Category Archives: women

For Indian Girls, Radical Black Feminism or the American Dream?

By Guest Contributor Chaya Babu

When two famous black feminists take the stage to discuss social justice and feminism, or more specifically, how race and class impact African American women’s experiences in the US, why is it that I–an Indian American woman from pretty, affluent Briarcliff Manor, New York–feel at home? How is that this where I feel whole, recognized, and validated?

I don’t actually need the answers to these questions as some sort of navel-gazing exercise. But others seem to. When it comes to our position in social movements, identity is a big deal; it behooves us to acknowledge and take accountability for our inherent role, by default of who we are, in intersectional systems of oppression. So perhaps confusion is founded. As an upper-middle-class, straight, cissexual, conventionally feminine woman, whose ethnic minority status in America is mitigated by being part of the ‘model minority,’ it’s true that I have much going for me. I could ride the tide of my privilege. Easy.

But I started thinking about race at an early age. When we watched a video about MLK and the civil rights movement in second grade, I saw a binary and placed myself on the pigmented side of it. At 11-years-old, I adopted hip and hop and its surrounding culture as my self-expression in a white world. Would things have been different if my parents played Bollywood films in the house? I can’t be sure. Whatever it was, I identified clearly with non-whiteness. This made me an outcast in a way. I grew up around mostly white people, and the other Indians I knew seemed to see themselves on that side of the color line, or at the very least, they were more seduced by the power that came with our proximity to whiteness, as Melissa Harris-Perry put it. I am guilty of this too, but I still felt acutely that my brown skin was creating a vast gulf between my reality and that of my white  friends. If I had to guess, this is where I got my sense of injustice in the world, despite my understanding that I was exceedingly blessed and shrouded in comfort, wealth, and opportunity.

I was more aware of my status as a person of color than as a woman.  (It took me much longer to become aware of the endless benefits of my class position, because, well, that’s how it works). I became interested in anti-racism far before I felt drawn to anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal movements or cared about class dynamics. (Of course, I now get that it’s all connected.) But I think my internalization of my color is very telling for where I stand now when it comes to my personal feminist politics. Regardless of the particulars of the layering, all of this means I stand outside of my own ethnic community in the US–a community that, in my experience, often seems largely (not universally) brainwashed by the promise of ascending in a racist system.

Based on this, who could I have looked to as speaking to me–a little brown girl whose large suburban home had a Ganesha in a kitchen cupboard–about dissent and disruption of the status quo? What, you don’t believe in a white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy, you say? Who put these thoughts in your head?

There was no place for me there. My place was to be a good Indian girl.

A large part of last week’s talk between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at The New School (see above) was about black women’s voices: the avenues though which they convey their messages, the shift in how they are represented, why some mainstream spaces may be more open to promoting them, even if minimally (Harris-Perry on MSNBC). I had no access to these voices when I was younger. I had some Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in high school, and then college and beyond gave me the nonfiction radical texts of bell hooks and Harris-Perry, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Roberts, and more. However, I couldn’t see that I was allowed to turn their thoughts into action in my own life, no matter how deeply they touched my heart.

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The Racial and Sexual Politics of Peace

By Guest Contributor Kelly Macías; originally published at The Feminist Wire

The week of October 7th was Nobel Prize week. And for economists, writers, scientists, and those who actively work for the resolution of conflict, and peace more broadly, the announcement of the Nobel Prize awards are like the Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys all rolled into one. Those of us engaged in the fields of international relations, conflict resolution, and peace studies eagerly await the announcement of who will win the coveted Nobel Peace Prize. This year, many of us thought that it would be Malala Yousafzai (we were wrong, by the way). You’ve likely heard of Malala. And you probably know the names of the Peace Prize winners more than any of the winners in the other categories– Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Al Gore, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of recipients. Peacemakers need not be academicians, have formal education, or even know how to write. They can be from ordinary backgrounds and do extraordinary things to change their communities, countries, and the world for the better. They actively work to undo systems of oppression and injustice. They are everyday folks who become our heroes.

Racial and Sexual Politics of Peace

Malala Yousafzai

Unfortunately, peace has long been regarded as men’s work, and the Nobel Peace Prize is still a bit of a boys club. There have been 125 winners of the award since 1901, with 100 of those going to individuals and 25 going to organizations. Out of the 100 individuals, only 15 have been women. That number totals only 15% of the prize’s overall winners. And even though they are largely underrepresented in recognition, the list of women who have been awarded the prize is quite commendable and distinguished. Jane Addams, Rigoberta Menchu, Wangaari Matthai, Aun Sang Suu Kyi and Mother Theresa are among those 15. One of the wonderful things about this list of extraordinary women is that, at least for me, it is easy to see some of myself in each one. They were humble women who saw communities or countries damaged by violence and inequality. They knew that no one is truly free when others are oppressed and they put everything they had into changing oppressive structures. The international community took note and recognized them for their efforts.

Yet there are some glaring omissions on the list of Peace Prize winners. For example, no woman of color from the United States, nor openly LGBTQ individual, nor an organization championing the rights of LGBTQ persons has ever received the award. This is hard to believe but true. If you look at the contributions of Black American women alone (some of whom are also part of the LGBTQ community), we have a rich history of peace activism dating all the way back to slavery and the abolitionist movement. We organized for civil rights and marched in Birmingham and Selma. Some of us even lost our lives during that struggle. One of us even spoke at the March on Washington (Daisy Bates, the lone female speaker at the event). Even after the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, we continue to promote peace and the elimination of harmful structures in this country via the prison system, education, health care, public housing, etc. And we are not alone. Women of color in the U.S. have been incredibly active in championing and building peace. Consider Yuri Kochiyama, who was actually nominated for the Peace Prize in 2005; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association (which later became United Farm Workers), who organized for migrant workers and the poor; Ada Deer, a member of the Menominee Nation and as a Native American activist who was the first woman to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs — the list of activist women of color is long and distinguished. However, these contributions seem lost on the peace community.

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My Dad, the Feminist

My Dad, The Feminist

By Guest Contributor Sydney Magruder; originally published at Elixher

I am 10 years old, sitting in a booth at Applebee’s, and my Dad is grilling me.

“Okay, last one. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space?”

I am stumped.

“C’mon, Syd. I know you know it,” prods Daddy.

I turn the question over and over in my head like a smooth stone unearthed from a riverbed. Who was the first Black woman ever to enter space? I bite down harder on my lower lip, considering all of the trivia questions Daddy has ever asked me, and trying to remember if he’d asked this one before. He had not.

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I remember learning about her in school, and I could see her smiling face on a picture from my 6th grade classroom. Suddenly, a moment of clarity. A flash of brown skin, a cumbersome-looking orange suit, and the NASA insignia above a gleaming white name tag: Jemison.

“Mae Jemison! The first Black woman ever to enter space was Mae Jemison!” I offer confidently.

“Atta girl, Syd!” Daddy offers me a single french fry as reward for my effort.

As was customary, we played Black history trivia every time we went out to eat together. For each right answer, I was given that crunchy, salty, coveted reward. I munch contentedly as I watched the gears turn in his head, forming another question.

“Now…who was the first Black woman ever to be President of the United States?” he raises his eyebrow mischievously.

“Daddy, that’s a trick question. No Black woman has ever been President of the United States. It’s a fact.”

(I was a serious child—a very bossy, know-it-all, matter-of-fact little girl. Imagine Angelica, of Rugrats fame, with afro puffs.)

“Ah, not yet!” he shakes his finger at me. “It could very well be you, Sydney Magruder!” he bellows in his full, rich baritone. I laugh at him, and reach for another french fry. He reaches for one too, pretending to fence with his. I best him, splitting his fry pitifully in half with my own. I chew triumphantly.

“Ready to go?” he indicates the door with his eyes.

“Mom’s gonna make me go straight to bed when we get home,” I gripe.  “I’m not sleepy yet!”

