Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Oh How I Hate You Internet

Technical difficulties - Comments back shortly. Hopefully.

In other news, WTF, Wendy's? Now, granted I am grumpy because of technical difficulties AND I am like halfway through a bottle of wine, so this may not have been the best time for me to see this commercial, but I am being BOMBARDED by a new Wendy's commercial for Father's Day.

In the commercial, we see a tray of frosties being taken to a table. Voiceover says "what's the best type of frosty?"

Shot of frosty being handed to little black boy and black girl.

Voiceover: "The first one you have with your new adopted family."

Zoom out to show a happy white man and woman sitting with the little black boy and girl.


Adoption is great and is a lifesaver for many children. I am in no way disputing that. However, interracial adoption is a very problematic issue and a lot of white people already have this idea that they are these saviors plucking little children of color from the ghetto.

How about a little black boy and girl sitting with black parents, Wendy's? The voiceover makes it clear that it's an adoption, you don't need that obvious color differential to make that point.

Pushing my buttons. Doesn't help that it's on every commercial break. I'm just trying to watch The Office! Why, why do you have to make me so angry, Wendy's?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Thoughts about District 9

We just rented District 9 (I know, we are totally right on the pulse of what is NEW and EXCITING in movies). It was good, I liked it a lot, but I did have one little nagging thought that I wanted to get out about it here.

If you haven't seen the movie, I do recommend it. The best sci-fi is a commentary on aspects of modern society and this is no exception. The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, where an alien spacecraft has been stranded for several years. When humans are finally able to get into the ship, they find thousands of sick and malnourished aliens living in filth. The humans bring the alien population into Jo-burg, and after violence between aliens and humans, the aliens are relocated to District 9.

District 9 quickly becomes a terrible slum. Humans have no respect for these beings, and alien breeding is restricted (unauthorized young are killed), aliens are killed and arrested with basically no provocation, and a black market trade of cat food (which is evidently an addictive drug to the aliens) is controlled by a Nigerian gang.

Our main character Wikus van de Merwe is charged with responsibility for the forced removal of the aliens to another camp farther from the city. During a raid to get the aliens' signatures on their notices of eviction, Wikus is infected with an alien virus that begins to turn him into an alien.

The allusion in District 9 is fairly blatant. Anyone familiar with South African Apartheid history will recognize the similarities to the forced removal of residents from District 6 in Cape Town. But you don't need to be too familiar with the history in order to recognize the way in which the aliens represent how POC have been and are treated across the world. For example:
And so on.

They even have a derogatory name - prawn.

The aliens (we never hear a name that they might call themselves) are shown in basically the worst light possible - drunk on cat food, stupid, violent, living in filth. It reminded me of the way in which POC have been portrayed and are still portrayed (think of images from ghettos and slums across the world). It is difficult to sympathize with creatures that live like this.

This is a genius comparison to how we are invited to view modern human inhabitants of slums. How could people live like that in the garbage and filth? How could they become prostitutes or crackheads or alcoholics? How can they be so violent? Why can't they get their lives together?

The implication is that slum inhabitants choose to live like that, which is of course furthest from the truth. Just like humans trapped in the cycle of hopeless poverty, the aliens have no means by which to gain an increased standard of living. If you have no prospects and no hope, why not do crack? At least it provides a way to escape your situation for a few minutes.

I liked the movie. I thought the comparisons were excellent. But after all that, here is where I kept getting stuck. We hear several times in the movie that the aliens are like hive creatures, and all of the alien elite have been killed by a virus or something. Because the elite are dead, the remainder of the aliens have no one to lead them and they fall hopelessly into the conditions we see them in during the movie.

This reminded me of the excuses that people make to explain why human populations live in slums. "They can't help it." "They're less intelligent." "It's their lifestyle." These excuses allow white people to forgive themselves for any role they may have played in creating the slum conditions, and to excuse themselves from any responsibility to help slum dwellers increase their standard of living.

