Saturday, December 20, 2014

Language of Power

For one of my finals I am writing a series of blog posts. Each one will focus on a different reading or topic from the class.

One of my favorite readings for the entire semester was bell hooks', “Language: Teaching New Worlds." hooks has a way of speaking right at the heart of things and I always enjoy her writings. This one spoke to me specifically because of the way I think about my own use of language.

Like desire, language disrupts, refuses to be contained within boundaries. It speaks itself against our will, in words and thoughts that intrude, even violate the most private spaces of mind and body. It was in my first year of college that I read Adrienne Rich’s poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.” That poem, speaking against domination, against racism and class oppression, attempts to illustrate graphically that stopping the political persecution and torture of living beings is a more vital issue than censorship, than burning books. One line of this poem that moved and disturbed something within me: “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.” I’ve never forgotten it. Perhaps I could not have forgotten it even if I tried to erase it from memory. Words impose themselves, lake root in our memory against our will. The words of this poem begat a life in my memory that I could not abort or change.

When I find myself thinking about language now, these words are there, as if they were always waiting to challenge and assist me. I find myself silently speaking them over and over again with the intensity of a chant. They startle me, shaking me into an awareness of the link between languages and domination. Initially, I resist the idea of the “oppressor’s language,” certain that this construct has the potential to disempower those of us who are just learning to speak, who are just learning to claim language as a place where we make ourselves subject. “This is the oppressor’s languages yet I need it to talk to you.” Adrienne Rich’s words. Then, when I first read these words, and now, they make me think of standard English, of learning to speak against black vernacular, against the ruptured and broken speech of a dispossessed and displaced people. Standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear, the speech of the Gullah, Yiddish, and so many other unremembered tongues.
I've always taken issue with self applauding "grammar nazis" that are so prolific on the internet. From Facebook posts to newspaper articles, people have become obsessed with grammar. I've seen eloquent and strong arguments ignored and critiqued for a wrongly placed apostrophe. There are several problems I have with this type of needless language control.

1. It's classist.

The idea that there is a 'proper" way to communicate is steeped in classism. The wealthier you are the better your educational opportunities. The better your education, the more likely you are able to communicate in a way that people find respectable. Academia often sets the tone for what is considered "proper" and not all people have equal access to education. The idea that cursing represents low education or class is indicative of this.

Adult literacy in this country is a serious issue.

Huffington Post:
According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can't read. That's 14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can't read.
Being an asshole on the internet about an incorrect "their" pretty much misses the point.

2. It's racist.

Ask anyone who isn't white and they'll tell you that there is such a thing as "sounding white." Black English is often ridiculed and deemed as less intelligent even though African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) is recognized as a language that has its roots in Great Britain.

There's a question that's often asked: Is Ebonics a language? And that's really the wrong way to put it. But if there's an answer to that question, then it is: Yes, Ebonics is a language. It's English. Where we tend to stumble is that we tend to assume that it's bad English or broken English, when really, it's just different English - which, if a Martian came down and had to learn it instead of standard English, would find just as challenging and difficult to master the nuances of as standard English. And I don't just mean the slang. I mean the basic structure of it.
There are also regional differences. Southern accents are seen as unintelligent. Individuals with thick accents or are often treated with contempt and less respect. (Even though English is often their second language.) So when people are policing language, they tend to be overly critical of any type of communication that is outside the bounds of what is considered "proper." But if "proper" was built on colonialism and educational disenfranchisement, then what does that mean for the entire system?

3. It's ableist.

There are people who physically cannot speak in ways that will ever be deemed as "proper." It is estimated that 15%-20% of Americans have a learning disability with dyslexia being the most common.

According to the American Speech Hearing Association:
"Language-based learning disabilities are problems with age-appropriate reading, spelling, and/or writing. This disorder is not about how smart a person is. Most people diagnosed with learning disabilities have average to superior intelligence."
Even if the person was less intelligent, nitpicking a person's argument based on grammar or sentence structure still avoids any real consideration or thought on the part of the reader. If you can understand what a person meant, then they're using language the way language is intended: to convey thoughts and feelings.

bell hooks writings speak to this domination in a way that is beautiful and relatable.