I always begged to stay longer whenever we went out. Bedtime was the ultimate hindrance to our intellectual adventures.

Sydney and her dad

Sydney and her dad (right)

“Even geniuses have to sleep, baby” he retorts rationally.

In the car, the raindrops race each other across the window. I follow them with my index finger as the Washington, D.C. skyline hung in the distance. Daddy sings along to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Out of nowhere, he turns down his favorite track. As “Southern Cross” plays faintly in the background, he turns to me.

“Y’know, I think you’d make a great president one day,” he beams. I smile at him, believing his every word.

And just like that, Daddy put roots in my heart. Roots that would one day grow into feminism.

As a child, Dad constantly reminded me that I was not limited by my gender, or by my Blackness. He celebrated them to no end, constantly praising my intellect, my wit, and my good judgment. He made perfectly clear to me the plight of women and of people of color in this country, and stressed the importance of knowing our history — my history.

The trivia games we played at restaurants when I was a child have reinvented themselves into an expected text message from him to me every April 4th and November 22nd, asking me which two famous men died that day. (Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, respectively. Nailed it.) He still promises me french fries for correct answers. While my mom demonstrated the strength, poise, grace and tenacity of women of color in her everyday actions, Daddy proclaimed them in his words.

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The Ordway Still Doesn’t Get Sexism and Racism (The Problem with Miss Saigon)

 

"Don't Buy Miss Saigon Coalition's 'Our Truth' Tumblr project slide show was projected in front of the Ordway Theater during the protest of the opening night of Miss Saigon.  October 8th, 2013.  Photo by Bao Phi."

Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition’s ‘Our Truth’ Tumblr project slide show was projected in front of the Ordway Theater during the protest of the opening night of Miss Saigon. October 8th, 2013. Photo by Bao Phi.

 

By Guest Contributor Mai Neng Moua

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here we are again.  Miss Saigon, the musical about a Vietnamese prostitute falling in love with a white soldier during the Vietnam War, then killing MissSaigonLies-logoherself when he ultimately rejects her, was back onstage at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul (MN), until the show closed this past Sunday.  This musical, like any good zombie, just won’t stay dead. Along with it, the racism and sexism inherent in the play have been resurrected.  Really, as the mom of two girls under six and the spouse of a candidate running for office, I don’t have time to get involved – again – in the protest against Miss Saigon.  I protested this back in 1994.  Plenty of good people (Don’t Buy MISS SAIGON Coalition) are already working on it.  More articulate writers (David Mura) have written about it.

However, when one of my African American friends said, “No one has said why it’s offensive and I’m unfamiliar with the show, so I can’t relate,” I decided to follow my advice to my husband Blong, who had originally refused to answer the question of a white man: “What does the Trayvon Martin case have to do with civil rights?” Responses to these questions take time and energy. But as I told Blong, “Plenty of people don’t know, so while it is tiresome, you have to answer the question.”

So, why is Miss Saigon sexist, racist and generally offensive?

The above-referenced Vietnamese prostitute is portrayed as a tragic figure whose only hope is being rescued by the white soldier.  Since the Vietnamese men in the production are portrayed as morally offensive and undesirable, this white guy is the only choice.  The only hero of the musical is a white man.  It’s bad enough that the woman at the center of the musical needs a man to rescue her from her life. The fact that this can only happen at the hands of a white man makes it sexist and racist.  I am Hmong, not Vietnamese, so why do I care?  Unfortunately, people can’t tell the difference.  They’ve mistaken me for Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.  Kim, the Vietnamese prostitute, is me.  I am her.

In Miss Saigon, the only image of Asian women is “prostitute”– not that I am condemning sex workers.  But not all Asian women during the Vietnam War were prostitutes.  When stereotypes are the only images people see, it is necessary to correct the record.  This play is telling me and my young daughters that essentially, we, Asian women, exist to serve and please white men.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  My truth about the Asian women I know who lived during the Vietnam War is far different.  The women I know were resourceful, strong, and fearless.  For example, my mother took care of my two brothers and I after my father died at the tail end of the Vietnam War.  After the Americans pulled out of Laos, the Hmong were targeted for extermination for our role in helping the Americans.  With my mother as the head of our household, we escaped Laos and survived the refugee camps in Thailand.  In America, she navigated the social service system so that we had a roof over our heads, had food in our stomachs, and graduated from high school and college.

