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Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
John Scalzi, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” (via emm-in-sem)
The analogy seems apt. Scalzi makes a good point about the word “privilege” being offputting. I know it’s exciting when you finally learn what exactly privilege is and it’s all you want to talk about because you see it everywhere. But the word “privilege,” while not quite up there with “racist,” does tend to make people tune out, either because they don’t get it at all or they don’t get it in the same context that you do.
I have always recoiled from the idea that certain conversations by marginalized people can only be held behind closed doors (The old “Don’t air our dirty laundry” thing.). But now I’m wondering if some things simply cannot be discussed effectively within a mainstream context without “othering” the group in question.
It was the latest article in The Washington Post’s series on black women that got me thinking. Lonnae O’Neal Parker is a good writer. Her effort was measured and thoughtful. She is a black female writer in a space where the voices of black women are not the majority. The Washington Post has accompanied its coverage with online discussions and the actual voices of black women—something that doesn’t often happen. Now, I complain all the time about the absence of black women in mainstream media. I hate that they so often ignore us. But here The Washington Post is paying attention to black women and I find I’d rather they didn’t. Because despite all the panels and surveys and a black woman writer and the presence of black female voices, it still reads as exotification and demonization because of the context and because of who is observing the conversation.
I recall feeling the same way last year, when I took part in a CNN online article about the phenomenon of black women with natural hair enduring unwanted touching. Several black women honestly shared our lived experiences with a black writer, who had navigated similar waters. But a brief web article cannot hold the nuance and history related to African American hair and beauty standards and power dynamics. And, based on the nasty attacks several of us endured as a result of the article, in the end, it served more to inflame than educate. (More here.)
Last week I found myself working on an article about an element of black culture for a mainstream feminist publication. My criticism of the Post series and the aftermath of the CNN article began haunting me. Because here I was explaining a black issue for consumption by a mostly non-black audience and perhaps opening the door to the same “othering” that I hate.
So, I wondered: How do other folks who are members of historically marginalized groups, and who write about race and gender and sexuality, wrestle with this? Do they? Should we? Are there topics writers will not or should not discuss outside of a “safe space”? Are there story ideas writers reserve for “of color” or GLBT spaces?
On Super Bowl Sunday, Roland Martin of CNN issued some homophobic tweets that got him in trouble with gay organizations and this blog. CNN stayed silent on the matter, until just moments ago, when it issued this statement:
“Roland Martin’s tweets were regrettable and offensive. Language that demeans is inconsistent with the values and culture of our organization, and is not tolerated. We have been giving careful consideration to this matter, and Roland will not be appearing on our air for the time being.”
CNN took its time, but it clearly reached a strong decision here. What Martin had tweeted — advocating beatings for men who’d enjoyed the David Beckham underwear ad shown during the Super Bowl plus the same for a New England Patriot clad in a pink suit — was the equivalent of cheerleading for violence against gays.
What bothers some viewers about the Shit X Says to Y meme is that it targets only white women. Critics have said of Foti in particular that it is always sexist when men use women as the brunt of any joke. But privilege does not work in debits and credits, whereby your lack of cultural power as a gay person is paid back by your stores of cultural power as a man. A white woman can be racist to an Asian man, just as a straight black woman can be homophobic to a gay white man. These videos are important because they ask all viewers – regardless of what power they have and what power they lack – to reconsider if their best friendship with non-white and gay people grants them licence to cross the line.
Yet this doesn’t change the fact that though white men started Shit Girls Say – to poke fun at white women – the backlash is against white women. Shit X Says to Y generalises these women as the only ones who possess a desire for intimacy or approval; that desire which bulldozes over the very real fact that, when differences in identity are at hand, there are parts of our friends’ lives that we can never understand. Love doesn’t conquer all. Still, it’s unfair to put this burden squarely on them. The lack of a Shit White Men Say to Y meme (or Simply Shit White People Say to Y meme) is uncomfortable proof that we always prefer lampooning women than men.
From “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions” by Audre Lorde
I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a liveable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”
From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sexes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression. I have learned that sexism and heterosexism both arise from the same source as racism.
“Oh,” says a voice from the Black community, “but being Black is NORMAL!” Well, I and many Black people of my age can remember grimly the days when it didn’t used to be!
I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of any other part of my identity. I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. Rather, we diminish ourselves by denying to others what we have shed blood to obtain for our children. And those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in order to work together for a future they will all share.
Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.
I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you
Playing it to the balcony.