Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Black women are precious

I love hearing Black women laugh.

I was leaving the gym yesterday and I walked into a car (um, still building the stamina for hour long classes). The car jerked to a stop and there were two smiling sisters waving at me, but also not paying attention to me as they were caught up in their own conversation. They were giggling, one of them said, "okay, play the song" and they continued to laugh as they drove away.

I was struck by the interaction. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary about it. Under normal circumstance, I wouldn't have given it much thought. But, because of the events of the past two days: Sharmeka Moffitt was set on fire, number one and most important, and the perpetrator of the violence came into question. Because of these events, those two women, their smiles, their laughter made me stop and pause. If you haven't heard, earlier this week, Sharmeka Moffitt was set aflame while she was out for a jog in a park in Winnsboro, Louisiana. Initially, she claimed that three men in white hoodies doused her and set her on fire. The FBI hesitated on declaring it a hate crime--you know, a Black woman's body being set on fire (let me repeat: set. on. fire.) while her car is scrawled with the words KKK and Nigger isn't enough to equal hate crime. Yeah, we'll get back to you on that. Quickly, news surfaced that Moffitt, in fact, set herself aflame. Now, we call it a hate crime, as in the recent headline "Sharmeka Moffitt may have faked hate crime." Now, it's a hate crime. Now someone has done something wrong.

Look, this is all too stunning and heartcrushing to really write a full on critique of the media or go into the ways that racism has structured not only the media and federal response to Moffitt, or her setting herself ablaze at all.

This is racism. This is what racism looks like. This is what racism does.

That's all I got. But, I want you to hear it (and by you, I mean me too). Sharmeka Moffitt is not crazy. She is not an attention seeker. She is not someone who hates white people or is racist against white people. She does not hate the KKK (I do, so come at me if you will, gladly).

No, she's a Black woman living in the U.S. Not the U.S. South, although that's where she is physically, but in. the. U.S. And this was her response.

I'm not going to speak for Sharmeka Moffitt, because I can't and I wouldn't dare. But, I will say that this is a response. And it speaks to how confused people are about racism in this particular moment--that it's not as bad as it was, that it doesn't exist, that any feelings oppressed people have as a result of systemic, lifelong encounters with racism and being born in a racist society are our own problems, our own inability to turn the other cheek. Maybe Moffitt's response can be read as that, as  a response to that kind of organized denial and resistance. Maybe.  And we've seen this response before. Years ago, Tawana Brawley, a teenaged Black girl from New York was found with the words KKK and Nigger written on her feces covered body after being raped by six men, including police officers. Later, Brawley was accused of making up the entire incident (a charge she maintains is untrue) and was simply a girl trying to avoid the violence of her mother and stepfather, who were consistently abusive towards her.

I was a teenager myself, 16, when Tawana Brawley was found. And I remember following the case intently, every chance I got. I couldn't articulate why it was so important to me at the time--the media attention, the supporters on both sides, the images of Brawley in the news--I was just drawn to it and needed people to hear her. And it stuck (sticks) with me. I was moved and thankful when Mookie walked away from the brick wall in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing and, on the wall, were the words "Tawana Told the Truth" in white, chalk letters. Because she did. She told the truth. The truth about her experience. The truth about the violence in her life. She had a response. And, like Moffitt, it is a response that is a call to action. A call for all of us to remember:

Black women and girls are precious. All of us. Every single Black woman you know. Every one that you see. Sharmeka Moffitt. Tawana Brawley. The two Black women in the car at the gym. Rihanna. My sisters. My nieces. My grandmother. My aunts. Me. You, if you're reading this or not. All of us: The Black women who have written responses about this. The women (and men) of the Crunk Feminist Collective, who never cease to organize amazing responses to racism, sexism, violence, transphobia and homophobia. Stephanie Troutman who, with David J. Leonard, turned our attention to violence against women here. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who has never forgotten about articulating violence, particularly as it's directed at Black women. Bettina Love, who has prioritized remembering this and demonstrating this in her work with young, Black girls. Micia Mosely, a dear friend that I love, who uses comedy in a way that allows Black women, Black lesbians in particular, to laugh, hard. Ava DuVernay who is telling an incredible story about Black women's lives.

Yes, I'm giving shout outs again, but you need to know these women and the work that they are doing, highlighting our worth. And this is a short list of many. There are more, many of us with different responses to the racist and sexist society we live in. You should know all of us. But, mostly you have to remember the preciousness, the worth, the humanity and beauty of us all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

This is (a cold) War.

I’m not really sure where to begin or how this will end. It’s been a banner week in terms of the racist/misogynist/sexist discourse (not talking about the Presidential debate) masquerading as humor this week. It’s Wednesday. And I guess things started, what Sunday? Sunday, that’s when I saw the now infamous meme protesting the most recent display of (racist) fashion, The Gap’s Manifest Destiny t-shirt, shown in this ad and designed by Mark McNairy (I learned about this through the awesome meme protest by artist Aaron Paquette. And although Gap apologized, pulled the ad, and said they would stop selling the t-shirt, they continue to.

The next day, Monday, I saw this:

with the title, Top 10 Ways to Get Away with Rape Flier Found in Miami University Men's Bathroom

I have more to say about each of these instances, but there was also this, which I found out about the same day:
A Romney/Ryan supporter at a rally sporting a t-shirt of the already popular twitter hashtag/meme. And then, finally, this:

This one is harder to make out, yes, but it comes with the title, "Idiot Students in Blackface Reenact Chris Brown Beating Rihanna at Worst Pep Rally Ever"


See what I'm saying? That's a lot in one week. Um, three days. It's Wednesday, not yet noon as I sit here and type.  And I have to say, I'm speechless. And furious. And exhausted. And furious. I wish I had a hatchet on the ready to combat the violence that each of these instances exude. And it's particularly violent because the creators, supporters, proponents of these instances contend that the collective readings of these things are incorrect. That they are not racist, misogynist, but rather, just jokes.

Funny, ha ha jokes.
Or, Freedom of Speech jokes.
Kids are kids, they'll grow out of it jokes.
Fear of a Black (um, Brown) Planet--cause we think of the U.S. as a planet--jokes.
Bitches be trippin' jokes
Colonization and Genocide are things of the past jokes. (Btw, read this post, from my colleague Joanne Barker over at Tequila Sunrise, whose words forced me to put these thoughts down on paper).

Let's just be clear, these are not jokes.  It's possible you don't know what it's like as an African American to see and hear stories of white people in blackface, which occur more and more in the 21st century. Maybe you don't know the history of the ways that blackface was (is) used to justify racism and the dehumanization of Black people in this country. That that history runs through our veins, that every time we see it it reminds of they ways that we were not considered human. How close that is to the surface of our identities. And maybe you don't understand how genocide and colonization on the part of "pioneers" annihilated--with that specific intention--Indigenous peoples on this continent and how the historical (and present day) trauma of that annihilation manifests itself in the remaining Indigenous or Native communities throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. How it's imprinted in our relationships, our understandings of our self worth, well being, and living (remembering that it is good that we're alive). And, somehow, maybe you are unaware of the ways that (speaking from a cisgender experience) women fear rape on a regular basis: how we beat ourselves up for wearing the "wrong clothes," leaving the windows of our house open on a hot night, meeting a stranger at a club without letting others know what we're doing, trusting our "friends" to not harm us, walking to our cars after dark. Maybe you don't know these things, this introduction to the lives of the people that you feel you have the freedom or justification to parody, dismiss, and violate. 

Maybe. But, now you do. So, stop with the jokes (unless you're Tig Notaro, who, I have to say brings humanity, humility and love to heartbreak, which, though she's talking about cancer, is what this sh*t is, heartbreaking). 

Not only are these moments not funny, ironic, or harmless, but by being categorized as jokes, it undermines the importance of practices or representations particularly in this media age with the fast pace transferal of information and images, a la binders. And, as Stuart Hall reminds us, "practices of representation always implicate the positions from which we speak or write - the positions of enunciation." So, you are implicated, always. Your excuses, "that's not me," and "it was a joke" don't hide that you are guilty. And it's not just the "bigots" or racist commenters who spend hours trolling media stories who feel like it's not a "big deal." Some of my students, some of my friends, my family, myself we collectively roll our eyes, a defense mechanism we have learned to buffer against the exhaustion of living in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic society...And, frankly, the sheer frequency of these images, this discourse is overwhelming. Don't get me wrong, because we know how to navigate, many of us are meeting the challenges of the digital area. If you're reading this, I hope you know about writers and bloggers like the women and men of Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC), Mark Anthony Neal, David Leonard and Darnell Moore...whose work will keep you going. And the media literacy work of Malkia Cyril and the Center for Media Justice and Moya Bailey of CFC. There are others, many.

And this is not just a time for me to shout out folks whose work I enjoy and admire. But, to let folks know that there is an army of folks and it's growing. Hatchets. Building on what has always been built. And, just a reminder, you can't defeat us. You haven't yet. And you won't, ever. Even when we are exhausted. And, to my peoples who often feel, like me, exhausted, unsafe, furious, and sometimes, beat down: here are reminders from two other thinkers that I love and hold dear. As cheesy as it feels, Le Tigre who remind me:

Don't let them bring you down/And don't let them fuck you around cuz/Those your arms/That is your heart/And no no/They can't tear you apart/They can't take it away/This your time/This is your life and/You gotta keep on livin'

and, at the same time, in the words of Janelle Monae 

Bring wings to the weak/And bring grace to the strong/May all evil stubmle/As it flies in the world/All the tribes come/And the mighty will crumble/We must brave this night/And have faith in love. 

Sorry if that sounds a bit dramatic but again, in the words of Monae, when you are made to believe there's something wrong with you (ain't nothing wrong with me), it hurts your heart--like, really--and makes it plain to see that this is a cold. better know what you're fighting for.

With love, respect, and hatchets...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rat Snitch Bitches

I like where I live. In fact, I'm often reminded how great it is to live in the San Francisco Bay Area and Oakland, in particular. I moved here over a decade ago and have lived in different parts of the city. Currently, I live in Maxwell Park, a neighborhood representative of the Gay and Lesbian Atlas' claim that "Oakland has the highest concentration of lesbians in the U.S." Bordered along MacArthur Boulevard, High Street, Trask Street, and Foothill, Maxwell Park is a veritable lesbian utopia: you can find us buying books at Laurel Bookstore, sipping Chai Lattes at World Ground Cafe on MacArthur, and educating ourselves and others at Mills College further down the road. The street that Joan and I live on is full of gays--half the street is queer of color couples (and there's an empty house coming up for rent, so, you know, we're about to tip the balance...). It's something I entirely take for granted. The ease with which I live an out, queer life is not always at the forefront of my brain, especially when I've carved out such a little bit of safe, sweet space in a slow and steady gentrifying area like Maxwell Park.

So imagine what it felt like on my way to a lunch date and appointment a couple of days ago and, as I waited for the light to change, as I do almost everyday on High St., I turned and saw this:

Ok, so I didn't see this exactly. But, I did see a dirty mattress, standing up on the side of the road, at the stoplight. Not a big deal, right? Trash day. Except, when I actually put my attention on it and made out the black magic marker scrawled on the front of said mattress this is what I saw: 

"Pearl is a rat snich [sic] bitch that just wants [to] suck Angela ['s] pussy."

Yeah, it's like that. On the street and at the intersection that I pass by several times a day. At 11:40 a.m. on a Monday. Neat.

Here's how my emotions went:

Confusion (Wait, is that a mattress on the side of a busy street?)
Shocked, but not sure if that's the right word (Wait, is that a mattress that says pussy on it? Wait, is that a mattress that says a rat snitch bitch, wants to, presumably, suck someone else's pussy?)
Calm, as the light changed (Keep driving, maybe that's not what you saw)
Epiphany (Actually, that is what you saw but keep driving, you're late)
Anger (Wait. that. is. what. you. saw. TURN AROUND, TURN AROUND NOW)
Defiance (Make a u-turn and take a picture in the middle of the road, dammit)
Fear (What am I doing? What if someone sees me--obvious--why am I taking a picture of this violence?)
Terror (This is where I live)

And then I had all of these other side conversations, like "Who's Pearl?" "Have I seen her before?" "Who's Angela?" "Where do they live? Are they a couple?" "Wait, is she...." And then I'm back to terror. And I realize that this is often where I live, physically and metaphorically. This is how I felt as I mulled over it the rest of the day. As I drove by it again and again, as it stayed there for the rest of day and well into the next. As I sit here and type up this post. Terrified. That's the feeling I'm trying to shake. I wrote, some time ago, that Joan and I took a trip across country and I was made brutally aware of the difference that living in the Bay Area makes in my life. Filling up our gas tank in small towns in Utah, Wyoming, and Wisconsin and watching men "mug" Joan openly and then set their eyes on me, realize that we are two, interracial women traveling together and then possibly a couple, was, in a word, terrifying. It's still terrifying, when I think about it. But I realize that I'm terrified much of the time as a queer woman of color living in the U.S., even in my Bay Area zip code. On my Gayberry for people of color street (that's an Andy Griffith reference in case it doesn't resonate right away).  

But, I don't experience/feel this terror most of the time. Or, rather, I don't let myself feel this terror, mostly because I really don't have to. Like, ever. And, I have lots of instances in my life that challenge that terror on the daily: My partner is cute, I like her, and I get to look at her everyday. I love our house and our two  black cats (had to put that in). Some of my best friends are queer and they have children that I absolutely adore. I work in a "sexuality studies" department, so queerness is a regular topic, if not embodied in the folks that work there. I can turn on the television and be confident that I see at least one queer person as I flip through the channels (case in point, I'm just going to tell you that I watched Flipping Out last night, the horrible, horrible reality show about a unabashedly privileged white gay man in Los Angeles). The POTUS talks about me and my people sometimes. Both of my parents and Joan's parents came to our wedding ceremony last year. Life is good, really. Really, really good. 

I know that things in my life are better than I could ever have imagined as a young person. When I thought about my life, I really didn't think things would look like they do. And, I have to admit, that seeing that message--because that's what it was, a message to all of us rat, snitch bitches that walk openly up and down these streets, live in this neighborhood, exist--brought up all of the feelings that I step on top of every time I walk out the door. It rattled the tunnel vision that keeps me queerly focused and forced me to look around me: not at my specific neighborhood, I'm not specifically scared here. No, this is a general fear. And while, clearly, it doesn't impede my life, it's a fear that has no boundaries. 

Sometimes, I realize, it's just good to feel it. I still like where I live. But it's good to sit in it for a minute, because that's about all I can stand, recognize it, and then keep going. Cause that's what we--rat snitch bitches, dykes, women--that's what we do.