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International Politics and the First African American Flight Attendants

By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, Ph.D.; originally published at Sociological Images

“Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing was more glamorous.” This breathless statement, quoted in Femininity in Flight, was uttered by a flight attendant in 1945.  At the time being a stewardess was quite glamorous.  Like motion pictures do today, airlines trafficked in “the business of female spectacle.”  They hired only women who they believed to represent ideal femininity. Chosen for their beauty and poise, and only from among the educated, and slender, they were as much of an icon as Miss America.  And they were almost all White.

Victoria Vantoch tells the story of the first African American flight attendants in a chapter of her new book, The Jet Sex.  Patricia Banks was one of the first Black women to sue an airline for racial discrimination.  She graduated from flight attendant training school at the top of her class and applied to several airlines.  But it was 1956 and the U.S. airlines had never hired a Black woman.  After 10 months of trying, an airline recruiter pulled her aside and admitted that it was because of her race.  Which, of course, it was; airlines disqualified any applicants that had broad noses, full lips, coarse hair, or a “hook nose” (to weed out Jews).

Banks sued. After four years of litigation, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her.  She postponed her marriage and took the job (airlines only hired single women as flight attendants). When she put on her uniform for the first time, she said:

After all I had gone through, I couldn’t believe I was finally wearing the uniform. I had made it. I was going to fly. It was such an accomplishment.

patriciabanks

Individual women weren’t the only ones pushing to integrate the flight attendants corps.   International surveys showed that citizens of other countries knew that America had a “race problem” and this was a problem for then-President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson.  They needed to do something flashy and they turned to flight attendants to do it.  If they could make Black women the face of such an iconic and high-profile occupation, they thought, it would help restore America’s reputation.  According to Vantoch, Johnson “made stewardess integration his personal cause.”

That was 1961; in 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act mandating equal treatment in the workplace.  The following year, in response to even more lawsuits, approximately 50 Black women were hired by airlines.  This would make them 0.33% of the workforce.

Patricia  Banks and her fellow first African American flight attendants, including Mary Tillerand Marlene White, would continue to face racism, now from co-workers, passengers, and supervisors.  Banks would quit after one year, citing exhaustion in the face of emotionally draining feminine work and a constant onslaught of racism.  She was a great flight attendant, though, and proud to show the world that a Black woman could shine in the occupation.

Here’s Patricia Banks, telling the story in her own words at Black History in Aviation. It’s worth a watch; she’s amazing:

Cross-posted at VitaminW.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter andFacebook.

Rick Owens sends a bevy of thick, black women down the runway. Progress?

Image from Rick Owens spring 2014 presentation, courtesy of New York magazine.

Image from Rick Owens spring 2014 presentation, courtesy of New York magazine.

 

The lack of racial diversity in the fashion industry has been a hot topic of late. So too, fashion’s celebration of bodies that few women–even models–can realistically obtain. So, Rick Owens’ spring 2014 presentation in Paris (see a slideshow of images at the link), which featured snarling, mostly-black members of a step team (Howard University’s Zeta Phi Beta sorority), with thick thighs and curvy middles, should have been a breath of fresh air–a blow against homogeneity.

Or not.

Kinitra Brooks, pop culture professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, helped me put my feelings in perspective when she said, “I had a mixed reaction. I found the theme of Vicious and the hyperbolic mean-mugging highly problematic. Particularly in regards to the stigma types of strong and angry black women. And then, I was hypnotized by their beautiful shades of skin against those earth tones and their legs, my God their legs! They were so muscular and full of purpose and supported their bodies as they performed all types of physical feats. I read an article that spoke of the women as blessing the audience with their awesomeness and then exiting in such a way that said, ‘Bye now! We are way too cool for this place.’”

