Don’t Be Racist this Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo has been driving a lot of traffic to the post I made last year, about casual racism and cultural appropriation. Thanks to everyone who linked to that post and to everyone who kept me busy by leaving idiotic comments for me to delete! The comments are so close to being permanently disabled here, which is unfortunate, but I don’t know how many more times I can point to the Rules of Effective Discourse before I just give up.

Last year, I remember trying to be very gracious in undertaking a dialogue around how and why Cinco de Mayo generally does more harm than good. But since I’m still getting messages about how moronic I am for thinking so, I’ve decided to be more direct this year.

When I was growing up, there was a “Multiculturalism and Diversity!” push in public schools. Well-intentioned as this may have been, it resulted in a seriously off-base cultural education for my generation. When you have folks outside of a culture try to teach cultural traditions and practices to other folks who are also outside of that culture, what you get is a lot of stereotypes, simplifications, and flat out misinformation. For instance: how many people do you know who think Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican Independence Day? When did you figure out that Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s Independence Day?

There’s nothing wrong with being invited into a culture and celebrating in a way that is both responsible to the culture and personally meaningful. There is a problem with celebrating Cinco de Mayo by enacting a racist caricature that involves being wasted on tequila, donning a poncho and sombrero, and talking about swimming across rivers. And if you still think I’m a moron for telling you as much, there’s just nothing else I can (or want to) do for you.

But here are some fun things you can do instead of being racist today!!

  • Check out Feministing’s awesome 8 Feminist Ways to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo
  • Read this cool post that compiles one brave soul’s attempt to respond to Cinco de Mayo ignorance
  • Think about all the ways white people have already embarrassed themselves (ourselves) in the past few days… May 3rd’s Free Comic Book Day, May 4th’s Star Wars Day… I mean, just look at this. Don’t be an embarrassing white person today.
  • Don’t send me hate mail for pointing out that white people do dumb and embarrassing things.

Hard Out Here

Back in November, internet feminists had a heyday with the release of Lily Allen’s video “Hard Out Here.” My friend Sam sent a link to the video and a group of the grad students in our department tried to unpack our concerns with it over an email thread. With their permission, I’m going to reprint that conversation here. Even though this is (certainly by internet time) outdated, I think it’s interesting to consider how we collectively form our opinions and challenge each other’s ideas.

Originally, we all thought the use of black women’s bodies in the video was a parody of Miley Cyrus’s recent (and continued) fetishization of black women’s bodies. In the course of our discussion, Lily Allen released a statement making it clear that no such parody was intended. That essentially ended the conversation and any hesitant defense of the video. Ultimately, it’s a good attempt but the violence and privilege of White Feminism are all over the video.

Sam: It’s hard out here for a bitch.

Lydia: I have been thinking about this ALL day. On the one hand, I love it. On the other, the use of WOC feels super problematic. I think it’s supposed to be a further satirization, but there’s really no explicit discussion of it. None of the lyrics reference race or the way white artists use WOC’s bodies in music videos, it just reconstructs that stereotype. So while I feel like Lily Allen is making a comment on it, it’s not explicit and is in a way further silencing/objectifying/disempowering. UGH HELP ME UNDERSTAND, WHAT DO YOU THINK???

Sam: That’s exactly what I was just saying to Jesse!!!…she is still coming from this place of power…her appropriation, even if satirical, is privileged. I tried to think that perhaps she was trying to mock Miley’s “black women as prop” thing, but now we have it in another form because, like you say, there is no explicit discussion of it.

Mocking the appropriation by appropriating it without acknowledging the “it” really just furthers it.

Lydia: It’s so frustrating because that’s such a glaring, harmful piece of the video but I feel like the rest of it is important for a wide audience to experience. But creating an army of White Feminists is not going to help anyone. ughhhhh. My hope is that teenagers see this, feel inspired, get into a Women’s/Gender Studies class and learn about intersectionality.

Megan: Y’all…..
#1 Sam, thanks for sending this! I love this vid. New fave….Pentatonix get lost!

