Tag Archives: race

Lived Experience: A Perpetual Dilemma

22 May
Who could imagine that a self-described feminist would have a problem with listening to lived experiences? But I have a confession to make– I know it’s wrong, but sometimes I just don’t want to hear the stories some people tell me.
My I’m not listening wall comes to my defense when I hear several key trigger words:

“All the women I’ve ever met really want to have kids. My one friend, who said she didn’t want to have kids, got pregnant and now she loves her baby! This proves that women are biologically predisposed to parenthood!”

“My grandmother is really racist because she grew up in a different era. Her experiences excuse her racism.”

“I once met a guy who was on welfare, and he told me he would never get a job because he got paid to do nothing. Because of this experience, I believe that all jobless people are lazy.”

Do these phrases sound like something you would never ever hear? Well I assure you, I hear almost these exact words at least once a week. It happens when I teach, when I talk politics, and even when I discuss scholarly work with peers.

However, I am not writing solely to complain. Feminist research (and my own values) insist on listening to the lived experiences of others. Yet I have such a hard time listening to certain experiences, experiences that challenge my world view, that I’m starting to question my commitment to this practice.

The problem is that lived experiences can be powerful. I am on a plane and reading How Does it Feel to be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, by Moustafa Bayoumi, a gift from a professor aware of my interest in race and prejudice in America. The book tells the lived experiences of young Arab Americans post 9/11 and shares their stories about what it means to be a problem in their own country.

I’m going to guess it feels pretty shitty.

The author uses the term lived experience often, almost as though to implicitly force readers into accepting the stories as fact, as real. Readers cannot deny that these experiences were lived by someone. They happened to someone. It’s powerful, and it would be hard to somehow argue or disagree with the ideas in this book because of its use of personal experience.

I am familiar with this technique. I use it often to convince my students and other skeptical audiences that racism is still an issue in the modern US. Lived experience acts as trap, a rhetorical maneuver that requires listeners to accept your claims or doubt your integrity.

It is nearly foolproof, and that is why it is so frustrating to encounter people who use their experiences to prove that racism, classism, sexism, doesn’t exist (or are biological, or are not widespread problems so much as individual acts perpetrated by a few people). How do you fight that (1) At all; or (2) Without being a hypocrite?

Let’s look at an example. When I teach, I often tell a story of a time I witnessed racism. Since my audience cannot deny that this experience happened (to doubt the experience is to doubt my honesty, my truthfulness) they then have to (1) Accept that the story is true, and a racist act occurred in America; and (2) Reconcile this information with their own, different experiences– experiences which they often swear contain no whiff of racism, observed or enacted.

And now, of course, you can see why I am skeptical of lived experience. I know that racism is a pervasive problem in the United States, a systematic, institutionalized issue. Research has proven this. You would have to figuratively live under a rock in order to not have witnessed any acts/effects of racism.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist over Time: Poverty Rate by Race and Ethnicity, 1973-2009. Graph from the Sociological Cinema’s Facebook page.

Yet so many people, in my discussions with them about race, swear they’ve never seen any racism in their entire lives. Do I doubt their experience? Yes. But how, when I am willing to listen and value other lived experiences, such as the ones told by Bayoumi in How Does it Feel to be a Problem?

I am also bothered when people share one or two stories of observed racism and then fail to allow these moments to connect to the widespread problems of institutionalized racism. In this situation, lived experience isolates and sanitizes the discussion  and doesn’t allow the conversation to move forward to discuss larger implications of lived experiences. How can you redirect this conversation without demeaning or doubting experiences?

And furthermore, what about when someone tells you that every experience they’ve had with a certain race, or a certain gender, or a certain class, confirms one image. They tell you that all the poor people they’ve ever met have been lazy and that’s why they’re poor. And because of these experiences, they believe all poor people are lazy. And don’t deserve health care or welfare. What do you do when lived experience is used that way?

This is proof that people actually use personal experiences to justify sweeping, racist generalizations. Just in case you were skeptical. P.S This was from yesterday in Slate’s Dear Prudence column.

Sometimes I feel like if one more person tries to talk to me about their lived experiences in one of those previously listed, insufferable three ways again, I will scream. But then I feel like I am being a hypocrite. Are people only allowed to use personal experience in the ways that I decree? Am I a fascist? What gives me the right to limit how and when and why lived experiences can be used.

For now, and for the past several years, I have decided that I have some control over what assails my ears.

This is me. In dog form.

If, during my personal free time, I feel myself being pulled into a conversation heading down one of those three roads, I try to excuse myself as quickly and politely as possible. (I am not always successful at being polite).

But more and more often, as I try to escape I’m accused of being one sided.

I want to tell my accusers that I’ve heard their stories before, a thousand times, and they’re all the same and they’re all used the same way. I want to tell them that their stories have no significance to the larger conversation, often because they simply have not immersed themselves in the literature, and they have no interest in being immersed, in having their experiences connected. I want to tell them that I know that they know there is no defense against lived experience, or at least not one that works, and so they are taking advantage of my inability to escape in order to assail me with their offensive stories, and that’s not fair. I want to tell them that I’ve had successful conversations with people with differing views before; I’m not one sided. I do listen. But not to this.