As happy as I am to see fresh faces on the runway, unfortunately, I can’t fully appreciate these women, as my friend did, because of how the Owens show was steeped in racial and gendered stereotype. The models’ aggressive expressions and movements seem designed to play into old myths of black women as bestial and hard. I would have appreciated it if Owens had presented those models sans theatrics. As it is, the show seems not a celebration of diverse beauty, but as if the designer thought, “Hey, what’s the opposite of the ethereal and beautiful white women who typically line catwalks? Thick, angry black chicks. Edgy!”

Indeed, Owens called the show his “fuck-you to conventional beauty.” And there we have it. The Owens show is less an expression that women of diverse races and body types can be beautiful, than a designer using brown bodies to present what he believes is anti-beauty to flip the fashion script. I think, this is not so much progress as business as usual.

Abused Goddesses, Orientalism and the Glamorization of Gender-Based Violence

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By Guest Contributor Sayantani DasGupta; originally published at Feminist Wire

The Abused Goddesses of India. The advertisements, created by Mumbai-based ad firm Taproot India, have been making the rounds – not only of my Facebook friends’ walls, but of many a feminist and progressive site including Bust, Ultraviolet, V-Day and MediaWatch, usually along with reactions like “powerful” and “heartbreaking.”

The images are unusual in their aesthetic appeal. After all, it’s not every day that you see the Hindu Goddesses Laxshmi, Saraswati or Durga made to appear as if they have been subject to gender-based violence – with tear stained faces, open cuts and battered cheekbones. But even despite (or because of?) the bruising around those divine eyes, the images are breathtaking – recreations of ancient Hindu paintings accurate to their last bejeweled crown and luscious lotus leaf.

I’ll admit it, I too was entranced by these ads when I first saw them. Having grown up in the heart of the American Midwest at a time when no one in the media looked even remotely like brown-skinned and dark haired me, I have a particular soft spot for images of glamorous Indian women. After childhood and teenage years believing that no one who wasn’t a blonde, blue-eyed Christie Brinkley look-alike could be deemed ‘beautiful,’ I’m still a complete sucker for images of traditional Indian beauty.

Yet, no matter how appealing, these ads are also deeply problematic. The reasons are multiple:

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Quoted: Janet Mock on DJ Mister Cee and the shaming of men who love trans women

From “How Society Shames Men Attracted to Trans Women and How This Affects Our Lives”

This anti-trans woman ideology is harmful, misogynistic and pervasive and travels way beyond the comments section of gossip blogs, and as Sylvia Rivera once said, “I will no longer put up with this shit.”

I am a trans woman. My sisters are trans women. We are not secrets. We are not shameful. We are worthy of respect, desire, and love. As there are many kinds of women, there are many kinds of men, and many men desire many kinds of women, trans women are amongst these women. And let’s be clear: Trans women are women.

The shame that society attaches to these men, specifically attacking their sexuality and shaming their attraction, directly affects trans women. It affects the way we look at ourselves. It amplifies our body-image issues, our self-esteem, our sense of possibility, of daring for greatness, of aiming for something or somewhere greater. If a young trans woman believes that the only way she can share intimate space with a man is through secret hookups, bootycalls or transaction, she will be led to engage in risky sexual behaviors that make her more vulnerable to criminalization, disease and violence; she will be led to coddle a man who takes out his frustrations about his sexuality on her with his fists; she will be led to question whether she’s worthy enough to protect herself with a condom when a man tells her he loves her; she will be led to believe that she is not worthy of being seen, that being seen heightens her risk of violence therefore she must hide who she is at all costs in order to survive.

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New York DJ, Mister Cee, resigned last week amid soliciting allegations. The DJ, whose real name is Calvin LeBrun, has been arrested twice for soliciting sex from transgender sex workers.

New York DJ, Mister Cee, resigned last week amid soliciting allegations. The DJ, whose real name is Calvin LeBrun, has been arrested twice for soliciting sex from transgender sex workers.