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A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.
Walk down the street.
Find my way.
Go someplace I had previously been.
Go someplace I had previously not been.
Meet friends at a specific time and place.
Meet new people.
Meet new people without suspicion.
Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Make myself known to a previously unknown person.
Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.
Eat in a restaurant by myself.
Pay attention to the waiter.
Wait for my order to arrive.
Sit with others.
Listen to the sound of silence.
Listen to music.
Listen to a whole album.
Listen to the cityscape.
Overhear others’ conversations in public.
Watch kids play.
See the same picture in the same spot.
Read a book.
Read a long article.
Read liner notes.
I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,
Not feeling bored,
Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.
Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.
Wait at a traffic light.
Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.
Wait for my turn.
Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.
Wait in an office for my appointment.
Wait in line.
Wait for anything!
I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.
Now waiting fuels FOMO.
I used to enjoy people watching…
Now I just watch people on their phones.
It’s genuine anxiety.
Walk from point A to B.
I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.
Now I can’t walk down the hall,
Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.
I avoid eye contact with strangers.
Anyone I don’t already know is strange.
I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.
Have a conversation.
A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and
Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…
Just by talking.
I also appreciate the examples we discussed.
Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?
Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.
Who was the 43rd US president?
If you didn’t immediately recall his name,
You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since
Many folks avoid calling his name.
You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”
You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,
Including the cultural war against Islam. And
That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”
Putting these facts together,
You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And
His whole warmongering cabinet. And
Condi Rice. And
That whole process might have taken a full minute,
But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.
This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.
(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).
Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…
Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.
Allow my mind to wander.
Entertain myself with my own thoughts.
Think new things.
Think differently just by thinking through a topic.
I used to know things.
Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.
I used to trust my own knowledge.
I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,
Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.
Never the fear of missing out,
Allowing myself time to reflect.
It is in reflection that wisdom is born.
Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:
Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.
Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.
Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –
Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,
Phubbing the people we’re actually with,
Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie –
But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.
I used to could be in the world.
Now, I’m just in cyberspace.
I used to be wiser.
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.
Dr Diepiriye S. Kuku-Siemons earned his PhD in Sociology at Delhi University (2011). He joined the University of Northampton in 2012, where he is currently a Senior Lecturer in International Business, and is on sabbatical in Hanoi. He has also been a visiting lecturer in business ethics and cross-cultural management at FH-Aachen, Germany and ESDES Lyon, France (2015-17). Diepiriye is from Louisville, Kentucky and avidly follows American media and political history. His current research areas are popular culture; Artificial Intelligence in society; Engaged Pedagogy, Intersectionality; Sustainability.
Diepiriye previously worked in international development: In Delhi, he worked with several community-based and international development organisations (Oxfam, UNAIDS, USAID) organisations. While earning his MPH in International Heath and Development at Tulane University’s School Public Health and Tropical Medicine (2003), he interned at the Institute for Human Rights in Colombo and spent a semester studying health systems management at the ASEAN Institute for Health Development at Mahidol University in Bangkok. His first graduate posting was with the Peace Corps, where he worked with a local cooperative and taught ESL in rural Mali (1997-99). He earned a B.A. in Biochemistry and Africana studies from Oberlin College (1997). Diepiriye loves to dance.