bell hooks:
To recognize that we touch one another in language seems particularly difficult in a society that would have us believe that there is no dignity in the experience of passion, that to feel deeply is to be inferior, for within the dualism of Western metaphysical thought, ideas are always more important than language. To heal the splitting of mind and body, we marginalized and oppressed people attempt to recover ourselves and our experiences in language. We seek to make a place for intimacy. Unable to find such a place in standard English, we create the ruptured, broken, unruly speech of the vernacular. When I need to say words that do more than simply mirror or address the dominant reality, I speak black vernacular. There, in that location, we make English do what we want it to do. We take the oppressor’s language and turn it against itself. We make our words a counter-hegemonic speech, liberating ourselves in language.
By embracing the notion that there is only one way to correctly communicate, people are perpetuating old systems of oppression. We need to move away from a system of self congratulatory ridicule and remember that language is a living breathing thing that belongs to everyone.

Friday, December 19, 2014

What Women Deserve

For one of my finals I am writing a series of blog posts. Each one will focus on a different reading or topic from the class.

So this really has nothing to do with my final but it's powerful and amazing and I wanted to share.


Do you like girls?

For one of my finals I am writing a series of blog posts. Each one will focus on a different reading or topic from the class.

He asks me if I like girls.

We've been texting for a few days and I know what he wants
He wants me to purr and be coy
To hesitate for a moment
Then be seductive and suggestive and tell him I do

But only for him

Not for myself.
No never for myself.
My desire is only useful in its desirability

Do you like girls?

I think of all the women I've ever loved
Of all the places I've ever been touched
Whispers and ghosts flow over my thoughts
I'm still haunted
By unreturned glances and hummingbird hearts

Do you like girls?

We always ask the wrong questions
Look to the wrong clues
My desire is what makes me untrustworthy

Do you like girls?

I think of all the people I've ever loved
Of all the ways I'm never enough
Soft lips and softer skin
Broken hopes and closed doors

Do you like girls?

I think of a hundred words
Of a thousand heartbeats
And I hesitate for only a moment

Do I like girls?

No not today.
Not for you.
Today that is for me
And only me

I decided to try my hand at some creative writing and this further proves to me that it is not my cup of tea! Give me facts and figures and analytical thoughts. I struggle with writings that are less linear and that move between the literal and the figurative. This is something that I don't really like about myself so I thought i would try something different.

In a lot of my gender classes students have shared their experiences with not feeling "enough." Not queer enough or fat enough or disabled enough to occupy spaces dedicated social justice. I can related to this on many different levels. Often times I feel like I'm not welcome in LGBT communities because I am not "queer" enough. While I would never deny my heterosexual privilege, it's sometimes disheartening.

Selfies as Self Care

For one of my finals I am writing a series of blog posts. Each one will focus on a different reading or topic from the class.

When reading “Are We Fabulous Yet?” by Yasmin Nair, I was struck by one line in her article. While Nair was explaining the pressure she often felt within the queer community to be fabulous, she ends her post with these words:
But I do worry about younger queers coming up and out, who feel a pressure to be fabulous, darling, just fabulous, haunted forever by the sneering ghost of Patsy Stone.

Are we—and they—destined to be scolded if we don’t cinch, pinch and pucker all the time? 
I’m tired of feeling compelled to affirm every selfie that shows up in my Facebook feed, to “like” yet another image of someone who needs to be reassured that, yes, they’re truly lovely. 
In the world I occupy, “body positive” culture has led to a new tyranny of fashion, and a demand that we be fabulous forever and always. 
Is it really so impossible for us, radical queer feminists, to create a world where we dispense with the idea that physical beauty is a measure of worth? Instead of greeting every accusation of ugliness with an affirmation of beauty, can we simply shrug our shoulders and move on to bigger issues?
Now I don't want to derail the conversation Nair is having about the pressure and inclusivity of the LGBT movement. It's an important one to have and often has widespread repercussions for individuals with disabilities or trans bodies. But the line, “I’m tired of feeling compelled to affirm every selfie that shows up in my Facebook feed, to “like” yet another image of someone who needs to be reassured that, yes, they’re truly lovely,” really bothered me.

Because ultimately it misses the point.

Selfie culture is often dismissed as shallow and superficial. Even Jezebel claimed, “Selfies aren't empowering little sources of pride, nor are they narcissistic exercises by silly, conceited bitches. They're a logical technically enabled response to being brought up to think that what really matters is if other people think you're pretty.” Of course posting an article online or cooking dinner for your friends isn't narcissistic. That's the right way to seek attention and validation I guess.

