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Book Review: War Against All Puerto Ricans

Book Review: War Against All Puerto Ricans- Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony

H. Bradford


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Like many Americans, I know precious little about Puerto Rico.   I traveled to San Juan briefly in 2016, which piqued my interest.   When I attended a Letters to Prisoners event a few months later, I wrote to Oscar Lopez Rivera, who I didn’t even know about and was surprised that he was still in prison after 36 years.  Last January his sentence was commuted as Barack Obama was leaving office and he has since returned to Puerto Rico to live with his daughter.   After writing to him, I purchased one of his books and a book by Nelson Denis about Puerto Rican’s history entitled: War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.   Both books sat in my room, quietly collecting dust until Hurricane Maria hit the island in September.   The climate and colonial nightmare inspired me to finally make time for War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony something that the U.S. has been making time for since 1898.   The following are some things that I learned from the book.

Denis’ (2015) book does not cover much history prior to the Spanish-American war.  So, the narrative pretty much begins when Puerto Rico shifts hands between Spain to the United States in 1898.  Though, there was an interesting story about Taino resistance to Spanish conquest- as a Taino named Urayoan tricked a Spaniard named Diego Salcedo into believing he was being led to a lake full of virgins. (Why a lake would be full of virgins or the importance of such a lake is another question…).  Instead of finding this lake, he was ambushed, killed, and his body was watched as it decomposed to make certain he was human (as there was some doubt due to immunity to smallpox).  When it was determined that he decayed like everyone else, riots broke out across the island-only to be squashed by Ponce de Leon, who had 6000 Tainos killed.   In any event, other details regarding Spanish rule are not covered in the four pages dedicated to this four hundred year time period.  I suppose that information is left to be discovered in other sources.

What is discussed in the book is an overview of the long history of terrors inflicted upon the island by the United States as well as some of the resistance against this.  It is hard to even know where to begin, but one of the worst things that the United States did includes a forced sterilization project that began in the early 1900s and continued into the 1970s.  For instance, in the town of Barceloneta alone, 20,000 women were sterilized.   And by the mid 1960s, one third of the entire female population of the island had been sterilized, the highest incidence of sterilization in the world.  Women were not told nor did they consent to sterilization, which was done for purely racist motives at Puerto Ricans were seen as inferior, promiscuous, over populated, etc.  Besides literally trying to kill off Puerto Ricans as a people through sterilization, the U.S. sought to kill of their culture and identity through their education system.  English became compulsory in schools, but since this drove up drop out rates, this policy was overturned in 1909.  Today, fewer than 20% of the population speaks English fluently, which could be seen as an accomplishment in resisting U.S. designs for the colony.  However, the biggest theme in the oppression of Puerto Ricans in the deplorable labor conditions.

Labor conditions require special attention because this offers insight to why Puerto Rico is a territory rather than a state.   In 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated the island, but instead of providing hurricane relief, the U.S. further impoverished the populace by outlawing the Puerto Rican pesos and announcing that the currency was valued at .60 cents to the dollar.  This caused Puerto Ricans to lose 40% of their savings overnight.  In 1901, a land tax called the Hollander Bill forced farmers from their land in a classic capitalistic ploy to proletarianize farmers and amass capital in the form of land.   The farmers sold their lands to US banks and moved to the cities.   At the same time, the first governors of the island were unelected U.S. men with ties to sugar or fruit companies.   In 1922 the island was declared a colony rather than a state, as this was a way to avoid U.S. labor laws such as minimum wage and collective bargaining.   Thus, by 1930, 45% of all arable land was owned by sugar plantations and 80% of these plantations were US owned.  During the 1930s, prices were 15-20% higher on Puerto Rico than in the US and wages were half of what they were under Spanish rule.  At the same time, while FDR is often lauded for providing relief to Americans during the Great Depression through the New Deal, his policy in Puerto Rico was to militarize the island, suppress nationalism, and appoint a hard-line governor named General Winship to oversee the island.   Winship tried to reinstate the death penalty, constructed a Naval-Air Base, expanded the police, and imported more weapons to the island.  Winship also ordered the Ponce Massacre, in which 19 men, one woman, and one girl were killed by police while participating in or viewing a non-violent, unarmed nationalist parade.  200 others were injured when police opened fire on the march, shooting people as they fled.  There were 85 strikes in Puerto Rico during 1933, and in a sugar cane strike, workers went on strike because their wage for a 12 hr day was cut from 75 cents to 45 cents.   The workers actually won that fight and saw their wages increase to $1.50.  However, it is important to note that both Democrat and Republican politicians have historically sought keep the island in colonial status to extract as much profit as can be gained from the beleaguered island.   Over the decades, the island has become a tax haven for corporations and currently it produces 25% of the world’s pharmaceuticals.  Yet, in 2015 the unemployment rate was 15% and the poverty rate was 45%.  33,000 government jobs were eliminated between 2010-2015 and utility rates in 2015 were 300% higher than in the U.S.  Both parties supported PROMESA, which put the island under a bipartisan financial control board in order to control the countries finances (i.e. impose austerity measures to balance the budget).  Of course, the book predates PROMESA….which I believe is Spanish for our promise to allow the corporate plunder of the island.  The book is not overtly theoretical or anti-capitalist, so there is no specific critique of imperialism, capitalism, or how both parties follow the logic of American exceptionalism.

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Image of the 1937 Ponce Massacre

This history of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation sets the backdrop of nationalist struggle in War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.  The book mainly focuses on nationalist struggle from the 1930s to 1950s.  The book follows the history of the Nationalist Party and does not discuss other independence parties or socialist/communist history.  Because it covers one party and a specific time period, it obviously does not provide a full overview of social struggle in Puerto Rico.  Even the labor movement is given passing attention.  Still, the events and personalities that are covered are certainly interesting.   Albizu Campos is given a lot of attention.  He was an impoverished orphan turned American educated lawyer turned nationalist revolutionary.  He created the Cadets of the Nationalist Party, a youth organization and formed the Workers Association of Puerto Rico with striking sugar cane workers.  He was arrested under the rule of Governor Winship, who made nationalist expression illegal (such as owning a Puerto Rican flag or organizing for independence) and spent seven years imprisoned.  After his release, he tried to organize a revolution in 1950.  This revolution failed due to heavy FBI infiltration into the Nationalist Party (which comprised plans, members, and weapons stores) and the fact the US actually bombed the city of Jayuya.  The US National Guard even shot nationalists after they had surrendered.  The saddest part of Albizu’s story was after the failed 1950 revolution, he was arrested and experimented on at La Princessa prison.  He was sentenced to life in prison, kept in solitary confinement for months, then given doses of radiation as an experiment/torture.  Even though he showed signs of radiation poisoning, U.S. psychologists deemed him insane for thinking that he was being experimented upon.  However, the global community was not as convinced of his lunacy and a petition to have him released was brought to the United Nations.  Pre-revolution Cuba (an ally of the U.S. still) also passed a resolution to have him moved to Cuba for medical treatment.  He had a stroke in 1956 in which he lost the ability to speak and died 10 years later.

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An image of Albizu Campos as a prisoner-covered in sores and burns from alleged radiation poisoning.

Another interesting nationalist discussed in the book was Vidal Santiago Diaz.  He was a barber who availed himself in the Nationalist Party by stockpiling weapons and commanding the Cadets while Campos was imprisoned.   He was arrested and tortured for his role in gathering weapons- but never provided information about the nationalist movement to the police- even when he was electrocuted, beaten, water boarded, starved, and isolated.  When he was released from imprisonment, he even managed to tell his allies who among them were actually informants (based on what he learned while imprisoned).  His most amazing feat was fighting off 40 members of the US National Guard/Puerto Rican police from his barber shop during the 1950 uprising.  The battle was broadcast live on the radio and it was assumed that the shop was full of nationalists as he fired the various weapons he had stored upon them for several hours.  He was shot various times, but continued fighting until a stairway collapsed upon him.  He was then shot in the head once authorities entered the shop and assumed to be dead, but as he was dragged into the street by the police he regained consciousness.  He was imprisoned until 1952 and lived until 1982.   His story was the most interesting in the book, since he was an everyday person of astonishing conviction and determination- who alone put up the best resistance in the whole nationalist movement in the 1950 revolt.


