Let’s End Duality: Make America Grey Again

January 4, 2018

To start off 2018, I’d like to take us back to a moment in 2004 when Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama said these words:

“The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

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It seemed like a shift away a from the Bush-era divisiveness and surely played a role in Obama’s election in 2008. It’s worth pointing out that 14 percent of registered Republicans voted for a black Democrat in that election. It seems unimaginable now as we tweet and post from our red and blue state fortresses, rejecting anything that requires acknowledging the complexity of these issues. Remember Donald Trump in February saying,  “Nobody knew that healed care could be this complicated.” Oh, they knew.

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Queer Theory has been instrumental in helping people break through their binary thinking. When we are young we are taught that the sexes are “opposite.”  We are brainwashed in gender attributes that are mirror reflections. Boys are strong, girls are weak. Boys are stoic, girls are emotional. Boys are active, girls are passive. And on and on. It continues into adulthood. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Men care about foreign policy and women care about education. Most adults figure out that we have more in common that in opposition. “You have a pancreas? So do I!” Gender is not black and white. It’s many shades of grey. (A little bird told me that Vice President Mike Pence wears frilly pink panties and Donald Trump actually has a mangina.)

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I was thinking about the persistence of this bullshit dichotomy over the holidays when I read my old pal Bono kavetching that today’s music was “very girly;” that there wasn’t enough loud rock ’n’ roll like when he was a teenage boy. I flashed to the moment that a local Atlanta rock star I worked with in 1981 described the first U2 album as “whiney.” He should try saying music is too girly to Joan Jett’s face. Bono might turn off the Taylor Swift and check out bands like Savages, Diet Cig, Daddy Issues, and War on Women. There’s an explosion of women in rock right now. When I was 13-years-old I thought Kiss rocked and then I heard The Runaways’ Queens of Noise album. I’d put “Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin” against any of U2’s “guitar rock” without hesitation. If that’s girly music, give me more. The girls I know love the loud guitar. I’m a huge U2 fan but Bono is stuck in an antiquated binary.

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We don’t live a black and white world of evil doers and God’s pious peeps. We’re all sinners. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Context matters. The yin-yang symbol makes for a cool tattoo, but Buddhism does not reduce the world into a simple duality. Taoism is based on the paradox of simultaneous duality and unity. God vs. man? The Gnostic Texts excised from the Christian Bible, make the case that Christ ends that duality. The kingdom of heaven is within you. But you don’t get that message from the Christian Church. Man keeps constructing boundaries. Here’s how you get through heaven’s gate…

Duality makes sense in the abstract world of Boolean algebra, but here in reality things are rarely occurring in opposites. It’s only freaking Thursday?? And yet it’s 2018 already! Time can move fast and slow simultaneously. Even the distinction between life and death is a blurry line at best. We let those man-made boundaries define us. A person can be born with a penis, see themselves as a female identified person, AND be attracted to women. And maybe men occasionally.

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The issue of gender queer persons makes binary thinkers’ heads explode. You have to fit into a nice socially constructed category. It’s either/or not whatever. You have a penis? You belong in the heterosexual male box. Anything else is a “transgression” against nature, or God, or that old Oxford English dictionary your grandmother gave you for your ninth birthday. Those boys and men who stray into the pink zone must be punished. You’re watching The Crown instead of the Sugar Bowl? Smear the queer! I remember it well.

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The same is true with race. You’ve got a box to fit in and that’s who you are. You are either white or non-white. Again, reality has other plans. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 2 percent of Americans identified as two or more races. That’s 9 million people. In fact, multiple-race Americans grew at a faster pace than single-race Americans (32% vs. 9.2%). More and more Americans do not fit nicely into a demographic box. Is my half-Mexican daughter “white” or “brown”? Well, when she is applying for college scholarships, she’s gonna be “Latina” when it helps. But her light skin will privilege her the majority of her “white” life.

But here we are are, in a world where the President of the United States tells transgender Americans they are not allowed to serve in the military. (Another of his many failures in 2017.) Lower-level dualistic simple thinking rules the day. Either you are with us or against us. America, love it (our way) or leave it.  Sorry, simple people; it’s just not that simple.

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The reason this is the first post of the year is that I’ve noticed a creeping problem in 2017. Both sides are stuck in a binary deadlock. If you are a conservative, anyone who identifies themselves as liberal is just a “libtard” and anything they say will be dismissed out of hand. The other side is not much better. “You voted for Trump? You must be a complete moron and incapable of rational thought.”

Americans are not red or blue. They are mostly purple. Numerous surveys show that, despite political polarization, most Americans hold both liberal AND conservative opinions about things. Not only is it a scale, it’s a sliding scale. I imagine people get more conservative as April 15th approaches and more liberal over the holidays. Some people are socially liberal and economically conservative or vice versa. Some may change their political position after a good movie or a bad arrest. I spent much of my college years hanging out with Marxists, but I don’t want to live anywhere that looks like North Korea. I think capitalism is inherently corrosive but I appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of my local Portland businesses. I even bought something in a Wal-Mart last year. (Long story.) Am I a hypocrite or just a complex person? Most people are complex. People who voted for Obama also voted for Trump and might vote for Elizabeth Warren in 2020. My dad likes to say he’s a “Republicrat.” Make your case. He’ll listen.

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I’ve written about the need for political civility in this blog. But this is something bigger. This is about breaking away from the us vs. them lie that’s been fed to us. I’m a post-modernist. I want to destroy these artificial barriers that confine us politically, sexually, spiritually, and any other way. We are trapped in our dogmatic partisan perspectives, fearful of the natural complexity of things. This is nothing new in this country. Our founders divided themselves into federalist and anti-federalist camps. Surprise, surprise – the best reality was somewhere in the middle.

There are things we can do to break through this artificial dichotomy. Ask questions of people making opposing arguments. Find the shades of grey you can work with. Keep an eye out for polarizing language. I tell anyone who uses the word “libtard” in a Facebook debate that there is no point to engage after that. Others should do the same when I use the word “moron.” Don’t make assumptions about people in different camps. You probably have more in common than you know. Instead of trying to “beat” them, help them to understand your position. Break out of your bubble. Diversity is good for plant life and party conversations. Don’t be afraid of encountering strong arguments that undermine the position you’ve taken. Don’t be afraid.

2018 is going to be a hell year. Perhaps the most important mid-term election in this nation’s history is only eleven months away. It’s going to be emotional and people are going to be combative, defensive, and needlessly inflammatory. We could divide ourselves into two opposing factions, a new civil war. Or we could reject the red and blue traps we’ve created for ourselves and make America fully human for the first time. “Hi, I’m Ying Yang, Yeah, it’s complicated. Get to know me.”

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Feministing in Havana

14 August 2016

Going to Cuba was a lot easier than I thought it would be. My second major at Emory in the Reagan ‘80s was “International Studies” with a focus on Soviet and Latin American politics, Cuba being the connection. My mother was there as a bobby-soxed teenager in 1959 and flew out Havana the day Castro took the city. The one paper my she saved from her college days was about Kruschev and the Cuban Missile Crisis. So Cuba has always seemed completely off-limits to me. But if Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, I can see Cuba from my balcony here on Isla Mujeres. Actually, it’s just over the horizon. If I had a frisbee and a good south-eastern trade wind, I could probably land it inside a cell in Guantanamo Bay, where the U.S. government is still actively creating terrorists. So why not just go?

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That’s what Andrea and I did. On a mad impulse we bought tickets to go. On Tuesday I went scuba-diving and on Wednesday I was on a Cubana Airlines flight over the water from Cancun to Havana. Barely an hour in the air and we were there with our hastily prepared visas and access to the world’s last “socialist paradise.” (Your Nikes are made in Vietnam and your iPhone is made in China, so they are disqualified and nobody is claiming North Korea as anything but an Orwellian nightmare.) Off to the land with no internet, leaving our wi’s and fi’s behind.

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There’s so much to write about the experience. We were there as the country was getting ready for Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday. I can’t believe the guy has been there my entire life. His brother, Raul Castro, has somewhat normalized relations with the U.S. and since Obama eased the embargo, you can feel the Starbucks shops just lining up to come in and change the nation overnight. Ask anyone from a small-town what Wal-Mart has done to America. Havana had plenty of construction cranes and the new hotels were coming. I’m sure the names “Hilton” and “Trump” will become part of the new oceanfront skyline. (Although nobody seemed to know who Donald Trump was. God bless them.)

It reminded me of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1991, right when the country opened its doors to the west. The people and infrastructure in Prague had no idea how to handle the rush of tourists who wanted to come and look around. There were no hotels or restaurants and capitalist entrepreneurialism was a foreign language. We stayed in people’s homes and ate whatever we could find in beer halls. When I returned in 1992, all that had changed. Western money flooded the “Paris of the East,” and there were billboards proclaiming (in English), “There are now four McDonalds in Praha!”

So we’ll see if Brother Raul lets that happen to his island. I have feeling it’ll look a lot different next time we go back. We stayed in a wonderful casa in the center of the city that might be a Quality Inn this time next year.

