“Mrs. Childree, how’s this situation for my monologue?” asked a white male student dressed in Wrangler’s and a camouflage shirt. He continued, “It’ll be about me getting hit by a truck, and I start out with ‘Hey, nigga….” I stopped him right there. I have major problems with any form of the “n- word.” It connotes a time of slavery and of keeping an entire people in chains, literally and spiritually. Two black girls, sophomores in his English class, were walking by on their way back to their seats. “Yeah, Mrs. Childree. You stop him right there,” they said. The boy defended himself, “I didn’t say –er. I said –a. There’s a difference.” I told him that no, there was no difference. Words have power, and this word was simply one that we don’t use. “Well, y’all say ‘cracker,’” he said. The girls told him that actually they don’t and left the conversation. “I’m not a racist,” he said to me. Actually, I’ve learned that we are all racist to some extent. I tried to explain to him that during the course of my Women of Color literature class that I’ve learned that even I, despite my supposedly enlightened stance regarding people of color and gender alternative lifestyles, even I am a racist. But he was no longer looking at me. He had tuned me out. Deborah A. Miranda (with AnaLouise Keating) and Nada Elia, in the “’locking arms in the master’s house’ … omissions, revisions, and new issues” section of This Bridge We Call Home demonstrate the nuanced racism that occurs in our society while Max Wolf Valerio explains the changes that occurred after his gender reassignment surgery and how he experienced a form of sexism. This paper will show that awareness of racism and sexism (as well as other –isms) and acting on that awareness are important to the feminist movement.
Deborah A. Miranda, in “’What’s Wrong with a Little Fantasy?’ Storytelling from the (Still) Ivory Tower,” discusses how This Bridge Called My Back “barely began to represent our astonishingly diverse Native communities” (192). While Bridge was a “beautiful, incredible book,” it did not include Indian women’s struggles (192). Miranda, a member of the Esselen Nation (192), counters the idea that black peoples are the only ones experiencing prejudice. “This continent,” Miranda states, “…was not empty of human culture, life, richness” when whites settled or brought slaves here (192). While women of other colors are gaining voice, she asks, “who has been silenced?” (193). Native people’s identities are not just disempowered but have been stripped of autonomy (193). Native Americans live in a “colonized homeland beneath [their] feet” and have “identities and cultures – [their] hearts – [that] sprang from this land, from a place stolen, defiled, yet still present beneath [their] feet every day of [their] lives” (193).
In “Footnoting Heresy: E-mail Dialogues,” Miranda further explains herself in an email conversation with one of Home’s editors, AnaLouise Keating. “Reservations, treaties, and paternalism” are part of the core construction of Native Americans in the United States (205). Indians have basically been “interned within [their] own homeland” through the reservation system, “legally restrained to [token] patches of land” (205). In addition, Indians were once “recognized as sovereign nations and entered into treaties” with various governments (205). But those treaties were broken multiple times by those governments. Finally, Native Americans in the United States must “register with the government, measure up to blood quantums, carry racial ID cards…in order to receive…’reparation’ services…owed [to them]” (205). No other racial group must subject itself to such paternalistic tracking and proof of its identity. Yet, we continue to allow this form of racism to exist, as though Native Americans were unable to care for themselves, and we continue this racism under the guise of righting the previous wrongs to Indians. It is a form of “genocide [that] depends upon negatively racializing and dehumanizing the Other” in order to meet the destiny of the socially dominant group. The “‘primitive’ inhabitants” must be eradicated because they “compete with colonizers for resources” (204), and their “adulthood is never legally granted” because whites are in the process of erasing the whole culture through removal or cultural appropriation (200).
In “Fantasy,” Miranda discusses her leading a class discussion on Indian affairs. She is “perceived as the representative of all Indians” in her American literature seminar (195, author’s emphasis) much like many white people view a black class member or coworker as the representative of all black people. But Miranda’s situation is further complicated. Often, she is the only person of color in any of her classes, so she is viewed as the representative “—incredibly—[for] all people of color, sexual
minorities, and disabled populations!” (195). When a white male classmate challenges Miranda’s statement that appropriation of culture is not appropriate, that fantasy is okay, the essayist must remain impersonal. “It doesn’t matter that my classmate is being racist,” she says (196). “His privilege gives him that right without loss of position. “But if I respond passionately,” she continues, she will lose her position as an academic (196, author’s emphasis). Her responses cannot be completely theoretical because she “live[s] in [her] body, an Indian woman alive and vulnerable” (196). So she chooses humor to defuse the situation by describing the fantasy “naked Indian hunk running through the forest with a torch for the first five minutes” of a movie, and all agree that this was “purely gratutitous New Age ‘ceremony’” (196).
But she’s given herself and her classmates “the easy way out.” She failed to build a bridge without breaking her own back because she continued to avoid confrontation with the dominant culture (198). She may have saved her social position, but she has not prevented another rape (196), another appropriation of culture for the purpose of good movie-making or an opportunity to make those in the dominant culture begin to understand the effects of “a culture based on lies” (199). For the dominant culture, real live Indians in the classroom indicate that there are differences in American society, and for whites, those differences raise fear (194). Hence the idea of mixedbloods as “a temporary problem, part of the ‘progress’ in which Indians diminish and fade away” with “”real’ Indians…safely preserved on reservations [or] mythologized like Pocahontas” (205). Real Indians are not all good like Pocahontas, who saves the white people and effectively disappears through assimilation. Nor are they all evil like La Malinche, a mestiza who betrays her people and who does not go away (205). Thinking in binaries is what got us into this mess of racism, sexism, ism-isms. The danger of a culture based on lies is that we fail to see Native Americans as people and end up only seeing the stereotype.
Arab Americans ace a nuanced racism, just as Native Americans do. Both groups face the exotification of their cultures. But the issues Western feminists think are the biggest issues for Arab Americans are not the ones that need attention. Nada Elia, in “The ‘White’ Sheep of the Family: But Bleaching Is like Starvation,” says that “indeed, the majority of Arab and Arab-American women are unaffected by these manifestations of cultural violence against women [veiling, clitoridectomy, and polygamy]. But how are American feminists to know that, if our voices remain unheard?” (224, author’s italics). “white people see me as a person of color,” Elia says, while “members of the latter category view me as white” (225). Elia “revolts against advice that requires [her] to silence a defining aspect of [her] identity” which she feels she must do because “women of color (minus Arab-American women) have tended to ignore the very existence of their Arab-American sisters because they have not sufficiently challenged the categories and labels designed by the dominant discourse” (225). How is one heard when one told she is “not a ‘recognized minority’ and therefore can neither be ‘represented’ nor ‘under-represented?’” (226).
Elia posits that being a woman of color is “an experiential question, not one determined by Affirmative Action forms” (226). If one has the experiences of a person of color, then one is a person of color. “When will they show something from our home?” Elia’s son asks her as he watches television. As “an invisible Arab-American,” Elia lives “at one remove from [herself]” which is a nuanced form of racism. American feminists see “Arab and Arab-American women only as victims of Islam,” but these are not the only sources of oppression they face (229). Indeed, feminists’ failure to criticize Madeleine Albright, a Jewish woman, for “policies [that] very seriously endanger the lives of tens of thousands of women, and lead to the deaths of more than 250 people a day, 150 of whom are infants and toddlers” demonstrates just how silenced Arab-American women are (229). Our failure to recognized Arab-Americans as people of color bleaches them into white culture and results in the “erasure of Arab-Americans” just as the appropriation of Native culture works to erase Indians from America. Like Black women, Arab-American women must “not keep [their] bitterness to [them]selves” but at the same time must work towards “coalition building [since it] is vital to [their] visibility” (230). Just as Black women created awareness of their struggles so, too, must Arab-American women.