There are other interesting stories in the book, such as the extensive surveillance of the Puerto Rican population.  The Carpetas program collected files of information on 75,000 people.  This information was used to arrest people involved with the Nationalist Party, but also used to blackmail, threaten, and bar employment from dissidents.   Another theme of the book was the lack of coverage in the U.S. media of events in Puerto Rico and how the media framed issues in Puerto Rico as internal and inconsequential.  Even a nationalist assassination attempt on President Truman was framed as a communist plot (even though the assassins were Puerto Rican National Party supporters).  It is no wonder that the movement for independence was not successful, as organizers were challenged by infiltration into their organization, extensive surveillance of the populace,  torture, medical experimentation, imprisonment, military occupation, lack of media attention, and other facets of a fully U.S. funded and supported police state.   Unfortunately, the book ends after the 1950 uprisings (the October 30, 1950 revolt and failed the assassination attempt on Truman).

In all, War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, was an engaging read that covered some interesting events and characters from history.   My main critique of the book is that it does not provide much analysis or critique.  Certainly, the book does not provide any solutions.  Also, because the book covers history until 1950, it seems incomplete.  How does this history connect to today?  What about the nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s?  How is this connected to other nationalist struggles?  What is the nature of social movements in Puerto Rico today?  Therefore, the scope of the book tends to be narrow in many ways.  The narrative itself is jumpy, moving back and forth between the decades as the first half of the book focuses on events and the second half focuses on people.  While the book is short, there are parts of the narrative that seem less necessary.   For instance, there is a chapter on an OSS agent who runs a club in Puerto Rico.  While it may be useful in creating a U.S. villain to highlight the “terror in Amerca’s colony” aspect of the book, the tone of this chapter is playful and forgiving.  After all, the chapter ends that he “never watered down his booze and brought a touch of class to colonial espionage (156).” As a minor detail, the book specifically mentions coqui frogs croaking at least a half dozen times.  The scene setting novelty of the endemic amphibian wore off eventually.

One book cannot be everything.  After I read it, I did feel that I wanted to learn more.  There are facets of the book that could certainly be their own books, such as the history of the sugar cane industry in Puerto Rico, the history of hurricanes, the labor movement,  socialists and communists on the island, or the nationalist movement after 1950.  And, certainly there are books on at least some of these topics.  Thus, I don’t feel that the book is the best introductory reading to the topic of Puerto Rico, as it offers a truncated piece of history.  It does provide context, but I think the book would best be read after a survey of history or along with other books.  Since I do intend to read other books, I didn’t mind the read- though I was left hoping for more.  Nevertheless, the book is very accessible, quick to read, and full of fascinating people and events.   It is also a timely read, as Puerto Rico has finally BEEN in the news lately because of Hurricane Maria.  Oddly enough, Guam was also in the news this past summer.  With the spotlight on our forgotten colonies, it is a great time to learn more about them to contextualize current events and make certain that their struggles stay pertinent to activists.

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A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

H. Bradford


Sometimes it is hard to enjoy movies.  It stems from my political leanings, education in sociology, and life as a social misfit.  So, I really didn’t expect that I would like the new Wonder Woman movie.  Especially when my brother gave me two spoilers: she falls in love and she fights the Germans.   Nevertheless, I do like superhero movies.  And, the movie is important since it features a female superhero.  Thus, I thought I would give it a try.  With that said, here is my review of the movie!  Of course, is it not the review to end all reviews…


Feminist Feudalism:

The film begins in Themyscira, the hidden island homeland of the Amazons.  The Amazons have been sequestered on this island for thousands of years following a battle between Zeus and Ares.  The island itself was made invisible by Zeus before he died.  Themyscira is populated entirely by women, which makes it a little reminiscent of Herland, the short novel by Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman.  Unlike Herland, the women of Themyscira do not reproduce (in Herland they did by parthenogenesis).  But, similar to the novel, the women are strong, educated, and beautiful (though in Gilman’s novel, this is the result of eugenics).  In both, the women must deal with the challenge of the arrival of men to their hidden abode.   Gilman’s book was written in 1916 and the Wonder Woman film takes place in 1918.   The similarities end there, as Herland was more imaginative in depicting an all-female society.  Themyscira is pretty dull.  Although the women are thousands of years old, they live in what appears to be sort of feminist feudalism, governed by a queen.  Wonder Woman herself is a princess.  While Wonder Woman later compared Candy, the secretary, to a slave with disdain, there is clearly social hierarchy within Themyscira.   Also, Wonder Woman/Diana is the daughter of the Queen Hippolyta, who is protective of her and refuses to let her sister train her to be a fighter.  This indicates that although there is only one child in the whole island, she is not raised equally by all of the women.  Instead, she belongs to her mother.   Despite the thousands of years of isolated female community, there has been little social experimentation towards more equal social relations.  Further, although there are Black women on the island, the leaders of the Amazons are all Caucasian.  Again, the island does not seem to be very imaginative or utopian, which is disappointing since it would have been an opportunity to explore gender, gender roles, and social inequality more seriously or even draw from utopian fiction from the film’s era. Image result for Herland

World War I:

The film is set in World War One.  I like this as it draws attention to the 100 year anniversary of the war and where the world is today.  War is a major theme in the film, since the main villain is Ares, the god of war.   In the mythos of the film, Ares will return and start a great war.  It is Diana/Wonder Woman’s task to stop him and end World War One.  Now, World War One is not as popular in American history, identity, and memory.  When I was a student teacher, the students groaned about having to learn about this war.  They wanted to move on to WWII, as that was the exciting war. Because World War One is not given the same attention, but certainly reshaped the globe and caused vast and horrific loss and suffering, I liked that it was chosen as the setting.

Within the film, the Amazons have a “just war” philosophy about conflict.  They want to avoid conflict, but feel that they must train and fight when it is necessary.  When Diana is told about the millions that have been killed during World War One, she feels that she must spring into action.  Unfortunately, the film makes many mistakes in how WWI is presented.  Firstly, the Germans are introduced as the villains via Steve Trevor, the American spy who crash landed in Themyscira.  But, there really were no “villains” or World War One or there was a shared villainy between every imperialist country that participated.  While imperialism SHOULD be the villain in the film, it is beyond the scope of a mainstream comic book movie to show war as the outcome of imperial gamesmanship.  Portraying the Germans as villains draws upon Nazi tropes, that there are crude, uniformed German accented villains plotting some horrible thing against the West.  In the film, the Germans are working in collusion with the Ottomans, who in are not really portrayed, other than offering Germans arms and a place to develop their weapons.  Again, I found it unsettling that the villains were conveniently the Germans and Muslims. Image result for germans in wonder woman

Those villainous Germans….

As the film progresses, Diana/Wonder Woman sees that the British are senselessly sacrificing lives and that Ares was never General Ludendorff, but the weasely British cabinet member:   Sir Patrick Morgan.  Diana also learns from “Chief” (eye rolls) about the genocide of Native Americans.  This muddies the water a little as she realizes that many countries act as villains.  She continues to frame this as the cause of Ares, God of War.  There is a brief moment where she must consider that humans cause war, but the movie sabotages this by having Ares die and the conflict end.  However, this is still not a serious consideration of the causes of war.  The film pits the evil of humans vs. the evil of a god as the causes of war.   Again, I am disappointed that the film does not suggest any other cause of war…such as well, economic motives.

Finally, the film is set primarily in Europe and even then, only the Western Front.  The underlying message is that only Western European lives matter.  The fact that for thousands of years the Amazons waited for a “great war” to herald Ares return…and this great war was World War One is extremely Eurocentric.  I wish that “Chief” would have asked Diana why she didn’t intervene during the genocide of Native Americans.  It is hard to know the exact death toll, but the Spanish conquest of Peru may have taken the lives of 8 million people alone.  Mongol invasions, Tamerlane’s invasions, the expansion of the Mughal Empire all cost millions of lives.  It may have been nice if the Amazons would have mobilized during the conquest of Africa.  Wonder Woman might have taken on King Leopold II before he killed 10 million Congolese.   But, Black and Indigenous lives don’t matter even in the fantasy world of comics.  British, French, Belgian and American lives do.   Nevertheless, I liked that WWI was chosen as the setting.  It makes a great backdrop for a film about the horror and pointlessness of war.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the Eurocentric narrative created around this setting. Image result for king leopold

Why can’t he be the villain?


Racial Stereotypes:

There is a character in the film called Chief.  Chief is a stoic, Native American smuggler who finds himself in WWI.  He is one of Diana’s allies, but has very few lines.  The only thing that he adds to the movie is that he informs her that her love interest’s people killed his people.  Again, he is called Chief and not really given any backstory.  The character seems shoehorned into the setting.  If the film maker is going to add a Native American helper character into the mix, he should at least have a little personality and a name.  It might also help if he didn’t make smoke signals… Image result for chief wonder woman

Sameer, the French Moroccan master of disguise is better developed than Chief.  We learn that he is a womanizer, knows many languages, and wanted to be an actor (but could not because of racial barriers).  Still, he is not allowed to be equal to Steve Trevor, the Caucasian American.  He finds Diana to be attractive, but is never taken seriously as a love interest.  He is even nicknamed “Sammy” which Anglo-sizes his name, but also makes him more childish and non-threatening.  When he speaks another language, it is usually French, the language of his colonial master.  Granted, I suppose it is nice that the film included a Muslim character as a “good guy” but in order to be good he must be silly, with clownish masculinity.  Also, why does Sameer want to risk his life fighting for France?

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Dr. Poison:

Many people have written about Dr. Poison, the chemist working with the Germans to create dangerous gases.  She has been widely critiqued because she is a villain with a facial deformity.  This continues the stereotype that people with disabilities or deformities are evil, tragic, and should be pitied.  I found it odd that her real name was Isabel Maru and that she was Spanish.  Spain was actually neutral during World War I, though different sectors of society sided with the Allies and Central Powers.  Dr. Poison is not a well developed character, so who knows what brought her to side with the Germans.   If she sided with them for political reasons, perhaps she was upper class/reactionary/conservative.  On the other hand, perhaps Spain did not offer her many employment opportunities in the field of chemistry.  Perhaps she went to Germany for employment in their chemical industry.  Who knows, maybe she even immigrated there during peaceful times to apply her knowledge to a more benign part of the chemical industry, such as producing dyes.  With the onset of war, maybe her dye making factory was converted to manufacturing gases.  OR, she was just a villain who liked to kill people by making poison gas.  I like to imagine her as a working woman who had to adapt to the demands of the war or face unemployment as a disfigured, immigrant, woman.

Honestly, I found Dr. Poison to be the most relateable character.  I am not gorgeous, fearless, fluent in 195 languages, etc. like Wonder Woman.  There is a scene wherein Dr. Poison is hit on by Steve Trevor.  In a rasping voice she says she doesn’t drink!  I don’t drink!  It is also clear she has zero game.  I have zero game!  If an attractive guy started to chat me up, I would also probably say something weird and off-putting.  That’s why I love Dr. Poison.   Of course, I don’t want to kill people with poisonous gas, but the film does not really develop her motive or the life events that brought her to that point.

As for her passion for poison gas, I felt that this fit in well with the WWI setting.   Popular Mechanics has a really great article about the history of gas warfare in World War One. Interestingly, the first use of poison gas dropped from an aircraft was actually the British fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919.    This is in contrast to the film, wherein the Germans try to send a plane loaded with gas bombs to London. Another interesting article, discusses the history of women in WWI.  Women actually did work in factories that produced gas masks and there were some prominent female chemists during WWI who later sought to ban chemical warfare.  Information regarding this history can be found here: Image result for dr. poison

Wonder Woman Herself:

I thought that Wonder Woman/Diana was a likeable character.  Although I could not relate to her, owing to the fact that she was too powerful, beautiful, and intelligent to be realistic, she was not an off-putting super hero.  She spoke her mind.  She wore what she wanted to wear.  She criticized or mocked social norms.  She showed compassion and struggled to understand the world and make things better.  She was generally much easier to like than Bruce Wayne or Superman.

Although she fell in love in the film, this did not make me want to barf in my mouth.  It wasn’t really sappy.  Her love interest died trying to destroy the gas bombs en route to London.   I didn’t think that Steve Trevor was particularly interesting or compelling.  I also find it a bit annoying that Diana ends up falling in love with the first guy she meets, even though she says that the Amazons have concluded that men aren’t necessary for pleasure.  It would be interesting if she was portrayed as a bisexual character.  Instead, the movie plays it safe, making her monogamous and heterosexual.

As for Gal Gadot, she is certainly beautiful as an actress…but politically ugly in her support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.  She served in the Israeli Defense Force (which adult Israelis must do unless they consciously object) and supported Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 2000 mostly civilian Palestinians.  In protest of her overt pro-Zionism, Wonder Woman has been banned in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Qatar.  The film itself does not explicitly take up the issue of Israel, although the British took control of Palestine after WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Wonder Woman does fight alongside the British against the Ottomans and Germans.  So, in a very subtle way she plays a role in shaping the future of Palestine in the film. Image result for gal gadot israel


A final point I will make is on the lesson learned from Ares in the film.  The film leads the audience and Wonder Woman to believe that General Ludendorff is the human guise that Ares has taken.  At the end of the film, he is unceremoniously killed by Wonder Woman.   It turns out that he was just an ordinary guy!  The real Ares is Sir Patrick Morgan, a mustached British man who sought armistice.  This is disappointing.  He is not at all imposing.  He has a silly, ginger colored mustache and the physique of a scarecrow.  Even when he dons a giant, dark suit of armor….he still has that awful mustache.  Perhaps he represents the grotesque power of men in patriarchy.

He is not at all villainous looking.  He looks like he could be Ron Weasley’s father (though he played Remus Lupin).  He is thin…very white…mustached…ginger haired (no offense to redheads) and British.  Nothing about him is imposing or particularly evil looking.  Even when he transforms into Ares in Armor, he looks like a scrawny guy in a giant metal suit.   He floats in the air and shoots lightning from his hands.  All the while he looks ridiculously weak.

In the end, maybe this was a good casting choice.  In order to be Wonder Woman, a woman must speak 195 languages, leave her homeland, train with Amazons, be gorgeous, and the daughter of a God.  In order to be Ares, you can be some pasty, thin British dude.  Most women are not Wonder Woman.  So, they are oppressed.  Only by being so astonishingly exceptional can Wonder Woman defy social norms and overcome the limits that women face.  As for Ares…he just has to be some dude who works his way into the Imperial War Cabinet.  He is far from the most clever, charismatic, attractive, compelling villain.  He’s a forgettable white guy.  Well, he is memorable for his mustache.

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There you go!  That’s what I thought of Wonder Woman.  Now, I am sure there is more to say or something that I forgot, but I think I hit on the main points.  Despite this critique, I actually did find the movie enjoyable.  It was better than I had anticipated and pretty good for a DC movie.   Obviously the movie could have been improved upon, but if movies were made to suit my taste, Wonder Woman would have fought with the Red Army and fallen in love with a loaf of rye bread that slightly resembles a human face (maybe it could become her sidekick…Wonder Bread).  Her love interest would represent the isolation and misery that are romantic attachments in an indifferent universe full of temporary things.  My brother said that my version of the film would feature a 45 minute pre-movie documentary about the historical locations used in the film and the characters would debate things like cultural appropriation.  So, take what I say with a grain of salt or …a few crumbs of rye bread and feminism.

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Sour Milk

Sour Milk

H. Bradford


There are many ways to be white.

Most get thick and fatty.

Some turn to sour milk,

curdled by too much sacrifice

and all the things that didn’t come easily enough.

For them, there is no land of milk and honey.

Even when the gods of privilege produce enough manna to fatten a family,

they’re still sour and full of flies.

The pail is always half-empty.

It always pales in comparison to the handouts given to those less pale.

They ingested the world’s venom until it turned them bitter.

They’re the ones always making a stink!

They can’t even smell their own crippling scent!