But… why not to this?  How can I justify my refusal?

Fake Some Sympathy, for PR’s Sake!

6 Mar

This past week FHM, a women’s fashion magazine in the Philippines, posted the upcoming cover of their lastest issue featuring a white model surrounded by painted black models with the caption “Stepping out of the Shadows.”

Image Courtesy of The Huffington Post

Naturally, Twitter and Facebook users were in an uproar over the implicit racism in the photo. The cover objectifies Black women and reinforces cultural stereotypes that uphold the objective goodness of white. Ruby Veridiano gives a more complete list of grievances in “An Open Letter to FHM Philippines.

Although this cover is undeniably racist, in this post I am more concerned with examining the apology released by FHM Philippines. Disclaimer: It’s not that I don’t think the racism of this post isn’t worth talking about– it absolutely is. In fact, I’m genuinely concerned that some people don’t see this as racist, considering the uncomfortable relationship the Philippines has had with colonialism.

Still, the FHM response to allegations of racism have received little media attention, and that worries me. The statements made by Bela Padillia have garnered more public criticism than FHM‘s apology, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why.

I’ve covered public relations scandals before– see my post on GoDaddy’s Super Bowl ad and to a lesser extent, my post on the ESPN Jeremy Lin scandal; however, the apology put forth by FHM was so disingenuous that I felt the need to comment more directly.

FHM released an official apology on February 27th, a letter so transparently not sorry that it’s a wonder they released any comment at all:

On Saturday, February 25, we uploaded the March issue with Bela Padilla on the cover on our Facebook page. Just hours later, a slew of comments on the supposed “racism” of the cover image and cover line flooded the magazine page, prompting the editorial team to re-examine the cover so that we could put into context its execution and assuage the concerns of our readers and non-readers as well who’ve weighed in on the issue.

We took all the points into consideration and have decided to take the side of sensitivity.

When FHM hits the stands in March it will have a different cover. We deem this to be the most prudent move in the light of the confusion over the previous cover execution.

We apologize and thank those who have raised their points. We apologize to Bela Padilla for any distress this may have caused her. In our pursuit to come up with edgier covers, we will strive to be more sensitive next time.

It wasn’t enough to put racism in scare quotes, they had to place the word supposed before it. Could FHM be any less clear that they have no respect for the opinions of their readers?

FHM seems totally unconvinced that the “flood” of readers who responded to their cover could have any credible point, preferring to believe that they are merely misunderstood by the masses.

I find it especially ineffective and ridiculous that FHM felt the need to include in their apology that they had tried to explain that the cover is not racist, but no one believed them. Their attempts to “put into context” the cover have failed to convince the public that the cover was, in fact, not racist, as there is no context in which the FHM cover could be considered not racist.

So recap: In the first paragraph, FHM has insulted their readers and implied that they are wrong. They have next admitted that their first strategy has failed, which is the only reason they are apologizing now.

In the second and third paragraphs, FHM further clarifies that they have no option other than to apologize and again insults their readers by calling them confused.

So far, this apology doesn’t seemed designed to illicit any forgiveness in angered readers. Maybe it gets better?

Nope! FHM finishes their apology with a spectacular display of rhetorical maneuvers designed to deliver as few genuine remarks of contrition as possible! The magazine apologizes to Padilla for the hate mail she’s been receiving because of their editorial decision and ends by calling the readers over-sensitive, thus blatantly insulting the public no less than three times. Not to mention, FHM has failed to apologize to people of color for their offensive cover.

If FHM thinks their readers are too unintelligent to realize when they’re being condescended to, they are sorely mistaken. In this new age of instantaneous communication, companies can no longer ignore public responses where a mass of consumers share an opinion. It’s too easy to find like-minded individuals– consumers can criticize in groups and publicly, something which can tank a company’s image.

Luckily, companies have learned to adapt, and many corporations have apologized publicly for missteps that have garnered the anger of the majority. However, there is no formula for a good apology– one cannot just say sorry and expect to be forgiven. Like in any relationship, sincere corporate apologies earn consumer forgiveness. Companies need to weigh when it is appropriate to make a full and genuine apology for the sake of their public image.

The FHM apology was neither genuine nor sincere– and the public knows it.

Speaking of apologies, what do you think of the one Sandra Fluke received? Genuine– or not? Slate’s Prudence and Ron Paul don’t think so!

Lessons on Humor and Racism from Jeremy Lin’s Media Coverage

27 Feb

At first, I wasn’t going to join the discussion surrounding the Asian jokes about Jeremy Lin. I’m not into sports, and I felt that anything I said would miss important information about the context of sports culture.

It began with last name related puns– “Lin-sanity” holding the popular title– but eventually devolved into race-related jokes. See: The New York Post “Amasian” headline or the uncomfortable phrase, “Me Love You Lin Time.”