Instead of seeing selfies as narcissistic, maybe we should look at them as a form of self care. A self appointed “selfie queen,” my relationship with myself has been changed by instagram. There is no doubt about it. Is this because I have a large influx of people telling me I'm pretty? No. Like most people I'm pretty unknown on instragram. What has changed is that Instagram has given me a legitimate reason to take pictures of myself and relish in my own beauty. So it isn't about likes or comments. It's about feeling bold enough to even take the picture in the first place. To say, “I exist and here's my face. Oh and also a picture of some tacos I ate.”

Artists have been creating self portraits since there have been artists capable of doing so. Society is constantly inundated with pictures of silent women half dressed. Yet if I turn the camera around, suddenly I'm shallow? John Berger said it best:
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Selfies can be an opportunity for people to turn beauty ideals on their head. To find broader representation and change the conversation about beauty. Are fat bodies beautiful? Are black bodies? Disabled bodies? Selfies allow people to seek out similar people and know that they're seen and accepted and yes, maybe even beautiful.

If someone doesn't want to see a hundred pictures of my face then so be it. But that doesn't mean posting selfies is shallow or that I'm looking for approval. In fact, the very idea that I should be concerned with your opinion on selfies follows the very same thinking that I am trolling for likes. Like my picture or don't. It doesn't matter.

The Power of Ugly

For one of my finals I am writing a series of blog posts. Each one will focus on a different reading or topic from the class.

When I was reading the Mia Mingus piece, Moving Toward the Ugly, it struck a cord in me. The pressure to be beautiful has always been a heavy weight. All of my life I felt too pale, too large, and too...wrong. My teeth were crooked, my nose was crooked, and I was covered in freckles. To make it worse I was too loud. Always too confident in my opinions and unwilling to “behave.” I was often the “smart” one, but never the “pretty” one.

I struggled for a long time with my relationship with my body. Of course I could never admit I was so self conscious. Somehow admitting I longed to be seen as beautiful was wrong. It was a weakness that the “smart” part of me rejected. What would my relationship with myself and those around me look like if I had embraced that struggle like a badge of honor? If I looked at the struggle to be beautiful as a tough outer layer that's made me stronger, more magnificent.
...We must shift from a politic of desirability and beauty to a politic of ugly and magnificence. That moves us closer to bodies and movements that disrupt, dismantle, disturb. Bodies and movements ready to throw down and create a different way for all of us, not just some of us.

The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself. The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use. A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed. The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.

Because we all do it. We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty. Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot. What would it mean if we were ugly? What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s? How do we take the sting out of “ugly?” What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel? What would it take for us to be able to risk being ugly, in whatever that means for us. What would happen if we stopped apologizing for our ugly, stopped being ashamed of it? What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent?

Where is the Ugly in you? What is it trying to teach you?
Over the years something interesting started to happen though. I began to feel like beauty was something I could claim for myself. I rejected the idea that my fat body was unlovable. That my crooked nose was a flaw. I decided I didn't care about beauty at all. That I would be powerful and bold and unapologetic.

And the strangest thing happened.

People started to see me as beautiful. Suddenly I was desirable. And now that I'm beautiful, maybe I don't want to give it all up. It's taken me a long time to get here and I wonder at how easily Mingus asks me to walk away from it all. The world has told me my fat body is ugly and yet it also celebrates my curves. Am I doing my fat sisters a disservice by rejecting the desirability of my body? Am I somehow reinforcing the idea that my body is inherently ugly?
If you leave with anything today, leave with this: you are magnificent. There is magnificence in our ugliness. There is power in it, far greater than beauty can ever wield. Work to not be afraid of the Ugly—in each other or ourselves. Work to learn from it, to value it. Know that every time we turn away from ugliness, we turn away from ourselves. And always remember this: I would rather you be magnificent, than beautiful, any day of the week. I would rather you be ugly—magnificently ugly.
I try to remember that if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then it isn't something I own. It's something that has been given to me. Something that was long denied and can be taken back at any moment. My beauty is not my own. It is something I merely wear temporarily. So maybe the problem is not with how the world sees me. It's how I see myself.

I don't need the world to see me as ugly. I just need to know that I will not be destroyed by the word “ugly.” That even if the world does see me as ugly, I am still powerful and strong and beautiful.