#2…..the satire was blatant to me, and so I’m wondering if a discussion about the appropriation is necessary? I mean, I don’t think we (the ppl on this thread) need that explanation because we get it…so I think she doesn’t need to provide an explanation to an audience like us. Her satirical appropriation speaks for itself, even if it comes from a place of privilege. She can’t help that she’s privileged…in fact, I’m reminded of an Audre Lorde quote. Can’t remember it verbatim, but it’s something like “people should use their privileges for the benefit of others (to help stop oppression).” I think that’s exactly what Lily Allen is doing here, but Sam and Lydia are quite right in saying that she doesn’t explicitly say that she’s doing this. She expects the audience to figure it out. And perhaps that’s presumptuous on her part, but I think it’s also a sign of respect for the audience, since she’s basically saying “you’re smart enough to figure out what I’m doing here. So figure it out!” However, on the other hand, maybe the general public might need an explanation. I could see a lack of discussion being particularly problematic for people who don’t understand satire and/or privilege. Okay, so maybe the inclusion of a discussion is contingent upon different audiences. I dunno.

#3 Hope y’all are having a good night. I’m eating a salad and reading Foucault….talk about the BEST NIGHT EVER!!

Just found this comment on YouTube….this user agrees with you, Sam and Lydia…

“The thing with satire is that it DOESN’T WORK IF YOU CELEBRATE THE SUBJECT MATTER! e.g. the objectification of black women. Use a bunch of white women twerking to get your satirical idea across Lily!”

Vani: I love you all for having this debate in a mass email. PLEASE STILL DO THIS AFTER WE GRADUATE. YOU MAKE ME FEEL LESS INSANE.

Sam: WE ARE MASS DEBATERS. SOMEONE HAD TO, SORRY GUYS.

Lydia: MASS DEBATING ALL OVER YOUR EMAIL RIGHT NOW.

Someone once said (lol, like I know who, what are citations???) that satire goes up, that satire is meant to critique those with the power, who create the oppression. That’s why most rape jokes are the absolute worst, but this Wanda Sykes one is SPOT ON because she’s making fun of rapists and the idea of rape, etc, etc.

So I feel that in this instance, the character of the white man directing the video should have been a more prominent figure, because HE’S the one who needed to be satirized. In this delivery, it feels too much like it’s falling back on the WOC… and I honestly think the whitewashed masses are too bought in to realize what’s happening. BLEH.

Amanda: I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I generally like what Lily Allen does. I think that her critiques of pop culture are smart and subtle. I understand what you guys are saying. I think that it’s probably true that her use of satire will be lost on some. One of the things that we’ve talked about in my classes is the idea of intentions vs. consequences.

It might be that an author’s intention was to make a certain point, but if they’re too subtle or ambiguous, what are the consequences of their text? Ultimately, the consequences are important. For me, the satire is blatant. For those that are just looking for entertainment, this may not be the case.
I guess the question is: to what extent can we hold an author accountable for their audience’s ignorance? To what extent does she need to blatantly show that she is commenting on this behavior and not promoting it? I dunnnotheanswer!

Here’s one of the better ones, I think: The Fear.

Sam: Jezebel. [This article includes Lily Allen’s response to criticisms.]

Whitney [resident punk rocker and musical aficionado]: NOT TO MENTION THAT IT’S THE WORST SONG I’VE HEARD ALL YEAR!!!

DAY TWO: After Lily Allen’s response, now we all know it wasn’t any kind of parody.

Megan: Thanks for sharing the Jezebel article, Sam! Lydia and I were talking about it yesterday….I was under the impression that Lily Allen’s video was an obvious parody of Miley Cyrus, but sadly I was wrong :/ It’s shocking that she’s like completely oblivious to what’s going on….makes me think about the video very differently now.

On a related note, you all might be interested in checking out this game….it’s “A Day in the Life with Female Experience Simulator

HAPPY FRIDAY EVERYONE!!!!!!

ICWA, Revisited

Hi, everyone. I have some housekeeping notes before we jump back into the world of feminist blogging. I’m interested in dialogue. I really like to know why we form our beliefs and convictions. I would like to hear about opposing opinions. But throughout the duration of this blog, there has only been one comment that successfully conveyed an opposing viewpoint while following the rules of the blog. I won’t post comments that are vitriolic or accusatory in nature. I know the cloak of internet anonymity brings out the worst in people, but I truly believe we are better than that. Please review the rules before you comment. The comment feature will be suspended if these rules aren’t followed. I think that would be unfortunate, but I’m not willing to continue subjecting myself to thoughtless, violent attacks.

Now, let’s follow-up on the last post. I can’t believe how many white people were severely offended by that. Once again, I’d just like to mention that acknowledging privilege doesn’t erase it. I will never understand why so many people fly off the handle when they’re told about the ways they’re advantaged. When we start feeling self-righteous about our position in the world, when we feel accomplished even though we were born on top of the mountain and didn’t have to do any climbing, I think it’s important to seek out information from folks without the same privileges. After the last post, Jacqueline Keeler shared her wonderful piece on ICWA with me. I hope all of you read it- suspend the privilege rage fits and really read it.

Finally, here’s my response to a Facebook commenter who was very displeased with my post. Most of the comments I received (none of which were posted due to their reliance on inappropriate threats and violence) echoed the sentiments this commenter expressed.

And clearly the color of the skin shows that a person is responsible for a complete history of wrong. And clearly a white person could never, ever ever seek out resources to help a child of a different culture connect to their past. Incredibly over simplified account of a not simple situation, in any aspect. This isn’t about race, this case is about stupid legal red tape. It’s horrible and sad that this is going on, but the fact of the matter is that these events are happening because some individuals are taking advantage of legal loop holes. “I hate white people. I really do.” That is not an attitude that will further any kind of progress. It is just sad, spite and narrow-minded.

As a result of generations of Native children being removed from their communities, against the wishes of the community, ICWA was passed to bring stability and security to tribal families. Under ICWA, when a child is being placed, priority lies with the family. If the child cannot be placed with a member of their extended family, then a member of the same tribe is sought. If no member of their tribe can take the child, then the child is placed with any American Indian. Finally, if there are no Native families to take the child, then and only then should the child be placed outside of their culture. If this procedure is followed and the child does end up with a non-Native family, okay. I’m sure that family will love and care for the child. The problem is that the procedure laid out by ICWA is very rarely followed. We see that Native children are often immediately placed outside of tribal governance. This is such a huge problem that the tribes of South Dakota organized a summit with the US government to address the lack of ICWA compliance. The US Government failed to attend. (http://www.npr.org/2013/02/06/171310945/south-dakota-tribes-accuse-state-of-violating-indian-welfare-act) When Veronica’s mother moved for adoption and her father expressed a desire to raise the child, that’s where the story should have ended. Instead, the father, extended family, and tribal members were completely disregarded and the child was immediately placed with a non-Native family. The SCOTUS acknowledges this was wrong, but voted in favor of the non-Native family simply because they don’t like ICWA. This sets a precedent that justifies and encourages the removal of Native children from the families who want to raise them, which hearkens directly back to the American Indian Boarding Schools.

When I say I hate white people, I don’t mean that I actively hate every single white person no more than I hate every banker or lawyer when I say I hate bankers and lawyers. I hate the idea of bankers, lawyers, and white people. I am a white person, and I’m not much for self-loathing. What I hate is that we, collectively, use our privilege to continue the marginalization and oppression of people we have only ever marginalized and oppressed. Acknowledging that my whiteness gives me privileges won’t take those privileges away. Recognizing that we historically and currently, if sometimes unintentionally, harm people by the very nature of our whiteness is the very least we can do to begin righting these wrongs. When I see a campaign called “Save Veronica”, a campaign that has hundreds of thousands of backers, I know that we’re, as a collective group of white people, acting in a racist manner. Implying that Veronica needs to be “saved” from the father who loves her and wants to raise her is wrong. While I personally don’t support this campaign, as a white person, I am complicit in this collective racism.

——-

That’s it for now, everyone. What I hope we can think about is just why it is that we’re so quick to say, “It’s not about race!!” What would it mean for us, especially as white people, to acknowledge that a lot of things ARE about race. What would it look like if we tried to recognize the ways we’re advantaged and tried to dismantle some of this country’s systemic white dominance?

ICWA, Baby Veronica, and White People Being the Worst

It is hot. I am miserable and sweaty and the rampant racism rearing its nasty head around the country this week has not been improving my mood.

Let’s talk about the Indian Child Welfare Act and the Supreme Court’s wrongheaded ruling on the Baby Veronica case. One of the best courses I took as an undergrad was called Native Women, Children, and Tribes. That class taught me more about my white privilege and the innumerable ways we continue to oppress, marginalize, and enact violence against Native populations than I ever would have had the wherewithal to learn on my own.  People in positions of privilege often don’t realize they have it until someone else, usually someone without that same privilege, points it out.

When we learned about ICWA in my course, I didn’t totally understand it because I wasn’t acknowledging my privilege and the storied history of white violence against Native children and their families. This is embarrassing now, but I remember feeling a bit offended for a second. I thought, “I could give a kid a great home. What do you mean I couldn’t ever adopt just because I’m white?” And then the heavens opened and I was punched in the face by the mighty fist of, “Hey, there white person, you’re the worst!”

The Indian Child Welfare Act is meant to ensure that Native children remain with their families and their culture. White people are the very last people who should be considered when a Native child is being adopted. And that’s totally valid. The conversations happening online around this issue are disgusting- much like my initial reaction to learning about ICWA. “Why can’t we adopt them? We could give them more opportunities and a better life!” Here’s the thing, white people: there are plenty of non-Native children who need homes. You can’t adopt Native children, because they are not toy poodles for you to parade around. Removing a Native child from their culture is a blatant act of violence. Remember the American Indian Boarding Schools?

But that was a long time ago, right? We don’t do that anymore! Well. It wasn’t that long ago. When white people remove a child from their culture, especially when that culture has been historically, systemically, and continually obliterated by those same white people, violence is continued.  The Indian Child Welfare Act tries to stop that violence. I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. And then the Supreme Court did. Of course they did.

Following the Baby Veronica case has been akin to watching the quick dissolution of common sense, which is how this entire week in United States politics has felt, really.  The National Indian Child Welfare Association has an awesome fact sheet on the case. Here’s the short version, if you’re not caught up: a native child, Baby Veronica, was placed for adoption with a non-Native couple. Veronica’s father, Dusten Brown an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, never agreed to the adoption and never waived his parental rights. The adoption of Veronica was never finalized. When Brown became aware of the adoption, he immediately sought legal counsel to stay the process and assert his parental rights. This was a little difficult for him because he was in Iraq. That’s right. When Brown returned from Iraq, a South Carolina district court and Supreme Court ruled ICWA valid and custody of Veronica was transferred to him. But the prospective adopters, the Capobiancos, kept appealing and the case went to the US Supreme Court.

Earlier this week, SCOTUS ruled in favor of the Capobiancos, contesting the validity of ICWA. Because apparently white people still can’t kick the habit of ignoring the laws made to protect Natives from white violence. Because white people are the worst people. The SCOTUS majority objects to ICWA, because they just don’t like the way it dissuades white people from adopting Native children. Which is the entire point of ICWA. To prevent the continuation of racist violence. The SCOTUS objects to preventing that. In further SCOTUS stupidity, they literally suggested that Brown surrender his parental rights and then try to adopt Veronica himself. Because that makes perfect sense!

Now, the case is getting kicked back to a district court, and there’s a chance that Brown might lose custody of his daughter. Hopefully common sense will kick back in at some point and Veronica will be allowed to stay with the biological father who wants to raise her. I really hope that happens, but you just can’t trust white people to do the right thing.

I sometimes think about going to law school, just because of situations like this one. I’m so frustrated by the whole thing. What really kills me is that you know if a white serviceman was in this situation, there’s no question that the child would be returned to his custody. If a white dude went to Iraq all while fighting for custody of his child, the media would be completely in his favor. But Dusten Brown isn’t a white man, so he’s not afforded that same respect. Or any respect, really.

