West Wing Weekly, the Ladies, and Stories

westwing“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival

I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.

The Inadequacy of Perception

booksOne of the things that is both bad and good about working at a library is that you get to see these little chunks of people’s lives. A piece of the whole. Since I mostly re-shelve books, for me that often looks like going through the bookdrop and finding a little pile of books on “parenting through divorce,” or “how to file for bankrupty,” or “understanding your autistic child.” When stuff like that happens, I typically say a little prayer for that person, hope that they’re finding the support that they need, and move on.
But sometimes, it’s more complicated. Sometimes, it’s a homeless guy trying to tell you about all of his problems getting housing assistance, and he’s asking about help applying for jobs and he has a resume and you look at his resume and you have this sinking feeling that nobody’s going to hire this guy, but you don’t say that, because you’re really not qualified to edit people’s resumes. Sometimes, it’s a guy who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse trying to figure out the internet enough to apply for jobs online, jobs that don’t require any computer skills, and you think, This. This is what the digital divide looks like it is a huge fucking problem and I don’t know any way around it except to teach what it is to double-click, one person at a time. And also indefinitely extend their computer time because they’ve never used a keyboard before and it takes them ten minutes to type a single sentence. Sometimes it’s that.
I heard most of this second hand, but we had a group of teenagers (like 13- and 14-year-olds) playing games on our public computers. They were a little loud, as teenagers tend to be. Our security guard talked to them, but they apparently didn’t get as whisper-quiet as another patron on the computers would have liked, because he went outside and called the police and told them that a kid was “talking about buying ammunition.” (The kid may have been talking about ammunition, but if so it was computer game ammunition, and I’m pretty confident that the surly customer knew exactly what the kids were actually talking about.) The customer didn’t tell anybody that he’d called the cops, so the first we knew of the whole situation was when four cops came in to the library, made a beeline for one of the kids (one of the only black kids, as it happens), hauled him out of his chair, and started searching him.
The kid looked fucking terrified. The cops hadn’t explained themselves to us, but more importantly didn’t explain what the hell was going on to the kid, just hauled him up and started putting their hands on him. He’s fourteen, and he’s got this look on his face like he’s sure he’s about to get shot.
They didn’t find weapons, obviously. The kid was playing a game. They didn’t really apologize either, just shook his hand like, “Haha, still friends, right?!” and left.
I assume that the cops were responding to the description that the customer gave them. Why the customer picked out the black kid, I don’t know (the disgruntled customer was also black). But to the kid, and to everyone watching, a bunch of cops just marched into a public building and beelined straight for the black kid.
To the cops, they were being prudent and cautious, and maybe trying to catch a suspect in the act of looking at ammunition online (which is a crime since when?), to the rest of us, they were grabbing and terrifying a kid who might be obnoxious but who is not (to the best of my knowledge) a criminal of any sort. I want everyone to feel safe in the library, and when cops march in and haul people out of their chairs at the public computers, that undermines that goal.
And as an employee of the library, I can’t really go up to the kid and say, “Dude, that totally sucked and was racist and I’m sorry,” because then I’m speaking for the library. And what black kid wants a random white woman to label his experience, library employee or not? What commiseration can a total stranger of any race offer? “Oh, so you saw this racist shit go down, recognized it as racist shit, and did nothing, but now you want cookies from me for recognizing it? I think not.”
I know a lot of white people with this problem. We’ve gotten better about seeing racism, maybe; we’ve gotten better at listening to our friends of color and at reading blogs about the experiences of people of color. We want to be compassionate and woke while also being cognizant of when we’re overstepping, when we’re taking up too much space, when we need to shut up and listen instead of taking over a situation. We want to help create safe spaces but are painfully conscious that sometimes our mere presence feels unsafe. The fear of doing the wrong thing leads to doing nothing–but that is also the wrong thing.
First world problems? Oh god, yes. I swear this is not some poor-me-white-girl sadness rant. I’m just trying to articulate the rock-and-hard place spot that some liberal progressive whites (or at least, this liberal progressive white person) can find themselves in. And trying to meditate on how to move past it (this is where the entry ends on a disappointing cliffhanger, because I don’t have the answer to that question). I’m not so bad on the internet, where we so often talk about things that happened instead of being asked to react in the moment. But reacting in the moment–not just to racist shit, but to all violent shit and not-okay shit and people-who-need-our-help shit–is part of what all of us humans need to get better at. I work in a library, I work in customer service, I work with the public, and part of being good at that is being able to recognize and talk to people about their own experience when they want me to.
Postscript: The incident I described above happened about a week ago, and I’ve seen the boys in the library since then, playing their game and talking to each other. So thankfully, they were at least not so badly scared/unwelcomed that they stopped coming to the library. 

A Mutant Origin Story

mutieI’m near the younger end of my cousins. I have four cousins younger than me, and twelve that are older, so when I was a kid and we went back to Louisiana to visit them, I was almost always one of the youngest ones there. So sometimes, while my parents talked with their siblings, I ended up doing not-entirely-age-appropriate stuff to entertain myself. Like when I was seven or eight and ended up in my cousin Daniel’s bedroom digging through his X-Men and Spider-Man comics and reading them. I didn’t know anything about the X-Men canon. It was in the middle of Chris Claremont’s epic run on the series, and a lot of it went over my head, but a lot of it settled in my subconscious, and planted seeds in my memory. I certainly learned the names of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Jean Grey. When Fox started airing the X-Men animated show in 1992, I was all over that shit like white on rice. The universe became clearer, and I started reading X-Men comics more regularly (but still pretty piecemeal, since I didn’t have access to a comic book shop) and assembling the universe in my head. The X-Men and the Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. Sentinels. Senator Kelly. William Stryker.

(Note: It was a mystery to me what X-Men story I had read first, because all I had was a memory of a single panel: of Nightcrawler lying unconscious and bleeding from his ears while the other X-Men stand over him in concern and a vague understanding of mutants as an oppressed minority rather than a crew of superheroes. It wasn’t until recently that I read God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and realized that that was the comic I had read decades earlier at my cousin’s).

Early on in the Fox series, there’s a plotline in which two scientists discover a “cure” for mutantism. I forget how the X-Men find out about it, but they do, and their reactions all fit their personalities and personal histories. Wolverine immediately sees it as a tool to eliminate mutants’ powers and neutralize the perceived threat of mutantkind; Rogue, not so much. As one of the mutants whose powers are both an ability and a curse, Rogue (as well as Beast) tend to be the most ambivalent about their mutations, and tempted by the idea of a cure. Peaceful, optimistic Charles Xavier disagrees with the very premise. “Don’t say ‘cure,’ Moira. Being a mutant isn’t a disease. It’s something you’re born with,” he tells Moira McTaggert, one of the scientists. (This is the same plot line that Joss Whedon would handle for his run writing the Astonishing X-Men comics in 2005). It is, basically, the neurodiversity argument, only written in 1992 for a grade school-level audience.

I think it’s this storyline (and others like it), rather the ones that deal with a planet in danger or intergalactic space war, that drew me to the X-Men. Pretty early on, I picked up on threads that I translated into the X-Men being code for people with disabilities. One of the earliest questions that I remember being asked about my sister (besides “What’s wrong with her?” and “What’s it like having a sister with Down’s?”) had to do with whether I would change her if I could. Magically suck the extra chromosome out of every single one of her body’s cells. I don’t remember how young I was when I first heard about the high abortion rates for fetuses with Down’s, but it’s been in my head since at least middle school. And even though I never witnessed people being cruel to my sister, I did witness neurotypical classmates of mine being cruel to disabled kids at my school, and being mocking in general of anyone in special ed or remedial classes. It became really easy, in my head, to equate “Do mutants have the right to exist?” and “Do people with disabilities have the right to exist?” To see “retard” and “mutie” as linguistic cousins. The fear and hostility that mutants experience when they interact with regular Homo sapiens sometimes feels familiar when I hear people talk about people with disabilities. The parallel ran so deep in my head that I was honestly surprised when I got to high school and college and started talking about the X-Men with other people and realized that for them, the parallel was between straight people and queer people, or white people and people of color. That there might be many parallels had honestly never occurred to me, so deep and solid was my understanding that “mutant” was code for “disabled.” (This was before I read Chris Claremont’s statement that for him, mutants could stand in for any outsider population. In the introduction to the trade paperback version of God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont says, “Mutants in the Marvel Universe have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders; they represent the ultimate minority.”)

It crystallized slowly for me, over the course of years. Not all–or even most–storylines have to do with mutaphobia, after all. The X-Men fight against Magneto and fight against the Shi’ar (and fight with the Shi’ar), and there’s the Phoenix Saga and numerous interpersonal dramas and secondary mutations and all that. To read the X-Men is to get to know them from the inside first, their individual histories, their powers, how they feel about those powers, their flaws and foibles, their courage and tenacity, their creativity at solving (or blasting through) problems. You know the X-Men as individuals, make friends with them, and as the stories pile up it slips your mind that the rest of the comic universe world doesn’t see them as individuals, but as a blanket population. You don’t always have to be aware of the fact that a small but significant percentage of the non-mutant population hates mutants, fears them, and wants them dead.