They are fit enough to survive,

but unfit to dissent.

(Image from wikipedia,


March Activist Notes

March Activist Notes

H. Bradford


March was another busy month!  I can’t believe that it is already over.  Now, I didn’t attend every event that happened this month.  That would be impossible.  I also didn’t attend every event that I could have attended this month.  That would require a revolutionary zeal that I simply don’t possess.  I took time to bird watch, paint bird houses, edit a book I have been working on, and attend the ballet.  I also took walks, wasted time, and socialized.  So, this sample is not all of the events that happened in the Northland this month.  It is not even the most important events that happened this month!  It is a sample of a few things that transpired so that those who missed them can get an idea of what they missed out on.

Berta Vive in Duluth: March 5th

Berta Caceres was assassinated on March 2nd, 2016.  She was an indigenous environmental activist who stood up against the neoliberal plot to build a hydroelectric dam in Rio Blanco, Honduras.   Following the 2009 coup which Hilary Clinton’s state department legitimized if not supported, violence against activists has increased.  Caceres, a critic of Clinton, was one of many victims of this violence.  Witness for Peace is taking a delegation to Honduras this spring, so in honor of Berta, but also to promote the upcoming trip, they hosted this event.  The event featured a panel of previous Witness for Peace delegates.  This was a great way to start International Women’s Day week, since it connected the struggles of women in other countries to our own brutal foreign policy.  Feminism should be for everyone, not just American women.  Our foreign policy is anathema to feminism.

Berta Caceres 2015 Goldman Environmental Award Recipient

International Women’s Day: March 8th

On March 8th, the Feminist Justice League hosted a 78 minute symbolic strike in solidarity with International Women’s Day events around the world.  The strike was meant to highlight the wage gap between men and women.  If one compares the median income of a man versus a woman, women make about 80% of the income that men make on average in a year (80% is the newest statistic, but 78 is still often quoted).   There are many reasons for this.  For one, women are not valued, so their labor is less valued.  Careers which attract women tend to be lower paid and less esteemed.  Because the United States is one of the few countries in the world which does not provide paid maternity leave, women must leave the labor force when they have children.  This also diminishes wages.   Women are more likely to do unpaid labor and care for children as single parents.  This too, diminishes their economic power.   It was extremely cold and windy on March 8th, but a few dozen intrepid protestors braved the cold for the whole 78 minutes.  At various intervals, we banged on a pot and announced the wage gap between various racial minorities and white men.  The banging on the pot was met with “boos!” as we expressed our outrage over the racist, ageist, and sexist wage gap.  Black women make about 63% of the median income of white men and Hispanic women make 54%.  Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders make 60% of the income of white men and Native Americans make 58%.  Women over the age of 55 make about 74% of the income of white men the same age.   Wage parity is important since it highlights the economic foundations of sexism (and for that matter racism).   The event was followed by a panel discussion, which explored other facets of labor.  I especially enjoyed when Ariel spoke about sex work and stripping.  She provided a balanced view of the pros and cons of the industry, her struggles and successes as a stripper (especially with stigma), and a call to legitimize all the work women do.    Kristi provided great information about Earned Safe and Sick Time in Duluth and Katie Humphrey spoke about how women benefit from unions.  A great discussion followed.  On April 4th, there will be another wage parity event in Duluth, hosted by AAUW.


Feminist Frolic:  Labor History Walk + Discussion

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic, which involves an outdoor activity and a discussion.  This month, Adam was going to present on the labor history of Superior while doing a short walk.   Only three people showed up, so we decided to table the event for a later time.  However, about an hour later, two more people showed up, so I did a presentation of socialist feminism at the Solidarity House.


13th Documentary: March 13

Superior Save the Kids hosted a documentary showing of 13th.   I enjoyed that the documentary was dense with history and information, yet easily digestible.  It wove a tight narrative of how the criminal justice system is fundamentally racist.  For instance, African Americans make up 6.5% of our population, but 40% of the prison population.  It is startling to think that there are more prisoners today then there were slaves during the Civil War.   The United States is 5% of the world’s population, but hosts 25% of the world’s prison population.   According to the film, the rise of the prison industry was a way to profit while oppressing racial minorities (and really everyone as we are all to varying degrees oppressed by a system that divides us, threatens us, and profits from our punishment).  To this end, the “scary black man” had to be invented.  Thus, around the turn of the last century,  a narrative that black men were rapists, out of control, and associated with criminality was concocted.  This narrative legitimized the KKK and racist mobs (such as the racist mob which hung Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie in Duluth).  The Civil Rights movement challenged outright violence against and segregation of black people, but violence and segregation have continued through the criminal justice system.  For instance, in 1970, the prison population was about 350,000 people.  Today, there are states with higher prison populations than that number!  By 1980, there were 500,000 people in prison.  The war on drug, which penalized crack cocaine harder than other drugs, as well as cuts to social programs, ushered in an era of explosive prison population growth.  By the mid 1980s, over 700,000 people were imprisoned.  By 1990, the number was over one million.  In 2000, the number reached 2 million.  The Clintons were complicit in this surge, as Bill Clinton wanted to be tough on crime.  Through his Crime Bill and other polices, he supported extra police, the militarization of the police, the construction of extra prisons, mandatory minimum sentences, truth in sentencing (which limits parole), etc.  Hillary called black youth “super preditors.”  I have no illusions with the Democratic party.  But, to be fair, Trump wanted the death penalty for youth.   The movie also pointed out that the mass incarceration of African Americans has resulted in a crisis of leadership or less ability to organize themselves for their own rights.  There was also information about ALEC, for profit prisons, and the movement of individualizing prison through GPS tracking/ankle bracelets.   I had to work that night, so I missed the discussion, but it was a powerful and informative film.  Save the Kids hopes to continue to show films on a monthly basis.  On April 10th, Selma will be shown.


Bi with (Pizza) Pie:  Trans in Prison- March 20th

Each month, Pandemonium, the local Bi+ group gets together for a presentation on a topic.  This month, Lucas Dietsche led the discussion with a presentation on the challenges that trans individuals face in the criminal justice system.  He gave a very informed and engaging presentation on this topic.   Some of the challenges include getting sent to a prison that misgenders the individual (so typically transwomen end up in men’s prisons or transwomen in men’s prisons), lack of access to hormones or other treatments, sexual assault, solitary confinement, lack of access to gender specific items such as bras, solitary confinement, and use of a legal name rather than preferred name or pronouns.  When writing to trans prisoners, Lucas noted that the writer can not address the envelope or letter to the preferred name of the individual.  The DOC requires that senders must use the legal name of the prisoner.  He also noted that the DOC does not track trans individuals since it does not view them as trans.  Rather, it lists them as their legal or birth sex.  Thus, it is hard to know exactly how many trans individuals are in the prison system as the system renders them invisible.   Lucas also mentioned some examples of trans people in prison or who have been in prison, such as Cece McDonald and Chelsea Manning.   In the future, we would like to host an LGBTQ Letters to Prisoners Event.


UMD Women and Gender Studies Presentation: March 21st

I was invited to speak at a Feminist Activism and Community Organizing Class at UMD.  This was a great experience.  I spent the hour speaking about how theory informs the organizational tools that I chose to utilize as a feminist.  I spoke about socialist feminism and my focus on building mass movements over electoral politics.   The coolest part was that one of the students had read one of my blog posts prior to my visit to the class!

Socialism and a Slice: March 27

One a month, Socialist Action hosts Socialism and a Slice.  This is an event for local activists to get together and enjoy pizza while discussing current events.  At this meeting, Henry Banks provided us with some information about Uber.  He made a strong argument against Uber on the basis that it is not regulated, it can drive up the price of taxis, and that taxis themselves are often utilized by people of color and low income individuals (contrasted with Uber which has more middle class white appeal).   Taxi companies are more likely to be unionized than Uber and Adam R. pointed out that during Trump’s immigration ban, Uber continued providing ride services while NY taxi drivers were on strike.   Later, Uber undercut taxi drivers who returned to work by turning off surge pricing (that is, when taxi demand goes up, prices tend to go up). This disgusting scabbing should be enough to turn a person off of Uber for good, as it seems that Uber only supports society’s “ubers” and uber profits.  Unfortunately, Duluth’s City Council passed a resolution in support of ride share companies later that night.

Homeless Bill of Rights:

The Homeless Bill of Rights meets each Thursday at 6:30 at Dorothy Day House.  I did not become involved with the group until October, but the organization has been tirelessly and relentlessly working on this issue since 2013.  Finally, after all this time, the Homeless Bill or Rights is finally moving forward.  Two important things happened this month.  Firstly, the Duluth City Council voted that they wanted to move forward or for action to occur related to the bill.  Although this doesn’t mean too much, it does mean that they are looking to see some sort of progress on this issue in the future and are committed to being a part of that.  Another hopeful turn of events is that the Human Rights Commission voted to support the language and eleven points of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights.  They also support this as an ordinance or a template for moving forward with an ordinance.  This does not mean that this will be the ordinance that the City Council eventually vote on, as this requires further negotiation.  However, it is a nice step forward.

14702377_1240475885996242_1996750558988644607_n  This is a promotional photo taken by the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights Coalition.  The featured individual is an activist who is engaged in this campaign and who has spoken about her experiences (Shareeka), though many individuals had their photos taken to promote the ordinance.

Hotdish Militia:

The Hotdish Militia has continued to meet each Thursday at 5:30.  The big project that the group is working on is a Bowl-a-thon to raise funds in support of local abortion access at the Women’s Health Center.   The funds go directly to local, low income women (or possibly men/trans/gender non-binary) so they can afford an abortion or other reproductive health care.  Right now, we are working on raising funds, but also soliciting businesses for prizes to award the teams.  The bowling event will be held on April 29th.  Thus far, the fundraiser has raised over 2000 dollars.  The goal is $5000.  My own modest team, The Feminist Justice League, has raised over $400.  While we are not the biggest fundraisers, I am proud that we have raised anything at all and thankful to the donors who have supported us!

to support us:


Doctrine of Discovery:  3/30/17

Peace United Church hosted a showing of the documentary, Doctrine of Discovery.  The film is about how Papal law from the late 1400s has been used to justify the denial of land rights and self-determination of Native Americans.   Catholic law has been the basis of U.S. policy regarding Native Americans throughout our entire history.  Basically, Catholics did not recognize the right of Native Americans to own their land.  Rather, as “heathens” they were viewed as subhumans who benefited from civilization and who did not have rights to the land because they were not making “productive use” of it.  As late as 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg no less) has upheld this archaic worldview.  In fact, this worldview is the foundation of the United State’s very existence.  To recognize the property rights of Native Americans would challenge capitalism and the taken for granted right of white people to inhabit/exploit this land.  The documentary was awesome and I enjoyed the thoughtful discussion that followed.   I also enjoyed learning the origins of some words.  For instance, colonization comes from the word colon.  To colonize is to digest.  What a powerful metaphor.  Europeans digested Native Americans by consuming their land, taking their lives, and destroying their culture.

Trans Visibility Day: 3/31/17

The month ended with a picket in support of Trans Visibility Day.   Trans Visibility Day was founded in 2009 in the United States to promote positive visibility of the trans community (as opposed to Trans Remembrance Day which is focused on violence against and victimization of trans individuals).  Locally, the event was sponsored by the Prism Community, though I believe that other groups such as Trans+ and UWS Gender Equity Resource Center were also involved.  The event which I attended was a picket, but the previous night there was a poster making session and later on Friday evening, Prism sponsored a film showing of National Geographic’s Gender Revolution.  I did not attend the film.  However, the picket was very well attended.  It was great to see so many young people, especially high school students.  I also liked all the glitter and colorful hair!  There was a lot of positive energy!  Many vehicles honked in support of the event and I only noticed a few pedestrians and one driver making rude gestures or comments.   This was my first time attending Trans Visibility Day and it was a great experience.  I also received a few compliments on my sign!

Self Care:

I am not a superhuman, so I did take time for myself.   I had a fabulous time attending the MN Ballet’s Firebird.  What is better than Stravinsky, Russian folk tales, and my favorite kick ass lich Koschei?!  I also visited St. Croix State Park.  I saw two fields of tundra swans near the park.  Today, I did some birding at WI Point and saw many common mergansers.  I also painted some bird houses and worked on editing one of the vampire novels I’ve written.  I wish there were more hours in the day.  I didn’t have enough time to read or pursue other hobbies.   Oh well.  It was a great month and I am looking forward to a fun filled, activist driven April!


Activist Notes: Solidarity Valentine Cards to Prisoners


Activist Notes: Solidarity Valentine Cards to Prisoners

H. Bradford


On February 13th, the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition), collaborated with Letters to Prisoners and Superior Save the Kids to do a solidarity Valentine card event.  The event was attended by about nine individuals, who met at the Superior Public Library for an hour and a half as they wrote letters and sent cards to various incarcerated individuals.   The event was a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day and produced a large pile of letters.  As I report back on this event, I wanted to share a little history and why this is a feminist issue.

Now, when I pitched the idea to Meghan, the organizer for Letters to Prisoners, she was a little worried that the idea of women sending Valentine cards to prisoners was a little….iffy.  Not that there is anything wrong with women forming relationships with men who are in prison, but this sort of letter writing doesn’t seem like a particularly feministy activity.  In a way, this represents how it is almost impossible to think about Valentine’s Day in a non-romantic way!  Valentine Cards are almost always about romantic love.  (Though in my own card shopping this year, I was surprised to find that there are a fair amount of Valentine Cards sold on behalf of cats and dogs…)  In any event, it was very important to make clear that this event was not about romance.  It was about sending cards that express love for freedom, social justice, humanity, and a better world.  Hence, these were solidarity Valentine cards.

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Sending cards to prisoners on Valentine’s Day makes a lot of sense to me.  Now, eons ago, I used to be a Lutheran.  Lutherans aren’t known for their support of Saints (hence, the whole protestant reformation).  However, I remember in confirmation class I learned about Saint Valentine, probably around Valentine’s Day.   I learned that he was imprisoned for performing Christian weddings in the pagan Roman Empire and sent a letter to his followers before his execution.   Even Catholics don’t know if St. Valentine actually existed as a historical individual.  According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the first person named St. Valentine was beheaded on Feb 14th 270 AD for comforting Christian martyrs.  There are two other saints named Valentine, one who was killed in Africa and another who was a Bishop in Terni (north of Rome).   It is the Bishop from Terni who may be the Valentine most associated with the holiday, as he allegedly married couples and thusly became the patron saint of young people, marriage, and love.  He is also the saint of bee keeping, epilepsy, and plagues, though these don’t sound quite as romantic.  Like the original Valentine, his feast day was February 14th.   In some stories, he either befriended or was romantically involved with the daughter of his jailer/judge, but this may have been a later addition to his story.  Over time, the story and feast day became more closely associated with romance rather than Christian martyrdom.   The romantic associations with the holiday may have come from other holidays, such as the Roman holiday of Lupercalia (which involved match making) between Feb 13-15 and Galatin’s Day (lover of women day).

Like Halloween, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, modern Valentine’s Day took off in the United States mid to late 1800s.  This was bolstered by the industrial revolution, which allowed for the mass production of media, gift items, and cards (a boon for popularizing holidays).  Like the other holidays, the modern celebrations was also buoyed by increased space for secularism in society.   It would be interesting to write a history of Valentine’s Day, but for lack of space and time, suffice to say the holiday has had some romantic connotations since the beginning, but if the story is boiled down to its most basic elements it is a story of a man who is imprisoned and executed by a powerful empire on the basis of religious belief.   It is a story about capital punishment and religious intolerance.  Christianity may be the dominant religion in this country today, but religious persecution certainly continues through the violence, incarceration, and surveillance of Muslims in our country as well as recent attempts to ban Muslims from entering the country.   In terms of capital punishment, the United States is the only country in the Americas that executed prisoners in 2015.  Most industrialized countries have abolished the death penalty, so although we are among the 54 countries that practice capital punishment- most of the other countries are our so-called enemies…you know, the poor countries that we want to bring democracy to in the Middle East and Africa.  Because of the actual history of St. Valentine, I think that the holiday provides a great opportunity to put a spotlight on our criminal justice system.