Like racism, sexism is another form of othering and, like all forms of othering, is one where awareness so one can take action is important. Max Wolf Valerio, a female-to-male transgendered person, explains the sexism he has experienced since becoming a male in “’Now That You’re a White Man’: Changing Sex in a Postmodern World – Being, Becoming, and Borders.” Like Brandon Teena, as portrayed by Hilary Swank in the film Boys Don’t Cry, Valerio found his identity in a masculine gender, going so far as to “strap…on a dildo” like Teena did (242). But Valerio, in addition to experiencing sexism, also experiences racism. He is asked “How does it feel” to be a male, and specifically, how does it feel to be a white male (243). Valerio, though, is anything but white. He is of mixed ancestry (247), and with light skin “must sometimes have ‘white skin privilege,’” but he feels “invisible as a nonwhite person” when “taken as white only” (247). Valerio notes that both men and women have been hurt by “rigid sex role expectation,” and our discussion in last week’s class indicates that gender is more fluid than many people think (245). We are not all male or all female; the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle of a continuum of maleness to femaleness. But there are important differences that Valerio highlights. “There is a reason,” he says, “why the ‘male’ hormone testosterone but not the ‘female’ hormone estrogen is banned from Olympic competition. This was the great shock: the testosterone changed me physically and psychically” (245). “It’s harder to hold myself back,” he says about the newfound energy he has (247). He also doesn’t “worry about being raped or sexually harassed” (247) but does worry about man-on-man, territorial violence, which is “of a different nature than before” (248). Valerio does address the male-bashing that can occur in feminist circles. “Being male is not something that transsexual men or any man should have to apologize for,” he says. “Masculinity doesn’t have to be power-over, although it is power,” he continues (246). He is listened to more, he’s discovered, since he’s become a man because “women are raised to be congenial, as well as to defer to men” (247). It is a newfound power Valerio has discovered, but it is of a different nature than what he expected since he must deal with territoriality and the additional energy and how to burn it off. But Valerio experiences a reverse sexism since “people expect more of men, and it is more difficult to distinguish oneself…its [success’s] lack is judged more harshly” (248). Women don’t have to contend with that type of judgment.
As so often happens when I wrestle with difficult and personal theoretical problems in graduate school, I face theory in the flesh when I teach at my high school. It has been a challenging semester, and it is only half over. But I have already noticed a change in how I deal with various issues. I have a bi-gender student who is very open about wanting a male-to-female sex change when he is old enough. Before our state writing tests began last week, one of the girls in the room wanted to know how many boys were in the room. I began counting, “Bob is one, Trevor is….” Trevor interrupted me at that moment and said I had better not call him a boy. Okay, how am I going to work this? I thought. I certainly did not want a major discussion right before testing began. I ended up counting fourteen girls, four boys, and one bi-gendered person, which made Trevor just smile away and silenced any further discussion, at least for the moment. I don’t know if I read “bi-gendered” or made it up on the spot, but it worked.
After the test, Sue, who had originally asked about the number of boys in the room, still had some questions. Trevor’s response was that he would answer her questions (or anyone else’s) but that he would not answer questions about sex in front of everyone because that was private. When I spoke with Trevor later in the day, Trevor said he was so open about his lifestyle because he views it as creating awareness. He speaks factually about what he likes and doesn’t like and tells the questioner that this is just who he is; they can take it or leave it.
What if I had chosen the easy way out like I used to? In Trevor’s case there would certainly be more homophobia than if we (Trevor and I) had not continued the discussion. To be clear, Trevor spoke, and I permitted the discussion as long as it was not about sex. What if I had chosen the easy way out with my Wrangler-wearing, choir-singing, Jesus-preaching heterosexual student. What if I had let his use of the n- word slide with “You must change that word. It’s not appropriate.”? I would have never gotten down to the core of the matter. He could not see himself as a racist, despite using racist language. “Seeing oneself as racist is highly disagreeable,” Rebecca Aanerud says (71). The current language of racism says that “either one is or is not racist” (71). Instead of depicting racism as a structural event, we need to recognize that racism is individual occurrences (72). This awareness would allow us to move further in our attempts to create a less racist and homophobic society. “Compacency is a far more dangerous attitude than outrage,” Naomi Littlebear said (qtd in Johnson 62). It is easier to let things slide than it is to call people on the carpet regarding racist and homophobic incidences. But the awareness they come to is what will make a difference in the future.
Aanerud, Rebecca. “Thinking Again: This Bridge Called My Back and the Challenge to Whiteness.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 69-77. Print.
Elia, Nadia. “The ‘White’ Sheep of the Family: But Bleaching Is like Starvation.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 223-231. Print.
Johnson, Helen. “Bridging Different Views: Australian and Asia-pacific Engagements with This Bridge Called My Back.” Johnson, Helen. “Bridging Different Views: Australian and Asia-Pacific Engagements with This Bridge Called My Back.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 62-69. Print.
Miranda, Debora H. “’What’s Wrong with a Little Fantasy?’ Storytelling from the (Still) Ivory Tower.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 192-202. Print.
Miranda, Debora H. and AnaLouise Keating. “Footnoting Heresy: E-mail Dialogues.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 202-208. Print.
Valerio, Max Wolf. “’Now That You’re a White Man’: Changing Sex in a Postmodern World – Being, Becoming, and Borders.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. Eds. Glorida E. Anzaldúa and Analouise Keating. New York: Routledge, 2002. 239-254. Print.