Only got ten minutes to save the world...

Between the new baby and the Ph.D., this grad student only has ten minutes a day to philosophize culture. Bear with me as I tell you how to think...

all within a ten-minute writing limit.



Halloween party!

HAM level

How ‘bout this:

When I was twenty-two, I was a nanny of three, for all intents and purposes raising other people’s children at much too young of an age. It was during this time that I developed and nurtured my first sense of what I will call a well-earned entitlement, expressed perhaps most succinctly in my following oft-spit injunction: “you will respect me.”

I don’t know if it’s my indoctrination as a woman (a “Southern” woman at that), the attendant debilitating devotion to “politeness,” the usual self-doubt, or most likely a mixture of all of these and more, that has somehow across the years developed in me the following mental subtext: Defer. Even when you feel right and wronged, even when you dream of righteous comebacks on the drive home, defer.

Yesterday at the coffee shop the barista charged me twice what I pay every day. Five fucking dollars for a regular 12 coffee (in my own cup, I might add) and a refill. Five fucking dollars! Although it pained me greatly to do so, I approached the barista with first, an apology (typical), identified myself as a “pest” (typical), and finally suggested that she had charged me incorrectly. Blithely, glibly, smugly, delightedly, she insisted that my cup holds twenty ounces—patently false!; tells me “20 oz” is written on the back of my cup—an outright lie!; to which I respond weakly, “oh really” when what I actually mean is “you’re wrong, asshole,” but instead I pay the five dollars, the five fucking dollars, and then cry in the bathroom hate-tears drawn by this final straw on a bad day.

Today I got a “professional” email from a considerably higher-ranked colleague condescendingly and angrily admonishing me for crimes which this colleague commits with notorious and oblivious regularity. Proud hypocrisy was the nature of his tone. And I don’t know if it's yesterday’s coffee rip-off, my feminist sensibilities, a growing sense of political responsibility to refuse to accept your goddamn presumptuous condescension, or maybe just that good-old sense of well-earned entitlement marching out from the cave, club in hand—or, most likely, a mixture of all of these and more—that emboldens me now to respond—No. Not gonna smile, not gonna apologize, not gonna defer to your metaphorical dick-swinging.

That’s right.

I will not defer to your disrespect.

Hey, dude from my past who posts a series of increasingly insane comments to FB-shame me: fuck you. Not gonna play along. Defriended, foe.

Hey, square at the grocery store who asks me if I’ll ever be able to get a job with all these tattoos: fuck  you, I’m a genius. I’ve written things that would make you weep. But you won’t read them, because you, sir, are base. Later.

Hey, frenemy who embarrasses me in front of our friends by “calling me out” on any number of faults, from my song choices to my dance style to my killer fucking skills: you’re mean, dude. You are straight-up mean. You should be embarrassed. Fuck you.

I saved the goddamned receipt. I saved the email to remind myself of your rank-pulling. They can measure the cup for themselves before they refund me. You can pick up on the subtext of refusal in my professional tone. Nope. Not going to start not another conversation with “I’m sorry.” We, who have been taught, coerced, indoctrinated, rewarded for deferral, how ‘bout this: Nope. Blithe, glib, smug, delightedly: Nope.

I *disrespect* your disrespect, and I’m not sorry for it.

<minute ten.>

Case Studies, part one. Customers.

Test administrator: Tests may involve toothpick geometry, cryptograms, Sphinx-like riddles. He has an MBA or occasionally a PhD to substantiate his paternalistic authoritarian tone. After determining you to be of moderate intelligence, in the tone of a high school principal presiding over a bad kid at a conduct conference he tells you: you could do something better with your life.

Power-reverser: An enigmatic mix of yuppie and darkness in a black suit: the maybe-villain of a David Lynch film. He provides you with a script; instructs you to study the script; returns hours later to enact the script—a script in which you demean him: calling him the “f” word, the “p” word, the “c” word, you defame him. “Why are you here, you fucking f*****, you don’t even like p****!” But oh he does; he does like it.

Middle-aged molester: Wears loose pants—how dare he!—jogging pants, windbreaker pants, cotton pants. Despite the strategic fashions, he spends vast money in the club that his Wal-Mart wardrobe belies. His bald head beading sweat, the lenses on his big glasses nearly fogged opaque with amused arousal, he whispers innuendoes so dank and perverse that you almost expect him to present candy as a lure into his windowless van. 

You dunno whash you’re mithin: It’s late. He’s young. He’s just enough drunk to want more to drink and recent years of teenage porn addiction drive a frightful hunger: student loans didn’t cover his appetite, not in any way, not tonight, and now he wants to eat for free. Most of his life he’s had it all for free. He can only imagine that you’re incorrect—that you are wrong, ignorant—that you are too dumb to give yourself to him, for nothing but his gaze in exchange, for nothing. When it costs twenty dollars.

<minute ten.>

We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service (Opportunities) to Atheists

I finally found a way to turn my theory into activism. I emailed government officials and made phone calls and finally found a volunteering outlet perfect for my passion and expertise: Wellspring Living, a facility that offers a safe haven to women and girls who have been victims of sexual exploitation. There's only one problem: I'm not a Christian and so I'm not welcome.

I had a plan. Although I identify primarily as a literary/cultural theorist, I do possess a passion for creative writing (and a Master's degree in the subject, though the value of that is negligible). I concocted this idea where I would run creative writing workshops for the women of Wellspring. I could help them find their voices again, or maybe for the first time. I could perhaps contribute just a bit to the reconstruction of real women, not just the deconstruction of  "Woman". I could convert all this talk into action.   

I guess the fact that the second question on the application was "How has Jesus Christ affected your life?" should have tipped me off that perhaps my application would land in the "undesirables" pile.

Forget the Master's degree. Hell, I forget it myself, a lot of the time. But what about my passion, my expertise, my experience teaching, my intricate Dangerous Minds--esque fantasy of touching lives that are in peril?

Although Wellspring's website does not boldly advertise itself as such, it is a Christian organization. Okay. They have a right to that affiliation.

And although I was a bit shocked at just how Christian the second "Jesus Christ" application question made this organization seem, I remained diplomatic. I replied something along the lines of, "Although I personally have no religious affiliation, I understand that Wellspring is a Christian organization, and I respect and honor this aspect of Wellspring."

Before turning in the application, I spoke on the phone to the head of operations. She was excited about the prospect of my Creative Writing Workshop plan. She pointed out how "healing" it could be for the women. She even intimated that perhaps it could become a regular gig. Michelle Pheiffer, get your leather coat, 'cause you're getting a casting call. 

Yet a week later, I get an email from the same woman informing me that Wellspring has certain "expectations" of its volunteers. They thank me for my honesty, but tell me that because of my lack of Jesus-worship, I am not allowed to work in the house with the women. I can, however, work in their store, raising funds for the organization.

What this not-so-subtly implies is: "We don't want your heathen influence upon our women, but we do welcome you to make us some money."

Fuck that.

Wellspring clearly has a right to be a Christian organization. And I suppose they have a right to reject me.

But picture this: my hypothetical secular organization rejects your service because you're a Christian.

Now we've got a problem, don't we. A legal issue.

No atheists allowed at this lunch counter today, ma'am. We reserve the right to refuse service opportunities to anyone, especially the godless.

<minute ten.>

The Reluctant Orientalist

I'm "white." So if you're "black," can I write about you?

Ever read Memoirs of a Geisha? It's a novel, not really a memoir, written by a middle-aged white American man, through the persona of an elderly Japanese woman. I'm not a postcolonialist by trade, but my dear friend is, so while reading the novel in preparation for my final Ph.D. comp exam, I sent her a note asking, "Is  Memoirs of a Geisha Orientalist?"

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term (and I imagine most anyone outside of my grad student crew must be unfamiliar with this term): Orientalism, in it's original meaning as formulated by Edward Said, refers to the Western representation of Eastern cultures and lives through an inherently prejudiced and eternally Western-paradigm-locked lens. Like I said, however, I'm no postcolonialist (rough definition: someone who often studies this Orientalism stuff), so I bend the term a little. When I wonder, "Is this text Orientalist?," what I'm basically wondering is: does the author of this text offer up a "foreign" culture--"foreign" in terms of race, class, gender; not merely geography--for the edification and/or entertainment of the author's own cultural compatriots, all without having any real understanding or appreciation of the "foreign" culture he or she presents? This lack of true cultural understanding, of course, results in a bent representation of the "foreigner" in ways that are invariably caricaturing and demeaning.  

Full disclosure: I'm a middle-class American woman of some vague European ancestry. So can I write about African American women, or is that gazing? 

If I write about African American women, how can I do so with a depth of understanding and respect of that culture necessary for responsible representation?

No, no, wait--isn't it perhaps Orientalist to gloss "African American women" into a singular culture? I mean, come on, Lil' Kim and Toni Morrison don't have a whole lot in common. At least they probably don't read the same books.

And if they don't read the same books, then is that detail enough to make them culturally separate?

That is to ask: Can Toni Morrison write about Lil' Kim, or is that gazing?

To put it simply: Where do we draw the lines of cultural demarcation? Forget the question about whether its okay to theoretically deconstruct other cultures that are not our own. First of all, we've got to determine where to define our own culture, and this is where the confusion sets in.

I do not want to enact intellectual colonialism. Fair enough. I do not want to deconstruct and offer up for your edification my astute analysis of someone else's world, a world I can never know.
Let's play it safe.

Let's say I only write about my own world. Let's say, then, I only write about "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm I better just write about married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. I'm also an atheist. So I better just write about atheistic married "white" middle-class women living in the United States. Holy crap, where does this end?

If I refuse to write about Black women because I'm not Black, I'm also making a dangerous assumption: that all Black women share something in common. Doesn't that glossing of individuals into one common life based on complexion and genitalia enact some other equally sinister racism and sexism?
As much as I love to write about myself, I don't think I'm going to sell many academic publications centered solely on the exploits of Lindsay B.

Unless, of course, you're buying.

<minute ten.>

Feeling Pretty and Other Feminist Shortcomings

Let me tell you about one of the most beautiful encounters of my life: once, in a bar, a lovely stranger followed me with his eyes and my eyes followed back; we passed in a hallway and meaningfully meaninglessly touched; finally, as he headed toward the door on his way out, he approached me, and in front of all of my friends as well as my current boyfriend, placed in my hand a folded love note.

I won't quote the note exactly. Some things are too sacred to spill across this cyber ether. But in summary the note read, "You enchant me." That is all: no phone number, no overt come-on, no plan to meet later. A compliment upon my beauty, for what else of me had he seen? A compliment upon my face, my body, my physical me: that is all.

I remembered the note tonight when I considered what elements I need to pack into my "grab in a fire" safe. 

Why do I shelve this moment within my vault of beautiful moments? Why do I shelve it alongside the time when, while weeping in my car at a traffic light, a man in a Jeep pulled up beside me, caught my attention, and asked me what was wrong? Why do I shelve this should-be superficiality alongside the time another human being recognized my tears?

Philosophically, I rail against this kind of behavior--this swooning at your own prettiness, this attempt to become something a man (specifically, a man) will find worthwhile of his gaze; this pride at receiving the gaze. What, I beg you, is romantic about that god-damned enemy, the gaze? It owns us, keeps us wearing eyeliner and typing notes for a male colleague that is stupider and better paid than we.

What does it mean when someone like me, so educated in feminist theory, so steeped with resentment and egoistic certainty that my own genius can unwind the threads of "all those fairy tales that drugged us" until I don't feel drugged anymore, what does it mean when even the acutely theoretically aware feminist cannot help but enjoy a love note from a stranger written only about her face, her body, her physical me?

It's a cliche, but like most cliches contains an element of reality: just because you're aware of the games governing these relationships, these momentary sparks, doesn't mean you don't want to play, doesn't mean you don't want to be set aflame.

<minute ten.>

p.s. Thanks to Bright Eyes for the "fairy tales" quote.

Racist Mascot Analogies

True or False: Sports mascots such as the Braves or the Redskins honor Native Americans by highlighting their bravery.

True or False: Okay, these mascots might be a little racist, but it's not that sinister type of racism because there's no meanness or ill-intent behind the mascots. Hey, these teams just want something catchy to represent their strength! And the teams obviously respect Native Americans--just look at how brave they portray them!

True or False: After boldly and cruelly assaulting, imperializing, killing, and at best swindling people(s), it can be good fun to manipulate their image and their imagined personal qualities for the enjoyment of a class of consumers that consists of the offspring of those ancestral imperialists. We own you, you damned romantic Indians! Let us delight in your feathers and tomahawks!

Each of the above T-or-F's share a common answer--and it ain't "true".

Tonight I stumbled upon a Facebook argument. The argument, like so many Facebook arguments, exemplified the pathetically unbalanced discussions of people thrown together in a virtual world through such trivial connections as common high school or home town. A friend of mine had made a remark about how she despises teams that dishonor First Nations peoples by cavalierly employing racist mascots. This comment incited a minor shit storm that resulted in one particular Facebooker repeatedly posting various reasons why my offended friend had no right to be offended. Among these reasons: 1) The teams don't mean any harm; and 2)Most Native Americans don't find these mascots offensive and neither do I.

I didn't join the FB conversation because I was breastfeeding my baby at the time and was thus one-hand Facebooking. And it's probably better I didn't join the conversation because if I did I'd still be involved, hours later, in a volley of stupidity versus genius (I'm the genius, FYI).

But if I did respond, I'd say:

1) Intent means nothing when it comes to racism. Most racism is not-intentional. When white women loved their darling Mammies, they thought they were doing a good thing. They weren't.

2) How the fuck do you know what most Native Americans feel? Unless you're a Native American, it doesn't matter if you don't find it offensive. And even if some Native Americans don't find the Braves offensive, the use of these mascots still contributes to the casual continuation of unintentional racism in which it's okay to own, manipulate, and caricature the image of people you have attempted to destroy. It isn't.

Remember the SATs? Remember analogies? Here's an analogy for you:

"The Braves" are to America what "The Jews" are to Germany.

How's does the Resilient Jew sound for a German sports team mascot?

That's what I thought.   

<minute ten.>


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