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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

H. Bradford

6/4/18

Warm weather is finally here, so I have spent the last two weeks readying my garden for the season.  Since I’ve been planting more, I have plants on the brain. Lately, I have been thinking about plants and issues of racism (and in one case, anti-semitism).  Some plants have some very questionable names. Other plants have racially sensitive histories that social justice minded gardeners should consider. Plants like Wandering Jew, Kaffir lime, Nyjer seed, Indian Paintbrush, and even Collard Greens may be taken for granted by most growers, but contain issues of race and ethnicity.  Thus, the following blog post offers an overview of some of these offenders, so that we can grow gardens as well as a more just world for everyone! (The list of problematic plants is not comprehensive. I also did not cite sources within the text, but a list of links that I drew from can be found at the end).


Wandering Jew:


If you visit a greenhouse, you may find a plant called a Wandering Jew.  There are several plants that bear this name, including three species of spiderwort plants, four species of dayflower, and two other plants.  The spiderwort species are the sort that seem most commonly used as indoor plants. A few years ago, a local greenhouse recommended a Purple Wandering Jew plant for our home, since they can grow in lower light conditions.  The employee assured my housemate and I that there was nothing antisemitic about the bushy, viney plant. Nearly Natural 27 in. Wandering Jew Hanging Basket The term Wandering Jew comes from 13th Century Christian folklore.  The character is a Jewish man who was said to have taunted Jesus before he was crucified.  As punishment for his taunt, he was cursed to walk the Earth until the return of Christ. In some stories, his clothes and shoes never wear out and after 100 years, he returns to being a younger man.  He was a perpetual traveler, unable to rest, but able to converse in all of the languages of the world. This is not based on any actual Biblical story, though it may have been inspired by the story of Caine and European paganism.  Much like Big Foot or ghosts today, Europeans of the time believed that they had actually seen this character. For hundreds of year, even into the present day, this character has appeared in literature and art. Image result for wandering jew art

Gaston Malingue’s painting “The Wandering Jew”

While the character is very fictional, the antisemitic context the character was born from is not.  In 1290, Edward the I expelled all Jewish people from England. During the middle ages, Jews were banned from owning land.  They were also barred from trade guilds. Medieval cities also relegated Jewish populations to certain areas. In the 14th century, Jews were expelled from France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.  Expulsions and exclusion from various economic activities provided a material reality for the idea that Jewish people were outsiders or wanderers. Thus, “The Wandering Jew” represents not only a person, but a stereotype regarding the nature of all Jewish people.  This stereotype has been used in modern times to incite hate, such as the Nazi film entitled “Der Erwige Jude,” which revived and modernized the medieval myth and envisioning modern Jewish people as criminal, lazy, and perverse cosmopolitans who controlled the world through banking, commerce, politics, and the media.  The idea of the Wandering Jew has


With this history in mind, calling a rambling, hard to destroy plant a “Wandering Jew” does not seem like the most culturally sensitive nomenclature, to say the least.   Interestingly, the Swedish Cultural Plant Database (SKUD) has changed the name of the “Wandering Jew” plant as well as another plant with an anti-semitic name (Jew Cherry which we know as Chinese Lantern Plants).  I am uncertain what SKUD renamed the plant to, but perhaps Purple Spiderwort, Variegated Spiderwort, or Wandering Spiderwort might be some good ideas. There are other plants with “Jew” in their title and these should be changed as well.   While not a plant, no one should call a wood ear mushroom a Jew’s Ear. I could find no similar examples of plant names that are unflattering/prejudiced towards Christians or other religious groups, but if there were and even if the group did not share the same history of oppression and genocide, there seems no reasonable argument to use derogatory common names.  If I saw such plants at a local store or greenhouse, I would suggest a name change to the manager.


Collard Greens:

A few years ago, I planted collard greens.  I was curious about this vegetable and wanted to grow it because I enjoy trying new things.  However, my housemate suggested that the name was racist since it sounds like “Coloured Greens.”  The leaf green is associated with African American cuisine, so it seemed plausible that the name may have had a more racist origin.  Thankfully, it doesn’t! The word Collard comes from “colewort” in Middle English perhaps influenced by Old Norse “kal” for cabbage, and earlier still, kaulos, which is Greek for stalk.  The “Col” and collard is found in other words like cauliflower, kale, coleslaw, German kohl for cabbage, etc.

Image result for collard green


While the leafy green is more prominent in the cuisine of the Southern United States, it is also used in Brazilian, Indian, and Portuguese cooking.   It was cultivated in Greek and Roman gardens 2000 years ago as is closely related to kale. Prior to this, it is theorized that wild cabbages were in cultivation in Europe 3000 years ago and up to 6000 years ago in China.  Leafy cabbages were also grown in Mesopotamia. While collard greens in particular (in contrast to other leafy cabbages) have long been consumed by Europeans, the history is not devoid of racism or contention. A controversy arose a few years ago when Whole Foods Co-op suggested that customers buy collard greens and prepare them with ingredients such as cranberries, garlic, and peanuts.  Some African Americans felt that this was cultural appropriation of a vegetable used in their cuisine and food gentrification of a vegetable by white people who have recently discovered it and have now re-imagined it as something trendy. This critique is not unfounded. Afterall, Neiman Marcus sold out of their $66 frozen trays of collard greens in 2016. Historically, collard greens, like many members of the cabbage family were poor people food.  (Though Romans actually esteemed cabbages as medicinal and a luxury.) Members of the cabbage family are cool season crops with mild frost resistance, making them part of winter staples or lean time food. Image result for neiman marcus collard green African Americans came to the United States as slaves and were only allowed to grow a small selection of vegetables for themselves.  Collards were one of them. While the vegetable is not African in origin, the methods of preparation were. West Africans use hundreds of species of leafy greens and prepare them in ways that maintain their high nutrient content.  Enslaved Africans found fewer wild greens here and came to rely on collards, which were brought here by the British. (Depending upon where the slaves were taken from, they may have been familiar with leafy cabbages as in the Middle Ages, cabbages of various sorts were traded into Africa through Morocco and Mali).  They are unique among cabbages in that they can continue to produce leaves over their growing season. They can be harvested for months when other vegetables quit in the cold weather. Collards helped slaves to survive due to their productivity. For this reason, poor white people also grew collards. It is a cheap, productive, healthy plant.  Although white Southerners grew the plant, it was a marginal crop to European settlers and African Americans deserve credit for popularizing the use of greens and their preparation. Image result for collard greens

image from Foodnetwork.com

I love plants.  I love gardening.  I have no problems eating vegetables.  But, collard greens do raise the question of how white people (at least those who aren’t poor and from the south) should approach collard greens.  On one hand, when food is gentrified, the cost goes up for those who have traditionally eaten it. For instance, after kale was deemed a superfood, its cost rose 25%.  If food prices rise, it can drive poor people to unhealthier, cheaper foods. Collard greens are also a problem when they are commercialized and fetishized. Judging by the tone and content of internet articles on this topic, I don’t know that most African Americans would take issue with a white individual growing a small amount of collard greens for personal, private use for love of gardening and attempting to try new vegetables.  In the case of Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus, it represented capitalizing on and changing the culinary traditions of Black people. The foods were presented in inauthentic ways, devoid of history, and for profit by cashing in on a contextless notion of the exotic. Since the vegetable is tied to the traumatic history of survival and slavery and has cultural importance (such as a feature of New Year’s meals) it isn’t something to take lightly.   Collard greens have double the iron and protein than kale and 18% more calcium, so there may be legitimate reasons that many people should grow them. Personally, I am curious about many vegetables. Does my curiosity “Colombusize” the culture, culinary traditions, or agriculture of others? In small ways, yes. My hope is that I can be mindful of my decisions and the history/power embedded in even the simplest things.


