in Violence Prevention Project, not knowing that it was designed to use the status of athletes to make gender violence socially unacceptable. After hearing how women protected themselves from sexual assault and rape, his conception of feminism radically changed:

Like most guys, I had bought into the stereotype that all feminists were white, lesbian, unattractive male bashers who hated all men… Not only does feminism give woman a voice, but it also clears the way for men to free themselves from the stranglehold of traditional masculinity. When we hurt the women in our lives, we hurt ourselves, and we hurt our community, too.

While Hurt’s father’s presence was inescapable, G.D. wrote, “mine was imperceptible.” He had an absent father figure and was raised by “black women who were fantastically smarter and more competent than I was.”  G.D. internalized how his mother always cautioned his twin sister to be responsible while in public, in a way he didn’t have to. Also, during a college summer, one of his female friends woke up in an empty dorm room in a bare bed and had to file a police report and get a rape kit, which was another situation he couldn’t fathom living through. At the least, however, he admits to his own ignorance:

I am routinely very, very dumb about this shit as a heterosexual dude — with all the tunnel vision and privilege that attends that location. The relationship those realities have to my blackness is a muddled one; sometimes they’re independent, sometimes they act in concert. But if growing up black and poor and male provided an unlikely bridge to anti-sexist thinking, so has feminism complicated the way I think about blackness and class.

Feminism as an ideology has a reputation for being a privilege of white women. They have been the ones who have generally been wealthier and more educated, the ones with the time and money to go off to university and take Women’s Studies courses and sit around discussing the patriarchy and learning to appreciate the value of a vagina. Black women were too busy working. They didn’t have time to do the kind of navel-gazing white women did in the 60’s (and still today) about the feminine mystique and the legitimacy of working outside the home, because they were already doing it. The issues they faced weren’t quite the same. So black women felt that their struggles were not being properly represented by a movement that purported to speak on behalf of Womankind. If in actuality it’s all about the interests of upper class white women, then we might as well just say so, but hopefully none of us actually want that to be the case. If we mean that, then being a feminist should be about representing the concerns of all women. If there is a single woman of any sort anywhere in the world who is being mistreated and her choices in life denied, we should all be feminists for her…shouldn’t we?

There are multiple dimensions to distribution of power in life, and it’s not surprising that one minority group should view one or more other minorities groups with oppressive eyes very similar to the ones with which they themselves are viewed. Hence, you get rich minorities looking down on the poor, white minorities looking down on minorities of different races, male minorities looking down on females, straight minorities looking down on non-straights, cisgender minorities looking down on transgenders, and various religious minorities looking down on each other and on non-believers. I’m sure there are more examples, but that’s a good representative sampling. I can see how if you’re anything but a white straight rich cisgender male, it would be easy to pick one or more minority groups to look down on order to get some sense of superiority. It’s not shocking at all that there are white feminist racists and homophobes, and blacks who are passionately concerned with racial equality but are themselves homophobic and/or misogynistic. Having your own struggle doesn’t automatically flip on some kind of empathy switch for other people’s struggles, as nice as that would be.

I don’t think I need to imply that men should speak for women in order to say that it’s an absolute pleasure to see/hear of them speaking up on our behalf. Often we’re not there to speak up for ourselves, and it has never made sense to me to think that it’s okay to make sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. comments just because someone who represents the group you’re talking about isn’t present. This post from from A Division By Zer0 makes the point that there are some men out there who think that rape is okay, provided you don’t call it “rape.” It’s sort of like murder, in that “murder” is the name for killing that is definitely wrong, and “rape” is the a name for a kind of sexual contact that is definitely wrong. But just as there are people who murder while considering it acceptable killing (for whatever reason), there are people who rape or would be willing to rape while considering it plain ol’ sex. The argument goes that by trivializing rape around such people, you are confirming in their minds that it is in fact trivial–giving them the impression that it’s normal to think the way they do, that there’s nothing wrong with it. The same is true of casual sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia. If the victims of these prejudices are the only ones to ever speak up in reaction to them, they will never be eliminated. That’s why we need feminist men, along with straight LGBT rights advocates, white racial equality advocates, and wealthy people who not only give to charity but don’t think of the poor as stupid, helpless, or otherwise inherently lesser.  

I realize how very kumbaya this sounds, but we all have to stand up for all of us. There’s just no other way.

Again…tragedy + internet = outrage and nastiness.

A few days ago a UCLA student named Alexandra Wallace posted this charming racist rant about Asians in her university library:

If you’re one of the few people in the country who hadn’t seen that video previously, I’m sure you’re edified to have had the privilege now.  And can probably guess the response, if I haven’t given it away already– yes, outrage and nastiness.  The “outrage” part is good– it’s certainly better than apathy or agreement.  But the nastiness is a different story.  Jorge Rivas at Colorlines reports:

Alexandra Wallace’s now famous rant against Asian students at UCLA has been seen more than five million times.* Countless more people have seen or read about the video in the New York Times, Gawker, the UK’s Daily Mail and elsewhere. And in all these places, the video prompted outraged commentary from readers and viewers who told Wallace about her racism—and, in the process, slung mounds of misogyny her way, too. (Not to mention posting her address and, reportedly, sending her death threats.) Even on and, which targets a largely progressive female readership, many of the comments posted in response to Wallace were loaded with sexist name-calling. “I’m sure her mom also taught her to make sure you wear a tight tank top that exposes your boobs when ranting about Asian students on video,” a commenter wrote on Jezebel. On our site, the word “bimbo” thrived. Caroline Heldman at Ms. Magazine’s blog reminded readers that oppression comes in many different forms. She offers a hypothetical for comparison: “Imagine if an African American man posted a sexist video and commenters responded with a steady stream of racial slurs.” The point isn’t to equate race and gender. Rather, Heldman’s question offers a good place to start a discussion. What if Alexandra Wallace was black or Latina and people called her racial epithets? Would people be OK with that? Probably not. But some of the most popular comedic web videos of people of color sounding off against Wallace include starkly misogynistic language and ideas. . .  The Daily Bruin reports that Wallace, who issued an apology for the video, contacted university police on Sunday evening after receiving hundreds of threats via e-mail and phone. She’s been advised to reschedule her finals because her address and school schedule have been posted online.


Channing Kennedy, also at Colorlines, summed it up well: “the Internet’s rebuttal to Wallace fought unexamined bigotry and hateful language with unexamined bigotry and hateful language.”  And death threats, because you can’t have footage of yourself doing or saying anything offensive on the internet anymore without death threats.  I’m sure that’s partially due to the tragedy factor, but other recent examples that have nothing to do with the tragedy include the Australian bully in a recent video who got smacked down by his victim and a British woman who put a cat in a trash bin.  The internet is full of hateful, hypocritical people who apparently see themselves as the agents of karma.  I know this has been the case for a long time, but the fact is making itself especially salient to me now.  

On the brighter side, Kennedy writes

a must-read thread on Facebook digs deep into the intersectionality of race and gender in Wallace’s video and in the responses. You should read the whole thing, but by way of an excerpt, here’s Sulekha Gangopadhyay: 

I didn’t find the misogynistic responses calling her a “slut”, “bimbo” or “whore” particularly empowering for me as a woman of color; men of color who rely on compensatory sexism have generally not been my allies.

Two different readers, Helen Lopez and Phoenix Activists, pointed us toward this response video by spoken-word artist Beau Sia, written from Wallace’s perspective. Phoenix says “Here’s the only non-sexist and most thought-provoking video response I’ve seen; it really makes us think how people like Wallace have the sentiments they have to begin with.”

They’re right. It really is an excellent video, and should be seen by everyone who has watched Ms. Wallace’s:

ETA:  There is some talk about what action UCLA could take against Wallace, whether she should be punished for violating their speech code.  I don’t know whether there are grounds or not, but also don’t care– I don’t think universities should have speech codes to begin with.  The chancellor has already made a public comment condemning what she said, which is rather silly considering that no rational person would assume that the racist beliefs of a college student somehow reflect the views of the university he/she attends. But to the point, universities should absolutely not punish students for bigoted speech on Youtube– and if they do, then they had better figure out whether all of those people who have made hateful videos about Wallace are bigots as well, and whether they’re also UCLA students so as to determine whether a mass expulsion is in order.  

It’s not (just) the word; it’s how you use it

Somebody pointed out in the Pharyngula thread that while “female” can be used as a noun, so can “black,” and it doesn’t sound very good to refer to a black person as simply “a black.”  Comedian Lisa Lampanelli refers to “the blacks” on purpose because being offensive is her shtick.  I think that using those words as nouns rather than adjectives seems dehumanizing because it makes it sound as if being black or female is the totality of who you are, rather than a descriptor.  I don’t actually know anybody who refers to women as “females” when talking about individuals in a social context, but would find it odd and off-putting if someone did.

Somebody else pointed out that Jen McCreight has used the word “female” on her blog before without any objections, which earned a swift and biting reply:

So, I just went back and looked at my 104 blog posts from December, January, and February to see if you’re right*. Here’s my usage of the word “female”:
– 5 times to refer to “A large list of awesome female atheists” to promote diversity
– 3 times as an adjective, one of which was referring to myself
– 7 times in a quote from someone else that I was debating, so not my words
– Once as a noun – when referring to females of all species, not just humans So, yeah, maybe there’s not a peep because I’m not using the word female in a way that could potentially be found offensive. Imagine that.

Also, I don’t think it’s really necessary to pounce on someone for using the word “hysterical” when referring to women, regardless of its origin.  It doesn’t mean that person is secretly a misogynist.  It’s entirely possible for women– yes, including feminists– to be irrationally excited or outraged about something.  It’s obviously wrong to use to word to dismiss legitimate concerns, but not inappropriate across the board.

I don’t believe that words have power when divorced from context– magical invocations are not real.  The context always matters.  We teach children not to use certain words because it’s much simpler that way– they’re capable of grasping “Don’t use the word ‘stupid.'”  Later on they (hopefully) come to understand that there are a multitude of situations in which saying “stupid” is perfectly acceptable.  Part of becoming mature is realizing that the usage is important too.  Who is speaking?  What are they talking about?  Are they being sarcastic, hyperbolic, jokey, poetic?  Intent isn’t fucking magic, either.  But it does matter.   The people yelling “It’s all about intent” are just as wrong as the ones yelling “It’s all about the language you use.”  It’s both, dammit.

I’ll end with Jay Smooth talking about how to tell people they sound racist.  It’s a bit old, but this is one video everybody should see.  Maybe it could be useful in the sex/gender conversation, too…fancy!

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