Then there was ESPN’s “Chink in the Armor” headline, a major gaffe which cost journalist Anthony Federico his job and led to the suspension of Max Bretos.

There have been several stories in the news that associate Jeremy Lin’s heritage and Chinese food– one graphic posted by the MSG network, and one Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor.

However, days after the mess reporters made of Jeremy Lin’s amazing (so I hear) basketball related accomplishments, Facebook statuses defending the many racially charged slogans keep popping up on my newsfeed like a bad internet meme that just won’t die.

I'm referring to this meme specifically

The posts range from defending the ESPN headline writer (citing the number of times he’s used the same headline in reference to non-Asian athletes, the dictionary.com definition of “chink,” or the law on intentionality) to libeling liberals for their PC war on humor– and for those of you not familiar with the rhetoric of the right, this does not refer to people who liberally love computers.

However, what’s really interesting to me is the number of posts that defend the headlines (if you can call it defending) by agreeing that the headlines are racist, but not that racist. These posts usually include some kind of comparison to a remark that would be sufficiently racist to garner the explosion of media attention that has accompanied the ESPN remarks, the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, et cetera.

I’ve seem similar arguments made by news and humor opinion sites. About six minutes into his video, Philip DeFranco argues that the ESPN headline is okay because (among other reasons) chink isn’t as bad as the n-word.

He bases this comparison on which word is more difficult for him to say out loud.

Other than his notably subjective analysis methodology, DeFranco makes another mistake. He assumes that the n-word was always inappropriate, forgetting that it took widespread recognition of the decades of humiliation and prejudice associated with the term in order for it to be officially and universally retired from public discourse.

Huan Hsu makes a similar point in his case for retiring the phrase chink in the armor in his Slate article, “No More Chinks in the Armor,” arguing that the word chink has quietly gone the way of dyke, niggardly, and fagot– all words that used to have non-derogatory meanings, but whose deprecatory connotations have since outweighed their other uses.

I tend to agree with Hsu; however, I am interested to know where others draw the line between too racist and an acceptable amount of racist.

At first, I thought maybe it had something to do with intentionality. Clearly, the writer of the “Chink in the Armor” headline didn’t mean to be racist. He had used the exact same headline a bunch of other times, plus the phrase is a hackneyed trope of the sports industry and pretty much all sports writers use it.*

But the writer was still fired– not because he is a racist, but because of the affect his words had his readers and the readers of ESPN. So if The Line is intent to be racist, those overreacting, PC liberals are to blame for jumping up and yelling “Racism!” at poor, unsuspecting headline writers!

But that can’t be it. If we hurt or offend someone’s feelings with our words, does it matter if we intended to be hurtful or not? Our intent isn’t going to save ESPN’s reputation or recover any lost fans.

On top of that, people of color may have had certain experiences with words that would make those words especially offensive. For example, Jeremy Lin has spoken publicly about how the word chink was used to taunt him during his secondary school years. If a white writer doesn’t have those experiences, does that make it fair for him (or her) to disregard word related concerns?

Maybe the line lies with humor. My Facebook friends seem fairly convinced that jokes are sacred and should not be messed with. But what makes something like a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor with fortune cookies in it funny and a newspaper headline with an exaggerated Asian accent not? I personally don’t think that ice cream with fortune cookies in it equals tongue-in-cheek humor.

Saturday Night Live definitely touts the right to race related humor in their parody of sports commentary. I’m not going to lie– there are some moments where the jokes make me pretty uncomfortable. I’m referring specifically to that video of Jeremy Lin dubbed over by someone speaking broken English.

But the SNL jokes are making fun of racism. They’re saying it’s ridiculous that a newspaper would even consider printing “Amasian” as a headline. In fact, they think that’s so funny they don’t even bother making a parody newspaper– they just use the exact New York Post paper and expect their audience to laugh. That’s because they’re making fun of people who think the headline is okay.

In fact, the SNL parody is making fun of people who think they know where the line is. Jay Pharoah, Kenan Thompson, and Bill Hader are contrasted with Taran Killam. Taran doesn’t know where the line is, and it becomes clear that– much like DeFranco– Jay, Kenan, and Bill think the line is located right where the jokes move from being about Asian stereotypes to being about Black stereotypes.** The audience is supposed to realize that these three are wrong– they don’t know where the line is.

So, where is the line?

For me, the line lies with humor. If you’re noting the absurdity of race related stereotypes, you’re in the clear. But I know that Jay Smooth would disagree and call me an ironic, Vice Magazine hipster! So that leaves us back where we started– where is the line?!


*Sidenote: Can we get some new headline writers? The people at Slate, The Huffington Post, and apparently ESPN are killing me! No more question titles, no more false binaries that the author doesn’t make, and no more inaccurate representations of the authors’ positions!

**It’s possible that SNL is also mocking our culture for reinforcing the Black/White binary by refusing to acknowledge racism related to other races– and I think that culturally conditioned binary is definitely related to the public’s lack of consensus in conversations about Jeremy Lin.

%d bloggers like this: