“Oh, I Get It” Moment #2: The Ellen James Society and Gay Pride

June 26, 2015

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Waking up this morning to find out that the Supreme Court had established marriage equality in all 50 states was the greatest surprise. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to President Obama talk about the power of love and I realized that “gay marriage” would never be an issue for my daughter’s generation. We will look back at June 26, 2015 the same way look back at May 17, 1954. Some old people will scream that the world is coming to an end, just like they did after the passage of Brown, but go ahead and holler, love won over hate in both.

The occasion causes me to reflect on my own path to becoming an ally, gay rights activist and all around queer heterosexual. Like most journeys it wasn’t a straight line. Growing up in Georgia in the 1970s wasn’t the best place to practice acceptance. Most Southern Christians really aren’t. I think they would string the real Jesus up from a tree. So I got a lot of the homophobia as a kid. We’d play “Smear the Queer” on the playground and nobody stopped us. My father told me that homosexuals were sick (which I guess is better than evil), and I never asked for proof.

But my mind wasn’t committed to homophobia. There were some cracks in it from the beginning. I seemed to always know that San Francisco and Greenwich Village were cooler places than Stone Mountain. One of my first concerts was Queen in 1976 (with Thin Lizzy opening) and I loved their operatic approach to rock and Freddie Mercury’s flamboyance. I knew that the Beatles’ manager was gay and the Fab Four stood by him. TV was filled with plenty of people who were a “little light in their loafers,” as they used to say, who were favorites. From Paul Lynde to Rip Taylor, gay equaled fun. Billy Crystal’s empathetic gay character on Soap made more sense than John Ritter’s fake gay slapstick on Three’s Company.

The problem was if you acknowledged this, you got labeled the queer and you got smeared. When I began to embrace punk rock as my tribe in 1978,  my name at Redan High School went from “Hey, Blazak!” to “Hey, Gayzak.” I was gender non-conforming before that was a term. How I didn’t get beat up for wearing spandex with a velour purple and black striped top was a miracle. But I did get beat up other days. I remember in 1979, I was wearing a shirt of a cool Australian rock band that nobody had heard of yet, called AC/DC. Outside my Spanish class this redneck called me out. “Hey, Gayzak! ‘AC/DC’? That means you’re a fag, right?” (A year later he was wearing the same shirt.)

The problem was I didn’t know anybody who was gay. Actually, I knew lots of people at Redan High School who were gay, I just didn’t know it, many who came out as soon as they escaped to college. So it was really hard to develop empathy with the gay struggle. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance in school, no internet with somebody telling you it gets better, no history lesson about Stonewall. Basically, all the gay kids were cowering in a corner, hoping they didn’t get discovered this week and maybe could escape into Atlanta when they were old enough.

I did have the music. My love of The Who in 1980 led me to Secret Policeman’s Ball album to benefit Amnesty International. Besides Pete Townsend and Sting, the record had a song called “Glad to Be Gay” by Tom Robinson. I listened to it over and over. The idea that your sexuality could be criminalized by the state was just heartbreaking. If songs can change the world, I think that song did.

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Once I escaped into the punk rock world, I knew plenty of queer ass folks. I hung out at the 688 Club with Ru Paul and loved his shows and little movies. I worked in a record store in Ansley Park, the “gayest” part of Atlanta. In the summer of 1984, if a guy with a mustache in an undershirt came in, he probably wanted a cassette of Tina Turner or the Bronski Beat. I joke, but that music became another window into the subculture. That and La Cage aux Folles. When the punk clubs closed, we’d head to Weekends, the gay bar that stayed open until the wee hours. If I ever got hit on, I took it as a compliment (then probably grabbed the closest female). I wrote the first ever review of The Indigo Girls in The Emory Wheel and realized I should abandon my crush on Amy Ray, but continue to be a friend and a fan. The door was open.

Not being homophobic was a rebellion against redneck Georgia, but I still had plenty of homophobia in me. As a young male, a lot of my behavior was designed to publicly assert my heterosexuality. I think being “girl crazy” was part of that. But I had a real breakthrough moment thanks to an Atlanta band that I was a huge fan of.

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If the Ellen James Society had made the scene ten years later, they might have been lumped in to the Queer Core movement (Portland’s Team Dresch, one of the coolest bands ever), but in the late 1980s, they were just a killer underground band with amazing bass and guitar riffs and a few members who might have been lesbian. I saw them play lots, soaking in the passion and anger Chris McGuire and Cooper Seay brought to the music and vocals. So when I saw they were playing at Atlanta’s annual Gay Pride Fest in Piedmont Park I had a conundrum straight out of a Freudian psychodrama. (In this play, the angel represents the superego of societal rules.)

Devil on my shoulder: Yeah, I can see Ellen James for free fuck yeah.

Angel on my shoulder: But it’s at GAY PRIDE. If you go, people will think YOU ARE GAY. That’s not gonna help you with ladies or the churches or the church ladies.

My head being in the middle had to decide who to listen to. I remember this very clearly. I remember thinking this: WHO CARES? People who know me know my sexuality and people who don’t don’t matter and who cares if anybody thinks I’m gay. The gay people I know are all seriously awesome compared to some of the straight assholes I know. Fuck you, angel, I’m going to see The Ellen James Society. For free.

And I did. And I rocked out in front of the stage like a maniac with other music fans, gay, straight and otherwise. There were beautiful drag queens and suburban refugees and I’m sure a few kids from Stone Mountain who, for one afternoon in Georgia, felt free to let their freak flag fly. It was an awakening. We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.

Since that afternoon, I’ve felt that the LGBTQ tribe is also my tribe. My work on hate crimes has sensitized me even more to the struggle. I love my friends who are out and am there for those who are waiting for the right moment. (Facebook is a great place to track old friends who have opened the closet door.) I have had gay and trans students who have really helped me understand the whole spectrum of realities, perceptions and emotions that accompany existing as a sexual minority in America. I owe so much to all those people who have helped me leave smearing the queer behind and helped me to queer my own identity. (If you don’t know what that means, please refer to my previous post.) Here’s me in 2009, stating the obvious:

So today is a day to celebrate in America. There will still be hate crimes, discrimination, suicides, and people who are trapped in their closets. There are also places around the world that are light years behind America. This includes large chunks of Africa, Russia and the Middle East. (Everyone should watch the 2007 film Jihad of Love about being gay and Muslim). But today, there is a gay kid in deep Mississippi who feels the world is a little less hateful and that a basic right that straight people take for granted is available for them, too. They can be full citizens. And my daughter will grow up in a world where marriage equality will be one less battle to fight.

There will be one big gay party tonight and I’ll be there, waving my hands in the air.

Photo on 6-26-15 at 1.22 PM #2

“Oh, I Get It” Moment #1: B.B. King and the lady in the purple hat

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 3: How babies queer gender

June 25, 2015

I’m glad that transexual folks are getting some love these days. It makes the fact that, still, almost each day a transperson is murdered tinged with a little more hope. (If only they had Caitlyn Jenner’s money.) It’s a topic I want to write more about, but the link here is that it has opened a wider discussion about the fluidity of gender, and as a promoter of Queer Theory, I think that is much needed.

When we found out that Cozy had a sex (female) we started thinking about her gender (who knows). A big part of me didn’t want to know her sex before she was born to avoid the temptation to start the gender socialization before she was even out. Andrea and I had a conversation about at least putting the kibosh on all things pink. We painted her nursery a calming aqua blue.

It didn’t matter. Waves of pink stuff came in. At the baby shower and afterwards. We inherited secondhand baby girl clothes that were pink. And after I’d done a few loads of laundry, pretty much everything was pink. But my mom had sent a bunch of my baby clothes (from the days of the Johnson Administration,  Andrew Johnson) so she’s worn plenty of boy clothes as well. It’s funny how when she’s not in pink, people refer to her as “he.” “Oh, he’s such a cute boy.”

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There are really four or five parts to your gender. The first is biological. That’s your genes and whatever you’ve got going on between your legs. Add to that sexual orientation. Do you like the other sex, your sex, or a bit of both on a Saturday night? But then there’s how you see  yourself. Some people feel they are born in the right body, but there are a lot of people who feel they are other than the gender society has labeled them. These are our trans friends. After that is how we present our gender to others. Are you more “Butch” or “Femme”? Sloppy dads are somewhere in the middle. Finally, you can add the gender presentation you are attracted to.  As a child of the seventies, I’m a sucker for long, flowing hair (unless I’m watching women’s World Cup soccer). This can sound really complicated, but there’s a great exercise called Gender Gumby that makes it easy.

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The point is that everybody is a bit different where they plot themselves on Gender Gumby. And because Gumby is flexible, each of us can be different everyday. Occasionally, I like to butch it up and put my Doc Marten boots on and blast some Slayer. Then there was the first time I saw Soundgardern play and stared at Chris Cornell for an hour. Flexible! Lots of queer folks have to play it down on occasion and the straightest Conservatives can get super kinky behind closed doors.

OK, back to the baby. Cozy has a sex but no gender yet. She’s 10 months old and I’m in no hurry to push her into that bag. She is beyond gender and it’s really cool to see that freedom. She doesn’t “act like a girl” in any way, but it’s fun to see the “gendered” behavior that could be ascribed to her.

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Cozy likes to climb. She’s like a little tank. She climbs over everything, including Mom and Dad. I’m sure if she was a boy, people would say, “He’s just being a boy.” Cozy likes to slap dad. She thinks it’s funny. Sometimes in restaurants she likes to be loud. Actually, she likes to be loud a lot. She and I have the occasional screaming contest. Boys will be boys. There is a baby doll in the house. I don’t know where it came from. She doesn’t have much interest in it and would rather play with Dad’s box of dominoes. (For the record, I had dolls named Raggedy Andy and Dapper Dan.)  She has a little “car” that we call the Cozymobile. She just loves to go fast as she can in it. Give this girl a fashion magazine and she will rip it to shreds in minutes. That’s my little feminist.

She sees Dad cooking and Mom working on her paintings. I don’t think I have to worry about her home environment, but at some point peers and media and school and religion will send her messages about more traditional gender performances (aka “patriarchy”), but for now she is completely blurring, or “queering,” the gender lines. In the past we called this being a “tom boy” but in the future we will call it being a girl.

Babies don’t really have a gender. They are asexual little blobs of joy that we shape into mirrors of our own fears and insecurities. Any armchair analysis of the mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras will tell you that. Or dads forcing their kids to play the sports that they failed at. But there is also a chance to free our children of the suffocating constraints of oppressive gender rules. Every parent that has told a boy not to “cry like a girl” has deeply wounded that child in a way that is life lasting. The same goes every parent that tells their daughter that she is pretty and that’s enough. Let’s raise whole children, not ones from Venus or Mars.

And in 2019, Cozy and I will be glued to the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France. But for now, Go USA! Beat China!

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White Boys to Terrorist Men: Pointless Male Violence and Charleston

June 19, 2015

Seems like I’m having a hard time just writing a blogpost about the baby and/or gender. The news keeps punching me in the gut. My mom and nephew are visiting from Georgia and we were planning a day trip to the Oregon coast when the news broke about the mass shooting in Charleston. My heart sank for so many reasons. Since Trayvon Martin it seems like an almost weekly assault on black America in this supposed “post-racial” America. What must it be like to be African-American in 2015?

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But I also knew it was most likely one of “my guys,” the racist boys and men I’ve been studying for 30 years. When I posted my theory on Facebook, one of my old (white) friends from Stone Mountain, said it was probably just a personal matter. “I am so tired of everyone taking every opportunity to make it a race thing,” she said.

Usually I go into full media mode when mayhem breaks loose. I knew there would be requests for perspective and I might be able to add something of value to the chatter. But I made a promise to the family and I was really looking forward to a little getaway. I got calls from the local stations and Al Jazeera, but I wanted to stay focused on the beautiful sunshine in Cannon Beach and Cape Kiwanda. I checked the updates while I held Cozy and tasted Andrea’s clam chowder. The news just got worse and worse.

Probably the most well-read piece of scholarship I’ve published is a 2001 article in American Behavioral Scientist entitled, “White Boys to Terrorist Men: Target Recruitment of Nazi Skinheads.” It was based on my research on how boys get involved with the racist skinhead subculture. It is the research that brought me to feminist theory and it’s why I can say something about Dylann Roof. He’s the 21-year-old white male who shot nine African-Americans, old and young, male and female, in the sanctuary of their Charleston church.

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Roof was a petty criminal from a low-income background who was a fan of the Confederacy and South African apartheid. His friends say he supported segregation and joked about killing black people and starting a civil war. “He had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” one said.

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This where I come from. The land where the Confederate battle flag is ubiquitous and you can hear Charlie Daniels sing, “Be proud you’re a rebel because the South’s gonna do it again.” In the late 1980s, I was on tour with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ and we were in a truck stop in Arkansas or Alabama or Appalachia. There was a big bearded bubba with red t-shirt. On it was a Confederate Flag with “The South will rise again” under it. I used it as an opportunity to play my favorite parlor game, Asshole With A Cause. So I asked him,

“Excuse me sir. Can I ask you about your shirt? I’m from Stone Mountain….”

“Grunt.” Approval, I assume, from being from the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Um, yeah, and I’ve heard that saying a million times. The South will rise again.”

“Grunt” A bit of chaw falls out his mouth.

“I just wonder what that means. Because the South has risen economically. All the good jobs are in the Sun Belt now. It’s risen politically. You don’t get into the White House without the Southern vote. And it’s risen culturally. Everybody is listening to Country music or hip hop from the South.”

“Grunt.” He was clearly agitated. “Well, it just means the old ways.”

“So a purely agrarian society.”

“Yeah, like it was.”

“With slavery.”

“Yeah, exactly.”