I came to knowledge of my sister’s disability in much the same way. I was three–almost four–when she was born, so I didn’t have any concept of what Down syndrome was. She was just an eating, pooping, crying (and eventually giggling) machine. Your basic human baby. By the end of elementary school (when she would’ve been around seven and me around eleven), I had a pretty good handle on the definition of Down syndrome, but I had an even better knowledge of my sister. I knew how much she loved Barbie and Full House and that cheese was a fundamental dietary building block. I knew her love and her smiles and her stubbornness. I knew how much she was distressed by bees (and flies that might be bees) and automatic garage doors and anybody crying. I knew her. It’s hard to put all that aside and look at my sister from an outsider’s point of view and remember that there’s people who think that my sister is a waste of space. That she’s stupid. That she’s a burden on society and/or my family and that she shouldn’t exist. And there’s people out there who don’t think those things, but who are happy to tell me such things over the Internet because they know it’ll get to me.

I truly believe my sister is a gifted person, though not in the academic way that most people think of when they label kids “gifted.” Her gifts are of a more abstract sort: a deep and instinctive knowledge of chesed, of loving-kindness, of human joy. But the same genetic error that gave her those gifts also gets in the way, too. Gets in the way of her desire to live independently and have more friends. Gets in the way of my family’s desire that she live with economic stability and a reasonable amount of personal safety. Would she welcome the chance for a cure? I honestly don’t know. Like Rogue, her extra chromosome is both a gift and a curse. She can do many amazing things, but also misses out on a lot of opportunities that are easily available to “normals.”

It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized the other parallel. The angry one.

Because people with disabilities get abused at disturbingly, shockingly, unacceptably high rates in modern America. And every time I see it, in the news or wherever, it makes the muscles in my arms harden, and I stop breathing, and start looking for something to hit. Of course there’s never anything to hit. In those moments, though, I wish I was the mutant Pyro, so I could literally set the world on fire. In Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, when Dr. Rao announces a cure for the “mutant disease” on television, Wolverine’s claws come out and he can’t retract them. “She called us a disease. Do you know how that feels?” he says.

Yeah, Logan. I think I do, at least a little bit.

I would set the whole world on fire. I understand Magneto’s fury in the face of human intolerance and bigotry, and why he’s given up on humans and on Charles Xavier’s idealism. Xavier wants to teach people tolerance and compassion, but that is the long fucking way around the problem, and in the meantime people are straight up fucking dying and why do I have to talk to you about not calling people retards when those same people are getting murdered? I don’t have time for that bullshit. It would be so much easier, so much more satisfying, to just throw cars at people and silence them.

When it was my own sister that got hurt, it didn’t feel like enough. Her getting hurt by somebody else felt like the end point of a long chain of dealing with the stupidity and apathy of “normals” and the inevitable vulnerability and invisibility that disabled people experience because of it. There had been decades of people asking, in so many words, “Why does your sister exist?” And then someone came along and decided that she existed to be his victim. He picked a vulnerable, invisible person, and he did it on purpose, because he knew he could get away with it. He thought she wouldn’t fight back. And he was largely right, because how do you teach somebody to defend herself when her default setting is that everyone is her friend?

And that is when I understand the anger that allows Magneto to channel enough power to lift an entire football stadium into the air.

That is when I understand the Scarlet Witch’s anger and desperation when she says, “No more mutants.”

That is when I understand Pyro throwing fireballs, because that’s what I would do, that’s what I wanted to do, to set the whole fucking world on fire for leaving my sister helpless and invisible and vulnerable to somebody who decided to hurt her.

I want to incinerate the world. I want claws like Wolverine’s. Because that’s the biggest thing that X-Men in the Marvel Universe have going for them, that’s their trump card. They can do astonishing things. Uncanny things. Amazing things. They can save the world when no one else can. And that’s a really good argument in favor of their right to exist. When all else fails, when morals and ethics and human compassion fails, mutant usefulness is still there. My sister, and people like her, aren’t stupendous. They aren’t awe-inspiring. They do not astonish, unless you’re willing to examine something quieter and more subtle than telekinesis. Given the chance, much as I like to imagine myself as one of Xavier’s noble X-Men, I’m probably closer to one of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. More interested in defending, in fighting, than explaining. At least where my sister is concerned. Because it makes me so, so angry, the way this world treats the most vulnerable people in it.

But there’s this: I think Magneto feels very alone. At least, on days when I want to blow up the world, that’s how I feel: like nobody cares about this–either not enough or not at all–except me. And if their apathy was neutral, it wouldn’t matter. But apathy isn’t neutral. In the vacuum of apathy, people like my sister get hurt. They die. They’re left all alone. And that is when I have to go for a walk and calm down until I can hear the Charles Xavier voice in my head again. The one that insists that normal humans are worth teaching. The one that believes that humans and mutants can co-exist. The one who would never commit genocide, even though he has the mental power to make everyone’s brains ooze out of their earholes. I remind myself that I’m not alone. That there’s a lot of people–and not just in my family, either–who love my sister, who want to help her, and who are helping her.

My sister loves me. And I love her. She never gives up trying to do anything you ask her to do. There is nothing on this earth that could shake her faith in me. And maybe that makes me selfish, to want to keep that. Almost certainly it is. No more selfish than keeping her around because she’s the only one powerful enough to fight the Brood, but hey. We haven’t had much luck with convincing the world that the ability to love is enough of a utility to exist in a capitalistic society.

Sometimes I think about Ian McKellan (who is, as far as I’m concerned, Magneto’s alter ego) and the fact that, despite dealing with homophobia on a personal and professional level his whole life, he has not himself turned into a supervillian. The fact that, in spite of all they’ve been put through, oppressed minorities in this country (whether it’s disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, mentally ill folks, people of color, etc etc) have, without exception, never turned into evil supervillians. (I know I’m generalizing here, but keep in mind that this is what I tell myself in order to not let my heart get eaten by a murderous rage that burns with the heat of a thousand suns and cut me some slack.) Sure, there’s warlords in Africa and drug cartels in Mexico and Kim Jung-un in North Korea, and they cause enormous amounts of heartache and human damage, but they’re not exactly on the world-endangering level of Dr. Doom or the Red Skull. From a power and world domination standpoint, Barack Obama is the closest thing we have to a supervillain. Maybe Donald Trump. From the oppressed minority contingent, we don’t get Magneto. We get Martin Luther King, Jr.; a human of intelligence and courage that we certainly did not ask for, let alone deserve, but are so fortunate to have had in our midst. We get Helen Keller and Harvey Milk and Nelson Mandela. Bayard Rustin and Vincent Harding and Temple Grandin. Artists like Toni Morrison, Leslie Feinberg, Maya Angelou, Jeremy Brett. We get the beautiful people that I know from the progressive/leftist/anarchist organizing community in Denver, who have taught me about putting love into action and validating and standing up for yourself and others. We get community groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement and the AIDS Quilt and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. And that’s just in this past century. The world is full of thousands and thousands of heroes that we don’t deserve, and often don’t recognize while we have them among us. And that is the truly amazing, awe-inspiring, human superpower: The fact that, in the face of oppression and systematic violence and apathy, more often than not, humans choose to love and hope. They default to trying to teach other humans to be better. The fact that we have as many heroes as we do should send us all to our knees.

Thousands of Charles Xaviers walking among us, disguised as regular people. I like that.

big bang theory theory

hubble2.jpgOne of the only sitcoms that I make an effort to watch is The Big Bang Theory. It’s also one of the only sitcoms, outside of The Simpsons, that makes me laugh out loud. When I first started watching, I enjoyed that there were socially maladjusted nerds on tv who weren’t just the butt of jokes–yes, their social maladjustment is sometimes the target of humor, but they have well-rounded characters and full lives and, by and large, give as good as they get in the insult department. I like Sheldon and the line he walks between total discomfort with himself and exasperation with the world because it’s not as good as he is. I especially like Amy Farrah-Fowler, one of the newer additions to the show–she’s got Sheldon’s abrasiveness, but her abrasiveness is a front for vulnerability that Sheldon simply doesn’t have. She so badly wants to be friends with Bernadette and Penny, she goes about it all wrong, and I see a lot of myself in her (though I’m not as smart as she is). Her impressions of social gatherings and friendships seem to be gleaned from movies and Young Adult books, and it’s charming.

Amy: Penny, Bernadette tells me you and she are planning a girls’ night.
Penny: Yeah…
Amy: …I’m a girl. (She says this in a voice that is so desperately trying to sound casual, I feel legit bad for her.)

Also, I love that Wil Wheaton makes guest appearances and is portrayed as a TOTAL ASSHOLE. Heehee.

I have read some of the bloggery criticism about the show, about how it upholds certain gender and racial stereotypes (it’s interesting to me that gender stereotypes, or the discussions of gender stereotypes, are so entrenched in our culture that even a show centered around four very atypically gender-presenting males [with the exception of walking hormone Howard] finds itself the target of accusations of gender stereotyping). And I don’t mean to dismiss any of them, and they’re valuable discussions to have, but let’s just say that others’ problems with the show aren’t my problems with the show.

People criticize Penny for being a “stereotypical dumb blonde.” I don’t know what show these folks are watching, but I don’t think it’s The Big Bang Theory. Penny’s not dumb. She clearly has a normal-to-high IQ and she has social skills that the guys don’t have and (to varying degrees) don’t want. If anything, she’s too smart for the situation she’s in, working at the Cheesecake Factory and trying to be an actress (how did the show’s producers get permission to use that restaurant in the show? It’s not portrayed very flatteringly). She’s not dumb–she’s bored. And lonely. Typically, the guys don’t talk about things that she cares about, but she hangs out with them anyway. She’s not doing very well in the acting world. Not only does she not have many acting jobs, but she doesn’t seem connected to the acting community. She doesn’t have any mutually-struggling actor friends. In one of the early seasons (I think it must have been the second or third, because it was during the Penny-dating-Leonard storyline) (another thing I appreciate: though Leonard has an ongoing crush on Penny, it doesn’t completely take over the show, in the way that the Ross-and-Rachel bullshit took over and ruined a perfectly good show), she has a group of friends over to watch a football game, but other than that, the glimpses that we have of Penny’s social life outside of the guys tends to be discussions of ex-boyfriends. This is either really unfair to Penny’s character, or it’s an honest assessment–in which case it’s just sad.

It does seem like Penny’s unhappy, and whether she copes with that isn’t a path that a sitcom is likely to take–instead they just make it the object of jokes, which I find sad. I recently watched the four episodes of the show that are available on Hulu (they seem to rotate them every week or so?), and a lot of the Penny jokes centered around how much she drinks. She readily admits to drinking as a coping mechanism, which none of the other characters think is a problem–or, indeed, anything out of the ordinary, which I find sad and disturbing. I guess the writers of The Big Bang Theory subscribes more to the frat-boy-drinking-is-a-fun-way-of-life-party-school philosophy, not sober-consumption-of-a-few-drinks-after-work philosophy, to say nothing of the alcoholism-isn’t-funny philosophy.

On a lighter note, I find Sheldon’s character hilarious and endearing and (in a weird way), just as incomprehensible as Penny when you think about him in context of the wider world. Sheldon is abrasive, completely tied to his routine, and literal-minded (many folks have posited that he has Asperger’s; the show’s producers simply describe him as “Sheldonian,” which I appreciate, because it shows they think about him as a character, not a walking diagnosis). He’s also smarter than anyone he hangs out with, and is the show’s resident evil genius, impatient with those who have a lower intellectual capacity than him.

On the other hand, Sheldon doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time attending conferences, teaching, submitting papers, giving interviews, or any of the other things I see world-renowned physicists doing. He doesn’t get along with his university’s administrators, even though you would think that a brilliant scientist that advanced his university’s reputation would get on great with the administrators, no matter how abrasive his personality (what do you want to bet that Jerry Sandusky got on fantastically with UPenn’s higher-ups?). And he doesn’t seem to be anywhere near getting a Nobel or any other award. Clearly, Sheldon’s Sheldon-ness, or his Asperger’s, or whatever it is, gets in the way of his career. It’s distracting people from how smart he is, or his neuroses are legitimately interfering with his work…or Sheldon isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and simply doesn’t recognize it because he’s never been part of a community that challenges him. Either Sheldon is shockingly under-employed, or he overestimates his own intelligence (considerable though it obviously is). The show portrays Sheldon as neurotic, but not delusional, but the more I watch it, the more delusional-Sheldon intrigues me.

And Amy Farrah-Fowler. There should be so much more of Amy Farrah-Fowler.

“I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.” –Amy Farrah-Fowler

Persons Unknown (originally published June 4, 2011)

The following is an essay I wrote for a writing class this semester.  It’s actually one of the harder essays I’ve ever had to write, though maybe not for the reasons you’d think.  I don’t want it to die with the school year, though, so here it is.

Like one of Billie Holiday’s strange fruits, a lifeless black man dangles from a tree, his hands tied in front of him, his neck canted at an odd angle.  Behind him stands a row of white people, including young girls.  One is looking up at the man, smirking, satisfied.

Layers upon layers of eyes haunt this photograph.  The empty eyes of the black man, whose name is Rubin Stacy; the satisfied, horrified, or blank eyes of the white spectators.  There is the eye of the photographer, setting up the shot, peering through the eye of the camera—the window between then and now.  This particular photograph, taken in 1935 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was one of 98 similar images that were gathered in an exhibition called Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America in 2000, as a grim and (it was argued) necessary reminder of the depths of the racism in America’s past.  This leads to our eyes, looking at the photo, whether in a book or on a website or a posh Upper East Side art gallery.  What’s alive in this photograph?  And what has died?  What is the greater story at work, beyond the edges?  Assuming that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the racism underneath it all has blown vapor trails into our present, then—the organizers of the collection believe—it is our duty as Americans to have some conception of the extreme reality under which black Americans lived in the early 20th century, a reality which was masterminded and constructed by white people—who had, in turn, constructed their own extreme reality in which lynchings were necessary to preserve order.

“America’s first disaster movie,” far from being a secret, shameful event, was openly photographed by white spectators or sometimes newspaper photographers as souvenirs and reproduced as postcards (Als 39).  Lynchings were ostensibly a punishment for blacks who committed crimes or stepped out of line, but once a mob got going, it didn’t much care about finding out if the man in question had committed the crime he was accused of, or even taking the time to confirm the man’s name.  In short, lynchings were not a form of justice, they were public events, a means of social, political, and economic oppression, meant “as a warning to all blacks,” particularly those who “dared to challenge white authority,”  (Litwack 16).  Lynchings are symbolic of a time when white supremacy was so endemic and unquestioned that white folks murdered black folks with something beyond even impunity, when—across a large swath of the country—the black community lived with the daily knowledge that their lives could be casually and brutally stolen.  In spite of the public nature of the lynchings, the fact that they were announced in advance, and general knowledge around town of who had participated, juries and medical examiners routinely reached a verdict of death at the hands of “a person or persons unknown,” and hardly any people were ever prosecuted—and even less served jail time (Litwack 16).

It is strange to think of lynchings, the most public of public deaths, as being forgotten by contemporary America, by white America.  Maybe we want to forget, to reduce these public sacrifices to private shame, or at least to cognitively separate ourselves from the perpetrators, to say, “Yes, this happened, and yes it was horrible, but I had nothing to do with it and at least it’s over now.”  We are reluctant to give the historic fact of lynching more space in our inner racial dialogues than we have to.  The organizers of the exhibit argue that, though the time of lynchings is past, the photos are not merely documentation of isolated, abberational events long ago.  These photos “should continue to tax our sense of who we are and who we have been,” because racism and white supremacy continue to inform our collective present (Litwack 34).  Perhaps we have an obligation to view these photos, to remind ourselves of what white supremacy and state-sponsored violence—taken to its logical conclusions—looks like.  But the process by which certain events become—and, more importantly, fail to become—part of our national dialogue is ongoing, and by no means straightforward.

Susan Sontag, in her essay “Regarding the Pain of Others,” agrees that photographs can document events of historical and social importance in a way that no other medium can.  Photographs don’t just tell the story of the moment when they were taken; they find their way into the multi-media narrative of how we document our history, how we document ourselves as humans.  A compelling photograph is capable of documenting so much more than just the event in question.  “Photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization,” says Sontag.  “They invoke the miracle of survival,” (Sontag 87).  If a photograph is documented and preserved, or if a photograph captures the sentiments and mentality of a society, then it both documents our history and defines our conception of it.  “This is important,” a photograph says, “and this is the story about how it happened,” (Sontag 86).  Photographs uniquely preserve the more viscerally brutal moments in our collective history by keeping them immediate.  But photography also has its own contradictions and weaknesses—are these photographs exhibits of a collective experience, or are they exceptional?

Placing a photo in context—in its multi-media framework—is essential to a photograph’s ability to tell a story.  “Narrative,” argues Sontag, “can make us understand.  Photographs do something else: they haunt us,” (Sontag 89).  They can, perhaps, motivate us to investigate more.  A dead man in a tree is just a dead man in a tree—but a lynching, with all its social and racial implications, is more than man or a woman hung by the neck.  If lynchings are the end point of the depth of racism in the early 20th century, then a critical arc of the spectrum remains to be filled in.  We can all agree that racism is brutal and deadly, but what about the times when it is deceptively banal?  In a documentation of American racism, why photographs of lynchings?  Rubin Stacy can tell us what it was like to die under a racist regime; but what about his hanging body tells us what it was like to live under one?  Is that an important part of the story?

Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 people were lynched—not an insignificant number of people by any means, but still, only a small fraction of the total population of the South during those eighty-six years (Litwack 12).  Basic arithmetic suggests that many, if not most, people of color in the South went their whole lives without ever seeing a lynching.  Lynchings were a threat hanging over the collective head of the black community, a warning of, “You will put up with whatever indignities we subject you to, because if you don’t, you know what will happen.”  The gruesomeness in Without Sanctuary, of threats executed, is exquisite and should, as Sontag argues, “help us understand such atrocities not as the acts of ‘barbarians’ but as the reflection of a belief system, racism, that…legitimates torture and murder,” (Sontag 92).  Without Sanctuary claims to document not just a single event or a single war, but to represent an entire era of bigotry, racism, and social terror; but when you give barbarity one face, then a thousand others are excluded.

Precious little is said about their lives of the victims other than their grisly deaths—their names, maybe, and the circumstances surrounding their lynching—but not much about what’s going on beyond the edges of the picture frame.   Did they have families?  Were they religious?  What sort of lives did they lead?  None of this information is preserved.  But as Sontag points out, “The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs,” (Sontag 89).  Photographs do not merely document events; they have the power to define what it is about events that we remember.

Consider, for example, the most familiar image of Martin Luther King, Jr.—a few possibilities come to mind, but near the top is King speaking to millions on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, triumphant and eloquent, capturing a dream of what America could be.   Nowhere near as familiar is the image of a black father and his young son—niggers in the eyes of so many—examining the remains of a flaming cross planted in their front yard.  It’s one thing to know that King risked his life to do the work that he did, and another to see him and his son confronting that danger on their doorstep.  The photographs of King in triumph hold even more of the weight of courage when juxtaposed next to the photos of King under threat.   Perhaps the horror of the lynchings would be more surprising, more terrifying, if the daily lives of those who were lynched (or those who, because of their skin color, ran the risk of being lynched) were more well known.  Perhaps we would have a better conception of racism today if we could see inside the heads of the white people in these photos, if we could see the ways in which they are not like us—and the ways in which they are.  Perhaps it is what is not in the photographs that holds the link between the act of lynching in 1935 to its legacy in the present day.

For Hilton Als, staff writer and theatre critic for the New Yorker, the legacy of pre-Civil Rights South is not the lynching, but the unphotographed moment before the it happens.  “The experience of being watched, and seeing the harm in people’s eyes—that is the prelude to becoming a dead nigger,” (Als 39).  There is a spiritual lynching that happens before the rope is ever brought out.  We no longer hang men and women from trees, it’s true, but Als can’t help but recognize himself in Rubin Stacy—just like he recognizes the “crazy looking white people” staring out of the photos, who still stare at him today, and see a nigger (Als 40).  To Als, it is not about being hung from a tree, not about losing his life.  It’s about being watched, the attention he attracts because he is one of the “others,” and the other thousands of tiny deaths he experiences every day.

Als admits that, in spite of the personal connection he feels to Rubin Stacy, even he has a hard time looking past the corpse and seeing the life that it had—until just prior to the photo—inhabited.  What can these photographs tell us about the lives of young black men today, in Atlanta, in Bed-Stuy, in New Orleans, in Denver, no longer under the shadow of the rope but still haunted by the eyes following them?  What do 5,000 murdered souls sixty years ago say about 815,000 black men in prison; 25% of black families living below the poverty line; or 9,000 blacks killed by homicide in 2006 alone (Sabol, DeNavas-Walt, US DHHS)?  When we see a sepia-tinted Rubin Stacy in his rural farm clothes, do we also see 16-year-old Derrion Albert, beaten to death on the south side of Chicago in 2009 in an after school meleé?  And what of the young white girls, in their Sunday best?  Do they look like me?  If Hilton Als can relate to the experience of Rubin Stacy, then who is it making him feel that way, and how do we make sure they they (we) don’t escape accountability, as their (our) progenitors did?  What does lynching look like, today, in 2011, when most black people are not murdered by mobs of whites, but by other black people?  If we’re going to fight racism in the 21st century, at some point we must address the ways in which racism today does and does not look like racism did in 1935—about the reasons why whites no longer have to murder black people, because we seem to have successfully engineered a society in which they will murder each other, and be forgotten in prisons.  And if we’re going to move beyond racism, we need (amongst many other things) to widen the collective representation of Afro-America to include more than just victimization, more than just crime.

Of course, exhibits like Without Sanctuary are far from the only representations of African-Americans available.  In fact, the fact that lynching photos are not part of the mainstream racial dialogue in this country is one of the reasons why Without Sanctuary was organized in the first place.  The organizers don’t advocate for its dominance in the landscape, merely that it deserves a place in our collective memory.  Photographs of lynchings serve as a benchmarks for all that the black community has overcome in the past fifty years, and are only one part of a much larger picture.  The dominant narrative (that lynching no longer exists) is subtly but obstinately entrenched.  Without Sanctuary is part of the rebuttal to that narrative, part of argument that contrary to what we have been told, “War has been the norm and peace the exception,” when it comes to race relations in these United States (Sontag 74).  But if eyes are going to continue to follow Rubin Stacy, Hilton Als, Derrion Albert, and generations of young black men not yet seen by anyone, then how that picture is defined and constructed, when it’s judged to be complete, and whose stories are part of that picture is of critical importance.

Works Cited

Als, Hilton.  “GWTW.”  Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Ed. James Allen.  Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.  38-44.  Print.

DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee.  “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004.”  US Census Bureau/US Department of Commerce, August 2005.  Web.  1 May 2011.  http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/p60-229.pdf

Litwack, Leon F.  “Hellhounds.”  Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. Ed. James Allen.  Santa Fe, NM: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000.  8-37.  Print.

Sabol, William J. and Heather Couture.  “Prison Inmates at Mid Year 2007.”  Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin.  June 2008: n. pag.  Web.  1 May 2011.  http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/pim07.pdf

Sontag, Susan.  Regarding the Pain of Others.  New York: Picador, 2003.  Print.

United States.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Health, United States, 2009: With Special Feature on Medical Technology.”  CDC/National Center for Health Statistics.  Web.  1 May 2011.  http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus09.pdf#028

Burbling Through White Privilege (part one of many) (orig. published Feb. 2, 2011)

On a recent visit to Denver, I led a workshop on allyship in the context of racism and white privilege.  In the past, I have been annoyed at the idea of racism and white privilege workshops that are attended/led by entirely or primarily white people (whites, in general, not having the best history of self-awareness when it comes to race issues), so for me to lead a workshop was…kind of crazy.  Also not having a whole lot of experience or wisdom in the particular sphere of allyship?  Kind of crazy.  I think it went well, at least, I hope it did, though I don’t know if everyone who attended felt it was worthwhile or if they learned something they didn’t know before.  I tried to make the discussion practical, and not theoretical (because one of the problems of having a discussion about institutional racism is that it pits individuals against a giant faceless system and leaves them feeling powerless.  I’m tired of feeling powerless).  I tried to make it seem like allyship was not something that is hard—it’s intricate, definitely; it requires constant self-checking, definitely; but hard it does not necessarily have to be.

The Quaker term for elders whose opinions or spiritual gifts are most highly valued is Weighty Friend.  One of the best parts about planning this whole racism and white privilege series has been getting to hang out with M-, one of the Weightiest, and one of the only African-American folks in Meeting.  Her patience and grace and intelligence and compassion have turned her into one of my favorite people.  Our Meeting is so lucky to have her; I’m so lucky to have been able to make friends with her.

One of the things that M- talked about, to our small group, was how long it’s taken her—as a black woman who believes in the importance of interracial conversations about race; as a black woman who married a white man; as a black woman who worked in diversity training for much of her professional life—to be able to call out a white person for saying something racist or insensitive and then be able to walk away from that encounter and not let it bother her further.  To not feel like she has to change the mind of every white person she meets.  To not feel attached to the outcome of a discussion.  It struck me that, if the challenge for folk of color is to lay race down and not let it take over their lives, then the challenge for white folk is to pick it up a little more often, and be more aware.

One Friend came up to me after the workshop and told me that I have a gift for facilitating groups (my father came up to me to give me tips on how I can improve my facilitation skills in the future.  This is somehow indicative both of the Meeting as a whole and of my father in particular), and that he hopes that I will keep such things in mind for the future as I move through my career at Columbia and beyond.  It’s weird that, though I am generally quiet and uncomfortable in loud, disorganized, chaotic settings (ie, a party), I don’t have a whole lot of fear when it comes to leading a group activity or facilitating a group discussion.  Granted, most of the groups I’ve led have been Quaker ones where I’ve known everyone or most everyone.  Maybe I would feel different in a group full of strangers.  But I think I have a pretty good background in consensus process and listening to a group, which is an important part of leading a group.  Something to keep in mind.  Maybe I could be a teacher after all—always assuming that I get to teach things that I find interesting, which is, of course, a total fallacy.  I don’t know what direction to go in when I have total faith in myself but absolutely none in the system I’m thinking about entering—usually it’s the other way around, and I do my best to try and make myself fit into the situation in question.  But this is one of those instances where I have total confidence in my own integrity, and I’m not interested in compromising that to fit into a broken system.

One of the activities I led during the workshop was called “I could do that if…”  I adapted it from a similar workshop I found at http://turning-the-tide.org/  The basic idea is that for each statement of action, you decide either “I could do that,” “I couldn’t do that,” or “I could do that if…” and then elaborate on the circumstances under which you could take a particular plan of action.  Because my goals in this workshop was to make allyship seem accessible and do-able, I think, in retrospect, that must of the list I made was perhaps too easy.  Working on your privilege is hard—really hard.  Finding mentors is essential.  But here is the list I came up with, if you’re curious.

 

I could confront a co-worker who makes a racist joke.

I could be comfortable being the only white person in a room full of people of color.

I could boycott a business if a person of color told me that they had been discriminated against by employees or owners of the business.

I could sit next to a person of color on the bus.

I could confront a family member who says something racist.

I could listen to a person of color tell a story about racism in their own lives with an open heart.

I could admit that I do not know everything in a discussion about racism, or that I do not know what racism feels like.

I could vote for a black political candidate.

I could take a day and make it a project to notice, throughout the day, moments when I am either benefitting from or denied privilege.

I could resolve to count to ten before opening my mouth when I am feeling defensive and angry because somebody has called me out for saying something racist or insensitive.

I could write a letter to a publication that generalizes or stereotypes race or ethnicity.

I can wait for people to self-identify their race or ethnicity and not label them myself.