Nyjer Seed:


Anyone who wants to attract finches to their yard may be familiar with nyjger seed, which is also called thistle seed.  The seed does not come from the thistle plant and the name “nyjer seed” seems suspiciously like another n word. When I was a kid, the seed was spelled “niger” which also makes the seed a little suspicious.  We pronounced it in a way that is similar to Nigeria or Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, some people did not pronounce it this way and instead thought it was pronounced like a racial slur. The bird seed industry actually changed the name of the seed because it had confused people or had been mispronounced.  Nyjer is the 1998 trademarked name of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Image result for niger seed While the name might suggest that the seed came from Nigeria or Niger, nyjer seed actually comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia.  I found a reference to the seed being called Nigerian thistle, which to me indicates that whomever named the seed must have had some confusion about the geography of Africa or, perhaps generically called it “niger” seed as a stand in for Africa itself.  Nigeria, Niger, and the Niger River are all located in West Africa whereas Ethiopia is in East Africa. The genus Guizotia contains six species, of which five are native to Ethiopia. A distribution map of the species shows that it grows naturally in some areas of Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  It also grows in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The plants found in and around India are believed to have been brought there long ago by Ethiopian migrants, who also brought millet to the region. Therefore, Nyger seed really has nothing to do with the countries of its (former) namesake and represents a sort of “imagined Africa” rather than any geographical or botanical reality. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

  Field of Nyjer Seed plants in Ethiopia

While in the United States, most people feed the oily black seeds to birds, it is used in the cuisines of India and Ethiopia.  It has been been grown in Ethiopia as an oil crop since antiquity and today, makes up 50% of Ethiopia’s oil seed production. Overall, the main producer of commercial nyjer seed is India, followed by Myanmar and Ethiopia.  About 50,000 metric tons of the seed are imported each year into the United States. It is the only commercial bird seed which is largely imported. This seems to be a tremendous amount of seed- which ultimately goes to bellies of wild birds!  The use of nyjer seed seemingly follows the rise of the U.S. as a post-war global power. Bird feeding became more common through the 1950s, which resulted in demand for commercial bird food. As people increasingly fed birds, it became apparent that certain seeds were likely to attract different (more socially desirable) species of birds.  Nyjer seed was adopted as a bird food in the United States in the 1960s. The first tube feeders used for the seed became commercially available in 1972. In the late 1960s, the seed had to be treated with heat, because it was often accompanied by the seeds of invasive weeds. All nyger seed imports must be subjected to 250 degree heat sterilization treatment. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

image from Northwest Nature Shop

Despite small scale experiments, Nyjer is not currently grown in North America, and in an experiment between N.A grown seen and Ethiopian seed, the birds preferred the Ethiopian grown seed.  Reading between the lines, it is important to think about what the import of this seed actually means. Various countries have tried to grow this seed, including the Soviet Union under the guidance of Ivan Vavilov.  However, the plants do not yield enough seeds to make it economically viable. The region of India which produces the most seed is Madhya Pradesh, which is the sixth poorest part of India (per capita GDP). The regions which grow the seed are also home to ethnic minorities, such as Nagar Haveli which is the home of the Warli tribe.  While I could find no articles which specifically addressed the plight of nyjer seed farmers, it stands to reasoning that because the center of production for these seeds are underdeveloped countries (and even greater underdeveloped regions within those countries) that the work conditions of those farmers is probably characterized by low pay, long hours, and hard work.  Since some of these countries actually used these seeds as an oil and a human food, the movement towards exporting the seeds to the West as bird food has likely reduced its use as a subsistence crop. Finally, the fact that it has not been viable in the agriculture of more developed countries means that it is probably a labor intensive crop (and our labor is too expensive due to labor laws, organization) hence, the fact that it is imported rather than domestically grown.


Personally, I love birds.  I want to attract finches to the yard and provide them with a fatty, seed that they love.  At the same time, it certainly represents a lot of privilege that I can buy imported seeds (sometimes eaten by humans) to give to the birds.  The origin of the seed itself is obscured by its name. There seems to be a lot wrong with nyger seeds. I think that my task as a socialist is to learn more about the specific labor conditions related to the seeds (since there is not a lot of information out there).  If there was more awareness regarding the seeds, perhaps there would be more interest in fair trade or better working conditions for those producers. It is also possible that I could try growing my own seeds for the birds rather than relying on expensive imported seed.  Nyger seed as been experimentally grown on a small scale in Minnesota. I think it is a fascinating seed with a wealth of history. At the same time, more should be done to illuminate the history and economic conditions of the seed.

Image result for niger seed

Image from The Zen Birdfeeder

 

Kaffir Lime:


About a year ago, I picked up some gardening books from the library.  One of the books was about growing citrus indoors. It introduced me to the Kaffir Lime.  I really didn’t think anything of this name at the time. It sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, but I didn’t associate it with any particular meaning.  Little did I know that kaffir is actually a racist term. The k-word is a racial slur in South Africa. The k-word was used in Arabic to describe non-believers, but was used by European colonists in South Africa to describe the African population.  The word is so offensive, that there have been legal actions taken against those who have used the slur in South Africa. The name of the lime itself may come from Sri Lanka, where the lime is grown and where there is an ethnic group which self identifies as kaffirs.  It is also possible that the fruit literally referred to non-believers, as it may have been named by Muslims who saw it cultivated by non-Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, because the word is racially offensive in most other contexts and considered hate speech in South Africa, a different name is an order.  In Southeast Asia, the fruit is called Makrut, which has been suggested as a viable name change. Image result for kaffir lime

Indian Paintbrush:


While this example is not as offensive as the k-lime, there are many plants that are named “Indian x” such as Indian Paintbrush, Indian posy (butterfly weed), Indian Blanket (Firewheel), Indian pipe, Indian grass, etc.  There are many North American plants which have common names which invoke something related to Native Americans. However, the way that these common names are used are not accurate, flattering, or supportive of Native Americans.  For instance, Indian Paintbrush sounds quaint. As a child, I imagined that perhaps the flowers were really used as paint brushes by Native Americans. Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie Fire, was used as a leafy green, medicine, and shampoo by some Native Americans.  But, it was not used as a paintbrush. While the flower may resemble a brush covered in bright red paint, it could easily be called Paintbrush plant. Using the word “Indian” invokes something wild, mythical, or even something silly (such as literally using the plant as a paintbrush).  It reduces Native Americans into an idea about something primitive, whimsical, or even non-existent rather than actual, living people, with actual uses for plants. This is true of the other plants as well. Many of the “Indian” plants are wild plants that are not commonly domesticated (though some are used in ornamental or “Native” gardens.  There is also a colonizing tone to these names, as these are not the names that Native Americans themselves gave the plants but imagined names from colonizers and their descendents. There are often alternate common names for these plants, so there is no excuse to call them names which invoke a mythical idea of Native Americans. Better yet, maybe some of the plants could be given names from actual Native American languages.  This would demonstrate that Native Americans knew, used, and named these plants long before the arrival of settlers. For instance, Ojibwe called the Indian Paintbrush plant Grandmother’s Hair (though I don’t know what this translates to in Ojibwe). Since plants were used by many tribal groups for different purposes, it would be difficult to determine which language should take precedence over another. At the very least, I think it is important to be mindful of language and consider existing alternative names (which I haven’t always been, since I was raised calling certain plants Indian Pipe or Indian Paintbrush).

Image result for indian paintbrush

image from Wikipedia

Conclusion:

There will always be some people who feel that these issues are no big deal.  Some of these people feel that there is nothing offensive about using traditional plant names or that they know a Jewish person who doesn’t mind “Wandering Jew” or a Native American friend who likes to call plants Indian Paintbrush or Indian Grass.  The world is diverse and certainly there are diverse opinions on these matters. To those folks, this probably seems like much ado about nothing. On the other hand, others may feel that issues of racism or oppression in general are much bigger than the kind of bird seed we use or what we call a lime.  It is better to focus on the big picture than get caught up in the nuances of language. As for myself, I feel that this is a fascinating topic to think about and that to me, it uncovers subtle and not so subtle ways that various kinds of oppression are built into something as simple as what we call a plant or what we grow in the garden.  For me, thinking about these topics is intellectually satisfying (I am interested in learning more about the history of plants) as well as a way for me to be a better, more mindful activist. At the end of the day, helping to grow social movements is far more important than the plants that we grow and know. Growing as an activist means working with others in organizations towards social change, but also the internal change that comes with challenging assumptions and rethinking what is taken for granted.  With that said, hopefully this post helps others to grow in how they think about plants, but also their place in society.


Sources on Wandering Jew:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49614212_Creating_National_Identity_through_a_Legend_-The_Case_of_the_Wandering_Jew

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/21/wandering-jew-history

https://sputniknews.com/art_living/201709151057426161-sweden-anti-semitic-plans/
https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/anti-semitism/medieval-anti-judaism/who-and-where-were-medieval-jews/

https://www.history.com/topics/anti-semitism
Sources on Collard Greens:

 

http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-cabbage/

A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/18/kale-compared-to-other-vegetables_n_3762721.html
https://www.wral.com/lifestyles/travel/video/13531214/?ref_id=13531197

http://www.crossroadsnews.com/news/lithonia-festival-is-all-about-the-collards/article_68af27d0-9968-11e7-a979-17d10f0b5b05.html

http://www.ebony.com/life/hungry-for-history-collards

http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/01/25/humble-hardy-leaf-defines-national-character/ideas/essay/

http://www.latibahcgmuseum.org/why-collard-greens/

https://weblogtheworld.com/formats/featured/history-of-collard-greens-extends-far-beyond-north-america

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/whats-leafy-and-green-and-eaten-by-blacks-and-whites/424554/

http://abc7chicago.com/food/neiman-marcus-sells-out-of-$66-collard-greens/1589488/

https://www.trulytafakari.com/ate-white-peoples-collard-greens-tasted-like-oppression/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/09/5-foods-from-africa/

http://meloukhia.net/2014/06/hipsterisation_and_its_hiked-up_prices_kale_quinoa_and_traditional_foods/