What an idiot. I kinda wish they’d tell white people like this that slavery was suddenly legal so black people could just shoot these crackers. “Woo hoo! I’m gonna go into this house and get me a negro!” Bam! It’s not 1815. But that would be wrong. Peace and love, right?

My point of telling this story is that there is a white MALE mentality that is popular in the South but is common everywhere that says, things were better back in the good old days, when minorities knew their place, women stayed in the kitchen and “them queers” stayed in the closet. Even mainstream Conservatives blather about “restoring America.” We can only presume that means to 1954, about five minutes before the passage of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. Roof himself reflected this when he told one of his victims that he “had to” shoot them. “You are raping our women and taking over the country.”

Of course, white women are overwhelmingly raped by white men and the black population as a percentage of the whole has shrunk according to the 2010 census. But you can’t talk reality to a white male who feels he is entitled to always be the unchallenged king of the hill. How dare these people exist and think they deserve the same rights as me??? The New York Times reported a quote from a black Charleston resident who summed it up perfectly. “We’re not worth the air they don’t want us to breathe,” he said, feeling the shooting was just an extension of what black people face at hands of local whites every day.

I saw this over and over again in the hatred of the racist skinheads I studied in the 1980s and 1990s. THEIR jobs were being taken away by immigrants, minorities and Jewish conspirators. THEIR women were being taken away by feminists and lesbians (and sexy black men). THEIR generation was being polluted by hip hop, homosexuals and really delicious Mexican food. How do you get it back? How do you “restore” America? With the tool men have always used when their backs are against the wall – unholy violence.

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I think it’s clear that Dylann Roof intended to die on Wednesday. He was going to go out “like a man,” guns blazing in “valiant” attempt to jumpstart a “civil war” and go down a hero for the “Southern cause.” I’ve seen variations of the theme a hundred times among racists. The most bloody was Wade Page, who killed six people in a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012 before turning the gun on himself. Sorry, Wade. Dylann just knocked you off the throne.

When will this end? There’s a larger conversation about how white people need to FUCKING ACKNOWLEDGE THAT RACISM IS STILL A SERIOUS PROBLEM IN AMERICA, and stop whining about Al Sharpton being on TV. Nothing changes until you own this truth!

But my part here is the issue of straight white males believing they are entitled to anything. We live in a democracy. We’re all working hard to make it work. If you can’t handle the fact we’re trying to make if fair for people who are not straight white males, move to Russia, I hear being an entitled straight white asshole is very popular there right now.

I have no doubt that Roof pieced his moronic worldview together from peers and the plethora of racist websites that will tell you that America is being destroyed because Whoopi Goldberg is still on The View and gay marriage is coming to a bakery near you. These people are intensely unhappy. They see a culture that is leaving them at the train station and instead of racing to catch up, they are getting out their rocket launcher to try to blow the damn train up. How dare that train not wait for me? Everybody on it must die.

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But these boys and men always fail. Timothy McVeigh hoped his 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people (including 19 children) would spark a race war. It didn’t. It did rally Americans to squelch patriot militia groups that wanted to lead a “second American revolution” against the government. Dylann Roof hoped his slaughter would start a new civil war in America. It won’t. Right now black and white folks in Charleston are holding hands and singing. There is a renewed push to get the stupid Confederate battle flag off the lawn of the South Carolina state capital. Dylann and boys and men like him die for a lost cause that should be renamed the pathetic cause.

The message to all those straight white boys and men is this: Catch up. This is an awesome train to be on. It’s mighty and soulful and delicious and you can dance with your hands in the air and love like you just don’t care. We’ll leave the caboose door open for you. Just leave your gun back at the junction. And then come join my multi-racial family at the Oregon coast. I’ll buy you some chowder and a taco.

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Gender: Nature vs. Nurture 2: Ain’t I a Black Girl?

June 16, 2016

Suddenly, there is lot of discussion about the social construction of race in the mainstream media. We can thank Rachel Dolezal for that. She’s the “white” woman who has posing as the “black” head of the Spokane NAACP and was recently outed by her parents as a honky. I put white and black in quotation marks because once you realize how much of our reality is socially constructed, you will quickly use up your quotation mark quota. Queer theorists don’t talk about men and women, only “men” and “women.”

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Everybody has an opinion about it. Conservatives want to know why she is a villain while Caitlyn Jenner is a hero. (For starters, Jenner never misrepresented who her parents were or took a scholarship for women.) Those folks don’t understand how race and gender are both socially constructed, but they are constructed very differently. Feminists have chimed in as well. I’ve been following Naomi Wolf’s Facebook insightful posts about the complexity of cultural identity.

I got a call from a a friend wondering where my voice has been on this matter. Why would I be silent about something that is firmly in my wheelhouse? Well, that’s because I’ve been observing the very public conversation. I can see merit on the roughly 20 positions on the matter, including some of the Conservatives who are flummoxed at the Dolenzal/Jenner nexus. This week I was going to write a bit about Cozy’s gender performance (which, as you might guess in this house, is not very “girly.” (See, there’s those quotation marks again.)) I did a brief interview with KGW-TV on the topic yesterday. So I thought I’d expound on my comments here.

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First of all, if you didn’t know, race doesn’t exist. There are no people who are the color white or black. That would be weird. We’re all just varying shades of flesh color from different places. What race are people from Afghanistan? At the dawn of the colonial era in the 16th Century, Europeans decided they were “white” (because, you know, heaven is very white) and Africans were “black” (the color of evil and heavy metal t-shirts) so they could enslave the evil blacks. And this over-simple social construction of reality has been accepted ever since. These are the same people who told us the sun, planets, and stars revolved around the Earth.

The only truth is that you inherit physical characteristics from your biological parents. The rest is made up bullshit by people on a power trip. When the human genome was finally mapped in 2001, they found more genetic diversity WITHIN so-called races than between them. A lot of white people have some black ancestors and even more black folks have a white lineage. It’s all made up. Is Barrack Obama white or black? Flip a coin and you’re right.

That’s Point Number 1 – race is a bullshit made-up idea. Point Number 2 is that bullshit made-up idea has real world consequences. For example, slavery. Or institutional discrimination. Or being shot by the cops. Or being called a thug by Fox News. Or being told that the whiter you are, the prettier you are. And on and on to the break of dawn. You don’t actually have to worry about what Jesus/Allah/Vishnu thinks of you, but you certainly have to deal with the people who do.

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But Point 3 is that while race is defined for us by society, it also can be defined by us. If you don’t believe me, next St. Patrick’s Day, see how may non-Irish people claim to be Irish. I claim to be Czech but that’s just my father’s father’s father, Michael Blazak, who emigrated from Prague in 1891. For a while, I thought I was Mohican because my father’s mother had a Mohican ancestor. As a boy, I incorporated that into my self-identity. I loved heights because I was part Indian! Then my grandmother found out she was adopted. Psych!

White people have romanticized black culture for a good century. African-Americans are more sensual, mystical, soulful and sexual we are told. Just read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, where he yearns to be as “free as the negro.” Or Lou Reed sing “I wanna be black. Have natural rhythm, shoot a hundred feet of jism, too!” In 1990, I went to go see Public Enemy perform at the Omni in Atlanta with Malcolm X identity patch around my neck. I got called “cracker” by the actual black kids. Repeatedly. It was just a version of what Justin Bieber and Iggy Azalea are doing now.

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This is cultural appropriation. Justin and I can put on our black face and act out the latest version of Birth of a Nation, and then scrub it off and go back to the protection afforded by our white privilege. People of color cannot do that. Sure, there is a long history of black people “passing” as white. (Check out the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Wow.) But the punishment of being outed is a lot more severe than what’s now happening to Rachel Dolezal. Often it was death by the noose.

There is also the issue that as a “light-skinned black woman,” she will be valued in a racist patriarchy in a way that a dark-skinned black woman who doesn’t have European features won’t. The bell hooks (fan) Facebook page asked, “Why waste time being at the bottom of a lengthy hierarchy of white women, when you can be fast tracked to the top of the hierarchy of black women?” 

So there are two things to say about Rachel Dolezal. Which one I put first may cause you to determine whether I support her or am somehow offended by her choices. I’d put them side by side, but I’m not that sophisticated a blogger, so.

POINT A – She lied. She lied about who her father was. She got a scholarship to Howard University (the “black Harvard”) that should have gone to an actual person of color. She’s guilty of cultural theft. At the end of the day, she can go back to her white parents in the suburbs and enjoy all the deep, deep perks that insures, and talk about back in the day when she snuck into the black clubhouse.

POINT 1 – Rachel Dolezal is a person committed to human rights. She could have used her whiteness to make mad stacks on Wall Street. But, like Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, chose to abandon her whiteness to walk a few thousand mile in the shoes of the (still) oppressed. People who know her testify to her commitment to issues of social justice and racial equality and who cares if she did it in a weave and ton of bronzer on her face.

Just to loop this back to gender (I’m still going to write that piece on Cozy’s gender performativity), there is a big difference between transsexual and transracial. Transgender people feel they are born in the wrong sexed body. I have a friend in NYC who having his breasts removed this summer so he can feel closer to the male body he always felt he was. We are both biologically male and female in utero. Then something happens in the process and our little bodies divide into male or female (and a lot of inter-sexed kids as well). Nobody, even Rachel, is “white” in the womb but comes out “black.” Transracial is a choice. Transgender is not.

But I’m glad this whole thing has sparked this conversation. Dolezal has resigned her position at the small chapter of the NAACP she voluntarily held and I can post the link to this blog on anybody’s Facebook page who wants to know what I think about this week’s scuttlebutt. Everybody wins!

Gender: Nature vs. Nurture: Round 1

The following books are mentioned in this blog and are available at Powell’s Books by clicking on the covers below:

Feminist Herstory Part 5 – Hey Soul Sister

June 11, 2015

We’re back for the occasional history of feminist theory. Earlier posts are here:

Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – It is discovered that Women are PEOPLE!!!

Feminist Herstory Pt. 2 – Here comes the FIRST WAVE

Feminist Herstory Pt. 3 – Let’s Judge Ourselves as People

Feminist Herstory Pt. 4 – The Swingin’ Second Wave arrives

Remember from Part One that modern feminism has its roots in the abolition movement. Unfortunately, the feminism that emerged in the 20th Century had a decidedly vanilla flavor. When Betty Friedan wrote about housewives stuck in suburban hell instead of having awesome careers in her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique, she was writing about upper-middle class white woman. When those women bolted for the joys self-actualization, guess who stepped in to clean their houses and feed their kids? It wasn’t the husbands. It was the women who have always worked. Women of color.

In the early 1990s I was teaching Intro Sociology at posh Emory University, but also at Dekalb Community College, where most of my students were poor and working class black women. I would talk a lot about gender socialization and patriarchal oppression and every single class black women would say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then say something completely in line with feminism; about exploitation at work, the pressure to be pretty, the routine experience of violence by men. The qualifier caught me off guard so I finally began asking why they felt that way, and it was always the same answer. Something like this; “Feminists are rich white lesbians that hate men and think they’re better than me.”

A is for Angela

The sad reality is that the feminist movement completely ignored the experience of women of color. Some of the same elitism that characterized the “old boys club” could be found at NOW meetings. The official feminists were being educated at private colleges, but the women who would find the drudgery of being the housewife a luxury were not invited to the revolution. When radical black women, like Angela Davis, tried to encourage white feminists to look at the problem of race, they were accused of “diluting the message.” (The same thing happened when lesbians and gays suggested feminism should take on homophobia, or when socialists said feminism should take on classism.) “Angry black women” were seen as an obstacle to the elite image of feminism coming from the pages of Ms. Magazine or the Women’s Studies classes at Sarah Lawrence College. 1970s groups like the National Black Feminist Organization and Combahee River Collective faced opposition from both mainstream feminists and more traditional civil rights groups.

But many Asian, Native, Latina, Black and other women of color knew that feminism offered emancipation for them as well. The intersection of race and gender even made it onto the radio when, in 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released the controversial feminist single entitled, “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” When John and Yoko performed the song on the Dick Cavett Show and sang, “Woman is the slaves of the slaves,” many people got the connection. But it would take until the 1980s for black feminism to find a voice.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono – “Woman is the Nigger of the World”

Bellhooked

The black feminist voice had been around for a long time. It had crept into negro spirituals and old blues numbers about bad men. It was there in the jazz compositions of Nina Simone and the novels of Toni Morrison. Finally, that voice found a vessel in the writings of a girl from Hopkinsville, Kentucky named Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as bell hooks. hooks escaped the segregated South for college in California at Stanford. She earned her masters at Madison in 1976 and, finally, her doctorate at UC-Santa Cruz in 1983 (writing about Toni Morrison). A prolific teacher and writer, hooks work is much of the inspiration for this blog. As a graduate student in 1994, a member of Emory University’s Black Student Alliance gave me a copy of hooks’ new book Teaching to Transgress and it immediately changed my ideas about what it meant to be a teacher. Her first work, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981) was actually written when she was 19 and explores the intersection of race and gender.

Of her many books, her second volume, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), might be the most widely read. The book is a stern critique of second wave feminism and the implicit racism of The Feminine Mystique. She points out the privileged position that mainstream feminists came from because of their skin.  “Had middle-class black women begun a movement in which they had labeled themselves ‘oppressed,’ no one would have taken them seriously,” she writes. But it’s not only the implicit racism in feminism that hooks highlights. She also called attention to the anti-male position common among radical feminists of the time. “Anti-male sentiments have alienated many poor and working-class women, particularly non-white women from the feminist movement. Their life experiences have shown them that they have more in common with men of their race and/or class group than with bourgeois white women.” Advocating for the involvement in all people against oppression (which she refers to as the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy), hooks sees men as “comrades in struggle.”

The great contribution of hooks’ Feminist Theory is the idea of interlocking “vectors of oppression.” Although it would later be named and advanced by black feminists Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins, hooks was discussing intersectionality. A white working class woman, like my mother, may be oppressed in a patriarchal social system, but she still enjoys the privilege associated with her race, class, and sexual orientation. A poor black lesbian is going to have a much different experience of oppression (as is a disabled working class heterosexual male). We know inherently that working class masculinity is different than bourgeois masculinity (tractor pulls and polo matches). hooks writes, “Feminist analyses of women’s lot tend to focus exclusively on gender and do not provide a solid foundation to construct feminist theory. They reflect the dominant tendency in Western patriarchal minds to mystify women’s reality by insisting that gender is the sole determinant of women’s fate.” By exploring these vectors of oppression the many varied experiences of women (and men and transpeople) can be incorporated into feminist thought in a way that was difficult under second wave feminist discourse.

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From books on black masculinity (We Real Cool (2004)) to analysis of pop culture (Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies (1996)), and even children’s books (Be Boy Buzz (2002)), hooks’ work is unified by a desire to create a “love ethic” that undoes the personal and social harm done by the experience of oppression. Her brief 2000 book, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, should be required reading for the human race. I’ve bought copies for friends and even my therapist. In it hooks covers the standard critiques of “the movement,” but also unlocks the potentials of better sex and relationships through being more in-tuned with women’s basic humanity. Plus it’s a book dudes look really cool reading.

Professor hooks is still active, recently discussing trans identities and feminism with Laverne Cox, from Orange is the New Black. She speaks to audiences all over the world. I’ve seen her at Portland State and Reed College and was this close to getting her face tattooed on my arm. A whole new generation of young people (not just my students) have discovered hooks’ ideas through the Saved by the Bell Hooks internet meme. Perhaps most importantly, her definition of feminism has become a universal starting point for how big the feminist tent can be.

Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.

The following books were mentioned in this post and are available at Powell’s books by clicking the covers below:

More Baby Brain Wonders – What separates us from the apes? Pickles the Cat.

June 6, 2015

The baby brain freak out continues. When they say, “Every day it’s something new,” get ready, because it’s true. Their brains grow like a California wildfire and eat up data like it’s Cheerios. A baby’s brain doubles in size the first year and the cerebellum, which controls motor functions triples in size. At birth, their brains have all the neurons they will ever have and grow more synapses than they will ever need. This is why the environment the kid grows up in is so important to their brain development. If they had a good pre-natal environment, they are on their way to MIT. But a bad baby environment can sabotage the whole thing.

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Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age 3

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Cozy never ceases to amaze me. Last night I was reading The Fire Cat to her. (It’s one of my childhood books that my mom saved.) It’s the story of Pickles, the yellow cat, and each time I turned the page, Cozy would point to Pickles with her tiny index finger without any prompting from me. This may not mean much to you, but for a 9 month-old baby to be able to distinguish the pictures from the words on a page and know which image is Pickles is a BFD. She didn’t point to Mrs. Goodkind, just Pickles. I was blown away.

Her new favorite book. #CozyBlazak points to Pickles #TheFireCat

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All this started very early. I noticed it the first time when she was just a few months old. I went to pull her up after changing a diaper. She knew what was going to happen and pushed her head forward to brace her neck. I thought that was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen. How did she know to do that? There have been so many moments like that since then. Of course, now she likes to crawl, stand, and make a face that says, “Whatever you’re eating, you better share it.” She loves to point and if you wave at her, she’ll wave back. That was a big one.

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There’s also a lot of pre-talking. I think early on parents learn which cry means I’m hungry and which cry means I would like it it you remove the crapola from my butt. But there are other sounds. The first bit of laughter. The grunt of desire. The sigh of frustration. The morning babble. But my favorite is the singing. Cozy sings little songs to herself. She’s completely in her own zone, looking at her favorite Picasso book, or strumming the guitar strings (Yep) and singing a little melody. La la la la la. She sounds like if Lady Gaga had joined the Teletubbies. I don’t think she’s singing “Bad Romance,” so I really want to know what she IS singing. A little song that means a lot to her.

As a criminologist, I spend a lot of time looking at all the things that can go wrong with a kid’s brain development that can put them on a path towards delinquency. Everything from lead paint chips to Shaken Baby Syndrome can send the baby brain going in the wrong direction. I have a lecture on Minimal Brain Dysfunction, when a blow to the back of the head weakens the connection between the brain and spinal column, making people more impulsive. I have a good friend who is a criminal defense attorney and one of the first questions he asks is if the defendant was hit in the head as a child. Add to that the scary theories about food additives, GMOs and air pollution, and it seems like their a million things that can turn your Baby Einstein into a knuckle dragging Philistine.

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When you look at Cozy, she often seems like she has something deep going on in her head. She’s thinking about the world and her role in it. I’m a bit biased when it comes to my daughter but I’m betting she’ll go to Emory on a full ride. Maybe I’m just thinking of reasons not to start a college fund. Of course, she could develop an addiction to Mountain Dew in middle school or start huffing gas at summer camp or get hit in the head when’s she’s at bat in the 2025 Little League World Series. But the bigger risk is that she likes strumming that guitar too much and decides school is for “sell-outs to the Man.” If I can prevent her from becoming the next Honey Boo Boo, I’ll consider that a win.

Of course, one the major pitfalls ahead is the big 1 3. Carol Gilligan, in her landmark 1982 book, In A Different Voice, found that at around age 13 patriarchy pulls the rug out from under girls by telling them to stop being smart and focus on attracting boys. “Guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” But we’ve got some time to prepare her for that wall of bullshit. She doesn’t have to be Doogie Howser. She just needs an environment that keeps that beautiful brain growing. She’ll probably be reading Gillagan herself at 13. But for now, we’ll do The Fire Cat one more time.

Baby Brain Freak Our Part 1

The following books were mentioned in this post and can be bought at Powell’s by clicking the covers below:

Dad Love Pt. 5 – Flash, Ah! He’ll save every one of us!

June 1, 2015

You hear about parents doing super-human things when it comes to their kids. Moms will lift a car off a toddler or dads will run into a burning house to save a baby. It’s all anecdotal, so there’s reason to be skeptical. Just look at this clip from America’s Funniest Videos, a lame show that usually features scenes of dads being hit in the balls by kids with whiffleball bats. Real or fake?

There’s an actual name for this phenomenon, hysterical strength. It’s about the rush of adrenaline, or epinephrine, that occurs as a response to acute stress. You don’t have to be a parent to experience this type of hyper-arousal, but it has to be a variable.

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Now, there’s a reason that I bring this up. Despite my reputation, I tend to think of myself as slow-witted. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all the allergy medicine I’ve taken over the years or watching one too many Republican candidate debates. I know this because when some asshole says something sexist or racist, I have the most epic response. Five minutes later. I want to go back in time and give them the perfect zinger instead of just standing there slack-jawed. Huh? When something crazy is happening, I can be a few beats behind. We had a big shooting in the neighborhood Thursday night. (Maybe you saw Cozy and I on TV being interviewed.) The gunman ran right past my house. When I heard all the sirens, I should have ran outside and at least had my camera out. Better, I could have tackled the kid and been king for a day. Instead I just thought, All those sirens are annoying. Cozy, let’s eat a banana.

I’m not the only one. KPTV was interviewing some Portland official less than a block from the shooting. The shots ring out during the interview, pow, pow, pow, pow, and the guy just keeps talking. I don’t think he’s a dolt, our brains just have a hang time in processing things out of the ordinary. Wait, what? I wish I was the guy that just acted on impulse, but I’m the mouth breather that’s just standing there. Huh? Is something going on?

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So here’s the story. This weekend I was giving Cozy her breakfast, oatmeal and blueberries. We bought this IKEA high chair second hand and lazy dad didn’t strap her in. She now likes to stand up everywhere, including in the high chair. I usually just shove her back down and talk to her like she’s a dog. Sit, Boo Boo. But this morning was a little different. I turned away to grab a rag from across the kitchen. The kid had blueberry all over her face. I was about four feet away from her.

When I turned around, she was not standing up in the high chair. She was on her way towards the floor, feet pointed up at the ceiling. Just typing this gets my heart pumping. Now normal, slow-witted Randy would think, Gee, that seems wrong. Or maybe, that must be some other baby falling through the air. Or perhaps, Is Ashton Kutcher playing a joke on me?

But instead, somehow, I flew across the kitchen and caught Cozy about four inches from the hardwood floor. Richard Sherman on his best day couldn’t catch an interception like that. Something came over me. There was zero hesitation. I just acted. I can’t imagine where we’d be right now if I hadn’t, but I did. It was the strangest thing because it was so unlike me. And maybe it’s all the practice of grabbing stuff out of her mouth before she swallows it. (Well, there is still that missing shopping list that we won’t tell mom about.) For a second, I was the Flash (Quicksilver for you fellow Marvel fans). I had super-human strength.

Now, I don’t want to get cocky. If I’m just resting on my one great save, that’s when Cozy gets snatched by an eagle or falls into a crevasse when the big one comes (and it’s coming). Or maybe she’ll just pull a cup of hot coffee off the counter or fall out of a window while I’m thinking how awesome I am. Maybe I just got lucky and there is no “Parent Power” gene, but just in case there is I gotta keep my Spidey Sense tingling. You can’t turn superhero off,