However, the lies that we use to explain poverty are demonstrably not true. As should not need to be said, no human population has ever been proven to be less intelligent than any other. It may be horrifying for many to contemplate, but if put in the same position, any human would behave in the same way. Violence, drugs, disease, filth - these are symptoms of hopelessness, not of any innate psychological or physiological difference between the haves and the have-nots.

So are the aliens really just stupid hive-minders who can't help themselves? If they are, then the analogy between the aliens and human ghettos fails in a spectacular and disturbing way. All of the alien behavior we see on screen is not, then, due to their circumstances (at least not entirely). If the aliens are worker drones who need someone to lead them, doesn't this hearken back to the colonialist mind-set of a population in need of a firm, paternal hand of guidance?

Because that rationalization is what got us to where we are today.

I don't have any kind of a big conclusion to this meandering little thought, I just wanted to throw it out there. If any of you have seen the movie, what did you think of it?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Chivalry and Race - Ina's Response

(Ina, since your profile isn't public I couldn't contact you privately. If you want me to take this down just let me know.)

Ina had an awesome and very important response to my last post (Dude, this is my JOB), reminding all of us that it is, in fact, only the white ladies who are (usually) the beneficiaries of chivalry.

And after she sent her comment she sent a second comment asking me not to post it because she didn't want to hijack my blog. But the hijacking is cool with me. Because I don't want this to turn into a catalog of my experiences without context. Because she's not wrong, and ignoring women of color has been and continues to be an ENORMOUS problem in feminism. So here is Ina's post, and below my own thoughts.

Ina writes:

In order to bring this post back to race, I'd like to mention one of my own racialized experiences on the job with "chivalry."

I once worked in a used bookstore when I was a teenager. It was a pretty physical job, stacking and shelving and bringing up books from the storage cellar and taking boxes back down again. Most of our staff (of eight) were college students, most female, most of the staff white, except for me and one other girl (asian descent). The three guys on staff were all white. I am black.

Never once did any of the guys offer to carry ANYTHING for me. Not once. Not a damn thing. Several times I had to BEG for help. The other four girls on the other hand, hardly ever had to drag the big bins up and down to the cellar when any of the guys were on shift. And if there weren't any of the guys on shift there on a particular day, these girls would either leave the boxes in their area there for the next Guy on shift, or ask ME to do it... because I was "quick about it" and didn't seem to mind, cuz they had to leave earlier for class blah blah blah always some excuse why they couldnt do it themselves.

One week I decided to play the girl card too and leave the boxes in my area for one of the guys to take to the cellar the next morning. Apparently the guys didn't take too kindly to it. By the end of that week I had been written up for slacking and the manager (a white lady) had to have a talk with me about my "attitude" and being a "team player" and "pulling my own weight."

I quit the following week.

I don't mean to devalue your own experiences, but you have no idea how irksome it is to hear white women talk about all the "chivalry" being forced upon them day in and out, how they're constantly being treated as weaker and less capable. Well, I get the weaker and the less capable part, ALL THE TIME. I just never get the part where men (of ANY color) try to help me just because I'm weaker and less capable.

In my experience, white men and even men of color dont generally care about women of color's safety and capacity to function as a packpony until we get elderly. No I take that back, they do care if we happen to conform to "mainstream" aesthetic standards of female beauty (ie... Hot Privilege).... But us average looking black girls daren't expect protection, let alone chivalry. Our general incapcity in ANYTHING we happen to do is a given... but somehow that never seems to translate into coddling.

I didn't mean this as an indictment of you, no intention of making you feel guilty or compete in Oppression Olympics. Just wanted to clarify the race component of "chivalry" as well.

Good comment, right?

Two thoughts:

1) Chivalry is directed at a unique and small group of people: white, femme, average-to-attractive women. Women of color, butch women, fat women, hell, even women who don't wear makeup are often left out of this equation. For example, I have a archaeologist friend, a white woman, who is fairly conventionally attractive and feminine but who is very conventionally masculine in her personality. I.e., she speaks her mind, takes charge, etc. And no one offers to help carry her stuff.