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I have only gone to a few Letters to Prisoners events, but a person can learn a lot about our criminal justice system by simply sending a letter or card.  For instance, although the event was pitched as a Valentine card making event, prisoners are not allowed to receive glittery, pretty, colorful handmade cards.  The cards must be done in black and white ink.  Likewise, the prisoners can not receive letters with colorful birds or flowers.  The stamps must be Forever FLAG stamps.  Officially, this is to control what kinds of stamps are sent to prevent drugs from being sent in the guise of stamps.  But really?  Really?  Forever FLAG stamps.  I think this sends a powerful message that they are owned and controlled by the United States.  The letters are stamped with mandatory patriotism.  I also observed that most of the prisons are in the south of the United States.  For instance, I sent cards to four political prisoners with birthdays in February.  Three of the four were in prisons in the southern U.S.   The south has the largest prison population.  There are 867,000 prisoners in Louisiana, Alabama has 677,000 prisoners, and Mississippi has 740,000 prisoners.  Georgia has over 550,000 prisoners and Texas 669,000.  Minnesota has 194,00 and California 365,000.  The states with the highest prison populations have the poorest populations and a history of slavery.   While the bulk of the U.S. prison population lives in the south, as a whole, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population.  We have more prisons than colleges.  Finally, many of the political prisoners that I have written to have been imprisoned for decades.  Many, like Leonard Peltier, will likely die in prison.  If we look to our neighbors in the Americas, many countries limit life sentences.  In Brazil,  Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Uruguay the maximum prison sentence is 30 years.  It is 25 years in Paraguay and 35 years in Ecuador.  I find it ironic that many of the countries that the United States has tried to bring democracy to through supported coups and military training are actually more democratic and humane that our own country.

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To connect the issue more closely to feminism specifically, I had my friend Lucas construct a list of female prisoners for participants to write to.  Participants in the letter writing event chose from this list or sought other lists from online.  While the United States hosts 25% of the world’s prison population, if we looked at the world’s female prison population, we detain 33% of the world’s female prisoners.  It is astonishing to think that 1/3 of all of the women in prison, in the entire world, are held in the United States.  While we did not discuss female specific issues related to prisoners at the event, there are some unique challenges that female prisoners face.  For one, while prisoners should legally have the right, this has been denied to women.  States such as Georgia, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Missouri have no policy regarding pregnancy, which leaves the decision in the hands of correctional facilities.  In the past, correctional facilities in Arizona and Missouri have refused to transport female prisoners for abortion procedures.  Of course, barriers that all women face in obtaining abortion pertain to imprisoned women as well, including waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, limited access in some parts of the country, parental consent, etc.  Female inmates with children must navigate custody issues and expensive phone calls if they want to remain in touch with their children.   A collect phone call from a prison in Minnesota costs about 75 cents a minute, but in Kentucky, the cost is $5.70 a minute!  In North Dakota, the cost is over $6.00 a minute!  These costs are expensive because prisons have contracts with phone companies, which offer kickbacks to the agency that contracted with them.  From my own experience working in a domestic violence shelter, many of the women who come to shelter have criminal histories.  However, some of this includes arrests for assaults that were really actions taken for self-defense.  These criminal backgrounds make it harder to obtain housing, as it may disqualify them from some programs or make landlords less willing to rent to them.  It also makes employment more difficult, as only the lowest paid sectors of the service industry will hire them.  This creates barriers for escaping domestic violence and building a life outside of crime and poverty for their family.  But, gender aside, as human beings, we are all diminished by a racist, ableist, and classist criminal justice system which divides us, removes sectors of the population away from their families and communities, and steals the lives of fellow humans at a profit to corporations!

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White Winter: Racism and Winter Sports

White Winter:

Racism and Winter Sports

H. Bradford



    This past fall, the Twin Ports Women’s Right Coalition began doing small events called “Feminist Frolics.”  These events were meant to educate our participants about feminism while enjoying the outdoors.  The very first frolic was entitled “Patriarchy in the Parks.”  This talk explored how patriarchy shapes women’s relationship to nature and participation in outdoor recreation.  The original talk discussed how history, gender roles, safety, and leisure influenced how women participated in nature.  Since that talk, I wanted to connect how racism, classism, ableism, and other “isms” shape how individuals participate in the outdoors.  As such, this talk puts a special focus on race and recreation.  In particular, it explores racism and winter recreation.  In my own experiences, when I spend time outdoors in the winter, I don’t often see racial minorities participating in skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking.  This talk hopes to shed some light on why this is.


The Myth of Geography:

elvgren_napaskier1   When one considers the racial composition of winter recreational activities, the whiteness of these activities seems almost a given.  In our racist imaginations, it seems natural that white people would participate in winter activities.  Afterall, Europeans live in the northern hemisphere, where there is snow and cold.  Thus, one might argue that geography plays a role in why winter sports tend to be more popular among white people.  But, arguments about geography ignore larger issues of racism and classism.  It is true that many parts of the earth do not receive snow and that these warmer regions are inhabited by darker skinned ethnic groups.  However, geography does not entirely account for participation. For instance, some parts of Africa actually have ski areas.  Algeria has two ski resorts and Morocco has three.  Morocco has participated in six Winter Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Algeria has competed in the Winter Olympics three times, but again, has never won a medal.  South Africa has one ski resort, which operates three months out of the year.  Lesotho also has a ski resort, which is open during the winter months and is located about 4.5 hours away from Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.  Despite having one ski area, Lesotho has never participated in the Winter Olympics and South Africa has never participated in ski events.  In 2014, Sive Spielman, a black South African teenage skier was denied entry into the Sochi Olympics.  He qualified to compete in slalom skiing, but the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee disqualified him on the grounds that they did not think he was good enough.  Considering he came from a poor area of South Africa, was black, and learned to ski through a ski club at his public school, his participation would have been remarkable (South Africa withdraws only athlete, 2014).  Even more remarkable considering that blacks would have been barred from ski clubs and the single ski area until apartheid ended in 1994.   Because under apartheid black athletes could not compete alongside white athletes, South Africa was barred from competing in the Olympics between 1962 and 1992 (they were allowed to return to the Olympics before apartheid had ended).  Thus, four South African figure skaters competed in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and the country did not compete in a Winter Olympics again until 1994.

In contrast to South Africa, Zimbabwe has no ski areas, but had a skier compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.  Their skier, Luke Steyn, was white.  Unlike Spielman, he was quite privileged, as his family moved to Switzerland when he was two years old and he attended college in Colorado.  Furthermore, he was provided financial support by the Zimbabwean government (Blond, 2014).  It is odd to think that Zimbabwe’s athlete was a white skier who left the country around 1995.  Although he was celebrated in the media, the celebration was oddly colorblind.  While many Americans adopt colorblindness as a way to avoid the sticky issue of racism, it actually perpetuates racism by skirting around issues of oppression and invalidating the continued racism in society.  While I am not sure about Luke Steyn’s history, his race in contrast to his country of origin seems like an elephant in the room.  His family would have been among the 120,000 whites living in Zimbabwe in the mid 1990s and likely left, like many did, because the political situation was not favorable for white people.  That is, his family probably left because of land reforms which sought to turn white landholdings over to the largely black population.  This was done to rectify a history of colonization, wherein white farmers were offered large tracts of land in exchange for the conquest of the country in the late 1800s.  It was also done to dismantle the economic foundation of apartheid in that country.  While I don’t know his family’s history, judging by his Dutch surname and his family’s ability to move to Switzerland, I can only assume that they were privileged if not landowners.  The stories of Steyn and Spielman make for an interesting juxtaposition, as it shows how a white man can still succeed in a black country whereas a black man struggled for recognition even though he was part of the majority population in South Africa.  One was privileged by race and class, the other disadvantaged.



All Olympic athletes are to some degree privileged, but in Africa, and when it comes to winter sports, this is more pronounced.  For instance, in 2014, Togo sent its first athlete in the winter olympics in Mathilde Petitjean Amivi, a cross country skier who grew up in France but has a Togolese mother.  In the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Lamine Gueye was the first black African to compete in the Olympics.  But like Amivi and Steyn, he grew up outside of Africa.  He went to live in Switzerland after the death of his grandfather, also named Lamine Gueye, the head of Senegalese Party of Socialist Action.  Gueye has been an advocate for changing the rules of the Winter Olympics to allow more countries to compete.  In fact, 96 nations have never participated in the Winter Olympics.

While tropical climate is certainly an impediment to participation in winter sports, there are many countries which have snowy areas which have not participated in the Olympics to the same degree as European countries.  For instance, India has eleven ski areas and Pakistan has nine.  Iran has almost twenty ski areas.  Kazakhstan has four ski areas, Kyrgyzstan has three, and Lebanon has six.  Ski areas indicate that the countries have elevations high enough for snow, which lends itself to skiing, along with snowboarding and sledding sports.  Iran has participated in the Winter Olympics ten times, but has never won a medal.  Kyrgyzstan has never participated in the winter olympics and Kazakhstan has six times.  Kyrgyzstan is 94% mountains and has 158 mountain ranges.  The Soviet Olympic skiers trained in Kyrgyzstan Karakol Mountain Ski Base (Krichko, 2016).  Pakistan has participated in two winter Olympics and Nepal has twice.  Chile, which has eight ski resorts, has participated in sixteen Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Argentina has ten ski resorts, has participated in eighteen Olympics, and has never won a medal.

The trend is not so much that a country has to have snow to earn medals, as there are plenty of countries with snow, mountains, and wintry conditions which have not won medals.  Instead, it seems that the countries with the highest medal counts are European and high income countries.  The top ten countries for medals are Norway, United States, Germany, Soviet Union, Canada, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, Finland.  China, South Korea, and Japan each make the top twenty.  These countries have more money to devote to developing sport programs and more citizens with income required to compete at a higher level.  Thus, high income countries tend to be more competitive in the Olympics and high income individuals have more opportunities to participate and compete.  This explains why diverse countries like the United States do not have more athletes of color in winter sports.  Athletes of color have excelled in baseball, basketball, soccer, running, and many other sports.  African Americans have long participated in the Summer Olympics.  For instance, George Paoge competed in the 1904 summer Olympics and won two bronze medals in the 200m and 400 m hurdles.  In contrast, the first African American to compete in the Winter Olympics was almost 80 years later in the 1980 Lake Placid games when Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley competed as part of a four person bobsled team.  The first African American woman to win a medal was in 1988 when Debi Thomas won a medal in figure skating at the Calgary games(Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).

Rather than geography, the reason why few African Americans participate in winter recreation is because winter sports require more money for equipment, training, and coaching.  Facilities to practice winter sports are often far from urban centers where African Americans might live (Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).   While I could not find any recent statistics, as of 2003, 2% of skiers in the United States were African American, 3% were Latino, 4% were Asian, and 1% were Native American.  Among the membership of the National Brotherhood of Ski Clubs, an African American ski organization, 74% of the members are college graduates and 60% live in households with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 a year (Rudd, 2003).  Thus at an international level, but also at the level of individual local participation, access to resources shapes these sports.  This is a barrier to participation among racial minorities.  So, even in places with wintry conditions, there is still the barrier of cost of participation.  On the low end, a beginner snowboarder would expect to pay $500-$1000 for a board, bindings, and boots.  Adult skis can range from $200 to $1200.  A winter season ski pass for Spirit Mountain costs over $400.  Since 27% of African Americans live in poverty, compared to 11% of the general population, these kinds of expensive outdoor activities are beyond the reach of many in their community.


The Role of History:

Another reason why winter sports are white is because of the history of these sports.  After all, when an individual imagines winter sports, they might imagine their white ancestors participating in some form of skiing, hockey, or skating.  However, this version of history ignores that some cultures may have their own winter sports.  For instance, Pakistan hosts a Baltistan Winter Sports and Culture Festival wherein participants play Ka Polo and ice football.  Pakistan actually has the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the poles (“Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB,” 2016).  Likewise, every two years, various circumpolar regions compete in the Arctic Games.  Participants from Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Sami areas of northern Europe, and Northern Russia compete in snowshoeing, snowboarding, volleyball, futsal, skiing, and traditional Dene games like finger pulling, pole push, and stick pull.  Additionally, while there is evidence that skiing originated in Finno-Scandinavia with the discovery of rock drawings in Norway and a 4,500 ski in Sweden, Iran also has a long history of skiing.  In 2000 BC ancient people in Iran produced skis made of hides and boards (History of skiing, 2005).  Cree women would play a marble came, wherein marbles carved from buffalo horns were slid towards holes made in ice (Christensen, 2008).  Snowshoeing originated in Central Asia 6,000 years ago, then migrated across the Bering strait to the Americas.  Anishinabe, Cree, and Inuit invented sledding.  The word toboggan comes from the Algonquian word odabaggan.  Sled dogging was an indigenous invention and the Jean Beargrease sled dog race was named after an Ojibwe postal worker who delivered mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais in often treacherous conditions.  The Iroquois also invented a sport called Snow Snakes, or snow darts.  In this game, the players must underhand throw a smooth stick along the snow to see whose stick rolls the furthest (“Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports,” 2011).  Thus, many cultures have robust histories of winter games and sports.  However, these winter games were either lost and diminished by colonization, appropriated by colonizers, or simply not promoted as mainstream winter activities.

Colonialism continues to play a role in winter sports.  The Ktuanaxa tribe of Canada has been fighting the construction of a ski resort for 25 years.  The tribe has argued that the site is sacred to them as it is a place called Qar’muk, where a grizzly bear spirit resides.  The Canadian Supreme court is reviewing whether or not the resort will impinge on their religious rights, as the tribe has argued that the resort will scare away the spirit and render their rituals meaningless (“Skiers v the religious rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples,” 2016).  Even Spirit Mountain in Duluth, was one of seven sacred sites to Anishinabe people.  It was a place for burials and worship and development of the ski area and subsequent golf course and hotel.  Spirit Mountain was a meeting place for Anishinabe and had historical significance as place on their western migration route (Podezwa and Larson).  Environment and culture did not stop a ski resort from being built in Arizona.  In 2012, the Navajos and twelve other tribes appealed a judge’s decision to allow Arizona Snowbowl to use wastewater to make snow for their ski resort.  The Navajo argued that the land was sacred and that the use of wastewater to make snow was a threat to human health.  Navajo people collect medicinal plants from the mountain, which have been contaminated by the wastewater.  Using only natural snowfall, the resort would have a nine day ski season.  However, the artificial snow extends the season to 121 days.  Once again, geography is not necessarily an impediment to winter sports if there is money involved.  As of 2015, the issue was not resolved (Finnerty, 2012).  While it would be unheard of to construct a skating rink in a cemetery or cathedral, the religious and cultural practices of Native Americans have been ignored, suppressed, and mocked.  It is little wonder why they would not be interested in participating in high priced, environmentally destructive leisure activities on sacred land.

While the lack of Native American participation in some winter activities could be attributed to a different relationship to land, it doesn’t account for why Native Americans do not participate in snowshoeing.  Rudimentary snowshoes originated in Central Asia 6000 years ago and moved across the Bering Strait to the Americas with the migration of aboriginal peoples.  Differing snow conditions resulted in various designs, with longer snowshoes developed by Cree people, who faced warmer, wetter snow conditions and shorter snowshoes were developed by Iroquois people (Carr. n.d.).  Snowshoes were developed as a matter of survival, as they allowed indigenous people to travel and hunt during the winter.  The construction of snowshoes themselves was a traditional craft undertaken by both men and women (Boney, 2012).   As with many things, European colonizers adopted snowshoeing for their own uses, eventually converting them to something used for recreation.  Snowshoeing first became a sport in Canada, then the U.S.  By the 1970s, they began to grow in mainstream popularity.  During the 1980s, aluminum snowshoes grew in popularity (King, 2004).  In the advent of manufactured snowshoes, the craft of snowshoe making has been declining.  This has also rendered snowshoeing a profitable industry to companies who make snowshoes.  Companies such as Red Feather, Tubbs, Atlas, and Yukon Charlie are not owned by Native Americans nor do they specifically seek to benefit them.  While Tubbs boasts about inventing the first snowshoe for women in 1998 and donating money to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, there is no mention of how their snowshoes might benefit anyone other than white women.  Likewise, Redfeather snowshoes based in La Crosse, Wisconsin mentions on its website that it hires people with disabilities, but does not mention anything about helping Native Americans, even if its name and company logo invoke Native American imagery.  It is no wonder that a simple google image search of snowshoeing features hundreds of pictures of white people, but no images of Native Americans partaking in the activity.  It has become a thoroughly white pastime.   It is an example of cultural appropriation that is so normal and commonplace that the historical and cultural meaning of snowshoeing is almost entirely invisible. snowshoes-add

The Role of Racism:   

The lack of participation in winter sports may seem trivial, but in many ways it is a microcosm of the larger racial issues in society.  For instance, in 1997, Mabel Fairbanks was the first African American woman inducted into the U.S. figure skating hall of fame.  She was 82 at the time of her induction and was never allowed to skate competitively.  Because of segregation, she was not allowed to practice at skating rinks.  However, she went on to do her own skating shows for black audiences and was a coach to Debi Thomas and Tai Babilonia.  Thomas cited income as a barrier to competitive skating, as she was raised by a single mother and the cost of training can be $25,000 on the low end (Brown).  In U.S. society, class intersects powerfully with race.  African American children are four times as likely to live in poverty in the United States than white children (Patten and Krogstad, 2015).  In 1967, the median income of African Americans compared to white Americans was 55%.  In 2013, this had increased to 59%, but a 4% increase over four and a half decades is hardly impressive.  Looking at wealth, or such things as retirement savings and house ownership, African Americans owned 7% of the wealth of white people in 2011.  This was actually down from 9% in 1984  (Vara, 2013).  The segregation that Mabel Fairbanks faced continues today in the form of economic segregation that relegates African Americans to poor communities and low paying service industry jobs.  It also persists through the criminal justice system.  After all, an African American male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to jail, compared to a 6% chance for a white male born in the same year (Quigley, 2011).

Aside from the racist structures that may prevent individuals to partake in winter recreation to begin with, there is racism within these sports.  Surya Bonaly, a black French figure skater from the 1990s,  was the only figure skater in the history to do a backflip and land on one blade.  This astonishing feat actually disqualified her in the 1998 Olympics.  She did the flip to flip off the judges, who she felt scored her lower because of her race.  At the time, the rule was that a jump must land on one blade, which was meant to deter back flips as this would be a two bladed jump.  However, she landed on one to test the judges, who disqualified her anyway (Surya Bonaly is the biggest badass in Winter Olympics history, 2014).  At the time, critics called her inelegant and more powerful than graceful.  Surya was accused of damaging the nerves of fellow ice skater Midori Ito, which caused Ito to fall in her performance (Du, 2016).  These critiques demonstrate both racism and sexism, as she did not meet the judge’s expectation of what a figure skater should look like.  To them, a powerful black woman was not only threatening to the sport, but to other skaters.  The nine time French National champion, five time European champion, and three time World silver medalist now resides in Minnesota, where she teaches skating lessons.


There are many examples of more blatant racism against athletes of color.  Irina Rodina, who lit the torch for the Sochi Olympics, posted an image of Barack and Michelle Obama as monkeys with bananas on her Twitter (Myerberg, 2014).  The Northwestern University Ski Team, consisting of 65 individuals, hosted a racially themed party in April 2012, where they dressed as South Africans, Ugandan, Ireland, Canada, Bangladeshi, and Native Americans.  The students participated in a “Beer Olympics” wherein they portrayed various nations competing with each other in drinking games.  The students dressed in a stereotypical and mocking fashion.  This caused a controversy on campus in which the ski team offered an apology but was also portrayed as victims of aggression from students of color who were offended by their party (Svitek, 2012).  Val James, the first American born black player in the NHL, experienced racism when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres in the early 1980s.  Bananas were thrown into the rink and a monkey doll was hung from a penalty box.  He was born into a low income family in Florida and did not start skating until he was 13.  Despite his accomplishment in overcoming racial and class barriers, mocking spectators would eat watermelons with his name on it.  Even today, only 5% of NHL players are black (Sommerstein, 2015).  These blatant acts of racism send the message that people of color are not welcome to participate in winter sports.

Another example of racism is evident in the story of the Jamaican bobsled team.  Jamaica debuted its famous bobsled team in the 1988 Calgary Olympics.  The story was made into a highly fictionalized movie called Cool Runnings.  The national team appeared again at the Salt Lake Olympics and Sochi.  In the Lillehammer Olympics, the team placed 13th and beat the US, Russia, and Italy.  Bobsledding was easier to adapt to Jamaica since it entailed pushing a 600 pound sled as fast as possible, then jumping in.  The Jamaican bobsled team crashed during their first Olympics, but were treated as national heroes.  The team inspired other unlikely countries to form bobsled teams such as Mexico, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, and several U.S. territories (Atkin, 2014).  Nigeria wants to field its own bobsled team in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.  The Nigerian team of former Olympian sprinters has formed to practice with a wooden sled until they can raise enough funds for an actual sled and track (Payne, 2016).

The Jamaican bobsled team could be seen as heroic, considering the challenges of becoming a winter athlete in an impoverished tropical country.  Yet, the team continues to be a joke at best and racist trope at worst.  For instance, two San Diego High School football coaches wore “Cool Runnings” inspired Jamaican Bobsled costumes, complete with black face in 2013 (Walsh, 2013).  In 2015, a group of UW-Stout students attended a private Halloween party as the Jamaican bobsled team, again in black face.  The college made a statement that they do not affiliate with those actions (Perez, 2015).  In 2014, a group of Brock University college students dressed up as the Jamaican bobsled team and won a $500 costume prize.  A critic of these students wrote that black costumes represent the limit of the white imagination to envision black people as anything other than rappers, gangsters, or athletes.  These costumes are also a way to control how black people are understood.  The film Cool Runnings itself represented Jamaicans in a stereotypical way by actors who were not even Jamaican.  Blackface dehumanizes black people.  The Jamaican Bobsled costumes affirm a racial hierarchy by making the athletes a stereotype or joke (Traore, 2014).

While much of this discussion has focused on African and African Americans, other racial minority groups face similar challenges.  Out of 11,000 U.S. Olympic athletes, only 14 have identified as Native American.  Only two of the 14 were female.  One of the two was Naomi Lang.   In 2002, Naomi Lang became the first Native American identified woman to compete in the Winter Olympics.  She is a member of the Kuruk tribe of California but was mocked for wearing traditional regalia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  Skating cost her family $60,000 a year.  To afford this, she slept on a mattress and wore hand me down clothes as a high schooler.   Lang resisted competitions, since she felt that her culture stressed cooperation and community.  Aside from differences in culture and challenges such as racism and poverty, Native Americans face the added challenge of health.  30% of Native American 4 year olds are obese, which is twice the amount of any other ethnic group (Sottile, 2011).  Native Americans are also three times as likely to develop diabetes than white people.  These health problems can be related back to colonization, which removed Native Americans from their land and traditional food sources and created historical trauma that continues to cause stress and health problems.


The goal of feminist frolics is to enjoy the outdoors while learning.  As we venture outdoors this winter, perhaps we will notice how very white the forests, trails, and hills are.  Hopefully, this can be connected back to the larger racial disparities that exist in society.  It is my hope that this can help us become attuned to other spaces that are largely white.  For instance, one of the critiques of the recent Women’s March in Washington was the whiteness of the feminists in attendance.  Many of the issues that keep racial minorities out of winter sports also prevent them from participating in politics.  For instance, the media and police had an easier time imagining the protests as non-violent because it was undertaken by large crowds of white women, as opposed to Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, which are viewed more negatively and violently by police and the media.  Becoming aware of why certain groups may feel excluded or unwelcome can help us build stronger and broader movements.  So, that is the larger mission of this discussion.  There should be more spring times for oppressed groups than endless, white winters.




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