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/foodie-without-appropriation/

 

Nyger Seed Sources:

https://www.topcropmanager.com/corn/niger-seed-production-is-for-the-birds-13172

https://www.petcha.com/nyjer-black-oil-sunflower-bird-seeds-a-history/

http://www.birdchick.com/blog/2009/12/growing-nyjer-thistle-in-north-america

https://web.colby.edu/mainebirds/2016/02/05/the-history-of-bird-feeding-ii/

http://www.manoramagroup.co.in/commodities-niger-seed.html

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2011/11/30/winegar

https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/139533/SB571.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

 

K-Lime Sources:

https://modernfarmer.com/2014/07/getting-rid-k-word/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/07/03/kaffir_lime_racist_murky_origins_suggest_a_racial_slur_might_be_responsible.html

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

H. Bradford

4/11/18

On February 24th, the Duluth News Tribune ran an article about Duluth’s impending demographic crisis.  I wanted to write a socialist feminist response to this, but never got around to it.  Not that I am the authority on socialist feminism, but I am a feminist and a socialist…and I do think about these things…so, why not break it down?  Now, whenever I hear the word “demographic crisis” I want to run for the hills, or burn something, or both.  Not really, but I think it is one of those sexist, ageist, racist, pro-capitalist concepts that begs to be dismembered.   Here is why…

Ageism:

Early into the Duluth News Tribune article, when describing the shifting population of the Duluth region, the aging population is described as problematic.


“If population levels were even across age groups, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, as you may have heard, the largest generation in the country’s history is marching into retirement, leaving many jobs vacant just as unemployment levels are bottoming out and productivity growth is stalling (Johnson, 2018).”


It is true that our population is aging, but, one must consider why this is a problem.  According to the article, it is a problem because there will not be enough workers to replace those who retire.  On the surface, this seems like a problem, as society needs workers to produce things.  However, this frames the post-retirement age population as the cause of a social problem.  Framing the older population as a “problem” is ageist.  It also ignores their labor, as labor does not end when wage labor ceases.  Their contributions to society do not cease when they reach the age of 65 (or higher ages for the many people who do not have retirement savings, pensions, or the ability to survive on social security alone).  Older adults do unpaid work such as volunteering, caring for grand children, gardening, baking, canning, sharing their knowledge, checking up on one another, and a plethora of other important economic activities that are dismissed because they are unpaid.  Just as the invisible, unpaid labor of women is ignored as a natural or unimportant, this invisible labor and its contribution to society is also ignored.


This connects to the socialist feminist concept of social reproduction.  Basically, in capitalist society, the labor force must reproduce itself.  This can literally mean that the work force must replace itself through biological reproduction, but also means that each worker must sustain themselves through sleep, eating food, washing clothes, maintaining their health, relieving stress, and all the many things that are required to survive and work another day.   Typically, women have played an important role in providing the invisible, unpaid labor that keeps the work force …working.  Caring for children, giving birth, caring for the elderly, washing clothes, cleaning a home, doing dishes, making meals, grocery shopping, etc. are all important unpaid activities that ensure that capitalism will continue.  Of course, older adults who leave the work force also provide some of these services as they are “free” to (my own grandparents made many meals for me, baby sat me, bought me school clothes, taught me information, etc.).  Thus, is it really a problem that people grow old?  Aging is a natural process.  It may happen that we have an aging population, but why is this a problem?  Some people might respond that it is a problem because this group requires more care and there are not enough young people to care for them.  The article itself argues that it is a problem that there is not enough workers to fill jobs and that productivity will decline.


I am not an expert on matters of aging, but I imagine that the “problem of aging” could be mitigated by providing quality, free health care to people of all ages, along with clean environments, living wages, robust pensions, housing, etc.  The aging population might very well “age better” if a high quality of life was ensured for people of all ages.  What does it mean to “age well” anyway?  I think to most people means the ability to care for one’s self, enjoy a high quality of life, and live independently for as long as possible.  If this is what this means, the locus of “aging well” is framed as an individual responsibility and the very human need for care is viewed as burdensome.   This concept is very individualistic and puts the rest of society off the hook for taking responsibility of providing and caring for the variable needs of older adults.  It is also ageist, as aging well is basically the ability to live as similarly to a young person for as long as possible.  Maybe it is okay to be wrinkly, sedentary, crabby, or anti-social.  Society is awful.  Living through decades of economic ups and downs, cuts to social programs, pointless wars, and the general nonsense of everything deemed meaningful by society might sour a person against living with youthful optimism and vibrancy.   After years of being alive, “aging well” might seem like a racket to sell beauty products, skin treatments, fitness memberships, etc.

Image result for aging well

(This image leads me to believe that aging well has something to do with being white and wealthy.  Capitalism doesn’t have resources to spare on caring for the elderly, so make certain you stay healthy with fresh air and bike rides in the country.)


If indeed there is a shortage of workers, there are certainly plenty of people in the world and United States itself.  These people might be more inclined to move to this frigid region and provide elder care if this was not low paid, under appreciated service work but unionized with benefits (including retirement plans!), better wages, and better working conditions.   A true shortage of workers might require open borders to allow new workers to enter the country, but this would require a move away from our current racist, xenophobic, nationalist, and exploitative immigration policy.  The “aging population problem” is not a problem with age, but an ageless problem of capitalism to meet the basic needs of humanity.


Of course, the notion of declining productivity must also be challenged.  Why is it a problem when productivity declines?  Why must productivity always increase?  What does this mean for the environment?  When have we produced enough?!  Productivity is a problem in capitalism because of the tendency for profits to decline.  Because competition lends itself to increased investment in fixed capital and there are human thresholds of how much variable capital can be exploited from workers, profits decline over time.  Markets also become saturated as there is only so much people can buy (again because wages only allow so much consumption).  When too much is produced and too little is consumed, capitalism falls into a crisis, which Marx called the crisis of overproduction.  Therefore, productivity is not necessary good.  It is not good for the workers (who must work longer or harder).  It is not good for the environment (as it creates waste and overuse of resources).  And it is not even good for capitalism, since it lends itself to instability.  I think it is important to think against blind productivity and instead think about rational, careful production in the interest of human needs.

Image result for garbage dump gull

(Capitalism probably produces enough…  though I suppose the gulls don’t mind.)


Sexism:

Another reason why I dislike the concept of “demographic crisis” is that it is sexist.   Although the article only mentions it briefly, increasing birth rates is often suggested as a way in averting the crisis.  Even if it is not mentioned in detail in the article, it is implicit in the premise of the argument.  If the population is aging and this is a problem, that means that not enough new people are being born.  Thus, not only are older adults the problem, the bigger problem is that women are not gestating enough babies.  The bodies of women have long been treated as public property, inasmuch as their reproductive power is harnessed for state interests.  The fight for reproductive rights is a fight to liberate women from their role as the producer’s of the next generation of soldiers and workers.  The birth rate in the United States (according to 2018 CIA World Factbook Information) is 12.5 births per 1000 people.  Our birth rate is slightly higher than the UK, Sweden, France, and Australia which all have 12.x births per 1000.  The rate is higher than Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Denmark, which have 10.x births per 1000 people.  Our birthrate is certainly greater than South Korea, Japan, and Germany, which range from 8.x to 9.x births per 1000 people.  Despite our higher birth rate, there is enormous pressure upon women to reproduce- to the point that the organized movement against abortion has made birth nearly compulsory in many parts of the country due to restricted access to abortion.  In many of these countries with lower birth rates, the issue of abortion is far less controversial.  Here, anti-choice activists bemoan the loss of millions of fetuses, which they argue contributes to our demographic crisis (fewer workers, fewer students, etc.)   At the core of demographic crisis is a demand to control reproduction- because if population is viewed as a resource, women’s bodies are responsible for producing this resource.