I'm not suggesting that these people are lucky to dodge the chivalry bullet. In fact, these women are left out because of the stereotypes that they are somehow not deserving of the same protection and respect that pretty, femme white women are. And yes, even though it is based on inequality, chivalry is a twisted version of respect. This translates into all kinds of more serious things. For example, women of color (particularly black women) being perceived as less damaged by violent acts like rape. Because they're less delicate and fragile, you see.

2) This is a great example of how race and gender intersect, and how feminism has been damaged by white women refusing to listen to the experiences of WOC.

White feminist: "Chivalry is insulting and oppressive!"

WOC: "I guess your experience sucks, but I'm not even seen as worthy of chivalry!"

White feminist: "Chivalry is insulting and oppressive!"

WOC: "I don't think you're listening to me."

Both perspectives are of course correct, and both are valid. But by not listening to the experience of the WOC, feminism suffers.

So thanks, Ina! This is a valuable addition to my post and I'd love to hear any other thoughts on the subject.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dude, this is my JOB.

Normally this is a space where I want to discuss race, but I also would occasionally like to branch out into other areas of social friction, including gender. As I've mentioned before, exploring feminism was how I first was exposed to the online anti-racism community, and as a woman sexism is something that I experience first-hand.

On this majority-male crew, I hear quite a few sexist comments, usually phrased in the form of the pseudo-ironic joke. And although I don't generally laugh at these jokes, which run the gamut from the Get-back-in-the-kitchen variety to rape jokes, I don't voice my displeasure at them either. As anyone in an oppressed group knows, it is exhausting and generally fruitless to be the person who is the constantly-offended Language Police. People may modify their behavior in front of you, but this doesn't help to change their behavior or to help them understand why their (to them) harmless comment contributes to our culture of oppression.

Also, they will then complain about you behind your back, giving you a reputation for over-reacting, and then no one will listen to what you are actually saying or consider the reasons for their behavior. So although it is difficult, I try to hold my tongue until I can make a cogent point that someone might actually listen to.

Anyway, the "jokes" aren't what I wanted to complain about today. No, that would be the psuedo-chivalry.

I work in archaeology, a moderately physical field. There is a federal law stating that any construction project with federal funding - roads, dams, pipelines, wells, etc - must first provide an archaeological survey in the affected area so that no important cultural resources will be destroyed during construction. Therefore, there is a small but robust community of archaeological firms who are contracted by the construction companies to provide these surveys. There is a certain amount of pressure to complete these surveys as quickly as possible, and so contract archaeology puts pressure on its workers to work as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality of work.

In my job, I dig holes. Through rocks, through roots, through clay - whatever is in my way. In certain phases of the archaeological survey, I carry a shovel and a screen through the woods (we screen all soil through 1/4 inch mesh screen so that we can find any possible artifacts). We dig holes about 50cm in diameter, 20cm into the subsoil. These holes can reach anywhere from 25cm to over a meter in depth. After taking measurements and notes, I move 15 meters forward and dig another hole. I do this all day.

Screen used by archaeological survey crews (not me pictured)

The comments that bother me the most at work aren't the sexist jokes, but the sexist implication that I'm somehow less capable at doing my job than the men on my crew.

Let's take a brief detour here so that I can say very clearly that I do understand that men, in general, are physically stronger and faster than women. However, I think that the difference is greatly overstated in our society based on the capacity of women to build up their strength. A female Olympic body builder is stronger than most men. A female Olympic sprinter is (much) faster than most men.

In archaeology, I do certainly dig slightly more slowly than many men on the crew. But within my capabilities, I put in as least as much effort as does everyone else, and my participation on the crew doesn't affect the overall completion rate of the project in any meaningful way. I can't dig as quickly as the fastest men on the crew, but I know that I dig more quickly than some of the men on the crew. I end up somewhere in the middle, as do most female archaeologists.

