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Time alone, socially with ourselves, can be a truly healing ordeal. When we’re alone, we tend to think. Thinking is hard work. It really takes a disciplined mind to reflect, to look at different items in life and piece them together differently than they are presented to us.…perhaps with more clarity. We may experience anxiety, left with our own thoughts in the solitude of quarantine. From whatever source or another, you may feel anxious about being alone. Develop calming practices. Curate calming activities in your life that bring you peace.
You may experience restlessness. What to do with all that time? Many of you will want to be productive. Do something you enjoy. What do you like to do with your (wrestling) hands? Hold a book? Saw wood? Bake? Knit me a scarf?!?
Whether you enjoy listening to music and talking about the memories and times music evokes, explore what you like to do. Me? I dance, read, write, binge on TV series, and digging my hands in dirt to grow stuff. I especially love propagating plants. I try any plant I can get ahold of. In my garden, I have a beautiful crawling flower I clipped in Barcelona. It spreads over soil and has bright green leaves with bright red flowers that unfold into a star at dusk. Curate creative activities in your life that bring you peace.
Solitude gives us time for introspection – a kind of dialogue with ourselves. We love all forms of art because of the internal dialogue with ourselves as we observe a movie, painting, sculpture, fashion, performance, etc. We know at the heart of each of those creations, there was an artist in solitude.
In my solitude…
Alice walker sat and wrote The Color Purple with pen and paper. The screenwriters later came along and did the same. Each actor received their own script. On screen we watch Ms. Sofia tell Ms. Celie to “bash Mister’s head in and think about heaven later,” after confronting her for telling her step-son to beat her. Imagine how Oprah read all of THAT from just a few letters to god. On the page, Celie acknowledges her jealousy of Sofia’s power – she’s just as “poor, Black and ugly” as she. She apologizes and reconciles by helping Harpo’s next woman recognize her own power. There’s a whole storyline about this. The book more keenly develops more characters and their transformations. In our solitude, we read The Color Purple and for the first time view it in Technicolor.
In the book, of course, we neither see the bruises and blood nor hear the screams the children must have hears when Mister beats Celie senselessly throughout their marriage. We read how Celie gained the courage to leave this batterer. Oh, and the grandest surprise is that Shug reveals to Celie that God ain’t a man, and he ain’t white, neither. If God were a white man, neither could believe in him, according to the book. Both their redemptions came from there, not as the film shows. In the film, Shug is a floozy who redeems herself by becoming ‘respectable’. The film doesn’t question the heteropatriarchal god, a central narrative in the book.
The book is really queer. Harpo loves to cook, clean and take care of kids while his woman works. Harpo resolves his Oedipal dilemma by accepting that he’s not a patriarch like his father. The film depicts his struggle but not this resolution. In the book, there’s an entire sub-narrative about how Celie’s kids in Africa – raised by her sister Nettie – reject the traditional gender roles. This is only hinted at in the film.
Of course, Celie’s a lesbian, Shug’s bisexual and Mister is cool with their love triangle. In the book, Mister’s redemption is there, literally becoming just a tiny bit more feminist, though still not nearly as the flashy boxer Shug later marries. Another big twist is that in the book is that Shug and her husband split amicably; he moves south of the border with Harpo’s woman, Mary Agnes, to run their very own marijuana plantation.
Celie encouraged Mary Agnes to stop people from calling her Squeak, a sub-narrative that only is hinted at in the film’s iconic Thanksgiving scene, aka Celie’s uprising. I love Celie’s nasty retort to Mister’s sinister dad in this scene: “Seem like if he hadn’t been your boy, he might a made somebody a halfway decent man.” Shug helps Mary Agnes have her own singing career, as implied in the Thanksgiving scene when she says she’s leaving with Celie and Shug Avery. In a deep hearty laugh that breaks the dramatic tension, Sofia declares: “Oh, Sofia(‘s) home.”
Self-love and women supporting women are huge themes that can’t be captured in a movie, it needs a whole mini-series to watch at home. Serendipitously, at the end of the scene when their boarding the car, Celie’s hex on Mister is almost taken directly from the pages. “Until you do right by me, ev’ry thing you even think about gonna fail!”
Finally, in the book, Celie and Mister eventually become friends. Come back with her long-lost kids and the dear sister Nettie he’d banished and “whoop his ass.” I love, love, love the film, but all of this was erased from book to script. I discovered all of this in my solitude.