 In the context of capitalism (and unfortunately many economic systems), population is treated as a resource.  Workers need to reproduce so that there are more workers.  This leads to a precarious balance.  Capitalists do not provide for the reproduction of labor (this has often fallen upon women and families) as this requires an investment in workers.  At the same time, workers have to have a basic level of sustenance to continue working and to allow for a new generation.  For instance, if a woman works too hard or consumes too few calories, she may stop menstruating.  Therefore, workers generally have a basic threshold of exploitation which if reached these workers will no longer be able to survive and reproduce.   In the United States in particular, our status as a world power has an economic component and a military component.  The military domination of the world is an extension of the economic component, as military might ensures access to markets, thwarts competitors, offers access to capital (for instance natural resources and labor), etc.  For the United States to remain an economic and military power, babies must be born.  Babies are needed so that there will always be a supply of soldiers and workers.  Reproduction is a national interest.  I think this contributes to the controversy around abortion and the drive to limit it.
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(A piece of art that I created called Capitalism is Built on the Bodies of Women)

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, capitalism has a contradiction.  On one hand, in seeks to increase profit by extracting more surplus value from workers.  Because profits decline over time, workers are pressured to work harder and longer.  This increased exploitation limits the ability to reproduce labor (to reproduce biologically, but also to maintain a certain level of health as workers).   In the United States, not a lot of profit is redistributed towards caring for our existing population (i.e. ensuring the reproduction of labor).   We do not offer paid parental leave.  We do not have free day cares.  There is a shortage of housing.  Health care is expensive.  The list goes on.  The conditions of capitalism are so extreme that 5.8 infants die out of 1000 born.  In Japan, two infants die per 1000 births.  In Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, there are slightly more than 2 infant deaths per 1000.  In the European Union as a whole, there are about 4 deaths per 1000 according to the CIA world Fact Book.  Once again, rather than a demographic crisis, our crisis is an inability to care for our population.  Certainly, anyone worried about our economic or military strength might begin by tackling the causes of infant mortality.  But, this would mean diverting profits towards human needs.  Re-thinking profits and capitalism itself would undermine the logic of militarism and nationalism.


Supposing that the United States provided free access to abortion, birth control, all health care, and social conditions favorable to reproduction (paid leave, free day care, adequate housing, etc.)  Even if these conditions were met, women have no obligation to reproduce the next generation.  They should not be scapegoated for demographic crisis.  In the end, it is up to society to creatively adapt to changing populations- not women.


Racism and Classism:

The article concluded that a key to averting Duluth’s demographic crisis is promoting immigration to the city.   Regarding this point, Mayor Larson said,  “Duluth needs to be a community that is welcoming and open to new experiences, new faces, new ethnicities, new races to solve workforce shortages (Johnson, 2018).”  I think that it is generally a positive, feel good conclusion, since well, who doesn’t want Duluth to be a more welcoming city?  The mayor suggests working with education and health care partners to attract more diversity to the city.  Hmm…alright.  What does really this mean?


In a subtle way, the statement hints at what kind of diversity is acceptable in Duluth.  I interpret working with education and health care partners to mean attracting diversity by attracting professionals of color.  The center of this argument is not “let’s build more low income housing so we can attract all of the African Americans in Chicago or Minneapolis who are on housing waiting lists and house those who already exist in our community!”  Duluth DOES have some racial diversity BUT, this diversity is segregated into poor neighborhoods, homeless shelters, and jail.  Yet, because they are poor and people of color, this population is not seen as a solution to the “demographic crisis” because they are an OTHER at best and problem at worse.  They are those people.  Those people who are blamed for crime or making things not like they used to be for white people.  This is another problem with the notion of “demographic crisis”- since demographic crisis always refers to the shortage of a desirable population.  We have a low income population that would probably be happy to invite friends and relatives and grow if Duluth was a more welcoming, less racist, expanded housing, housing and employers ceased discrimination against criminal backgrounds, day care was expanded, public transportation was more reliable, schools were not segregated and plainly racist, etc.


Truly making Duluth a city for everyone, as the Mayor suggested, would mean changing what Duluth is right now.  Right now, Duluth is focused on being a city for business.  In particular, it is a city for businesses that serve tourists.  Centering the city on the tourist industry makes Duluth a city not for everyone, but for middle class, mostly white people, who have the leisure and money to stay at a hotel or the outdoor gear to enjoy our nature.   Duluth can’t be a city for business and for everyone.  We CAN be a city that is for everyone that happens to attract tourists, but the reverse is not possible.  The reverse is what has made Earned Safe and Sick time so controversial, as segments of the business community that are most opposed to it are those sectors that serve tourists (restaurants and hotels).  The reverse has also been what has stalled the Homeless Bill of Rights- because homeless people are a “problem population” not one that should be accounted for in “demographic crisis” and certainly not one that deserves to be treated with basic dignity.  After all, they might just spook the customers!  If we want to be a city for everyone, then we should start by being a city for workers, for the homeless, for people of color, and all of the oppressed in our community.


Conclusion:

Duluth is just one city.  It would be pie in the sky to try to think we can build socialism in a single city.  Many of my suggestions require a massive struggle on a national scale to accomplish.  I do believe that we have local activists with the talent and audience to contribute to such a national struggle.  I am not one of them, but am a small and marginal voice in that struggle.   Beyond the national, there are some things that can be done on a local level.  We can focus local priorities on meeting human needs and support things such as Earned Safe and Sick Time and the Homeless Bill of Rights.  We can challenge the policies of our schools and police to make the city less racist and classist.  We can also think against business interests and promote diverting profits towards social good.  Beyond these material things, I wrote this because I wanted to challenge the ideological logic of “demographic crisis.”  Like many crisis and panics, it is a social construct.  Inherent in this constructed crisis is ageism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism.  There are no population problems.   There are only failures of societies to address the needs of populations.  It is only through struggle that we will win the means to address these needs.


Johnson, B. (2018, February 25). ‘Stability’ not enough for Duluth jobs; aging population isn’t being replaced on pace. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/business/workplace/4408874-stability-not-enough-duluth-jobs-aging-population-isnt-being-replaced

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html

Intersectionality as a Tactic

Intersectionality as a Tactic

H. Bradford

7/18/17

Both the Feminist Justice League and Pandemonium have met this month to discuss the important topic of intersectionality.  I myself have read dozens of articles in an effort to clarify this concept so that it can be used to strengthen these organizations.  However, even the most basic questions about intersectionality remain elusive.  Is it a theory?  Is it a metaphor?  Is it an action tool?  Is it a methodology?  Is it all of these things?  If so, how it is in defined?  What do critics have to say about it?  In short, what is intersectionality and how can it be used in organizing?  The following is based upon my recent readings, but also conversations with activists such as Adam, Lucas, Jenny, Chris, and Pamela.

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To begin, I first heard about intersectionality in graduate school about five years ago.  I was a latecomer to the concept, probably owing to the fact that I had never taken Women/Gender Studies courses in college or plainly hadn’t been paying attention.  I heard about it at an LGBTQ event on campus.  I didn’t care for the concept at the time, since although it addressed interlocking oppressions, the speaker explained it as if these oppressions exist in an ether of power.  The concept of power was so diffuse that the analysis did not connect these interlocking oppressions to capitalism or any particular institution within capitalism.  Since then, I have encountered intersectionality many times.  Sometimes I have felt that it is a buzz word or a badge that activists can hide behind to see more legitimate and inoculate themselves against “white feminism.”  Other times, I have scratched my head, waiting for something more.  I want a meatier definition than what I am offered.  This has finally sent me on a quest to figure out intersectionality.


My readings have made it very clear that intersectionality originated with Black feminists in the late 1970s and 1980s.  These feminists believed that mainstream feminist analysis at the time did not address how racial oppression intersects with gender and class oppression.  Of course, there were considerations to gender and race by feminists earlier in history, but through a genealogy of concepts such as interlocking systems of oppression, borderlands, and multiple jeopardy, intersectionality was brought to birth.  It was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal professor at UCLA in response to Degraffenreid v. General Motors.  In this case, five black women sued GM for discrimination.  However, they had trouble demonstrating in court that they had been discriminated against since not ALL female workers had faced discrimination and not ALL black workers had faced discrimination.  Thus, the discrimination they faced was the outcome of both their gender and race, yet the legal system did not recognize these compounding oppressions.  The heart of the concept is that oppressions interlock with one another.  Kimberle Crenshaw herself said that it was meant to be a metaphor and not a complete theory.  Of course, this creates a challenge for me, as I am used to operating in the world of theories and actions based upon theories.

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I have felt frustrated and befuddled by the vague and incomplete nature of intersectionality.  I want to understand it because I don’t want to fall into the trap of “white feminism.”  For instance, many activists and organizations call for intersectionality, but don’t actually define it.  When it is defined, it is usually very simply, again referring to interlocking oppressions faced by individuals of multiple identities.  Identity is an important word that is often used in the definitions that I have seen.  This has led some activists to write off intersectionality as an extension of identity politics or incompatible with a materialist world view.  In my own opinion, of course identities are socially constructed, but they have real world meaning and consequences.  Identities are not incompatible with a materialist world view.  After all, if someone wants to organize the working class, it certainly helps if people identify with and as members of the working class or workers in general. (As opposed to “middle class” as is the common, watered down, socially encouraged identity.)  Identity helps individuals to see themselves as having common interests and develop demands based upon these interests.  Has there ever been social change without identity of some kind?  The important part is rooting identities in history and economics.  Thus, the aspect of framing intersectionality that I struggle with is that identity is more than a label.  It is also a social position or place within a system of power.  Therefore, a person is not oppressed because they identify as female or bisexual or both, but because being female, bisexual, or both disadvantages one in a patriarchal capitalist society that empowers men while promoting heterosexuality in the interest of maintaining control over property and reproducing labor.  This is why I have felt that some of my readings on intersectionality have been an incomplete sentence.  Alright, oppressions intersect.  I agree.  But, why?  How?  By what mechanism?  By what institutions?  Complete the sentence.  Oppressions intersect because of systems of power within CAPITALIST PATRIARCHY.   They could intersect because of feudal patriarchy.  They could intersect in a slave based economy.  But, since we are living in a capitalist system, it makes sense to connect oppressions to their place and role in capitalism.

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In an overview of my readings, there are a range of critiques of intersectionality beyond identity politics.  Some activists find that intersectionality had radical roots, but was tamed over time by white feminists.  The Black feminist history was forgotten and it has become a meaningless buzzword.  Other critique has suggested that it has sucked up all of the air in academia for other feminist theories.  Some activists feel that the strength of the theory is that it is incomplete, since that lends itself to debate, discussion, interpretation, etc.   Others argue that it is postpositivist, making it hard to study or measure.  On the other hand, I read an article which used multiple regression to tease out how self-reported identities (as variables) correlate to particular political actions.  In this case, intersectionality was measurable in a statistical sense.   Perhaps the best response I read to the whole debate was one from an anarchist feminist group in the UK.  The group (sorry I forgot the name), admitted that intersectionality is debated and has some limits.  They approached intersectionality tactically.  It is a popular word.  It means a lot to many people and in the simplest sense, it means considering how oppression is interconnected.  Keeping in mind how some groups may feel excluded, unwelcome, forgotten, or unsafe in a social movement or social movement organization, only serves to strengthen and broaden the power of an organization/movement.  I completely agree!

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Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional March in Pittsburgh

Of course, approaching intersectionality tactically is not without its challenges and problems.  For one, no organizations can be everything to everyone…at one time.   The point of social movement organizations is usually to organize around an issue that impacts a particular group of people.  For instance, the Homeless Bill of Rights Coalition is organizing around passing an ordinance that would give more protections to people experiencing homelessness.  Surely, homelessness is connected to many intersections such as race, class, family status, criminal background, disability, health, etc.  I think that the group does a good job, since meetings usually occur at a location that houses homeless people and free food is always provided.  But, child care it not provided (to my knowledge) nor is there sign language translation or Spanish translation.  There is no mini van that roams the city, picking up people to attend the meeting.  By not providing these things, it is very possible that someone in the community could be excluded.  This is not the fault of the coalition, but should demonstrate that social movement organizations are limited in both their financial and personnel resources.  There may not be enough members for childcare, not enough money for a van, not enough members to provide everyone with rides, etc.  While in a perfect world it would be wonderful if social movement organizations could provide supports so that every single interested person can participate in the movement, in practice, this puts demands on individual activists which are better directed at the state (with far more resources).  You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.  Perfect intersectionality in the context of capitalism is impossible as few of us have the financial wherewithal to make it possible.  But, this creates new possibility for new intersections.  We need social movements to fight for free daycare, socialized health care, and public transportation to make it possible for the broadest swath of society to participate in capitalism’s overthrow.

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Another tactical limitation of intersectionality is that it is alright for there to be autonomous social movements/organizations.  It is alright for there to be a black feminist group.  It is alright for there to be a trans group.  It is alright for there to be an environmental group that focuses on mining or another that focuses only on fighting pipelines.  Again, there are so many issues and so many ways that people are oppressed that it makes sense to divide up the work.  Not only is this practical, it benefits those involved.  A bisexual/pansexual group is useful since it helps build identity, leadership, and demands (which helps strengthen the larger, broader struggle against heterosexism).  Of course, all of these individual groups should be mindful of how their issues intersect.  Forming coalitions, working together, planning broader events, co-sponsoring, pooling resources, etc. are all benefits of working intersectionality.  But, at any given moment, a group that fights pipelines does not have to address agism, sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and every other ism in one fell swoop.  Sometimes it is enough just to fight pipe lines.  Yet, any effective organization will make an ongoing effort to address some of these things.  This builds power in the movement.  Again, a single organization cannot be everything to everyone all at once.


I have said it before but the biggest barrier to intersectionality is capitalism.  Those who are the most dedicated members in the Feminist Justice League face multiple oppressions.  We are all working class.  Many of us are women.  Some of us are survivors.  Some of us have disabilities.  Some of us have criminal backgrounds.  I know that I personally make an effort to connect gender oppression to other oppressions.  I know I have failed.  I also know that our organization does not perfectly create space and opportunities for everyone.  We are activists, but we are also oppressed.  We operate within the limits of capitalism.  We have no budget as an organization.  I personally do not have time or the emotional resources to be a taxi, nanny, or nurse to a social movement.  I am a socialist, but I am not socialism.  Certainly our failures to be intersectional can be attributed to some personal and organizational failures, but I would say that the biggest barrier is the lack of access to resources in capitalism.  Capitalism itself divides various sectors of the working class.  It obscures class politics and the meaning of class.  Capitalism divides people along racial lines.  It incarcerates and kills in the interest of profit and property.  Capitalism creates gender roles that ensure that no profits are diverted into caring for children or the elderly.  It limits access to abortion.  Everyone woman will produce the next generation of workers and soldiers, or else.  It destroys the environment and makes us believe that we are its chosen people, so that our Have Nots fight the global Have Nots.  This is the power of capitalism, which impacts us all in different ways and to varying degrees, but, the bottom line is that it impacts us all.

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A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

H. Bradford

7/14/17

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. http://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/movies/a26769/world-war-i-poison-gas-wonder-woman/ 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: https://blog.oup.com/2017/07/wonder-woman-and-world-war-i/ 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

Ares:

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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Conclusion:

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

4/8/17

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.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a6/Latte_025.jpg/220px-Latte_025.jpg

(Image from wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soured_milk)

White Winter: Racism and Winter Sports

White Winter:

Racism and Winter Sports

H. Bradford

1.28.17

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    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.

surya-02-679x1024


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.


Conclusion:

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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Surya Bonaly is the biggest bad ass in Winter Olympics history. (2014, February 6). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://groupthink.kinja.com/surya-bonaly-was-the-biggest-bad-ass-in-winter-olympics-1517897822

 

Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB. (2016, January 27). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://gbtribune.blogspot.com/2016/01/traditional-winter-sports-festival-and.html

 

Traore, I. (2014, November 20). Blackface, trauma and cultural racism — the silhouette. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from https://www.thesil.ca/blackface-trauma-and-cultural-racism

 

Vara, V. (2014, July 16). Race and Poverty, Fifty Years After the March. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/race-and-poverty-fifty-years-after-the-march

 

Walsh, M. (2013, October 30). Coaches’ “cool Runnings” blackface outrages civil rights groups. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/coaches-cool-runnings-blackface-outrages-civil-rights-groups-article-1.1501735

 

White as Snow – Racism and the Winter Olympics. (2013, January 30). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from https://www.ua-magazine.com/22252/

 

Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports. (2011, December 16). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from Indian Country News, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/winter-workout-enjoy-traditional-native-snow-sports/

 

White Lies: Another Poem

white-christmas-white-lies-300x195

I wrote this poem when I was trying to catch some sleep in Charles de Gaulle Airport.  I had just experienced an 11 hour flight from Johannesburg and everything around me was becoming whiter and whiter as I returned to Minnesota.  I closed my eyes and could hear the conversations around me.  It was the banal banter you’d expect in an airport.  The interactions between white middle class parents and their children played as a chorus around me.  A few lines popped into my head as I dozed off.  I jotted it down into a poem.

White Lies

White shirts

White sheets

White shoes that don’t leave scuff marks on the gym floor.

When did everything get so white?

When you became a mother?  When you became a wife?

White schools,

ones without crime, with good teachers and extra curriculars

White parents

with organic snacks and time to volunteer on field trips

and field days.

White Christmas,

with snow and gifts,

once a year in church,

and resolutions for more moderation.

White power,

with friendly police,

responsible choices,

long, healthy lives,

fortified isolation,

feigned ignorance,

polite conversations,

sterile politics,

two child fertility,

and all the other

white lies.

 

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

I recently read Martin Meredith’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. My boyfriend saw the book and asked me what a “Mug-a-bee” was. As my previous post indicates, I am not an African history buff. I wish I was a history of everything buff. But, I am just me. This version of me is interested in history, but has so much to learn. That is why I read Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. I wanted to know what a Mugabe was.


To give a brief history, as presented in the book and from some previous knowledge, the country now known as Zimbabwe was once called Rhodesia, named after the British diamond mine owner/promoter of imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Basically, Rhode’s mining company BSAC was granted the mineral rights to an enormous track of land spanning from Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. To secure the land (i.e. colonize or take control of), Rhodes promised 3,000 acres of land to anyone who volunteered to be in his pioneer army. Thus, an army of volunteers basically conquered what would become modern day Zimbabwe, taking over the land, killing native people, crushing resistance, and forcing the remaining native people to pay taxes (thus forcing them into a cash/labor/wage based economy).


Fast forward to 1965. A minority of wealthy white land owners have controlled the country since 1890. This is because in order to vote, the electorate must meet certain wealth, educational, and property thresholds. Only the white population, 5% of the total population, met these qualifications. And, having enjoyed over seventy years of uncontested political and economic power, this white minority was not eager to give it up. Thus, in 1965, Rhodesia, which is still a British territory, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. They did this because the white elite did not want to negotiate with the British for their independence, as this would entail at least some commitment to transferring power to the black majority. In short, the UDI was not really a declaration of independence, but a declaration of the government to independently continue the status quo of white power.


While I don’t expect much from the United States, UN, or Britain, in this case, the whole world was against white Rhodesia (or at least gave lip service to being against white Rhodesia). The UN condemned the declaration as illegal and racist and the Security Council imposed sanctions on the country. The sanctions weren’t necessary strictly followed and South Africa continued to provide military support, Iran provided oil, Japan purchased imports, and the United Sates continued to purchase chromium and nickel. Meanwhile, various rebel groups launched a bloody war of liberation that continued until 1979, when all parties agreed to terms of independence (elections, delayed land reform, a constitution, ceasefire, etc.) in the Lancaster Agreement.


That brings me back to the original question, “What is a Mugabe?” In the book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future, Robert Mugabe began as a relatable character. He was an isolated, serious, bookish person. I can relate to that. He didn’t drink or smoke. I can relate to that. He became a teacher and worked in Ghana, where he was introduced to socialism. I can relate to that. Then, he becomes a paranoid, ethnic cleansing, corrupt dictator…wait, what happened?! I’ll back up. Alright, so Mugabe was a part of a Maoist leaning rebel group called ZANU. This was one of two major Marxist Leninist rebel groups in Rhodesia, the other being ZAPU, a Warsaw Pact, Soviet aligned rebel group. To make things more complex, these parties have armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA. Mugabe eventually became the head of ZANLA, the armed wing of ZANU. Now, the author of the book portrays Mugabe’s descent into dictatorship as somewhat of a personal matter. For one, he spent eleven years in prison for his role in ZANLA. During his time in prison, his three year old son died. Ian Smith, the Prime Minister, personally denied his request to leave prison to comfort his wife, even when prison guards believed he could be trusted to return. Besides prison, he fought in a civil war that killed over 10,000 guerillas. The book suggests that going through the experiences of war, prison, and loss contributed to the direction he took after he was elected and became Prime Minister in 1980. It is also suggested that his austere and driven personality traits contributed to his dictatorship. While this may be a welcome explanation compared to the typical “absolute power corrupts” or “socialism always leads to dictatorship” I was not satisfied with this storyline.   Why does a man starve his country to root out opposition? What did he oversee the killing of up to 30,000 political opponents in the early 1980s, killed along ethnic lines? Why the corruption? Why the excess and pilfering of state money? Rather than the question of “what is a Mugabe?,” which I think the book answers by conveying his history, terrible deeds, and persona…I wonder, why Mugabe?


At first I thought that perhaps it was a matter of some ideological flaw. ZANU was aligned with China and sought assistance from North Korea. North Koreans helped Mugabe train his notorious 5th Brigade, which was used to crush political and ethnic opposition. To clarify this, ZANU was mainly supported by Shona people in the north of Zimbabwe, whereas ZAPU was supported by the Ndebele. When someone in Mugabe’s government is quoted as stating that they will bring Zimbabwe back to zero if they must, I couldn’t help but think of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The official believed that it was alright to starve the population if this meant starving out opposition to the government. Thus, food distribution occurred along party lines. Both ZAPU and ZANU were products of their time. Both carried the baggage of the logic, or illogic, of degenerated workers states. That is, their templates or role models were repressive, so why would either be different once in power?


Both of the perspectives are flawed because they keep things within the realm of the personal and the ideological. While wrestling with this, I discussed this with my friend Adam, who added the material. I had some inkling of the material as well, but had not been thinking about the topic long enough to fully flesh out my thoughts on that matter. Adam rightly observed that a socialist revolution would have been fairly impossible in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, as well as anyone else in ZAPU or ZANU were raised in racist Rhodesia. Their consciousness, tactics, world view, way of living, was shaped by racist, classist oppression. The existence of Zimbabwe itself is artificial. South Rhodesia, North Rhodesia, really all countries of Africa, are imperialist constructs. Their borders were decided by Europeans. As a result of colonization, ethnic groups were mashed together or pulled apart haphazardly. Mugabe inherited a colonial construct with an economy geared towards a peripheral role in global capitalism.   Making any sort of socialist reform that challenged global capitalism, without worldwide revolution, would cause the country to become an isolated, embargoed, pariah state. Which is exactly what it is, though for humanitarian and democratic reasons. The cards are stacked against socialism. Even with the best intentions. Machel, the Marxist leader of Mozambique even warned Mugabe against pursuing socialism too aggressively. Can it be expected that there would have been anything different or the country would have had a different fate? Anything is possible. I am a socialist, of course. But, there were many material factors, along with some ideological and personal ones, which directed the course of events.


Having addressed the what and why of Mugabe, there is one critique that I will launch against the book. The book is very sympathetic to white farmers. This raises many questions. Now, the book discusses how his first decade or so in power consisted of consolidating his party with ZAPU, destroying political and ethnic opposition, while enriching the political elite with the profits derived from state owned enterprises/investments. However, as criticisms mount regarding the corruption of the government and misuse of a veteran’s fund, he turned his attention to the white population. In various waves through the 1990s and 2000s, he unleashes bands of veterans to attack white farmers, taking their lands. Eventually almost all of the white farmers are evicted from their lands. The book is very sympathetic to these white farmers, who hide in terror as their land is ransacked and occupied. Throughout this narrative, Mugabe is called a racist. Cowering, courageous white folks flee the country and mourn the losses of their farms. Another part of the narrative is that after the veterans took over the farms, they fell into disrepair and food production plummeted. The author seems to ignore how this narrative is very much like the Rhodesian narrative that black people are not ready to govern themselves, as they will ruin the country. Apparently, black people cannot farm, as they will ruin the farms. This is incredibly racist.


The book portrays white farmers as victims. To backtrack, in 1980, 70% of the land was controlled by less than 5% of the population (whites). To backtrack further, white people were given 3,000 acres of land when they conquered what became Zimbabwe in 1890. For almost 100 years, white people had a monopoly on political and economic power in the country. This raises the question of what rights do colonizers have? Do the white farmers have a right to keep their land? On what basis? If they earned or obtained that land any time during the 100 years of white rule or because an ancestor did, then they have no real right to it. It was not collectively decided that white people should own 70% of the land. The land was taken and maintained through a repressive government atop of a segregated society. And while the white owners must have done a good job overseeing the land and making it productive, this also does not give them a right to keep their land. If someone took your house, but repaired it and kept it cleaner, it does not give them the right to own it. The problem of course is that the land was taken violently and erratically. Much of the land fell into the hands of government cronies. Ideally, a more peaceable, rational, and socially beneficial land distribution should have occurred. But still…what rights do colonizers have? Further, they are called “farmers” but this invokes grandma and grandpa on a 40 acre farm. The farms were mega, corporate, sometimes cash crop farms with hired workers. The whites were wealthy landowners, not farmers in the mom and pop with a few milk cows sense. So, while I don’t want to see any human being suffer, I am uncomfortable for the sympathetic nature in which the whites were portrayed.


In all, I feel that I learned quite a bit about Mugabe. I read the book in about three days, so I found it engaging enough to plow through it. Finally, it raised some questions. As a whole, I enjoyed it and would recommend it, though, it is lacking political analysis and self-awareness of its own narrative.

What Do We Learn about South African Apartheid?

What do we learn about South African Apartheid?


This blog post stems from my plans to embark on a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in late June. Now, I am not an expert on South Africa or Africa in general. I really am in the stages of learning and thinking, rather than producing knowledge. In this attempt to learn more about Africa in general, I headed to the Duluth Library Book Sale. I came home with dozens of books, but there was next to nothing for sale on the topic of Africa! The only book I found was Brian Lapping’s Apartheid: A History, which was written in 1986! I read the book, but because it is so old, it does not make sense to write a book review. If I reviewed the book, much of the story would remain untold.   In any event, the book was a quick read that didn’t offer much depth or political analysis. I wouldn’t recommend it except as a nice introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write an easy to read blog post about apartheid in South Africa. As I thought of the topic, I considered what I learned about South Africa in school. Really, I learned next to nothing. I think I was given this general idea that once upon a time there was racial inequality in South Africa, then Nelson Mandela came along, and everything was better. With that said, I will explore some of the narratives about South Africa that seem to be popular in our society.


  1. Everything is Better Myth:

If you learn about apartheid in school, the narrative of apartheid is one of victory over injustice. This is the same way we learn about the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage movement. We are provided with a narrative that a historically isolated moment of struggle ends in triumph and change. Everything is better. The end.


Spielvogel’s Glencoe World History textbook, published in 2005 and used at a local high school, ends its two page coverage of apartheid (out of over 1000 pages) with the election of Nelson Mandela and a quote about the rainbow nation. This leaves the distinct impression that good triumphed over evil.


One of the problems with this narrative is that it ignores the ways in which apartheid continues through economic mechanisms. In 1993, South African Trotskyist Neville Alexander, wrote that apartheid laws could be removed because racial inequality already had a firm foundation. Over two decades later, 60-65% of South African wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. 47% of the country lives in poverty and 25% of the country is unemployed. If unemployment is looked at along racial lines, about 39% of Black South Africans are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average white family earns six times more than the average Black family. Although some Black South Africans have joined the middle class since the end of apartheid, the country remains economically divided along racial lines.


There are many reasons why economic inequality persists. Although the original Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC supported the redistribution of wealth and land, economic demands of the charter were not adopted. The ANC is not an anti-capitalist party and apartheid was built upon economic inequality. As such, the end of apartheid allowed only for a democracy founded upon fundamental inequalities and a system that promotes such inequalities. The same state, police, and military continued on, but with a different face. While the racial demographics of government have changed, the state remains the same inasmuch as it has pursued neoliberal policies and used the police to kill workers (i.e. the Lonmin mine massacre that killed 47 people)!


 

2. The Nelson Mandela Myth:

 

Nelson Mandela died back in 2013 when I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. The children told me that they learned about Nelson Mandela in school. Although they learned about him in school, the content was pretty minimal as he was presented as a sort of Santa Claus like character. He was a mythical, jolly, peaceful fellow who ended apartheid and brought the gift social justice to the world. While there is nothing wrong with learning about Nelson Mandela, the way in which he and any other historical figure is presented is as a maker of history. This ignores other individuals, economic conditions, social movements, labor organizing, and other important factors in social change. In short, social change is reduced to the heroic actions of a mythical individual. Beyond this, the depiction of these heroes is white washed. For example, Spielvogel’s (2005) Glencoe World History textbook says the following: “After the arrest of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1962, members of the ANC called for armed resistance to the white government (p. 922).” In this statement, Nelson Mandela is a catalyst for armed resistance but not a promoter of it. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mentioned that Nelson Mandela believed in armed resistance and was the head of the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the ANC). He co-founded it in 1961 AFTER the Sharpeville massacre wherein 69 unarmed protestors were shot (in the back as they fled) by police. But, the textbook does not mention the Sharpeville massacre and the role it played in changing the tactics of the ANC. Rather, the reader is lead to believe that it was the arrest of Nelson Mandela (the great individual in this narrative) which was the cause of arm struggle. This neutralizes the subversive aspects of Nelson Mandela, making him out to a Barack Obama type character.   He was considered a terrorist and leader of a terrorist organization. He went to prison under laws made to persecute communists. He was, at least for a time, a member of the South African Communist Party. He was also a domestic abuser who threatened his first wife that he would attack her with an axe.


Individuals are thorny and imperfect. The right wing has a heyday with such things. Instead, it should raise issues of how a “terrorist” is socially constructed and what is deemed a terrorist organization is a matter of the power. It should also raise issues about the role of violence in social change or considerations of the role of capitalism in promoting racial inequalities (the SACP should not be idealized, but at least recognized as a part of history). In later textbook passages, Nelson Mandela is described with more apolitical staleness. He was imprisoned for 26 years and became the first Black president of South Africa. That is all. Desmond Tutu is mentioned in one sentence as a person who helped to release him. This is the complete cast of characters in the story of apartheid. There is no mention of Steve Biko, one of many people who mysteriously died in police custody (after torture). More important than the addition of other anti-apartheid figures is the lack of coverage of social history. The textbook does not mention the Soweto massacre, for instance. Students might be able to relate to the struggle of fellow students against curriculum changes. Up to 1000 (700?) people died to learn math and to speak their own language!


  1. America the Invisible/Elephant in the Room:

            Nowhere in the textbook I’ve been using as an example is there any mention of the role of the United States in all of this. I learned the other day that U.S. companies Polaroid and IBM profited from the creation of identification cards and card reading systems used for the passes that kept Black South Africans segregated and relegated to Bantustans. As of 1985, U.S. companies controlled 70% of the computer market in South Africa. The tires used by South African police and military vehicles were purchased from Firestone and Goodyear. In 1985, 20% of all foreign investment in South Africa was American. These corporations profited from the cheap labor of black workers, who lived and worked as impoverished guest workers in the slave like conditions of their own country. The United States refused sanctions against South Africa until 1986 and vetoed a UN resolution to expel South Africa’s membership. Even under the Carter administration, the United States abstained from a UN vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa. Beyond the economic bounty that corporations gained from apartheid, South Africa was an important U.S. ally and staging point for wars against left leaning independence movements in Africa.   Of course, textbooks try to be apolitical and inoffensive, so the omission of this close relationship with South Africa is expected. But, the absence of the U.S. is political. It only adds to the amnesia of our negative role in history and a denial of our own troubled race relations. Digging deeper, it might call into question the U.S.’s relationship with Israel or the parallels between Israel and South Africa. White South Africans (of Boer descent) saw themselves as a chosen people who belonged on the land. People who had always been there. They also saw themselves as victims of British imperialism and genocide with a right to defend themselves. Just as the story of apartheid ends with Nelson Mandela, the story of segregation ends with Martin Luther King Jr. or the story of slavery ends with the Civil War. In these stories, racism exists only in a historical moment. It existed and, like the dinosaurs, vanishes into the deep history of dust and fossil imprints. The dinosaurs aren’t with us now. And we are led to believe that racism is also a thing of the past.


Conclusion:  

I am not an expert on South Africa or racism. I am not an expert about anything. I am a student. I like to learn. I would also like to be a teacher. In this capacity, I hope I taught you a few things about apartheid and how we think about it in American society. There is much more to say on this topic. I have a lot on my mind. I will save it for another post or wait until I do more reading. Until then, the story continues.

What is to be Danced? The Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation Question

 

What is to be Danced? The Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation Question.

i-dream-of-jeannie-bottle-inside-2

“Oh no, someone let an uncomfortable feminist argument out of the bottle!”

I am going to be honest here. I love to travel. I love to try new things. Historically, I have collected hobbies like some people collect Dragon Ball Z Action Figures, stamps, and nail polish colors. Wait, I’ve collected those too. I am curious about the world and cultures. I have worn clothing that was inspired by ethnic styles. In the late 1990s, I wore a bindi a few times, as it was the trend then and because I imagined that it made me look like I was a superhero that could blast magical magenta lasers from the gemstone. I drew a comic book wherein I did exactly this. I suck.

So, when I talk about cultural appropriation, it is not because I am riding on some high horse looking down on people. It is because I have a carbon footprint that looks like Godzilla walked by. It is because I want to partake in cultures. It is also because I don’t want to be a terrible white person who stomps on people of color. There is already a lot of stomping in the world.

Thus, this leads me to my latest quandary. Is belly dancing a form of cultural appropriation? In 2014, Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian American writer, wrote a controversial article for Slate, wherein she argued that it was cultural appropriation. Jarrar expressed frustration that white women were basically performing Arab drag by dressing up in costumes that caricatured Arab women. She said that growing up in the Middle East, the belly dance (Raqs Sharqi) clothing she remembered was more conservative and women who perform belly dances professionally were looked down upon. She viewed belly dancing as a performance of women for women, done at parties and weddings. When men were present, the dancing was less playful. Because of the stigma of public performance, she observed that white women were being hired to perform in Egypt. In all, she mostly felt angered by the shameless Arab face performance of white women, who she said sometimes adopted Arab sounding performance names and Arab inspired costumes.

In response to her opinion, the internet exploded with articles and blog posts defending cultural appropriation, cultural borrowing, and belly dancing. This is not a literature review of those articles, but in reading some of responses I saw a jumbled discourse of the power, privilege, and entitlement on the dismissive end of the spectrum and appreciation, art, expression, and feminism on the apologetic end of the spectrum. For the most part, it was hard to find many voices who agreed with her. Roughly, here are a few common arguments against her argument:

 

Impossible to Avoid Argument: On this side, it seems that a theme was that cultural appropriation is hard to define and no one owns culture. Cultural borrowings are a part of all societies. If a person were to try to avoid cultural appropriation, it would involve extremes like avoiding coffee, potatoes, and algebra. The merit of this argument is that the world is so interconnected by globalization that it is impossible to avoid appropriation. The outcome of this would be extreme isolation between peoples and the policing of cultural boundaries. Main Critique: This is true, but this also evades tough questions about racism, imperialism, and entitlement.