Another thing that just kills me about this case is the website that’s up in support of the Capobiancos. It’s called Save Veronica. Save Veronica? Are you fucking kidding me? She’s not in danger! This child is living with her biological father who has been fighting tirelessly for his legal rights. Save Veronica? From what exactly? A loving home with her family? I can’t even. I hate white people. I really do.

Casual Racism and Cinco de Mayo

I hate when we refer to the US as a “melting pot”. The Schoolhouse Rock song Great American Melting Pot sounds horribly racist as an adult. That phrase is meant to illustrate how accepting and diverse this nation is but what it’s really saying is, “Assimilate! Melt into our dominant white culture!” Mainstream United States culture is white.  There are cultural centers and ethnic grocery stores, little outposts of culture that are erased in the mainstream. We try to make up for this a few times a year by wildly celebrating “cultural” holidays.

Do Irish people appreciate American St. Patrick’s Day? Do any Mexican people appreciate American Cinco de Mayo? Has anyone ever felt honored by being worn as a Halloween costume? Probably not. Gustavo Arellano, who writes the awesome Ask a Mexican column, shared his views on Cinco de Mayo or “Gringo de Mayo” on CNN’s In America blog. Spoiler alert: he thinks it’s pointless.

Pointless? But we’re so excited to celebrate cultural diversity! Our good intentions are thwarted by a history of racism and ignorance, both of which are exacerbated by white privilege. We don’t even know we’re being ignorant and racist. This is because privilege is invisible to those who have it. White people generally can’t see whiteness, or how it constantly advantages us in society. I try to be aware of my privilege. I still mess up all the time. I make hurtful mistakes and throw around my white privilege, even when I’m trying to be conscious of it.

Just the other day, I referred to my friend as Mexican when she is, in fact, Hispanic. Those are not the same! I immediately followed this moment of racial misidentification by asking where her family was from. I was generally curious. I would like to know more about her family, about who taught her Spanish, what her experiences have been. But asking, “Where are you from?” is not the same as asking those questions. Asking, “Where are you from?” implies an inherent Otherness. My friend said, “My family is from the same state I am from, and we always have been. It was your idiot white ancestors who showed up, enacted horrific genocides, and still have the audacity to assume that any culture that isn’t your own must have come from somewhere else. Get out of my face!” …okay, she didn’t say any of that and was very kind about unpacking my moment of white privilege.

I had a moment of casual racism. It wasn’t overt or explicit- I wasn’t directly stating that I view Whiteness as superior. But that is what I was unintentionally implying. It’s hard to explain racism to white people, because we don’t recognize when we’re exerting our cultural dominance. We think that if we treat everyone the same and view everyone as a human not a race, we can’t possibly be racist. This results in a lot of really uncomfortable moments of casual racism. Those moments reinforce the dominant white narrative, and further marginalize and oppress every non-white person.

That’s why we need to be especially aware of our actions on cultural holidays. Today, Cinco de Mayo, will probably involve a lot of white people getting drunk on “Mexican” beer and eating “Mexican” food, and wearing sombreros and ponchos, never minding that most of the beer, food, and clothing are American bastardizations of an entire culture.

We need to pause when we think we’re honoring a culture, because most of the time we’re actually engaging in more of that harmful casual racism. Who gets hurt by our inaccurate and insensitive (though very enthusiastic) representations? At the end of the day, white people get to take the costume off. The sombrero and poncho get thrown in the closet, and we go on with our lives. Meanwhile, we’ve just reinforced a lot of stereotypes and historical and cultural inaccuracies that have real ramifications. Really, when was the last time you saw a Mexican wearing a sombrero or a poncho? This is the difference between talking about race (“I’m not racist!”) and acting race. For most white people, our actions and representations, which we don’t mean to be racist, show our ignorance about race.

The fact is: nobody ever dresses up like white people. There isn’t a holiday where we celebrate and embody stereotypes about white folks. This is because we don’t view whiteness as Other. In our minds, white is the de facto universal race. We see things through a lens of whiteness, which problematizes our attempts to ‘honor’ and ‘celebrate’ different cultures.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go ask my neighbors to kindly stop celebrating Cinco de Mayo by drinking Coronas and eating Taco Bell while making immigration jokes in bad Spanish accents.