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But I thought I’d write a little but about gender on the streets of Havana. Cuba has been known for being on the vanguard of gender equality issues for a long time. Women, like Celia Sånchez, were at the forefront of the revolution in 1959, fighting alongside Fidel and Che. The Federation of Cuban Women was formed shortly after that. Half of the judges and justices in Cuba are female, over a third of the parliament is female and 62% of university students are female. There are great feminist Cuban rappers, like Krudas Cubensi and Obsession and 31 Cuban women are competing in the Rio Olympics.  (Watch for Yorgelis Rodríguez in the heptathlon finals.) Unlike in the United States, gender equality is a part of the Cuban constitution. “The state guarantees women the same opportunities and possibilities as men in order to achieve woman’s full participation in the development of the country.”

So it must be a great place to be a woman, right?

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Andrea and I were walking around our little neighborhood on Friday morning, just behind the Cuban capital building and some guy, seeing her, angrily shouted out to his friend, “She got fucked by the French!” He probably thought I was French and what was this brown girl doing with a white guy. It was in Spanish so I totally missed it but Andrea was visibly upset. After a similar comment she felt abused enough to return to our room and just hang out, away from the catcalls. She was shaken as the daily war on women followed her all the way to a communist outpost that supposedly outlawed sexism before I was even born.

Cuba is an incredibly diverse place, from dark Afro-Caribbean to Europeans (and probably some Hemingway descendants). Andrea, who would be punishingly sexy in a medieval suit of armor, noticed the comments were coming from men of color and asked me why that was. I assured her that white men were not free from the same behavior but there might be some good feminist explanations of the race-gender interaction.

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I took a moment to play professor and tackle it from three of the many feminist perspectives. Liberal feminists would argue that black Cuban men have be raised with a different relationship to women than white Cuban men which may be more vocally aggressive and seeing a Latin woman with a white man viewed as a betrayal of an ethnic subcultural value. Marxist feminists would say that even in allegedly communist society, poor people still exist and are alienated and poor black Cubans are alienated the most. (Stats back up that black Cubans have the lowest paid jobs.) So Marxist Feminists would argue the one place those men have power in a patriarchal world is over women. (Stats also show black women in Cuba experience more domestic violence.) Finally, radical feminists argue that patriarchy will rear its ugly head in spite of popular values of gender equality, finding any way possible to subordinate females, either through institutional means (less pay) or old-fashioned scare tactics. So on our little block, mostly populated by men who were poor and dark-skinned, it was the catcall.

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I don’t know if this discussion was of any value to my wife. The conversation became one of how do we get men to raise their sons right so our daughter won’t routinely experience the same harassment. We both absolutely loved our brief time in Cuba and want to return as soon as possible, before Starbucks and Wal-Mart (and future bankrupt Trump casinos) erase a nation frozen in revolutionary amber.

There’s a great line about Cuba – “Cuba got three things right: education, health care, and baseball.  And it got three things wrong: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The food can be pretty bland. I would say it’s been wrong on lots of human rights issues as well (although the last ten yeas have seen massive improvements for the lesbian, gay, and transgender populations). But all the socialist good will hasn’t stopped men from being dicks. I have to side with the radical feminists on this one. You can get rid of capitalism, but until you get rid of patriarchy it’s the same old shit. Cuba libre.

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We need a Rosa Parks of genitals: North Carolina and the need to pee

April 21, 2016

I used to love North Carolina, the beauty of the artist nook in Asheville, the cool cranny of a rock scene in Chapel Hill. I’ve spent a lot of time crossing the state and enjoying its wonderful nooks and crannies. That was until North Carolina became the new Mississippi, the bastion of backwards bigotry. Ever  since its governor, Pat McCrory, signed HB 2 this month, the rest of the world (including Bruce Springsteen!) now knows the truth about the Tar Heel state. And the truth is North Carolinians are convinced that in those nook and crannies are hiding… transexuals. Transsexuals who want to attack them in restrooms!

Even bonafide bigot Donald Trump thinks the new law goes too far. He is a businessman after all (and wouldn’t want to alienate Caitlyn Jenner). The ongoing boycott and recent appeals court decisions will doom the law before Ted Cruz and “Christian” hate-mongers will be able to claim it as a victory for “religious freedom,” or “decency” or “safety.” After all, if kids are going to be molested in bathrooms, it should be by someone with the same genitals. Gawd!

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The right needs to manufacture a continuing parade of bogeymen to project their fears on. Trump’s “rapist Mexicans” sort of backfired when Republicans realized Latinos were lining up in record numbers to vote against the entire GOP slate. “Who haven’t we kicked around yet? Transexuals! After all, you are your genitals!”