The Color Purple was originally written as Celie’s prayers, the way she escaped the hell of her existence. In the book, she found this through love. On the paper, we can see that she stops writing to “God” and instead addresses the letters to her sister Nettie, the one who taught her to read (in both versions). The pages, not the movie, clearly reveal this spiritual transformation. Celie continues to write to Nettie, not knowing anything of her fate, only having found the old letters Mister had stashed away for years. Their love was so strong that in her solitude, writing the letters brought her peace. Curate writing activities that bring you peace.
Do you keep a journal, dabble in poetry, admire the prose in your head? Set aside time as a family for writing and reading. Experience solitude together. Share your work. Curate activities that bring you peace. Use this quarantine to strengthen your capacity to love.
The Invisible Knapsack of Patriarchy: A Thought Experiment that totally plagiarises Peggy McIntosh. #BlackenAsiaWithLove
It’s frustrating dealing with liberals, fighting over the word ‘feminist’, when we’re all clearly united against patriarchy. Who are these man-hating feminists denouncers speak of? I have nothing against the term “womanist,” coined by my favourite novelist Alice Walker. This is especially true since I have familiarized myself with generations of earlier feminist work by elite, white women who seemingly ignored the women of colour whose labour gave them the leisure time to write and publish those works (for more on this, see bell hooks’ iconic 1984 Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, or Patricia Hill Collins’ ground-breaking 2000 Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment ). Yet, why do we allow ourselves to be so split? As early as 1851, proto-feminist Sojourner Truth delivered the words ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ decades before Suffrage, yet we allow illiberals to divide-and-conquer – us! We, liberals, split hairs with one another at every turn, meanwhile right-wingers organise towards our total demise.
So, for your reading pleasure, I’ve totally copied Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege (1989). I’ve inserted “gender” where she originally wrote “race,” inserted “patriarchy” to speak of culture, and used the F-word – “feminist” – where she speaks of people of colour. Here we go:
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my gender widely represented. Unless the topic is gender, most of the coverage in entire sections is devoted to my gender, such as sports and economics.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my gender as leaders of policies and thought.
- I can be sure that boys will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence, relevance, intelligence and dominance of their gender.
- I can be casual about whether or not to listen to a woman’s voice in a group in which she is the only member of her gender.
- I do not have to educate boys to be aware of systemic sexism for their own daily physical protection.
- I can be pretty sure that my male children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their gender, because ‘boys will be boys’.
- I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my gender.
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, illiteracy or lack of beauty of my gender.
- I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my gender on trial.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of women who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in patriarchal culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my gender group.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my gender.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as an outsider to patriarchal culture.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my gender.
- If I declare there is a sexist issue at hand, or there isn’t a sexist issue at hand, my gender will lend me more credibility for either position than a woman will have.
- I can choose to ignore developments in feminist writing and feminist activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
- Patriarchal culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of women.
- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my gender in a non-sexual way.
- I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine
- I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my gender.
- I can worry about sexism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my gender.
- If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had sexist overtones.
- I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my gender would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
- I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my gender.
- If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my gender is not the problem.
- I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my gender.
- I can travel alone without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with me.
McIntosh notes, and I concur: My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will.
“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” affirms Alice Walker in acknowledging the interconnectedness of gender, race and class theory and oppression. Sit down when feminists rise at (y)our own peril. Please, dear liberals, let’s stop playing the who-more-woke game and get in-formation!
I’ve stopped by an infamous breakfast food chain and ordered a bottomless coffee, and a breakfast combo that comes with two fried eggs, two different rations of fried pork and bottomless pancakes.
Waiting for my order, I notice that not less than four varieties of syrup rest on the table, accompanied by salt, pepper, and a ceramic cup full of packages of sugar and two varieties of artificial sweeteners.
A whole tub of single-serve full fat creamers comes with my bottomless coffee, which I promptly sent back.
The young lady serving is massively obese, as are most of the other people who both serve and patronize this business.
And this is business as usual throughout the south, and now most of America, particularly at these sorts of times, especially in these sorts of businesses.
The joint had only been open since the top of the hour, and so I could overhear the duty manager dealing out the day’s duty rations.
As two of the team followed her around, I heard her explain that she was reserving the spillover seating section for whoever showed up “super-late.”
Knowing management speak, I heard ‘super-late’ as a shaming label used to monitor and control behavior.
I heard her punctuate these instructions by explaining that someone’s shift had started at 5:30 yet they still hadn’t shown up.
