All posts by Thea Lim

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Stories that Ally vs Stories that Appropriate: a Yardstick [The Throwback]

In this February 2010 piece, Thea Lim examines how “Avatar” exemplifies a disturbing type of faux-progressive filmmaking.

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

How do you know when a story is allying, versus appropriating?

In other words, if someone of privilege writes a story about the political oppression of a group they do not belong to, what is the difference between:

a) a story that brings marginalised voices to a wider platform and advocates for their rights, versus
b) a story that simply appropriates a political conflict for a writer’s own end, taking advantage of the fact that communities who experience marginalisation are rarely ever allowed to speak for themselves?

Apart from the fact that a story that appropriates usually winds up grossly misrepresenting a marginalised group, this is my yardstick for telling friends from foes:  one of the central purposes of a story that acts as ally, is to use one’s own privilege to tell another’s story, in the hopes of ameliorating the others’ situation.  Meanwhile, a story that appropriates just wants to spin a good yarn, get some adulation, and uses another’s story in order to do so.  An ally story is giving, an appropriating story is taking.

Quit jabbering Thea, you may say.  It’s easy to tell the difference between stories that appropriate, and stories that ally! We don’t need a yardstick!

Not true.  At least within mainstream opinion, it is startling and depressing how many stories that appropriate get passed off as political progressive, as allies.  Like Not Without My Daughter.  Or the documentary Born into Brothels, which purported to tell the story of the children of sex workers in Calcutta, but really just seemed more interested in showcasing the magnanimity of the American photographer who worked with the children.* Or another documentary, Paris is Burning, about the black trans/gay vogueing community of New York City, which brought immense praise on the white outsider director, but painted the community as tragic and hopeless, while bringing little benefit to them. I’m sure you can think of loads more films like this.

Including…(drumroll)…Avatar. Which I finally saw last week, in all its headsplitting 3D glory. And it fulfilled all the negative press I had read over countless months, from anti-racist and anti-ableist camps among many others. But seeing how my esteemed peers did a lot of the deconstructing work for me, I was left to ponder another question. If Cameron is as leftist as claimed, why didn’t he tell the story of an actual conflict between big business (or colonialists) and an indigenous group? Why use blue allegory?

Hollywood films have a generally untapped power to sway how people think about political events. Packaging a political story within the rhetoric of emotion (and also I guess, within face-blasting special effects) is often the best way to get people to swallow arguments they would otherwise reject.  Hence a movie that – at least at face value – is very anti-war, anti-military and anti-capitalist is demolishing box office records with hardly a peep from conservative viewers.

Can you imagine the impact that a movie like Avatar could have, if Cameron had used all the CGI to recreate (for example) any area of the Americas the way it looked before first contact with the Europeans, and instead told the real story of an indigenous group struggling to protect themselves from genocide?  Imagine the kind of support it could create for indigenous rights.

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Breaking The Barrier: On Race, Gender, And Junot Díaz

By Thea Lim, cross-posted from The Millions

Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

A few weeks ago, in the The New York Observer, Nina Burleigh threw down the notion that the enormous success of Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her is undeserved. Díaz is beloved not because he is a great writer, Burleigh argues, but because Díaz is a man, and a man who delights us with tales about dashing players and their hapless women victims:

Is it the wars, the terrorism, the recession, driving the longing for a regenerated machismo that Mr. Díaz’s multi-culti cred makes acceptable again? Is it a feminist backlash?…Mr. Díaz’s wondrous bewitching of prize committees comes at a time when women writers remain wildly underrepresented in publishing, on both the reviewing and the reviewed side.

And on Twitter, multiple women writers I respect and admire, like Roxane Gay and Elliot Holt gave Díaz his due, but went on to say that Díaz’s style of confessional writings about love would not fly if written by a woman.

Normally, I’d be all over this kind of thing. I love talking about the lack of gender equity in publishing (in fact, I did for Bitch Magazine this summer). But I can’t agree that Díaz’s success is gender-based; because, yes, Díaz is a man, but he’s also a man of color. Critics who say that Díaz would not receive the same warmth if he was a woman are overlooking the factor of race.
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A Historical Guide To Hipster Racism

By Thea Lim

Last week at Racialicious HQ, we were delighted to see the term “hipster racism”–coined by our very own Carmen Van Kerckhove in 2006*–suddenly enter mainstream parlance, thanks to Jezebel’s publication of Lindy West’s “A Guide to Hipster Racism.” In a flash, the words “hipster racism” papered themselves across Facebook and Twitter feeds across the continent (and maybe the world?).  Words are wonderful, and when more people have access to language that helps them name the racism of everyday life,  we’re happy.

There was only one glitch. While West linked to one Racialicious post (a short piece Carmen wrote in 2007 about white girls and gang signs) she never once name-checks Racialicious or Carmen…or any of our amazing pals and allies who have been writing about this stuff since the main target was Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls (i.e. a long time ago).

On the one hand, no one takes up social-justice work to see their name in lights and, at the end of the day, the point is just to get the message across, no matter who gives it the signal boost. On the other hand, we’re only human. It hurts when work that we, as a collective, have been jackhammering about for seven-plus years gets credited to someone else. (Seven years, y’all! Back to the dawn of skinny jeans! Before Facebook was open to the public, for cripes’ sake.)

And as our friends at Bitch pointed out, it is also  distressing, though not in the least surprising, that the words “hipster racism” are more palatable, resonant, and listenable when they come from the mouth of a white blogger.  It’s enough to make you get real low and start thinking terrible emo thoughts, like one white blogger is worth more than ten bloggers of colour.

And so! To keep the emo monster at bay and, as an ancient person who remembers all the way back to a long lost time when Racialicious was known as Mixed Media Watch, I decided to quietly slip out of retirement for a moment to revisit just a few of our landmark posts about hipster racism, so as to remind ourselves (and yes, to remind the internet) of all the brotherpucking hard work we have done, lo these many years.

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The Wormiest of Cans: who gets to be “mixed race”?

A few days ago on Facebook I watched two community activists have a throwdown over the phrase “mixed race.”

It began when Activist X posted a link to this article about the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival and noted with some irritation that despite the festival’s claims to inclusivity, there were no Latin@s mentioned in the article. X asked: if Latin@ people are the largest group of multiracial people in the Americas and the festival is supposed to be open to everybody, why weren’t Latin@ people included? A few people agreed with X, and some people who had been at the festival said that they thought Heidi Durrow and the festival were great, but that they could see X’s point.

Enter Activist Y: after expressing some trepidation, Y said that the festival was using the term “mixed race” or “multiracial” to refer to people who had parents of two or more different racial categorisations. Activist Y said that if your whole family shared the same ethnic identity, then you were not mixed in the way the festival intended.

Dear Racializens, I am sure you can imagine what happened next: a veritable Facebook wall brawl — albeit one that was highly intellectual and restrained. Most people sided with X (it was X’s wall to begin with) and Y, after making several long attempts to explain themselves, eventually left in a digital huff.

This exchange brought back some of the most difficult writing that I have ever done on Racialicious: where readers challenged my right to call myself, as a mixed race person with parents of two different races, mixed in a separate way from those who are mixed race but share the same identity as their whole family, for e.g. folks who are mestizo, Creole, African American, Metis, Peranakan…

(From here on in I will refer to people who come from mixed lineage as MRs, and people who have parents of two different and separate racial categorisations as MR2s.)

So here is one of the most important things I have learned from all my years of toiling in the anti-racist trenches here at Racialicious: when you are talking about race with anti-racist people of colour, you are speaking from a place of pain, to a place of pain. (Ok obviously we are about more than pain, but pain is always on the table.) Many of us come to anti-racism through struggle. We are used to having things taken away from us, and we turn to anti-racism to try and arm ourselves against the corrosion of racism. We are sensitive, and we come by it honestly.

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On Supporting, and Not Supporting, Molly Norris

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By Thea Lim

I heard about Molly Norris for the first time last week, on Fatemeh’s blog. Fatemeh wrote that she had signed a petition in support of Molly Norris, and gave this reason:

I was unhappy to read that “Draw Muhammad Day” creator Molly Norris had voluntarily gone into hiding. While I thought the concept of “Draw Muhammad Day” was ridiculous and viewed it in the same light as the South Park episode that supposedly depicted the prophet, I recognize that Norris’ intent wasn’t to be offensive or malicious. In Islam, intentions count for something just like actions, and no one should be punished for simple naïveté. It’s atrocious that Norris has received threats and feels unsafe enough to go incognito.

I have to say that after doing a little bit of reading about Norris, “Draw Muhammad Day” and the outpouring of support for Norris, I am finding it difficult to be as generous as Fatemeh.

When Fatemeh writes that she supports Norris, what I understand is that Fatemeh supports Norris’ right to live a life free of violence and threats.  That, I find entirely reasonable – I too support Norris’ right to safety, as I support anyone’s right to safety.  But what I am struggling to understand is exactly what all the other people who say they support Norris, are actually in support of.

Aaron Goldstein at The American Spectator writes:

Freedom of expression in America took another step closer to a slow death last week when the Seattle Weekly announced it would no longer be publishing the work of cartoonist Molly Norris because she had gone into hiding…I cannot help but wonder that if Norris had been more assertive in her own defense then others would have been more eager to stand beside her…So given the current political climate regarding Islam in America who among us could be the next Molly Norris?

James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal writes:

Where is President Obama? Last month, speaking to a mostly Muslim audience at the White House, the president strongly defended the right of another imam held up as a moderate to build a mosque adjacent to Ground Zero. The next day, and again at a press conference last week, Obama said he was merely standing up for the First Amendment. As far as we recall, it’s the only time Barack Obama has ever stood up for anybody’s First Amendment rights.

Now Molly Norris, an American citizen, is forced into hiding because she exercised her right to free speech. Will President Obama say a word on her behalf? Does he believe in the First Amendment for anyone other than Muslims?

Abigail R. Esman at Forbes writes:

Let me repeat: The U.S. government is suggesting that Ms. Norris change her name, strip away her past, possibly even change her appearance, because she has been targeted by Muslim extremists who are not amused by her work or her ideas. Rather than protect her, rather than defend her, rather than stand up for her Constitutional and democratic rights, declaring their intention to route al-Awlaki out and bring him (and others who are threatening her life) to justice, the American government, as it were, is itself in essence allying with him by taking away her freedom and her life.

Now listen. I will say this again: I emphatically support Molly Norris’ right to safety. I think it is terrible that she has to go into hiding, and I can only imagine the fear and distress that she is feeling right now.

But. I 100% do not support Norris’ right to mean-spirited mockery. I do not support anyone’s right to belittle, poke fun at, show insensitivity or thoughtlessness towards anyone else’s system of belief – but especially at Islam, seeing how it seems to have become some sort of Liberal American pastime to see who can make the most Islamophobic joke.  And this is while the rights of Muslims to pursue their system of belief is under attack, all across the Western world.

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Boo, Hiss: True Blood Recap “Evil is Going On” S03E12

Hosted by Thea Lim, with Tami Winfrey Harris, Latoya Peterson, Andrea Plaid and Joseph Lamour

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Thea: Well. Colour me disappointed. Laffy and Jesus get all of 5 seconds in the season finale, the cliffhangers have solely to do with the unkillable Bill and Sookie (wow, I wonder what is going to happen to them. yawn.), Alcide gets neither action nor a chance to take off his shirt, Nan is totally unchanged by Russell’s TV appearance, Godric comes back as a hippie hologram, AND Tara leaves the show?…Wait, maybe Tara leaving the show isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe she’ll move to some new parish with good storylines.

Latoya: I’m still blown that they set it up so Tara leaves. W.T.F. I remember clearly saying “Tara and Laffy go to New Orleans” not Tara gets a new cute ‘do and rides off into the sunset. Now, I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense. It’s been about three months of non-stop drama, murder, and mayhem. But I’m mad Tara might get the chop. Unless something takes out her car on the way out of Bon Temps, which could also happen.

Andrea: Thea, you will be the life of me!:-) I wholeheartedly agree with ya: I felt Sookie disappearing into Faerieville *improved* the show. Bill and Sophie….didn’t give a shit. I hope that ends with their driving stakes into each other’s hearts. Laffy and Jesus: the witch confession was interesting, but then that suggests what a couple of readers said in earlier threads about Jesus manipulating Laffy via his visions so Laffy would be dependent on him. Then again, it could become an interesting lover/apprenticeship entanglement that might be fascinating to watch.

Thea: I did love Laffy’s “so you’re a witch who’s a nurse who’s a dude?” line.

Andrea: That was a moment, but I also want to get some clarity on the gendered meaning of “witch.” ::Flashes big “W” in the sky:: Hey, Winn, would you mind offering some understanding about that for me, pretty please with your favorite topping on it? :-)

But my fave moment is Tara riding out of town with her fab-ass car and new ‘do. Roll on, sistahgurl, roll on…

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Tara Cuts Her Hair: A Reality Check

Thea: It’s true. That was a good moment. What did y’all think of the haircut scene? Did one of the writers watch Good Hair and then write a memo saying “Black ladies like hair. Must write hair scene for Tara.” Oh, I have just out-cynical-ed even myself.

Andrea: Not at all, Big T. (May I call you Big T, Thea?) I liked the scene a lot. I dig your analysis about the racialization of the scene, but I didn’t quite read it that way. At first, I read it as an engendered scene, of “look at the woman cutting her hair to change her life,” which seems to be a leitmotif of women’s transformation stories in literature, mythologies, and pop culture. However I had to check that idea because hair-cutting seems to symbolize, in both spiritual and secular traditions, a letting go, a movement towards transforming one’s life for people of various genders. And, as much as I loved Tara’s fresh braids for three seasons, I really dig her natural lush ‘do, which is rare to see a dark-skinned Black woman rock in moving pictures.

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Dagnabit Shit Fuck: True Blood Recap S03E11

Hosted by Thea Lim and featuring Joseph Lamour, Tami Winfrey Harris, Latoya Peterson and Andrea Plaid

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Thea: Another sort of lackluster episode, though better than last week’s. Though I have to say this eppy sure had lots of good oneliners:

I used to drink hot sauce straight out of the bottle…that was a good time.

Dagnabit Shit Fuck!

So you turn into a panther! What the hell! That ain’t so bad.

Tami: What no love for Pam calling Bill an “infatuated tween”? That was the quote of the night. It perfectly captured the essence of the Bill and Sookie romance.

Andrea: Oh! My! Gawd! Pam aced the ep with that line. I so heart that vamp (pun intended).

Thea: Well, I didn’t want to steal all the good lines…I wanted to give y’all a chance to list your own fave oneliners :) Also I just read on the internet that Mama Hoyt actually said Dagnabit Shit Fire! I truly hope not, Shit Fuck is just so wonderful.

Thea: But to get down to the really really important business: poll – do we prefer LaLa as a pet name for our favourite, or Laffy? I can’t decide.

Joe: I love it when Ruby calls him Lala, but not when anyone else does. My vote goes for Laffy.

Tami: Co-sign, Joe. I love “Lala,” but it feels like one of those special names within friends or family that only one person is allowed to use. I’m going for Laffy.

Latoya: Team Lala. It makes me squee to think of 6 year old Lafayette. But Laffy works too.

Andrea: Honestly, I like Laffy or even Lafette, which is my fam’s nickname for my uncle, who shares the same name. I’m with Joe: let “Lala” be his mom’s nickname for him. Though, to be honest, I don’t like it coming from her mouth because there’s a homophobic bite to it.

Thea: Hm…that’s an interesting point about Lala having a homophobic bite…especially since every episode since its intro, Laffy has been addressed as such. This week, it was by the religious icons during a bad trip. Aiyeee..but more on that later, of course.

A Black Panther?

Thea: So here, for once, I would like those of you Charlaine Harris fans who’ve been sitting on your hands in the corner for fear of spoiling anything for the rest of us, to step up: is Crystal a black panther in the books, or is that just a choice they made for the visual medium of TV? Actually, wait a sec, are all panthers black? Since this is True Blood, master of dabbling foolishly in serious historical shit, I can’t help but wonder why they would choose a black panther, an animal which is, as professorjawn put it in the comments last week, “a uniquely racialized animal in the US psyche.”

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Joe: Other than the Pink Panther, panthers are all black, otherwise they’re called something else, like jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, and cougars (another loaded word, this day in age.) While reading the book I definitely assumed the (spoiler alert!) Hotshot people were all panthers, and that those panthers were of this variety: and not of the beret-ed variety. Also, to my (cursory, at best) knowledge, a panther is not actually a type of cat like a lion, but it refers to the color. For instance: a black jaguar is a panther, and a black cougar is a panther. There is a such thing as a white panther, but its rare, like a white tiger. Confusing enough? Yes, yes it is.

Interestingly enough, the reason that panther cats of any variety turn out black is because of- take a guess- an abundance of melanin. The writers, and Charlaine for that matter, probably didn’t think too hard about which species of cat to go with. Willful ignorance strikes again, I guess.

Tami: The folks in Hot Shot were panthers in Charlaine’s Harris’ books, though I don’t recall her specifying black panthers. II always assumed they were the sort of panther found in America–the cougar. I think the choice of using a black panther for Crystal was stylistic–they certainly look cool lurking in the shadows. It’s just that given True Blood’s sketchy racial imagery this season, even the most benign choices seem to mean something more sinister.

Sookie & Bill Are Boring; Pam Breaks Our Heart with her Anti-Immigrant Sentiment

Thea: So Latoya totally called it last week when she said, “But again, it’s Sookie who gets the creepy chain basement to herself, and she’ll probably be saved in a day or so, so whatever, I can’t drum up any concern.” OMG, try saved in like, fifteen minutes. More and more I am just writing the word “BOOOORING” in my notebook during all the Bill-Sookie scenes.’

Latoya: I hate being right. There isn’t even time to fake concern anymore.

Andrea: LOLOLOL I think we’re supposed to either 1) conveniently ignore that she was rescued or that 2) we’re supposed to get all “yeah girl-power!” that another human–especially a woman–rescued her. I think Ball and Co. wanted us to focus on the fact that she “whupped Pam’s ass” (with said woman’s help) to save her man. What peeved me is Pam’s xenophobic plea regarding Sookie’s sex-worker rescuer, “Don’t leave me here with this idiot immigrant!” The woman response, “I’m a cardiologist!” missed the humor mark because it turns back on her: the stereotyping questions become, “Why is a cardiologist hanging with vampires? Don’t they get good pay in that line of work?” Which can play either way: 1) thoughts about why people go into sex work (basic answer: the reasons are myriad) and 2) the stereotypes of female immigrants as victims of sex trades. Too much hung on that joke, which is why it fell flat for me.

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Blah blah True Blood Blah: S03 E10

Hosted by Thea Lim, featuring Joseph Lamour, Tami Winfrey Harris, Latoya Peterson, and Andrea Plaid

Blah Blah Fairies Blah

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Thea: Was it just me, or was this eppy a little blah?

Tami: It was. In fact, I am honestly having a hard time talking about it, because it was so not memorable. An episode packed with two (supposedly) big reveals should be a lot more entertaining.

Thea: Yes. They are not giving us very good snarking material.

Latoya: I can’t remember. All I know is I kept screaming “FUCK YOU SOOKIE!” about every 15 minutes or so, before my anguished scream after Sookie tells Tara to get over her relationship with Bill, then listens to Tara confess and gives her a half-assed hug. WHAT? Renounce his ass already! DAAAAMN! And he probably killed Claudine!!! *pant pant*

Okay, clearly, I had something to get off my chest. Continue, Thea. *sits in the corner*

Thea: We find out what Sookie is, but no one really cares at this point. Also that is not such an interesting revelation.

Andrea: All I’m saying is my happy ass was right, and I didn’t even read the book. Damn, I’m good… ::pats self on back:: My thing is, in this episode, Sookie being a fairy melds two racialized stereotypes: 1) the stereotype of the white woman as an ethereal, inspirational being, which further feeds into the stereotype of the Idealized White Woman, as well as 2) the white woman who very being deserves protection on the strength of her white femaleness. Note how Bill and Eric are running to her aid. I’m sort of surprised Alcide didn’t come running when Bill and Eric had their “little talk” about revealing Sookie’s “true identity.” I think it’s all rather yawny.

*expletive* You Sookie!

Joe: I’m pretty sure Bill didn’t kill Claudine. But! Honestly, Sookie. If I found out my friend were in trouble and my boyfriend not only did nothing to help, but stayed in the same house while it was happening, I would have a little more than a non-committal hug and an “Aw, I’m sorry” to offer. It makes me madder than fish grease. I am so furious about that. Also, there was no feeling of true condolence even in that moment.

It appears from last weeks weepy breakup that Anna Paquin is a pretty good actress, so it leads me to believe that the way she reacted to Tara’s news will lead to some intense conflict down the line. Like, are we not supposed to like Sookie? Because anyone with two eyes can see that Tara (even with her tough exterior) was in a particularly bad way. Her boyfriend got shot in the head. She was kidnapped. She was raped. Her rapist literally exploded in her face. Sookie, the worst friend of the year award goes to you. *End of my rant*

Andrea: As y’all know, I feel the exact opposite about Paquin’s acting skills as far as this role is concerned. To me, she’s one-dimensional in this role, and Sookie is a one-dimensional character as Alan Ball and the crew have been playing it on this show. Not too much matters to Sookie beyond herself–not even her supposedly bestest’s pain. But again, we’ve seen that Tara’s and Sookie’s friendship isn’t really based on anything but, as someone said in an earlier roundtable, nostalgia. So, yeah, I’m pissed, but I ain’t surprised…and Paquin’s acting really didn’t help with that scene.

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Tami: And what’s up with Sookie’s “Yeah, Jason, you really should tell an already hurting Tara that you shot her boyfriend. OK, then, gotta run do Sookie business.”

The character is so clueless in her interactions with other people.

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