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‘Guilty’ of Coming Out Daily – Abroad. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

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.?

Come out, come out wherever you are.

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.

Kuku-HUST-performace.jpg

The word is ‘out’.

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.

 

*Picture from The 2019 Traditional Arts Festival at Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST)

A month of Black history through the eyes of a white, privileged man… an open letter

Dear friends,

Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly.  Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences.  We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity.  As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class.  I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.    

All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better.  A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength.  Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved.  The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population. 

As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος)[1] it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented.  Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job.  It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month.  Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school. 

This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege.  It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is.  I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit?  To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify.  Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions.  A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems.  Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am.  A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused. 

I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view.  Do those who experience racism voice it?  Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories.  Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

Sincerely yours

M



[1] A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.

A Love Letter: in praise of poetry

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,

they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,

you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans


(Max Ehrmann, 1927)

Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.

Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is it like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.

An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:


With sudden shock the prison-clock

  Smote on the shivering air,

And from all the gaol rose up a wail

  Of impotent despair,

Like the sound that frightened marshes hear

From a leper in his lair


(Oscar Wilde, 1898)

On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich


(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)

Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.

Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels


(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)

Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?


(Maya Angelou, 1978)

Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!

Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses


(Hollie McNish, 2013).

To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke, McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it

Selected Bibliography

Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)

Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple

Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)

[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).

[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours


Fighting the Tide or Following the Current?

This week’s blog is a reflective piece that will, I think, resonate with some of my ‘Outsiders’ students and perhaps with criminologists more broadly. It concerns the nagging tension between being a reluctant capitalist subject and a critical criminologist, more specifically between the roles of consumer and critic. Whilst criminology undoubtedly possesses transformative potential, particularly in its critical and ultra-realist forms, some sections of the discipline and arguably some, but certainly not all, of its proponents sit comfortably within the very structures subject to criticism during the ‘working day’. Indeed, we (and I include myself in this) hold the world to rights from 9-5 Monday to Friday then disavow the many harms we so vehemently lecture/write about whilst indulging in conspicuous consumption on weekends; fitting neatly into the circuitry of consumer capitalism.

Whilst I resolutely resist the drive to mask the fallout of free-market capitalism by not giving to charity, which is, as Žižek (2009:19) notes, the quintessential “humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation”, I am guilty of indulging a range of consumer impulses. It would be nice if this dilemma was as simple as being a hypocrite, something I could rectify by having a strong word with myself. Unfortunately, the reality is that this reflects a tension that emerges from occupying a social terrain that requires a dual identity and one within which the risks of protesting too ardently are severe.

Yet rather than serving as a vestigial port from which to take critical aim at pressing issues the university sector, as an industry, compounds this tension further. For criminology in particular the irony is painful. We occupy positions in what is now a heavily marketised sector; one that dictates the state of play based on the logic of the market, on catering for elusive customers rather than educating students. The irony of course is that, as criminologists, we are employed to research, write and lecture about criminalised and un-criminalised harms that pervade the social world by a sector whose neoliberal institutions have no qualms about inflicting severe harm on those who work and study within them. Universities seem to have become marketised, profit seeking institutions that pay lip service to helping communities whilst adopting the very structures that cause severe harm to society.

Perhaps the university can no longer be seen as a place from which to do some good. Or perhaps there is still a great deal of good that can be done from under the neoliberals’ nose. Either way, we cannot retain a blind and baseless optimism that refuses to acknowledge and tackle the many harms of neoliberalism, including those inflicted by the university sector. Rather, we should maintain an ultra-realist commitment to “explaining the world as it is, warts and all” (Winlow and Hall 2013:175).

 

Justin Kotzé, July 2017

References

Winlow, S. and Hall, S. (2013) Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social? London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Žižek, S. (2009) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books Ltd.

How do you punish the incorrigible?

Banksy dove of peae

This week saw the (very low key) commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day (15 May) which got me thinking about a number of different contemporary issues. Although the events which I describe happened a century ago, the criminalisation, and indeed, punishment of conscience has never truly been resolved.

Conscientious objection in the UK first came to the attention for most after the passing of the Military Services Act 1916. This legislation allowed for the conscription of certain categories of men into the military. The enactment of this law enabled men to be forcibly coerced into military service regardless of their personal and individual aspirations. Subsequent to this, further legislation was passed (Military Training Act 1939, National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, National Service Act 1948) continuing this system of coercive enlistment into the military. By default, such legislation also laid the foundations for conscientious objection; after all, without such coercion there is no need to register dissent, simply don’t enlist in the military.

During WWI (and for some considerable time after) Conscientious Objectors [COs] were bullied, cajoled, ridiculed and stigmatised, not to mention, incarcerated, multiple times. In one horrific incident it was alleged that COs were driven to the trenches of France and threatened with a firing squad if they did not comply. Despite this type of treatment the vast majority of COs continued to resist, strongly suggesting that their conscience, moral compass or faith was far stronger than anything the state could throw at them.

In the UK the individual and collective dilemma of the conscientious objector has largely faded into history; although the same cannot be said internationally (for instance; Greece, Israel and the USA). However, their very existence and that of other non-conformists (at different times and places) raises questions around the purpose and supposed effectiveness of incarceration.  In essence; what do we do when the “deviant” refuses to conform, how far are we prepared to go, as a society to punish the incorrigible and persistent offender and what do we do when nothing seems to work?

We could attempt the practices used with the WWI COs and keep convicting whilst ratcheting up the tariff of their sentence each time. However, we know from their experiences that this appeared to consolidate their objections and harden their resolve. We can try and talk to individuals in order to help them see the “errors of their ways” but given the conviction held by COs, that the war was fundamentally at odds with their belief system, this is also likely to fail. We could try punishment in the community, but for many of the COs anything which they felt compromised their standpoint was equally resisted, making any such approach also likely to be unsuccessful.

Although the “problem” of the COs no longer exists in 21st century Britain, other individuals and groups have filled the space they have vacated. We could replace the COs with the Black civil rights movement (think Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King) or other protests (think “Tank Man” in  Tiananmen Square or Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge) or those deemed traitors by many (as were the COs) , such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The question remains: is it possible to rehabilitate the heart and mind of someone who is so clear as to their moral standpoint and committed to doing what they perceive to be “the right thing”?

The Commodification of Abstinence

 

rebel grafitti

The inspiration for this short blog post comes from an incredibly stimulating discussion with some of my second year students studying the criminology module ‘Outsiders’. In class we were discussing how rather than constituting active forms of rebellion that resist the mainstream, various ‘trendy’ acts of so-called deviance, such as graffiti, parkour and ‘rooftopping’, have actually become absorbed into the mainstream consumer culture. Following this we began to discuss ‘new’ ways of resisting. Amongst the ideas offered was the notion of somehow disconnecting ourselves from the now ever-present network of social media and its frequent and avid advertisement of consumer items. Interestingly, having already discussed the tendency for social media’s ‘revolutionary potential’ to be integrated within rather than threaten capitalism (Crary 2013), this proposed disconnect would also require avoiding the latest online driven micro-revolution. The result of this discussion was the idea of ‘going mobile free for a week’.

The problem with this proposed ‘period of abstinence’ is that it becomes another micro-revolution that simply represents a new opportunity for commodification. This is because capitalism has the uncanny ability “to incorporate every attack by integrating the attack into the system” (McGowan 2016:12). It does this by taking the seemingly revolutionary practice and transforming it into a marketable commodity. With this in mind, we started to consider how such periods of abstinence would be integrated and commodified. It was suggested that a number of high-street retailers such as Game and HMV would perhaps have preparatory sales the week before to help us cope with the inevitable upset of ‘going mobile free for a week’. Similar offers would no doubt be made by a range of other providers; why not get into cycling, mountain climbing, or Zumba? That is after buying all the essential gear and merchandise of course. Then, once this period of abstinence is over, what better way to show how ‘resistant’ you were than by posting pictures of, or tweeting about, all the things you got up to during this ‘rebellious’ period; thereby further contributing to the marketing of consumer items.

Rather than representing some form of resistance then, this period of abstinence becomes commodified and successfully integrated into contemporary consumer capitalism. This does not mean that there is no alternative to capitalism, it simply means that if we wish to make a genuine attempt at resistance we should avoid being absorbed or forced into the next ‘trendy’ micro-revolution or simulated rebellion (Hall et al. 2008). Precisely how we do this is of course another matter entirely.

Justin Kotzé, March 2017

References

Crary, J. (2013) 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

McGowan, T. (2016) Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets. New York: Columbia University Press.

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