“You ok, sweetie,” the young lady breezes over and asks me casually.
“I’m fine,” I quickly replied, adding: “It’s good, too,” as if she or the cook had actually hand-made any of this meal.
They’ve each opened a prescribed set of processed-food packages, followed heavily prescribed recipes, and followed heavily prescribed orders passed down from management.
And yet I do appreciate their labour.
In my capacity, I get to sit and muse about them, while THIS is their career.
Yesterday, while sitting in another infamously southern* roadside-mass-food-chain, my uncle mentioned that he was pleased to see that young people were working at these types of places again.
“Uh huh,” I hummed agreeingly as I panned the restaurant noting the youthfulness of the staff.
Since the 90’s and certainly since the recession, these jobs had become life-long career moves, where previously these were held down by early-career part-timers.
Whether paying their way through school or training, or beefing their resumes for eventual factory employment, these part-timer jobs weren’t suitable for adults as they come with few, if any, benefits…most notably, healthcare.
Back in my bottomless breakfast, my server keeps inquiring if I’m ok as she goes about setting up the condiments and flatware for each table.
I’m the only one here, which I remark upon.
This is the south, so that remark garnered a whole commentary on her part.
She detailed when they opened and closed, and that she’d recently shifted from the nightshift to mornings, as “making $10 here and $10 there don’t cut it.”
She then added that she’d served a party of 15 who’d left her a $40 tip.
She further explained that last year she’d served at a 1-year old’s birthday party, “because they didn’t have no cake.”
By now, I’ve gotten a good look at the server and sense that she’s in her mid-twenties.
As I listen, I, of course, contemplate what sort of tip I should leave: Would it be obscene to leave a $10 tip which I could easily afford. Afterall, I had shown up in what must seem like a large, expensive, exotic European vehicle (how could she know it’s my mom’s not mine; how would she know that I’m just passing through town).
This year, she continued, they had her “second birthday party right back there,” pointing to a far corner.
Remember, all I did to kick off this conversation was remark how quiet it was at this time in the morning.
From then on, the server kept offering me little tidbits of info each time she passed by.
I hadn’t lived in the south for many years, but it was still this sort of human interaction that drummed-up home for me.
“I’m gonna go ahead and do my syrups,” she quipped as she passed each table over lightly with a dry cloth.
Then, after passing to reassure me that my next helping of pancakes was on its way, she explained that the location was under new management.
Pointing to the woman I’d overheard earlier dealing out duties and instructions, the server said, “This one’s only been here since Sunday.”
It’s Tuesday morning.
Now, I notice that the server has leaned against a nearby chair, pausing with her other hand on her hip.
It’s as if settling in to tell me a good story. She is now giving me unsolicited insider information.
I start to realize and remember just how such interactions are so disarming. She had something to say each time she was within earshot, as if mindfully managing our shared personal space.
I smile at this realization, recalling the familiarity with which people speak in Vietnam. The distance of more formal ways of being and communicating seem silly here…and there.
I am simultaneously reminded of life in Mali, where people genuinely do greet anyone nearby, referring to those in their personal space with some term of familial familiarity depending on the relationship and perceived ages like auntie/uncle, or else girl/boy-friend (teri- muso/ce), big/little- sister/brother (koro-/dogo- muso/ce).
It’s as if all of these experiences collide into the present moment, and I experience them all at once, like Dr. Manhattan.
The server then explained in detail how the previous manager had fallen ill and could therefore only show up intermittently.
Apparently, the point of all this was that they were hiring a manager, and sought someone outside the current team, because, as my server said, “We all know one another.”
“Don’t that make sense,” she said raising her brow, nodding grinningly.
“So, if you know anybody with management experience,” she said, then tailored off.
I suddenly wonder what Flannery O’Conner must have witnessed in her life and times in the dirty south.
I was on my way to grab a coffee at THAT internationally known coffee house, but passed this all-day-breakfast joint on the way.
I recalled the bottomless offers here and knew I could get more value here than a $5 Latte. Sure, I’ve got country music in the background, but at least it’s not tuned to conservative propaganda Faux News like in most other public spaces here in Alabama.
Indeed, for just a few dollars more, I’ve got access to bottomless filtered coffee and well more than any human should eat in any one sitting.
Besides, no one is in here posing, and, as I said, I got a side of free companionship.
*Infamously southern food consists of mostly fried foods negotiated in ingredients and meaning along the color line.