This post is based on two comments made by men on the crew. The first occurred a few days ago, when we were very close to completing a site and were working hard to finish by the end of the day. I was excavating with two men in one large unit (1x1 meter square), while another unit was being dug by three men and one woman. (We don't usually have so many archaeologists to one unit, but they were the last two remaining on the site and so everyone was pitching in to get them done.)

In the other unit, the three men were screening dirt (a less physically demanding job), while the woman, 'Mary', was digging the hole (a more physically demanding job). The woman in this instance is a tiny person, but a capable, experienced, and physically strong archaeologist.

After looking over and seeing this, 'Eric', one of the men I was working with, said to the other: "Three strong guys over there and she's the one in the hole."

Eric may have meant two different things by this comment.

1) "Mary shouldn't be digging because she can't dig as fast as the men."

2) "Mary shouldn't be digging because those guys should be protecting her from the work by doing it themselves" (i.e., they should have been chivalrously doing physical labor so that she doesn't have to.)

I know you can't really convey tone of voice over the internet, but Eric did not mean "Wow, look at Mary digging that hole just as well as the men could!" His comment was definitely implying that Mary shouldn't be digging. I suspect, but can't prove, that he meant that the men should be stepping up to do the work for Mary (option #2).

The second instance happened two days ago, and was directed at me. My boss in the field is a Crew Chief, and his boss is the Principal Investigator. The PI on this project is often in the field with us, and at the end of the day yesterday our PI, 'Steve', walked up to where we were finishing our testing. We were about a half mile from the cars, and had all of our gear with us (shovel, screen, paperwork).

Each archaeologist carries their own screen, which weighs probably about 10-15 pounds and is quite awkward to maneuver. It's hard to describe, but the easiest way to carry them is to kind of sling the screen part over your back and hook an arm through the legs to support it.

As we were walking towards Steve, he said, "Can I carry anything for anyone?"

Of course, no one replied.

While walking past him, Steve looked directly at me and said, "Can I carry your screen, Lady Instructor?" (Almost typed my real name - this anonymity stuff is hard!)

"No." I said sweetly, "I've got it."

Steve then looked at the man behind me (who I know has a harder time keeping up with the crew than I do), and said, "I'm not offering to carry your screen."

And then I carried my own equipment back to the cars and I got there first.

The point I'm trying to make here is not some meaningless tripe about how any woman can do anything just as well as any man. A woman will never never be the fastest Olympic sprinter or hold the overall world record for weight lifting. But I can carry my own damn screen. It may be just a little more difficult for me, but I can do it. There is no reason for anyone to offer to do it for me when I have not demonstrated any diminished capability, when I have always been able to keep up with the men in the crew (and, in fact, surpass at times some of the men).

If I can't do the job as well as the men, this will be used as justification for the belief that women can't do a moderately physical job as well as a man can (this job is really more about stamina than overall strength, and it isn't that intense - none of us is exactly a professional athlete).

However, if I bust my butt and work faster than the men, this will be used to mock the men I'm working with. "You've only dug three holes? Lady Instructor's on her fifth!" This may also be intended as a backhanded compliment for me, but instead of just telling me that I'm doing a good job, it must be pointed out how the men are falling behind me - a woman!

In both of the instances described above, Eric and Steve were not making silly sexist jokes and they weren't trying to be offensive. In fact, they are both good guys and they were earnestly trying to be nice. Eric would have offered to dig the hole for Mary, and Steve did offer to carry a bulky, awkward piece of equipment for me. They both had good intentions and I do not mean to infer that they are bad people in any way.

Nor do I intend to excuse their behavior, which was sexist. Chivalry comes in many forms, and at its most innocuous is just a man holding the door for a woman, or pulling out her chair. People - men - trying to be nice. But chivalry is rooted in the belief that women are lesser beings who need to be sheltered and protected by men. When Eric or Steve suggest that they should take over physical labor from women in the workplace, they take away both respect and valuable work experience from those women.

Dude, this is my JOB. We're not on a date. And furthermore, if I expect to be treated like an equal, I should put in equal work, and make every effort to perform equally to the men that I work with.