It’s Art Argument: On this side, dance is art. Art is creative and expressive. The rules of cultural appropriation do not apply to art. If belly dance is performed well and taken seriously as an art, then women will grow in their respect of Middle Eastern cultures as they deepen their knowledge of dance, instruments, language, and dance history. Critique: This is true, who wants to censor art and learning? But, art is not inherently benign. Art is political and promotes meaning. What if the art sends the message that imperialism is okay?

It’s Feminism Argument: Belly dancing empowers women by allowing them to express themselves, explore their identities, accept their bodies, spend time with other women, etc. Some pagan feminists believe that belly dancing is an ancient form of dance that celebrates the feminine divine. Belly dancing builds community and sisterhood. Critique: Wonderful. I truly want this for women. But, what if some women feel that the dance does not respect their culture? What if they feel mocked or marginalized? Feminism isn’t about community and self-actualization of some women at the expense of the community and self-actualization of other women.

Unfortunately, what is lacking is a Marxist feminist answer to cultural appropriation. Here I am…a Marxist feminist, trying to make sense of what is a very difficult question. In the spirit of Lenin I shall ask…

What is to be danced?

I have mulled it over and I don’t think that Marxism can really take a position on dance. Dance is part of the superstructure, or the culture that sits on the economy. Dance evolves over time as society changes. It is entirely possible that the pagan feminists are right and there have been gyrating dances since the dawn of time. These early dances might have celebrated fertility, women, female power, etc. This sort of dance might have been characteristic of a matriarchal or matrilineal society wherein women were valued and equal. But, this is capitalism. This is the heart of the beast of capitalism: the USA. Capitalism has reached all over the globe. In doing so it has subjugated other cultures as it has integrated other economies. It is no wonder that in our globalized capitalist society that we would have a taste for the foods, cultures, dances, and languages of other places. We have had a long time to become exposed to these things through imperialism and colonization. Historically, the West has had the power to discover and take. At the same time, we are oppressed by capitalism. We want to escape. We want to travel. We want joy and fun. We want to celebrate and dance!

Without capitalism, we wouldn’t really know about belly dancing. We’d be feudal peasants who perhaps know only of our own village. In the 18th and 19th century, Europeans travelled to the Ottoman Empire and saw dancers perform. Harems really captured the imagination of Europeans. Now, in our Orientalist imagination, harems are places where women dance around for sultans. In my understanding, harems were places for women. Here, women danced for women and most of them never met the sultan. Harems were guarded by eunuchs because men weren’t trusted. Really, it was a female space. To varying degrees it was a way for women to exert some measure of control over the sultan. But, this shouldn’t be idealized as feminist space or power. The women were trafficked from across the empire. Around the same time that Europe was exposed to belly dancing, it was exposed to many things as it expanded into new territories. This era saw a rise in Orientalism, or art, music, literature, and ideas which popularized certain images of the East. The east was exotic and erotic. Having this vision of the east probably made it easier to conquer it, as it was a backwards place, yet exciting places, with strange values.

Belly dancing as an art is deeply connected to capitalism’s global nature. Belly dancing became popular in the United States in the late 1800s through our World’s Fair, at a time when we were just sinking our milk teeth into global imperialism. It appealed to orientalism. Even at that time, it was performance for an orientalist audience rather than a traditional folk art. The dance shimmied across the globe. It was shaped by U.S. Hollywood movies, returned to Egypt, repackaged, returned to the United States through immigrants, and reshaped. Modern belly dance draws from many cultures. It is a simulacrum. That is, a copy of a copy of a copy. A simulacra, according to Baudrillard, is something which has no origin or is a caricature. Of course, real people contributed to the development of belly dancing through teaching, shaping, performing, and costuming of the dance. Some of these people were indeed Arab American.

As workers were are alienated from the production of things. We don’t control how things are made. We buy them in the market place, where they appear magically from far off places. Where did that coffee come from? Who grew it? How was it roasted? What is the process? So it is with the thousands of things we consume. Since capitalism is so global and everything just appears so magically, it is no wonder that there are so many international things to consume. At the same time, being American is also pretty frustrating. For a progressive person, America is a place of religion, racism, inequality, Donald Trump, endless war, professional wrestling, snow mobiles, and Happy Meals. A taste for international foods and activities seems like a lovely alternative.

This leads to the problem.   Miss Progressive doesn’t want to learn square dancing and eat corn dogs at the county fair. These things represent America. OR, maybe she feels bad about her body. Belly dancing liberates her from the fat shaming. She feels sexy again. Or, maybe she meets some friends. It sure is lonely taking care of the kids. And, these women are fun and cool. They have tattoos. They aren’t afraid of the Middle East. They might even deeply respect the dance. Women are oppressed. All women are oppressed. In the land of plenty and scarcity, there is a tendency to escape or try to escape our oppression through consumption and identity. Dance is an escape. Can we blame women for wanting some joy in the world?! My god, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution. Thanks for the perfect quote, Emma Goldman.

 

Okay, so Lenin asked the classic question, what is to be done…not what is to be danced. This is about forming a vanguard party for the purpose of spreading revolutionary ideas to workers. I am not sophisticated nor creative enough to tie belly dancing to the vanguard party. But, I can tie this argument to a basic question which revolutionaries must ask themselves. The question is: how do I make a revolution?

This probably sounds bloody and terrible to my readers. So, maybe a less dramatic sounding question is how do I make significant change in society? From a Marxist perspective, capitalism just has to go. To this end, workers just have to be organized. This is because the entire economic is run by workers and would cease to function without the consent to work. Because of our service economy, maybe workers don’t seem that powerful. Oh nooos who will make the hamburgers?! Think instead, who will run hospitals, schools, drive trains and buses, harvest food, ship the food, can the food, make the weapons, remove the garbage, purify the water, and so on and so on. No other group in society wields the power of workers. But, not just workers. Ties must be made to social movements. A socialist revolution must also be a revolution that wins the hearts and minds of all oppressed people: women, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, ethnic and racial minorities. Capitalism depends upon racism, sexism, and homophobia to function. These things divide people. This divides workers.

Relating to oppressed groups isn’t always easy. There is a lot of false consciousness or bad ideas in the world. I am a product of society and as such, my head is full of a lot of society’s bad ideas. But, if there is one rule of being an ally to these groups it is probably: don’t be a dick.

How do you avoid being a dick?

  1. Listen to oppressed people.

Okay, sounds good. But they say different things! Some don’t even think racism exists any more.

 

  1. Listen to the vanguard of oppressed people.

Listen to the people who you think are in motion. Who are the activists? The radicals? They probably can give you some clues about how to treat them with dignity and be true allies.

 

  1. What if they say that I can’t belly dance? Or Celebrate the Day of the Dead? Or wear dreadlocks?

These are personal choices. There is no golden rule to what is and what is or is not cultural appropriation. But, listen to the arguments. Consider the offense it may cause. Consider how it shapes your relationship with this group of people. If Arab women feel that belly dancing is appropriation, then consider how you could work with them to make it better and more just. Isn’t that the nice thing to do?

  1. Weigh/Learn about the issue:

In the end, Jarrar issued another statement. In this, she said belly dancing isn’t that important. The really important thing were things like the appropriation of Palestinian land. She was upset that her article was given so much attention when she had written more substantive things. The appropriation of a dance is far less important than the detainment of thousands of Palestinians who protest Israel’s occupation of their land or the collective punishment of Palestinians who cannot leave Gaza and the West Bank.

 

  1. Consider Oppression

Since there are no hard and fast rules about how to live one’s life and politics should not be reduced to personal choices anyway, the big question is the movement. The big picture is not the food you eat, clothes you wear, or hobbies you participate in. It is the oppression. The oppression of women must end. To do this, we must build a feminist movement. This is a circle. To build a movement, we need allies. To have allies, we can’t be jerks. We are all oppressed. We all have to work together. It is easy to think that feminism means freedom and choice, but the heart of feminism is ending the systematic oppression of women. This means that some of our freedoms and choices do impact others.

 

Conclusion:

Belly dancing is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. I wrestle with it. Knowing what I know, or thinking what I think, should I do it as an activity? Having been raised in the United States, I like to think I can do whatever I want. I have freedom to choose. The world is a marketplace. It is hard to shake off that consciousness. I don’t want an austere, colorless life that lacks culture. I think the worst offense is probably the racialized costume. In this sense, perhaps I would be comfortable taking classes or practicing it at home, but would not want to wear a costume. I can’t shake the desire to learn and explore. The imperialist urge to sample the world.  I have tried to be involved with a local Palestine group and with an Islamophobia action that happened in Superior. The boundaries of my life are to think about my actions and do the best that I can to be an ally to women. I will do what I can to be the best that I can in those respects. I will dance in the revolution, but my steps will be cautious and thoughtful.

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