The ‘other’ BBC worldservice.
If you google “BBC+Mandingo,” please be aware that it is NSFW. Use your imagination. Now, imagine an auction block. Imagine a slave standing there. Breeding slaves underpinned the ‘white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal’ system that placed their bodies upon that auction block. Hyper-sexualisation of Black bodies began right there. It is bell hooks’ Intersectionality lens that’s necessary for a holistic gaze upon consumer commodification.
Now, imagine that one Black boy in class, vying for attention just as any other adolescent, yet he’s got an entire multitude of hyper-sexualised images filling the heads of virtually everyone in the room. By the time they hit the locker-room, everyone is expecting to see this kid’s BBC. I’ve had many (non-Black) adults say that to me explicitly, inexplicably in any given situation where one might not otherwise imagine penis size would surface so casually in conversation. Hence, we can all imagine that with the crudeness of adolescent male vernacular: Your kid is asking my kid why his penis isn’t what all the rappers rap about.
Why are so many commercially successful rappers’ fantasies reduced to “patriarchal f*cking?” Reading Michael Kimmel’s essay “Fuel for Fantasy: The Ideological Construction of Male Lust,” in her seminal book We Real Cool: Black Masculinity, bell hooks clarifies: “In the iconography of black male sexuality, compulsive-obsessive fucking is represented as a form of power when in actuality it is an indication of extreme powerlessness” (hooks: 67-8).
It’s auto-asphyxiation, a kind of nihilistic sadomasochism that says, if the world thinks of me as a beast, then a beast I shall be. Plenty of kids work this out by the time they hit the playground. “Patriarchy, as manifest in hip-hop, is where we can have our version of power within this very oppressive society,” explains writer/activist Kevin Powell (qtd. in hooks: 56). Ironically, Powell came to fame in the 90’s on MTV through the original reality show aptly entitled “The Real World.”
Plantation Politics 101
Since at least 2017, commercial rap has been the most widely sold musical genre; it’s pop. Beyond roughly 700,000 sales, Black people are not the primary purchasers of commercialised rap, as explained in the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. It takes millions to earn ‘multi-platinum’ status. Yet, while created by and for Black and brown people in ghettoized communities, it has morphed into a transnational commodity having little to do with the realities of its originators, save for the S&M fantasies of wealth beyond imagination. And what do they boast of doing with that power, read as wealth? Liberating the masses from poverty? Intervening on the Prison Industrial Complex? Competing with the “nightmare” racist landlords like Donald Trump’s dad Fred? No! They mimic the very gangsters they pretend to be. Once Italian-Americans held hard that stereotype, but now it’s us. It’s always about power. Truly, ‘it’s bigger than Hip-Hop’.
The more painful question few bother asking is why commercial rap music focuses so keenly on pimps, thugs, b*tches and whores? Like other commodities, commercial rap is tailored to the primary consumer base, which isn’t (fellow) Black people, but white youth. What is it about contemporary white youth that craves images of salacious, monstrous, licentious and violent Black people boasting about killing and maiming one another? Describing this mass commercial “Misogynistic rap music,” hooks states: “It is the plantation economy, where black males labor in the field of gender and come out ready to defend their patriarchal manhood by all manner of violence against women and men whom they perceive to be weak and like women” (hooks: 57-8). Plainly, the root of commercial rap’s global prominence is the reenactment of “sadomasochistic rituals of domination, of power and play” (hooks: 65).
Hyper-sexualisation is a form of projection onto Black people a mass white anxiety about our shared “history of their brutal torture, rape, and enslavement of black bodies” (hooks: 63). She goes on to explain: “If white men had an unusual obsession with black male genitalia it was because they had to understand the sexual primitive, the demonic beast in their midst. And if during lynchings they touched burnt flesh, exposed private parts, and cut off bits and pieces of black male bodies, white folks saw this ritualistic sacrifice as in no way a commentary on their obsession with black bodies, naked flesh, sexuality” (ibid). Hence the BBC obsession finds a consumer home safely in pop music!
“I am ashamed of my small penis,” a stranger recently mentioned to me in a grilled wing joint I happened upon here in Hanoi. The confession came from nowhere, having nothing to do with anything happening between us at the time. Is this the locker-room banter I always hear about? Are straight men really so obsessed with their penises? Given his broken English and my non-existent Vietnamese, I tried comforting him by explaining in the simplest terms the saying: “It’s not the size of the wave but the motion of the ocean.” Colloquialisms never translate easily, but I did at least deflect the subject away from ethno-sexual myths spread worldwide through contemporary consumer culture.
We’ve got to talk about ethno-sexual myths with openness, honesty and integrity. Silence is the master’s tool; silence = death! Further, echoing ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. I am Black in Asia, and there are perhaps no two groups of men at polar opposites of ethno-sexual myths. Like the hyper-sexualisation of women of colour, these myths reveal that neither Blackness nor Asianess is at the centre of these globally circulated myths. Hyper-sexual in comparison to who or what? Hegemonic heteronormative whiteness. Say it with me: Duh!
To get In-formation:
hooks, b. (2004) We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge.
Lorde, A. (1984) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: Crossing Press.
I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.
The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?
In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.
Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.
In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status? Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!
I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.
In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.
Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.
A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.
Last night over dinner and drinks, I spoke about race in the classroom with two white, upper-middle-class gay educators. Neither seemed (able) to make any discernable effort to understand any perspective outside their own. I had to do 100% of the emotional labour, and got 0% of the emotional reward. It was very sad how they went on the attack, using both passive and active aggression, yet had the nerve to dismiss my words as ‘victimhood discourse’. This is exactly why folks write books, articles, and blogs like ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’.
Worse, they both had experienced homophobia in the classroom, at the hands of both students and parents. Nonetheless, they had no ability to contribute to the emotional labour taking place as we spoke about race. Even worse, the one in charge of other educators had only 24 hours earlier performed the classic micro-aggression against me: The brown blur. He walked right past me at our initial meeting as I extended my hand introducing myself while mentioning the mutual friend who’d connected us because, as he said, he was “expecting” to see a white face. He was the one to raise that incident, yet literally threw his hands in the air, nodding his head dismissively as he refused any responsibility for the potential harm caused.
“I’m an adult,” I pled, explaining the difference between me facing those sorts of aggressions, versus the young people we all educate. This all fell on deaf ears. Even worse still, he’d only moments earlier asked me to help him understand why the only Black kid in one of his classes called himself a “real nigger.” Before that, he had asked me to comment on removing the N-word from historical texts used in the classroom, similar to the 2011 debate about erasing the N-word and “injun” from Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884. According to the Guardian, nigger is “surely the most inflammatory word in the English language,” and “appears 219 times in Twain’s book.”
Again, he rejected my explanations as “victimhood.” He even kept boasting about his own colorblindness – a true red flag! Why ask if you cannot be bothered to listen to the answer, I thought bafflingly? Even worse, rather than simply stay silent – which would have been bad enough – the other educator literally said to him “This is why I don’t get involved in such discussions with him.” They accused me of making race an issue with my students, insisting that their own learning environments were free of racism, sexism and homophobia.
They effectively closed ranks. They asserted the privilege of NOT doing any of the emotional labour of deep listening. Neither seemed capable of demonstrating understanding for the (potential) harm done when they dismiss the experiences of others, particularly given our differing corporealities. I thought of the “Get Out” scene in the eponymously named film.
“Do you have any Black teachers on your staff,” I asked knowing the answer. OK, I might have said that sarcastically. Yet, it was clear that there were no Black adults in his life with whom he could pose such questions; he was essentially calling upon me to answer his litany of ‘race’ questions.
Armed with mindfulness, I was able to get them both to express how their own corporeality impacts their classroom work. For example, one of the educators had come out to his middle-school students when confronted by their snickers when discussing a gay character in a textbook. “You have to come out,” I said, whereas I walk in the classroom Black.” Further still, they both fell silent when I pointed out that unlike either of them, my hips swing like a pendulum when I walk into the classroom. Many LGBTQ+ people are not ‘straight-acting’ i.e. appear heteronormative, as did these two. They lacked self-awareness of their own privilege and didn’t have any tools to comprehend intersectionality; this discussion clearly placed them on the defense.
I say, 100% of the emotional labour and none of the emotional reward, yet this is actually untrue. I bear the fruits of my own mindfulness readings. I see that I suffer less in those instances than previously. I rest in the comfort that though understanding didn’t come in that moment, future dialogue is still possible. As bell hooks says on the first page in the first chapter of her groundbreaking book Killing Rage: Ending Racism: “…the vast majority of black folks who are subjected daily to forms of racial harassment have accepted this as one of the social conditions of our life in white supremacist patriarchy that we cannot change. This acceptance is a form of complicity.” I accept that it was my decision to talk to these white people about race.
I reminded myself that I had foreseen the micro-aggression that he had committed the previous day when we first met. A mutual friend had hooked us up online upon his visit to this city in which we now live. I doubted that she’d mentioned my blackness. Nonetheless, I had taken the chance of being the first to greet our guest, realizing that I am in a much safer space both in terms of my own mindfulness, as well as the privilege I had asserted in coming to live here in Hanoi; I came here precisely because I face such aggression so irregularly in Vietnam that these incidents genuinely stand out.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hanh, T. (2013). The Art of Communicating. New York: HarperOne.
hooks, b. (1995). Killing rage: Ending racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
Some time ago, I wrote ‘A Love Letter: in praise of poetry‘, making the case as to why this literary form is important to understanding the lived experience. This time, I intend to do similar in relation to visual art.
Tomorrow, I’m plan to make my annual visit to the Koestler Arts’ Exhibition on show at London’s Southbank Centre. This year’s exhibition is entitled Another Me and is curated by the musician, Soweto Kinch. Previous exhibitions have been curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, Antony Gormley and prisoners’ families. Each of the exhibitions contain a diverse range of unique pieces, displaying the sheer range of artistic endeavours from sculpture, to pastels and from music to embroidery. This annual exhibition has an obvious link to criminology, all submissions are from incarcerated people. However, art, regardless of medium, has lots of interest to criminologists and many other scholars.
I have never formally studied art, my reactions and interpretations are entirely personal. I reason that the skills inherent in criminological critique and analysis are applicable, whatever the context or medium. The picture above shows 4 of my favourite pieces of art (there are many others). Each of these, in their own unique way, allow me to explore the world in which we all live. For me, each illustrate aspects of social (in)justice, social harms, institutional violence and the fight for human rights. You may dislike my choices. arguing that graffiti (Banksy) and photography (Mona Hatoum) have no place within art proper. You may disagree with my interpretation of these pieces, dismissing them as pure ephemera, forgotten as quickly as they are seen and that is the beauty of discourse.
Nonetheless, for me they capture the quintessential essence of criminology. It is a positive discipline, focused on what “ought” to be, rather than what is. To stand small, in front of Picasso’s (1937) enormous canvas Guernica allows for consideration of the sheer scale of destruction, inherent in mechanised warfare. Likewise, Banksy’s (2005) The Kissing Coppers provides an interesting juxtaposition of the upholders of the law behaving in such a way that their predecessors would have persecuted them. Each of the art pieces I have selected show that over time and space, the behaviours remain the same, the only change, the level of approbation applied from without.
Art galleries and museums can appear terrifying places, open only to a select few. Those that understand the rules of art, those who make the right noises, those that have the language to describe what they see. This is a fallacy, art belongs to all of us. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the Southbank Centre very soon. It’s not scary, nobody will ask you questions, everyone is just there to see the art. Who knows you might just find something that calls out to you and helps to spark your criminological imagination. You’ll have to hurry though…closes 3 November, don’t miss out!
If you go to Freshers’, you will probably think this is for White people. But you’ve got to occupy your space. Better get used to occupying your space now because you’ll have to fight wherever you go, university or otherwise. Don’t let that deter you from your goals but more vitally, don’t let anybody make you feel bad about yourself. Don’t be silent in the discussions on slavery or the prison system. Use your voice, a sonicboom in the seminar. Don’t be mute to appease the White fragility of your peers, or even your lecturers and personal academic tutors.
You worked hard to get here, so occupy your space. Fill these spaces with jollof rice and jerk chicken and calypso and steel drums – the guts, determination and sheer willpower your parents and grandparents had when they arrived all those years ago. Don’t ever feel that you have to dilute your opinions for White consumption, or tell bitesize histories for the masses. In that Business class, talk loud about the Cheshire and Lancashire cotton mills written in the blood of African-American slaves.
Students, you might get lecturers that call you angry, who will have a hard time coming to terms with their own prejudice and White privilege. You will see that within a few weeks of studying. But keep your head down and think about graduation. Come and speak to me at the Students’ Union if you have any worries or just want to vent. Sometimes it’s just about finding solace in someone that gets it. Cry into that cheeky Nando’s. Buy that weave. Write a damn good assignment and prove all the naysayers wrong.
You will also find lecturers that are willing to listen to your experiences of racism and prejudice. They will implore you to write a dissertation that’s personal to you. You will find lecturers that give a shit, and will stand by you to the very end – who will say it’s absolutely fine to lace your dissertation with personal history – roots, rocks, and rebellion – academic staff that are activists in their own right (but will never openly admit it!)
Write about the politics of Black hair. Write about the Windrush Scandal or the legacy of colonialism on the Black body, or even Black men and mental health. Write every assignment for your aunties, who live in headwraps, talking in Twi and give you sound advice. Write in ruthless rebellion to the White Eurocentric reading of your degree, break the colour bar in style!
You will likely not relate to your course content. You will find it reflects the experiences of White people. No Afropean stories. No love for Sarah Forbes on History, or the Slave Trade cases of the 1700s on Law – the cases that helped forge the legal profession into what it is today. Or even the racial theories of the 18th and 19th century that we living in the remnants of – not Edward Long’s History of Jamaica nor the Black writers that top bestsellers lists. Write about a decolonised curriculum and inclusive course content.
When your lecturers make no allusion to American Slavery when you study the Industrial Revolution, give them the evilest evils you can muster. And challenge them on it. Leave them shook. Educate your “woke” White friends on why this is important. And when it comes to race, don’t feel you need to talk about race just because you’re the only non-White person in the class.
When you come to university, you will feel the urge to be someone that you are not just to fit in. BE YOU. You will try studenty things. JUST DO YOU. You’ll go out drinking, even if you don’t normally drink. You will join every society at Union Day and your emails will be chocka block. You’ll change your accent and “be friends” with people you dislike to conform to social norms. You will then admit you hate going out out and prefer a good book, or one of my poetry nights or just a chat with good people in your halls.
Tell yourself “Black is beautiful.” You know it, I know it. But there are people out there that’ll try to make you feel bad about your culture, as is life. Come back to campus in January with that Angela Davis afro, or be a dreadlock rastaman. Play cricket, like Jofra Archer or play football like Raheem Sterling. And, your hair is not an exotic specimen to gawked at and touched like a museum exhibit. Remember, say no. No means no. Always.
Black students, walk with pride. YOU DO YOU. Be united. You’ll see quickly that there are forces that are waiting for you to make a mistake. To fail. To point the finger. You’ll see quickly that failure is racialised and that failure in a White person is not as bad. You’ll see that we live in a society that doesn’t include you in its definition of beauty standards. So girls, when someone says “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” pay them no mind. Find beauty in your melanin. Find your tribe. Sisterhood is paramount.
When someone asks “Where are you from?” – it’s fine to say London or Milton Keynes or any British town or city. You do not need to entertain them when they ask “Where are you really from?” You can be British and African. You can be British and Caribbean. You belong here. You can just be British. And that is also fine. Previously, you’d not have found events that represent Black people or felt inclusive. But my philosophy is “Black History Month is every month, 365 days a year.” October, November forever. See me!
Listen, you might be made to feel conscious of your otherness and not everyone will get your “I Am Proud of My Blackness” mentality. Not everyone will understand the nuanced politics of Blackness at Northampton. That even in inaction, the supposed “woke” White people are still complicit in racism. And remember it isn’t YOUR JOB to explain what is racist and what is not. Do not take on that emotional labour. You are not the mouthpiece for Black people, and you don’t have to be.
You will have days where you will say “I hate this town, I want to go home – there is no culture and nothing to do” but Northampton can work for you. There are other communities of African and Caribbean here where you will be welcomed with rice and stew. You will find family and community.
And you are not alone. There are a lot of us here. Build communities. Join the resident ACS (African-Caribbean Society). Empower yourselves. Come to see me, as your Student Union representative. Look after each other. Be good to yourselves and one another – and above all, enjoy it.
Vice President BME
Northampton Students’ Union
My name is Tré Ventour and I am the Students’ Union’s Vice President BME Sabbatical Officer. When I’ve asked students what BME stands for, most have been clueless – Black Minority Ethnic. The same could be said for BAME – Black Asian Minority Ethnic. I was elected to represent ethnic minority students. But I’ve been asking myself how much longer will this 47% be an ethnic minority? At Northampton, they will soon be the majority. This 14,000-student university in which nearly 7000 fit into this BME box.
Pigeon-holed. To be put into a box. I don’t like to think in boxes. I try not to think in labels but in this world, it’s naive to be colourblind. In the education sector, in this day and age, especially at Northampton, to not see race is to ignore the experiences of nearly 7,000 students – nearly 7,000 stories about potential hate crimes, and what about BAME members of staff? We must see race. We must see sex, class, and gender (all genders).
To be colourblind is to live life high on privilege – to exist without the consequences of hate crime. Some people live with racism, sexism and / or homophobia all their lives.
Many say “there’s one race, the human race.” That may be true but how comfortable must you be in your existence to come to that notion? And then push that notion on those who experience racism on a daily basis.
When I’ve spoken to students about BAME or ethnic minority, they say “Just call me by my name.” Students are flesh and bone, more than acronyms. And I do what they tell me to do (in a manner of speaking / within reason). I’m not Vice President, I’m not Mr Ventour; I am Tré and I am here to help students, to represent students (of colour) – more so Black students that look at White authority and see invader. Who I have heard compare university to apartheid South Africa – one in, one out – to a Zimbabwe under British rule – De Beers, Rhodes and racism. Fear and exclusion.
Call them minorities, call them BME, call them BAME. Yet, this acronym just seems like coded language for Black. And at Northampton, when people say BME or BAME, they mean Black students, so just say what you mean, “Black.”
And if these labels, if these pigeon-hole terms help Higher Education solve issues like attainment perhaps it’s worth it. But what I can say is that not all Black experiences are the same. To be a Black British student is not the same as to be a Black international from Africa, the EU or elsewhere.
But to be a person of colour in this country is to be immigrant, British or otherwise. To be overly polite. To be overly grateful or gracious. To be a good immigrant.
In our society, there is a focus on documenting inequality and injustice. In the discipline of criminology (as with other social sciences) we question and read and take notes and count and read and take more notes. We then come to an evidence based conclusion; yes, there is definite evidence of disproportionality and inequality within our society. Excellent, we have identified and quantified a social problem. We can talk and write, inside and outside of that social problem, exploring it from all possible angles. We can approach social problems from different viewpoints, different perspectives using a diverse range of theoretical standpoints and research methodologies. But what happens next? I would argue that in many cases, absolutely nothing! Or at least, nothing that changes these ingrained social problems and inequalities.
Even the most cursory examination reveals discrimination, inequality, injustice (often on the grounds of gender, race, disability, sexuality, belief, age, health…the list goes on), often articulated, the subject of heated debate and argument within all strata of society, but remaining resolutely insoluble. It is as if discrimination, inequality and injustice were part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century in a supposedly wealthy nation. If you don’t agree with my claims, look at some specific examples; poverty, gender inequality in the workplace, disproportionality in police stop and search and the rise of hate crime.
- Three years before the end of World War 2, Beveridge claimed that through a minor redistribution of wealth (through welfare schemes including child support) poverty ‘could have been abolished in Britain‘ prior to the war (Beveridge, 1942: 8, n. 14)
- Yet here we are in 2019 talking about children growing up in poverty with claims indicating ‘4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK’. In addition, 1.6 million parcels have been distributed by food banks to individuals and families facing hunger
- There is legal impetus for companies and organisations to publish data relating to their employees. From these reports, it appears that 8 out of 10 of these organisations pay women less than men. In addition, claims that 37% of female managers find their workplace to be sexist are noted
- Disproportionality in stop and search has long been identified and quantified, particularly in relation to young black males. As David Lammy’s (2017) Review made clear this is a problem that is not going away, instead there is plenty of evidence to indicate that this inequality is expanding rather than contracting
- Post-referendum, concerns were raised in many areas about an increase in hate crime. Most attention has focused on issues of race and religion but there are other targets of violence and intolerance
These are just some examples of inequality and injustice. Despite the ever-increasing data, where is the evidence to show that society is learning, is responding to these issues with more than just platitudes? Even when, as a society, we are faced with the horror of Grenfell Tower, exposing all manner of social inequalities and injustices no longer hidden but in plain sight, there is no meaningful response. Instead, there are arguments about who is to blame, who should pay, with the lives of those individuals and families (both living and dead) tossed around as if they were insignificant, in all of these discussions.
As the writer Pearl S. Buck made explicit
‘our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members’ (1954: 337).
If society seriously wants to make a difference the evidence is all around us…stop counting and start doing. Start knocking down the barriers faced by so many and remove inequality and injustice from the world. Only then can we have a society which we all truly want to belong to.
Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)
Buck, Pearl S. (1954), My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, (London: Methuen)
Lammy, David, (2017), The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System, (London: Ministry of Justice)