We are ignorant of so many things. It’s understandable that so many people don’t understand the challenge and reality of being a transexual person. The DSM-V has moved from the term “gender disorder,” to “gender dysphoria,” but there is still a stigma of “sickness” among many who are in the dark about the population. Fortunately, I have friends who are transitioning or have transitioned from both male to female and female to male identities and I can say they are probably the most “not mentally ill” people I know. (Some of my Republican friends, though…)

I don’t have it in me to do another lecture on the innate difference between biological sex, gender performance, and sexual orientation. Maybe later. Let me just invite the good-hearted people of North Carolina and other shit-holes of bigotry (which might be in your own home) to talk to a human being who is transsexual and ask them about the basic right of using the bathroom that conforms to your gender.

The right like to pretend that this is about “safety.” As if they care. Women are raped outside of bathrooms everyday. It doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for them (unless it’s done by an “illegal alien”). Every day seven kids are killed by guns. They could care less about that. But the weird scenario where a perverted man dresses as a woman solely so he can assault a woman or a girl in a public restroom is sufficient reason to change the law and screw over an already marginalized part of our American family. How Christ-like. Maybe a law that keeps ministers away from children, I mean, if you want to base legislation on actual documented sexual assaults.

Let’s be clear. There is no documented cases of a transgender person assaulting anyone in a restroom. There are, however, multitudes of reports of transgender people being assaulted in restrooms. And violence against the transgender people is on the increase. The legacy of the ignorance coming out of North Carolina.

So let’s break this stupid law down. The Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act says people have to use the public restroom or changing room that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.

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First, how the hell is this enforced? Will the state fund an army of crotch monitors to check the junk of anybody using the restroom. “Excuse me Miss, I need to verify that you have a vagina.” And will this enforcement be administered fairly? I know some pretty butch ladies and some femme boys that may be asked to drop trou more often than Biff and Tiffany. And how will I know that the genital monitor in the men’s room who is verifying the presence of my penis does not have some alternative motive? And what about folks who have had gender reassignment surgery? Are we going to have to carry our birth certificates with us into the john? I know you really need to go, but can you prove RIGHT NOW what YOUR sex at birth was? (And can someone please tell me where intersex people in North Carolina are supposed to take a leak?)

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Secondly, despite the drag queen stereotype of Flip Wilson dressed as Geraldine (a reference for us old timers), it’s not exactly easy to identify a transperson. So what this law does is forces a lot of guys (who have vaginas) into the ladies’ room and gals (who have penises) into the mens’ room. I’m not sure that’s going to make the transphobic folks of North Carolina feel more “safe” while they pop a squat.

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I secretly think that there might be a hidden agenda here. I know plenty of people in the trans community and those are some good looking folks. Often the transmen (born female) are very masculine and transwomen (born male) are very feminine. What North Carolina lady wouldn’t want a hunky macho guy? Who wouldn’t beat her! And what curious NC boy wouldn’t want a glamour girl? Who knows what a man really wants! Maybe this is the Tar Heal state’s “tearoom trade,” and there is a secret desire to queer “chance meetings” in the toilet. Hey, a cis-boy can dream. (But it would be helpful to know how many people from NC cruise trans-porn websites.)

And third, this law obviously exposes transpeople to even more violence. Imagine a high school girl who was born male being forced to use the restroom with teenage boys who already use words like “fag,” and “pussy” as a put down. And how are women in the locker room at the gym going to react when dude comes in (who happens to have a vagina) to change clothes? The result will be to push people away from the gender expression that they feel most comfortable in. Just like the bigots who want gay and lesbians to just “act straight,” this is another dictatorship of the majority designed to force people to act in a way that doesn’t make the bigot feel uncomfortable. What ever happened to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? But instead we are likely to see more suicides because of North Carolina’s move backwards.

But I like to look for the light. Look how far we’ve come in a short time on the issue of gay marriage. Public attitudes have flipped. Well-meaning people realized that gay folks just want to have the same right to enter into disastrous (and occasionally successful) marriages as they do. They didn’t want to get married so they could molest children in churches and rose gardens. At some point even the backwards people of North Carolina will realize that when it comes to really having to pee, we are all the same.

But in the mean time, I would encourage a little civil disobedience by my friends in North Carolina. If you identify as female (whether you are transgender or cisgender), every time you enter a public restroom or changing room, announce, “I do not have a vagina!” And if you are a male entering the men’s room, exclaim, “I do not have a penis!” Then wait for a law enforcement officer to verify your crotch situation. You could be the Rosa Parks of genitals.

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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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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: