Reflections on Wiscon 40

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Although WisCon 40 ended on Monday, I didn’t make it back home until Wednesday because my Tuesday flight was cancelled due to the weather. Even on Wednesday, United Airlines sent me consecutive texts about how my flight kept getting delayed. My plan was not to miss my Wednesday night class, but due to the flight delays, I ended up being an hour late!

There is a lot I want to say about my first time attending WisCon, a self-described feminist science fiction and fantasy convention that advocates anti-racist and intersectional politics. Overall, it was a great experience and I loved how efforts were made to provide safe space for everyone. There were so many amazing panel topics and discussions, but some took place at the same time, so it was impossible to attend all of them! It was refreshing to hear feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic perspectives highlighted upon, particularly in the context of science fiction and fantasy. In more mainstream discussions, the issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are mostly marginalized or excluded altogether.

A friend finally convinced me to join Twitter so that I could keep up with the conversations at the panels and also live tweet reactions that others could read. I remember people doing live tweets when I spoke at the Banana 2 conference back in 2011, but I missed all of the tweets because I didn’t have a Twitter account!

Anyway, as much as I enjoyed WisCon, it was not perfect. I had one experience with a racial microaggression that shook me up a little on Friday, where a White woman scolded me in the elevator for not moving, even though there were clearly two other people standing in front of me and I was waiting for them to walk out. Her anger may have been towards all of us, but it was directed at me. I was the darkest person in the elevator, so I figured that I was an easy target. I didn’t say anything to her and just walked out when I was able to, but as someone who experiences racism, Islamophobia, and microaggressions on a daily basis, I couldn’t help but think, “I came here to get away from the dehumanizing treatment I get from White people. I have to deal with it here, too?” Thanks to a friend, I was able to move past it. I needed to, otherwise I would have been in a terrible mood and I would have missed out on meeting wonderful people at the Con.

The first panel I went to was a Star Wars panel, which tweeted under the hashtag #TheFandomAwakens. As one can imagine, the discussion was full of praise for the latest Star Wars film, particularly for Rey, Finn, and Poe. It was nice to hear the panelists mention the Women of Color characters that we saw in the background of the film, but I was hoping for them to be a little more critical and talk about how Women of Color deserve to play significant roles, too. I mentioned this in my previous posts here and here about how it’s great we are seeing more prominent women characters in science fiction, fantasy, and comic book movies/TV shows, but the majority of them are White women. I have some friends, for example, who wished Rey was a woman of color. It would have been interesting to discuss and ask, “Could a woman of color ever be the main character in a Star Wars movie?” This is not a diss on the panel because I totally understand wanting to talk about all the positive things in The Force Awakens. I wasn’t bothered by this, until a White woman referred to John Boyega’s skin color as “dark chocolate.” I was sitting there, thinking, whoa, did I just hear that?

Let me take a minute here to say: NO. Do NOT compare Black people and other People of Color to food. JUST DON’T. I remember classmates in school likening my skin color to Hershey chocolate after they told me I couldn’t dress up as Batman for Halloween because I’m not White. The panelist initially said that she appreciated how a dark skinned Black man was chosen to play Finn. There was nothing wrong about that statement because, yes, we see colorism a lot in Hollywood where People of Color, especially Women of Color, with darker skin are excluded and discriminated against, but the “dark chocolate” comment was completely unnecessary.

Later that day, I decided to go to the Safer Space for People of Color room. I cannot express how grateful I am that such a space exists for People of Color. Everyone in the room was friendly, welcoming, and supportive. People use the space to vent about anything, not just about the experiences they’re having at the Con. One night, I was talking to a couple of people about the “dark chocolate” remark I heard at the Star Wars panel. I also expressed how I often get worried about being critical of Star Wars (which is my favorite movie series of all time, by the way) because there’s a perception that if you critique something, then it must mean you hate it. One person in the room immediately said, “Oh, that’s such a White attitude.” And I was like, “Yes! It so is.” We had discussions about the metaphorical minorities panel and all of the sci-fi/fantasy movies that appropriate the struggles of People of Color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized communities, and depict White people as being the most persecuted group. Someone in the space also mentioned how she felt Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road should have been an Indigenous woman due to how disappearances of Indigenous women and other Women of Color are still prevalent today. All in all, it felt great to have these discussions with people who understand that just because you’re critical of something, it doesn’t mean you “hate” it (And of course, I did talk about certain movies and TV shows I hate too!). I think having such spaces where people can vent freely and not worry about being judged, silenced, or marginalized is a radical act.

Frequent readers of my blog may know this already, but I am not used to being around a lot of People of Color due to the demographics of where I live, work, and study. Being the only person of color and only Muslim in the workplace or classroom is a norm I’ve experienced all of my life. At the Safe Space for People of Color room, when I introduced myself to people, everyone made a genuine effort in learning how to pronounce my name correctly. That meant a lot to me. I’m so used to the opposite, where White people won’t make an effort to learn. I worked 5 years in a workplace where one of my White managers refused to address me by my name because, “It’s too hard!” (yet she knew how to pronounce “Hydrochlorothiazide”). Of course, there are White folks and People of Color that I meet in my everyday life that are better at this, but I didn’t have any anxiety about introducing myself at the Safer Space for PoC at WisCon.

There was also a dinner for People of Color on one of the nights. Across the PoC dinner room was the dinner provided by the main Con. As you can imagine, all of the White folks were lined up for that dinner, but as a friend and I were walking by, we heard a couple of White people complaining about how there was a PoC dinner. One of them even said, “I’m transparent, does that count as a color?” Ha Ha. Get it? Because transparent is… Yeah. My friend and I looked at each other and were like, “Did you just hear that?” As I mentioned earlier, this was my first WisCon, so I was unaware of the work that went into getting safe space for People of Color. My friend informed me about how WisCon has been changing and becoming more inclusive over the years, and how there has been resistance to these changes, especially from the older generation of White attendees. I heard more People of Color mention this in conversations.

Of course, WisCon isn’t the only place where I’ve heard White people complain about safe space for People of Color. I’ll speak for myself here, but I’ve lost count of how many times I have been excluded from workplace dinners or parties organized by classmates. The workplace dinners were the worst because there were multiple times when pork would be on the pizza they ordered or there was never any effort to order Halal meat. I don’t expect the latter, but you would think “holiday dinners” would have vegetarian options at least, but they didn’t until I complained about it. I became so used to being that one person who couldn’t eat anything at non-Muslim dinner events. So it felt nice, for once, that I could access a space that White people couldn’t and that there were food options available to me. In downtown Madison, we were looking for restaurants that served Halal meat and were able to find three. I am thinking about contacting the organizers at WisCon to let them know which restaurants. I think it would be nice if the WisCon app included Halal and Kosher meat categories under the restaurants they have listed.

It was awesome meeting all of the science fiction and fantasy authors at the Con. I was introduced to N.K. Jemisin’s work last year and read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but she wasn’t at WisCon this year. I felt a little awkward getting my book signed by Sofia Samatar because I had not read any of her work before. Before I went to the Con, I bought a book where two of her short stories are featured, but I didn’t get a chance to read them in time! I bought her book, The Winged Histories, and told her that I was really looking forward to reading it.

One of the panels I really liked was about Social Media Exclusivity. It stood out to me on the schedule because I’ve deactivated from Facebook for about 7 months now. I have been thinking about writing a post about why I deactivated, but it was nice to hear other people express similar concerns and critiques about social media. The panelists spoke about how people tend to assume that everyone has access to social media and/or the internet in general. They mentioned how a lot of activist organizing and announcements are made on Twitter and Facebook, but there are also a lot of people, especially communities of color, who are excluded from these meetings and events because they don’t have access to social media. There was also a discussion about how people choose to stay off social media due to how unsafe it can be due to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc. I appreciated this panel because it reminded me of how torn I feel about being off Facebook. On one hand, it was a space where I could meet and network with people (mainly other Muslims and people of color) who I would not have met otherwise, but on the other, there was also a lot of toxicity, ego battles, and oppressive behavior. The latter made Facebook extremely time consuming, but also exhausting. I don’t know how long I’ll stay on Twitter because I hear it can be worse than Facebook. Anyway, like I said before, I have been thinking about writing a post on this, so I’ll save all of the details for that post.

I was hoping to find a panel about Muslim characters and/or Islamophobia at WisCon, but there did not seem to be any. However, I was informed that panels about Islamophobia and Muslim characters were discussed in previous years. I didn’t register for WisCon in time to organize a panel, but I would like to in the future because there’s so much I want to vent about with regard to Islamophobia in mainstream science fiction and fantasy movies! Overall, I am glad I went to WisCon this year. I got to meet some really wonderful people and I hope to stay connected with them! I would definitely go to WisCon again, though probably not next year because memorial weekend falls on Ramadan.

If you went to WisCon 40, I would love to hear your thoughts or read any posts you’ve written about it!

The Erasure of Women of Color in Superhero Gender Politics

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While this post will discuss the superhero genre in general, most of the attention will focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). No spoilers below.

This may as well be a continuation of my recent post about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, where I talked about how erasing Rey’s Whiteness subsequently erases women of color. As many women of color have already written and stated before, erasing women of color from mainstream feminism isn’t anything new. In the ever-rising popularity of western mainstream superhero films and TV shows, we see this erasure perpetuate.

I can’t remember where I saw this discussion on YouTube, but it involved the issue of racebending The Ancient One in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange film. Originally an Asian character in the comic books, the film cast a White actress, Tilda Swinton, in the role instead. Someone on the panel criticized the casting as routine Hollywood whitewashing, while another person responded by saying, “Well, I think it’s a good thing they cast a woman because women aren’t getting enough opportunities in Hollywood either.” The former countered that argument and stated, “Why not have the best of both worlds and cast an Asian woman??

What was exposed in the counter argument was the erasure of women of color – Asian women in particular – from the conversation. It didn’t seem to cross the second person’s mind that, “Oh wow, yeah, a person can be Asian and a woman!” Unfortunately, the second person’s comments exemplify normalized attitudes and assumptions that we see far too often in society. That is, race and gender are seen as two separate categories. By extension, additional factors like class, sexual orientation, religion, and ability are also seen as separate categories. I remember reading a “scholarly” journal article once that said, “LGBTQ people experience more discrimination than ethnic minorities.” Aside from my aversion to the term “minorities,” my reaction was a sarcastic, “Oh right, because LGBTQ people of color don’t exist.” The prevailing assumption in society is that people are only “one thing,” as opposed to understanding that every person has intersecting social identities. The second person in the video talks about Tilda Swinton as being only a woman, not a White woman. This reflects how people are socialized to think of the “default man” or “default woman” as being White. There is no need to specify that Swinton is a White woman because we’ve been conditioned to believe “woman = White woman,” just as “man = White man,” or “person = White person.”

I saw something similar happen a couple of nights ago in a clip from Stephen Colbert’s late night show. Colbert commented on how male-dominated the MCU is, calling it “kind of a sausage fest.” While I agree it’s important that Colbert criticized Marvel’s lack of women characters and their sexist decision to gender swap characters that were originally written as women (on the basis that women villains don’t sell toys), his arguments were grounded in colorblind gender politics. Earlier in the segment, he listed some of the main characters in the MCU, emphasizing on the “Man” in their names: “Iron Man, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and Black Panther Man.” We know Black Panther doesn’t have “Man” in his superhero name, but we get the point. However, what’s problematic, and quite sad, is how Colbert completely ignores the fact that, unlike the other male heroes in the MCU, T’Challa/Black Panther is an African man. Not only that, but Black Panther is also the first Black superhero in mainstream American comic books and will be the first Black character to lead an MCU film. Him finally showing up in a Marvel movie is actually a big deal. By grouping Black Panther with Marvel’s White male superheroes, his Blackness is erased and we are instructed to view him as not only being the “same” as the other men dominating the MCU, but also as being part of Marvel’s “male problem.”

I’m not denying that Marvel is male-dominated – it most definitely is. However, placing Black Panther in the same category as Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man is an oversimplification that dismisses race and intersectionality in general. As bell hooks emphasized in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, “men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure.” Yes, all of the MCU films thus far are led by male protagonists, but they are White male protagonists specifically. Black Panther being an African man is significant and he disrupts the nauseating tradition of White male-centered superhero films. Sure, one can argue that T’Challa possesses more power and influence than Tony Stark because he is the king of an entire country, but let’s not ignore for a second the very real and violent anti-Black racism that exists in our world. Let’s not forget that opportunities for Black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood are still extremely limited, especially for Black women. There is a disproportionate number of films that are centered on White men compared to the number of films centered on Black men and other men of color. That number is even smaller when looking at films led by Black women protagonists.

What is also overlooked in Colbert’s segment is how the upcoming Black Panther film, which is to be directed by Ryan Coogler, will feature a cast that is “90% African or African American,” according to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. This news sparked the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit on Twitter, where fans expressed their excitement about seeing a superhero film with a Black-majority cast. Selma director Ava DuVernay and Twitter user ReignofApril, who started #OscarsSoWhite, also chimed in to share their enthusiasm. The news of a 90% Black cast also means more opportunities for Black actresses to play significant roles in a superhero film. In fact, Lupita Nyong’o has been reportedly cast to star alongside Chadwick Boseman. Additionally, Captain America: Civil War seems to have introduced us to a Black woman character who may play a major role in Black Panther. Played by Ugandan-born German actress Florence Kasumba, the character was seen as one of T’Challa’s security chiefs, possibly a member of the Dora Milaje. Though only appearing briefly in Captain America: Civil War, fans on social media have been praising the character and hoping to see more of her.

None of the above is to excuse the fact that women of color superheroes are hard to find in the recent influx of comic book movies. The last superhero film I remember with a woman of color lead was 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry (more on this later). In 2014, Marvel Studios announced plans to produce a Captain Marvel film (set for a 2019 release), which will feature a White woman as the title character. As exciting as this news is, we see the exclusion of women of color yet again in the commentary surrounding the film. While Black Panther is described as a “Black character,” Captain Marvel is referred to as a “female character” or “woman character.” The former mentions the character’s race, but not gender, while the latter mentions the character’s gender, but not race. When we hear “Black character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a Black man, whereas when we hear “female character,” it’s assumed we are talking about a White woman. As a result of these assumptions, women of color are erased. I believe what we see reflected here is what Kimberle Crenshaw addressed in her article (PDF) on intersectionality:

Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.

Crenshaw wrote the above in 1991 and it’s sad that the marginalization of women of color and the either/or ways of thinking that she described is still so prevalent. When I think about the MCU films, it is difficult to find women of color characters in prominent roles, let alone portrayed as superheroes. However, I can name a lot of the White women characters: Black Widow, Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, Sharon Carter, Maria Hill, Hope van Dyne, Janet van Dyne, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Frigga, Irani Rael, and Scarlet Witch (who should have been played by a woman of color because the character is Romani, though nothing about her Romani Jewish heritage is mentioned in the films). Avengers: Age of Ultron has an Asian woman character, Helen Cho, and Guardians of the Galaxy features Zoe Saldana in a leading role, but her skin is colored green as her character is of a non-human species.

In the MCU TV shows, we see a couple of women characters leading their own shows, namely Jessica Jones and Agent Carter (though the latter was recently cancelled after two seasons). We do see more women of color in the TV shows than the films. There’s Claire Temple and Elektra, who are not relegated to small roles, thankfully. I don’t watch Agents of Shield (I couldn’t get beyond the first season), but I know there are women of color characters like Melinda May and Skye. I have heard there are more women of color characters in the show, but those are the two I remember off the top of my head. Outside the MCU, we do see more White women in leading roles in blockbuster films like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hunger Games, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, DC’s forthcoming Wonder Woman film, and the upcoming Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, which has a racially diverse cast of men of color, but again, where are the women of color? White women can be found playing superheroes in popular TV shows like Supergirl and Arrow as well

I remember when Jessica Jones and Supergirl were being released around the same time, there were some on social media who debated about which one would be better. A third group argued that it didn’t matter which one was “better” because what really mattered was how revolutionary it was to have two TV shows with women superheroes. I don’t downplay the significance of seeing more women superheroes. But again, which women are we talking about? It’s not Black women or Latina women or South Asian women or Arab women we’re seeing in these roles. We continue to see the trend of White men dominating roles in mainstream film and television, and now it seems that movies and TV shows with women main characters must also be White. As if only White women can challenge the White male-centered industry, while women of color play supporting or tertiary roles, or are excluded altogether. It’s the pattern of Whiteness that we are seeing with women characters in these blockbuster films and TV shows: Furiosa, Rey, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, Jyn Erso, Black Widow, and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel.

Women of color are not given the opportunity to lead superhero films and when they do, there are still restrictions. I mentioned Halle Berry’s Catwoman film earlier, which received terrible reviews and is considered one of the worst movies ever made. But the movie was doomed from the start because the film made every attempt to distance itself from the source material. For instance, there was no mentioning of Gotham City and Berry’s character wasn’t Selina Kyle, but a new character named Patience Phillips. There was no indication that Batman or anyone else in his universe existed in the film either. It was as if Halle Berry wasn’t allowed access to this character; as if the producers said, “Ok, we can make a Black Catwoman, but let’s not make her Selina Kyle. We don’t want people to think the real Catwoman is Black! This will be someone else!” Of course, much of the blame goes to the studio for the failure of Catwoman, but it’s hard not to overlook how a comic book film featuring a Black actress in the lead role was handled so irresponsibly.

The presence of women of color in superhero films can also lead to erasure of race. As much as I love CW’s The Flash, the way Iris is depicted has raised critiques about the show’s colorblindness. As Shannon Gibney writes in her article, “Color Blindness and the Black Girlfriend: The White Male Superhero’s Ability to Erase Race:”

I’ve gone and broken the unspoken rule for successfully creating interracial relationships on television and in pop culture: You can’t actually be Black, or have a Black consciousness in said union. Nope. You can be cute, in that hip Black way, but please don’t show your blackness, or God forbid, the often casual, everyday ways that race and racism affect your life and relationships. In this way, The Flash writers and producers have made a choice to embrace a color blindness narrative, for not only the Barry/Flash-Iris relationship, but also, for the Iris-Eddie, and Barry/Flash-Joe relationships.

[…]

One of the strongest things The Flash has going for it is its patient, layered character development, and complex storytelling. How might this be deepened even further if Barry/Flash and Iris had to truly reckon with how they move through the world very differently in their respective White male and Black female bodies?

The above is a great example of how visual diversity is not enough. In other words, improving the lack of women of color in film and television (both in front and behind the camera) isn’t simply, “Oh hey, let’s just fill up the screen with more women of color!” There are other issues involved, including colorismhow the characters are portrayed, the amount of screen time they have, how much creative license is granted to a woman of color director, etc. If Hollywood decides to make a film featuring a brown Muslim male or female character, but that character is used to reinforce an assimilationist, “U.S. versus immigrant,” or “Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim” narrative, that doesn’t do anything to challenge Islamophobia. It merely reinforces the status quo and how the State wants Muslims to be.

To clarify, when I list all of the White women characters we see in comic book movies and TV shows, I’m not saying, “See, look, there’s no problem with sexism! There are plenty of women characters!” I’m not saying we shouldn’t have White women as lead characters either. My point is that liberal commentaries need to challenge simplistic understandings of social identity and center their advocacy on women of color in particular because not only do we see White women receive more opportunities to play heroic (and better paid) roles in sci-fi and comic book movies than women of color, but we also need to connect the media’s erasure of women of color to the racism, misogyny, and other oppressions they experience in the real world. Is it any surprise that Black women receive the least amount of opportunities in the entertainment industry when Black women and other women of color are over-represented in the low-wage workforce?

On this note, I find it concerning when I hear people defend the casting of Ghost in the Shell on the basis that Scarlett Johansson was needed to sell the movie because “an Asian actress wouldn’t be able to sell it.” These comments are paradoxical because on the one hand, they acknowledge the casting is wrong, but then they justify it by essentially saying, “Well, that’s how the industry works!” What I rarely hear from these defenses is outrage — outrage at how racist the film industry is. Instead, there is an acceptance of the status quo, that White people, whether man or woman, must be lead a film in order to be successful (and that success is measured by how much money it makes, of course). It is interesting that the very same people would rage against producers and say, “These people don’t know anything about adapting (insert comic book/video game/novel here)!” and go on about preserving the “source material,” but when they defend the casting of a White woman in a Japanese role, they suddenly side with the producers!

I don’t believe Ghost in the Shell would be a box office failure if a Japanese actress was cast in the lead role. The movie already has a strong fan base of the original Anime, it is bound to make money. What’s more concerning than how much the movie makes is the acceptability of studios and movie producers conveying the message that people of color, in this case, women of color, cannot play main characters, even if the original character was written as a woman of color. At the end of the day, it’s another White actress getting paid for a role that a woman of color actress should have played.

Hopefully, with the recent casting of Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarak and Rosario Dawson returning in Marvel’s Luke Cage, we’ll see producers of superhero movies and TV shows cast more women of color in prominent roles. I don’t expect anything radical from Marvel or Hollywood for that matter, but I think it’s important that we challenge conversations and commentaries that pit race and gender against each other as if they are “two separate categories.” Advocating for a “woman character” should not be synonymous with “White woman,” yet we see it reinforced in movie talk shows and websites that act as if women of color don’t exist. Indeed, it is great that mainstream films are featuring more women characters and integrating feminist themes, but when the vast majority of these women are White, it reflects an oppressive manifestation of white feminism that has long attempted to marginalize, silence, and erase women of color.

Attending WisCon 2016

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About a year ago, a friend told me about a feminist- and people of color-friendly science fiction convention called WisCon. Being a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, I was intrigued to learn about it, especially since I was always interested in going to a science fiction/comic book convention. WisCon sounded unique because it provided safe space for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.

I am excited that I will be attending WisCon 40 this year in Madison, Wisconsin from May 27th to May 30th. I was disappointed to learn that I missed the opportunity to hear N.K. Jemisin — author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms speak last year, but I am hoping she will come this year, too! Also last year, admission tickets/memberships were free for Muslim-identified people or anyone of Arab descent. This was made possible through an anonymous donor who sponsored the Daisy Khan fund. Unfortunately, no such donations were received this year by WisCon, but I will still be attending (adult membership is $50). I’m not sure how many Muslims attend each year, but it would be cool to meet and network with other Muslim science fiction/fantasy/comic book fans, writers, artists, etc.

WisCon states that it is committed to intersectionality and is conscious of issues such as Islamophobia. I was just reading about how they withdrew their invitation to sci-fi/fantasy author Elizabeth Moon due to her Islamophobic comments. It is encouraging to hear about solidarity like this, especially when Muslims are often demonized and accused of being “enemies of free speech” when they speak out against anti-Muslim hate speech and Islamophobia in general. WisCon is very clear on their statement of principles and anti-harassment policy to ensure the convention is a safe space.

Since I registered late, I did not get a chance to organize any panels. However, a friend told me that we can do impromptu panels in case we wanted to discuss something that isn’t being highlighted in the other panels. I can’t imagine there not being a panel on the new Star Wars film, but in case there isn’t, I’ll try to set one up where we can talk about race and gender in the Star Wars films, animated shows, novels, graphic novels, video games, etc. You can read my commentary on the depictions of Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens here.

If any of my readers are going to WisCon this year, feel free to contact me! I will definitely write about my experience when I come back, insha’Allah.

When Men on the Left Refuse to See Their Sexism

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TRIGGER WARNING: This post cites examples of misogynistic language, gender slurs, sexual objectification, and other forms of sexist oppression.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article on Vice that was oddly titled, “You’re a Pussy If You Think There’s a War on Men.” It seemed clear that the author, Harry Cheadle, was referring to an awful “reverse sexist” and anti-feminist article about “The War on Men,” which asserts that women are to blame for the “dearth of good men” and must “surrender to their nature” while letting “men surrender to theirs.” Cheadle writes in defense of feminism and exposes the absurdity of claiming that men are “oppressed” by women. While I agree with his arguments that men need to stop blaming and fearing women, the sexist use of the word “pussy” in his title couldn’t be overlooked. After a brief conversation with friends who also found it offensive, I decided to write an e-mail to the author. I expressed overall support for his post and agreed that men need to be held accountable for their sexism, but I also pointed out that using the word “pussy” as a slur to characterize men as “cowardly” and “weak” is still misogynistic because it relies on degrading a woman’s body. It reinforces the sexist logic that being called a woman or, in this case, a body part of a woman, is always negative, demeaning, and shameful. It reminds us that in order for men to feel truly insulted, they must be compared to women because women, as heteropatriarchy teaches us, are weaker and inferior to men. I mentioned in my e-mail that I had no problem with calling men out on their laziness, lack of accountability, and insecurities. However, using the word “pussy” to describe their fear of women is counter-productive and perpetuates sexist attitudes.

I never heard back from him, but a few days later, a friend of mine noticed a status update on Cheadle’s public Facebook wall*, which read:

Just got an email from someone who A) assumed I was an ally in the “feminist struggle” B)Took issue with my use of the word “pussy” in my article “You’re a Pussy if You Think There’s a War on Men” and C) informed me that “the term is not only misogynistic, but also inaccurate since the vagina is actually quite tough, not weak.” asldkfjalsjf adlsj foiasj doia e

When it was asked on the comment thread about whether or not he identified as an ally, Cheadle responded, “I just hate whiners and knee-jerk anti-feminists. I don’t really feel that I’m a part of the whole feminist enterprise, and I don’t really want to be.”

Not sure what he meant by “feminist enterprise,” but I was taken aback when I read these comments because I felt that I was being supportive of his article’s overall message. The quote he used from my e-mail (point C) was actually me paraphrasing common anti-sexist responses to those who equate the vagina with “weakness.” I also pointed out in my e-mail that women have done a lot of work on gendered insults and the impact they have on society. What I noticed the most, however, was his refusal to acknowledge the sexism in his title, which he never chose to change.

I share the above as an example of something I want to discuss in a broader context: sexism and misogyny from men in Leftist spaces and their refusal to hold themselves accountable, even when they are called out on it. What does it mean when a man speaks in defense of feminism, but then, after being informed of his sexism, rejects being an ally in order to absolve himself of any accountability? What are the implications for women who self-identify as feminist when men can easily reject feminism or disassociate from it to excuse and normalize their own sexism? In this post, I will discuss how this refusal of accountability contributes to violence against women, beginning with the usage of misogynistic language, then addressing the various manifestations of sexist oppression, and concluding with points on doing work to end this violence.

1. Misogynistic Language

Whether we are men who self-identify as anti-racist, advocate against homophobia, hold leadership positions in radical movements, rightly express outrage against right-wing misogynists and patriarchy at large, write articles that condemn all forms of injustice, or all of the above, none of this gives us a free pass on sexism, including sexist language. Gendered insults like “pussy,” “cunt,” “bitch,” “slut,” “whore,” etc. are so normalized and acceptable that we hear them in classrooms, workplaces, activist groups, and from our friends and colleagues. In mainstream media, the frequent and increased use of the “b” word on prime-time TV shows over the past decade only reinforces this acceptability. Even in popular video games like Batman: Arkham City, women characters like Catwoman and Harley Quinn are repeatedly called the “b” word by both good and bad male characters (and when women gamers address sexism in gaming, many men respond by trivializing the slurs and making misogynistic attacks). The pervasiveness and normalization of misogynistic language is not simply limited to particular movies, games, songs, or novels, but rather reflective of the sexist and patriarchal values that shape society. These sexist values, as bell hooks explains, are “created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

There is a long violent history of these words being used to shame, exploit, persecute, rape, and murder women, especially women of color, who face racism and misogyny simultaneously.  Sikivu Hutchinson explains that linking the word “bitch” with “bad girls” has strong racial connotations since “black women have always been deemed ‘bad’ in the eyes of the dominant culture, as less than feminine, as bodies for pornographic exploitation.” Azjones0210 mentions in her blog post that the Oxford dictionary includes a definition that states “bitch” is a “black slang” for “woman.” She elaborates:

[O]ur culture has attached the word “bitch” to the character of a black woman so many times that it deserves to be integrated into our formal language system. Regardless of the word “slang” existing within the definition, it is still there. This is not present for other racial groups in the way it is present for black women. This says to the world that when I walk down the street, and people see me and identify me as black, it is acceptable to connect the word “bitch” to me and everything that it carries way before I even open my mouth or complete any sort of action.

AF3IRM, a feminist and anti-imperialist organization whose membership identifies as “transnational women who are im/migrants or whose families are im/migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa,” addressed the history of the word “slut” for women of color and how it continues to be used against them:

This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label “slut”: in Central America it was “little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)”, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was “little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs)”. These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.

When white men and men of color who proclaim to be “progressive” and “anti-oppression” refuse to stop using misogynistic language, they participate in another form of violence against women and end up damaging activist spaces that are supposed to be safe. A typical response is to blame women: “But women say these words, too!” Another excuse is that they were using the “b” word as a “compliment” in a “reclaimed context.” A couple of points need to be addressed here: (1) Some women of color and white women believe in reclaiming gender slurs, and some disagree. (2) Whether or not the women in our lives say these words, men should never say them. A woman saying the “b” word compared to a man saying it is very different. Given the history and present day realities I mentioned above, men are in no position to “reclaim” those words nor do they have any right to tell women not to say them. I’ve seen white men and men of color who self-identify as anti-racist use the “b” word in ways to exert dominance over others, including other men (e.g. “Man up, bitch!”), or to “humorously” refer to a group of male and female friends (e.g. “Got a new phone, send me your numbers, bitches!”) None of this is “ok,” no matter what the “intent” is.

When describing racist and/or homophobic women, there are men with progressive politics, whether white or of color, heterosexual or gay, who somehow think it is permissible to use misogynistic language and slurs. Again, this is unacceptable. We need to go beyond “restraining ourselves” from using these words. Instead, we need to eliminate misogynistic language from our vocabulary and challenge the ways in which this language has shaped our perception and attitudes towards women. This doesn’t negate the activist work we already do nor does it diminish the racism of racist women, but rather calls for us to work against sexist oppression and take responsibility for unlearning the serious ways in which we’ve internalized sexist socialization.

2. Men on the Left Perpetuating Sexist Oppression

In addition to misogynistic language, sexual harassment, rape, and the silencing of women is disturbingly common in Leftist spaces. In a hostile white supremacist and heteropatriarchal climate where many women, especially women of color, cannot call the police because they do not want to strengthen the state or be further victimized by it, working collectively against misogyny and gender violence within activist movements is crucial. If a male activist threatens a woman, or follows her home, or sexually harasses her in a meeting or a rally, or tries to silence and shame her, or rapes her, this man must be held accountable. What’s disturbing is how white men and men of color appoint themselves as “leaders” and use their “activist credibility” or “celebrity” status to hide and excuse their own sexism. On one hand, there are male activists who reject feminism, as discussed above, but then there are men who consciously insert themselves into feminist discourse and assert authority over it. Hugo Schwyzer, for instance, persistently defines himself as a “male feminist,” yet doesn’t see the harm he causes when dismissing his history of engaging in sexual relations with students or writing about how he almost murdered his ex-girlfriend and then made himself the “hero” for not following through with it. Angus Johnston of Student Activism describes this crime as an act of gendered violence and explains that “in all his (Schwyzer’s) writing about this act he has never addressed its implications for his feminism — the feminism he professed when he committed the crime, or the feminism he professes today.”

When writing about “slutwalk,” Schwyzer described his role as “herding sluts” and then gave racist responses to criticism from women of color. Elsewhere, Schwyzer wrote an outrageous article that tried to justify degrading sex acts against women (read Tiger Beatdown’s important response to his post). By declaring himself a “feminist” and advertising himself (as seen on his website) as an “author, speaker, professor” who “shatters gender myths,” Schwyzer dangerously tries to legitimize his sexism as feminist discourse. Refusing to check his white male privilege and power, which has undoubtedly contributed to his “celebrity” status, Schwyzer allows other men to see his behavior and beliefs as “feminism.” When it is taken into account that Schwyzer proudly sees himself as “paternalistic,” it isn’t surprising that he deflects criticism so defensively. His refusal to see this violence is evident in his own words:

Go ahead, call me paternalistic. I’ll wear that title with pride, thank you. I see my students not merely as independent, autonomous agents whom I need to empower, but as vulnerable young people whom I — and others around me — need to protect. And I still have the nerve to call myself a feminist.

I have seen similar refusal from white men and men of color that I’ve come in contact with. Last year, I wrote a post, “Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions,” where I mentioned a male photography “activist” who took an invasive, zoomed-in photo of a woman’s body and shared it on his Facebook for public viewing. When white men and men of color left despicable and sexually objectifying comments, I was alarmed to see one of my “friends,” a man of color who asserts himself as a “leader” in his local activist community, participating in this objectification. When I and another male friend/ally wrote to him about this, he responded by denying that anything ever happened. We went back to the photo and noticed that he had deleted his comment. We and a few other friends (women and men) who saw the comment earlier must have been “seeing things” (sarcasm). After confronting him on this, he went on about how his friend, the man who took the photo, is an ally in anti-racist struggle and has even gotten arrested for taking photos of the police. The troubling implication seemed to be that if a man does important social justice work and got arrested several times, it somehow “erases” his misogyny and the harm he caused by sexually objectifying women.

Along with shamelessly lying that he ever commented on the photo, this man never took action against the photographer. Despite the messages my friends and I sent to people in our network and asked them to report the image, it still remained posted. A couple of weeks later, this same man commented on another photo, this time of a woman modeling in a bikini (which appeared on my news feed even though the person who posted it is not on my friend’s list). As men left perverted comments, he encouraged their objectification by saying: “Be careful. some of the puritanical leftists will gouge our eyes out. we must remain serious at all times. after all, we are activists. humor is banned at all times :)” (smiley icon in original).

When friends and I wrote to him and voiced our outrage, we never received a reply. Some of us, including myself, deleted him, but still see his hypocritical “anti-patriarchy” comments posted on mutual friend’s walls. I sent out messages to many of these mutual friends and while some were definitely outraged, others excused his behavior due to his activist work and “leadership” role. So, men who perpetuate sexual objection or other forms of sexist oppression can get away with it just because they do “important work” overall? What does this say about sexism and misogyny? That these issues are “secondary,” “not as important,” and disconnected from struggles against other forms of oppression? What some failed to take into account was how men like him are not unique in Leftist movements.

As my friend Sitara wrote in reference to a white male activist in her community:

What does it mean for our movement that a known abuser (who has REFUSED to address his actions in any meaningful way) has put out a call to form a national revolutionary organization whose platform includes “rejecting patriarchy” in all its forms, including “familial roles”? Answer: nothing good.

In Courtney Desiree Morris’s very important post, “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements,” she describes the numerous encounters she had with abusive men:

There were men like this in various organizations I worked with. The one who called his girlfriend a bitch in front of a group of youth of color during a summer encuentro we were hosting. The one who sexually harassed a queer Chicana couple during a trip to México, trying to pressure them into a threesome. The guys who said they would complete a task, didn’t do it, brushed off their compañeras’ demands for accountability, let those women take over the task, and when it was finished took all the credit for someone else’s hard work. The graduate student who hit his partner—and everyone knew he’d done it, but whenever anyone asked, people would just look ashamed and embarrassed and mumble, “It’s complicated.” The ones who constantly demeaned queer folks, even people they organized with. Especially the one who thought it would be a revolutionary act to “kill all these faggots, these niggas on the down low, who are fucking up our children, fucking up our homes, fucking up our world, and fucking up our lives!” The one who would shout you down in a meeting or tell you that you couldn’t be a feminist because you were too pretty. Or the one who thought homosexuality was a disease from Europe.

Yeah, that guy.

While she points out that many of these men were probably not informants, “the work that they do supports the state’s ongoing campaign of terror against social movements and the people who create them.” I suspect that many male readers will read the examples shared above and think, “Well, I’ve never done any of that, so I can’t be sexist.” However, this belief is an “innocence” mindset that fails to address our responsibilities as well as the ways in which we are complicit in reproducing oppression.

3. Accountability

There needs to be clarification that not all men benefit from sexism and heteropatriarchy in the same way. Certainly, the ways in which gender and race intersect must be taken into account.The framework here isn’t “all men are the same” or “men are the enemies,” but rather that white men and men of color need to practice accountability and understand the different, though interconnected, effects interlocking systems of oppression has on them (e.g. heterosexual cis-gendered white men benefit from both white supremacy and patriarchy). Men of color are horribly demonized and victimized by racist forces in society (as are women of color), though this should not absolve them of sexism and misogyny. White women can exert power over men of color and women of color through racism and reinforcing white supremacy, though this doesn’t lessen the importance of dismantling heteropatriarchy (which is interlocked with white supremacy).

As Morris writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do. We all must do the work because the survival of our movements depends on it.” Abusive male activist “leaders” maintain power not only by reproducing heteropatriarchy, but also because they are upheld by those who actively support them, which includes both men and women. This support is not always a result of passive or naive internalization of sexist oppression; there is active participation, too. When this complex process is failed to be understood, men may dismiss how harmful sexual objectification is, for example, and make excuses like, “Well, women were commenting on that photo, too” or “But, women weren’t offended by that photo.” Instead of using other women to justify our sexism, we need to challenge heteropatriarchy and work within a framework of accountability. Another mistake that many men (not just those with radical politics, but also those who consider themselves liberal or progressive) make is think they are “outside of patriarchy” just because they read feminist literature, attend patriarchy workshops, have women friends, etc. When we are called out on sexism, instead of getting defensive and claiming that we are “not sexist,” we should be more concerned about whether or not we are reinforcing sexism, either through our language, our behaviors, actions or non-actions, etc. I believe bell hooks’ words are relevant here:

All men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another… While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it.

This is not about men taking on “savior” roles, but instead taking responsibility for their complicity. We are complicit when we are silent about misogyny within movements; we are complicit when we tell women to ignore sexist oppression;  we are complicit when we laugh at misogynistic “jokes”; we are complicit when we encourage sexual objectification instead of challenging it; we are complicit when we continue friendships with these abusive men despite knowing the damage their misogyny is causing; we are complicit when we make the conscious decision to refuse listening to those who are calling us out on being silent or participants in any of the above.

Responsibility doesn’t mean we should speak for women either. As I was sharing with a friend, I often get tired of calling white people out on their racism all the time and think it’s important to have solidarity from anti-racist white allies. I don’t need white people to speak for me, for instance, though at the same time, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of racism while my white friends just stand around and do nothing. Similarly, it’s not enough for men to simply say, “Oh that’s messed up,” when they see or hear the sexism of male allies. It is important to confront these men, especially if these are men we work with, study with, have friendships with, etc. If we say or do nothing while women are struggling to address these issues, we are only resuming our complicity.

We need to seriously reevaluate and question what is happening in our communities. If a powerfully positioned “leader” in a radical space that strives to end all forms of oppression is a man who uses bullying, shaming, violence, and other oppressive tactics towards members in the group, why is this injustice allowed to continue? Why is he standing on a podium, dominating the mic, and leading a large rally of people who are seeking to end oppressive behaviors like his? Why is he held up as a “representative” for his community, being interviewed by the media, quoted in newspapers, or featured on popular blogs when there are women within the group who are not only fighting against the state’s racist, sexist oppression, but also against the misogyny within their communities? Oddly enough, when men tell women that they should “ignore” sexism or put their experiences with abuse “on hold” for the sake of “the greater good,” there paradoxically is an acknowledgment that abuse is taking place. And yet, despite this recognition of injustice, no action is taken.

We need to stop giving legitimacy to these men and start holding them accountable. We have to stop promoting them as “leaders” and start listening to the voices that matter. There needs to be collective action and communities need to work within a framework that understands that if we do not fight misogyny and heteropatriarchy, especially within our own groups, then our work will amount to nothing. Refusing to address these problems, as Morris crucially reminds us, has dangerous consequences and will work to strengthen the oppressive forces of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, imperialism and other systems of violence and domination that seek to destroy us. Whether its men who write articles about women’s rights, men making speeches about ending patriarchy at activist rallies, or men who just think they “cannot be sexist” because they are “nice guys,” our work and words mean nothing if we deliberately refuse to accept and practice accountability. As so many anti-racist women of color activists, academics, and community leaders have articulated in their work, heteropatriarchy and other oppressions cannot be dismantled if we do not also work to eliminate them within ourselves.

Photo Credit: #Leftfail

*I was reluctant to share this status message since I’m not friends with the author, but it was pointed out to me that his Facebook wall is open to the public. After verifying this myself, I decided to re-share.

UPDATE: Other readers have pointed this out already, but I recognize that “Vice” is not a leftist website. I apologize for the confusion and meant to clarify that. Later in the post, I mention that it is not only the sexism and misogyny in leftist spaces that should be a concern, but in all spaces, including on popular websites.

Confronting Personal and State Violence Simultaneously

Within the past month or so, a couple of friends were telling me about the racism and sexism they continue to experience in social justice spaces. Yesterday, another friend was telling me about her experience with abusive “activists” who refuse to take any responsibility for their racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism.   I know I have addressed this before on my blog, but what does it say about the power of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy when we constantly face the internalization and reproduction of these oppressive forces within our own communities where we are supposed to be safe?

It is disturbing how misogynist men in particular can carry on with their celebrity “activist” status after being called out on their sexism. It is as if making the choice to march in the street, chant a slogan, and organize rallies and meetings suddenly purifies an individual of their racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The practice of self-labeling as “liberal,” “activist,” “progressive,” or “radical,” especially in this day and age of social media, has come to mean that anyone who takes a stance on a social justice issue is devoid of responsibility and accountability.  Making unwanted advances at women and objectifying them is “ok” just as long as the heterosexual male activist was arrested by the police in the past and, at the end of the day, “does important work.”

There isn’t much I can add because there is already an important article written about this: “Why Misogynists Make Great Informants: How Gender Violence on the Left Enables State Violence in Radical Movements.” The author highlights on the frightening reality of informants who infiltrate activist movements for the purpose of destabilizing them. She stresses that misogynists make the perfect informants, and whether or not these misogynists are working for the state, they effectively weaken movement building and perpetuate gender violence that only makes marginalized communities even more vulnerable to the state that wants to destroy them.  Here’s an excerpt:

To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements.  Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Also, this:

We have a right to be angry when the communities we build that are supposed to be the model for a better, more just world harbor the same kinds of antiqueer, antiwoman, racist violence that pervades society. As radical organizers we must hold each other accountable and not enable misogynists to assert so much power in these spaces. Not allow them to be the faces, voices, and leaders of these movements. Not allow them to rape a compañera and then be on the fucking five o’ clock news. In Brandon Darby’s case, even if no one suspected he was an informant, his domineering and macho behavior should have been all that was needed to call his leadership into question. By not allowing misogyny to take root in our communities and movements, we not only protect ourselves from the efforts of the state to destroy our work but also create stronger movements that cannot be destroyed from within.

I believe these points must be stressed over and over again.  I remember a friend reminding me that our communities cannot survive if our politics don’t confront gender violence, misogyny, and heteropatriarchy. As the author writes, “Dismantling misogyny cannot be work that only women do.” This is not a call for men to think of themselves as “saviors” of social justice movements, but rather to look at their own complicity. How have we raised our voices over women and refused to let them speak? How have we interjected ourselves into discussions where we should have shut up and listened?  How have we stood silent when a fellow male activist, whom we respect and admire, got away with sexual objectification, misogyny, disgusting sexist jokes, and sexual assault?  How have we participated in this abuse without holding ourselves accountable?  These questions are important because it is dangerous how misogynist male activists use their power to deflect attention away from their abuses. It is dangerous because these individuals do not think of themselves as sexist or misogynistic, but rather as people who do “important work” that apparently “no one else can do” and therefore must be excused.

I’ve been thinking about all of this with relation to the Muslim community. I was exchanging messages with another Muslim friend and we were talking about a popular article that was being re-posted a lot on Facebook: “Progressive Muslims Launch Gay-Friendly, Women-Led Mosques in Attempt to Reform American Islam.”  I’m not sure if I’ll get into a full critique of it in this post, but my issue with the article didn’t have anything to do with launching gay-friendly or women-led mosques. I support women-led prayers, ending gender segregation in mosques, welcoming LGBT Muslims, and eliminating sexist oppression in our communities. I didn’t take issue with any of that because I believe Islam advocates respect and rights for every person, irrespective of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. All of us have to make our spaces respectful, accepting, and appreciative. Muslim unity means that we acknowledge the vast diversity in our Ummah, and instead of making everyone conform to a singular and narrow interpretation of Islam, we need to learn how to show respect and appreciation for each other. Faith is personal and it is not something that should be policed by any person or by any government.

What I found problematic about the article was how it’s framed in a good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy. A few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on my blog that got quite popular – one was about ending gender segregation and the other was entitled “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress.” Both posts were critical of Muslim communities, but what bothered me was how many white liberal non-Muslims would link to those posts and make comments like, “Looks like someone is being critical of his culture, good job!” or use my posts to pit me against the rest of the Muslim community. As if I am the “good Muslim” and everyone else is “bad.”  What this reinforces in a society that calls itself a “melting pot” (where people are supposed to assimilate into one identity as opposed to having multiple identities) is an “us versus them” mentality. We don’t need to look any further than the Orientalist wars to see how this plays out: “Good Muslims” are state-friendly, whereas the “bad Muslim” is anyone who isn’t and therefore must be categorized as a potential threat to western civilization as we know it.

I felt the article about progressive Muslims played into that dichotomy and it became apparent when the author would mention a progressive Muslim and then talk about the death threats that particular person received. As if being a “good Muslim” in the eyes of white liberal Americans means you have to pit yourself against your community and be threatened by your fellow Muslims.  If Muslims don’t fit this narrow definition of a “progressive” Muslim, then they are either issuing death threats or they are “regressive” and practicing “draconian ways of Islam.” I don’t deny that death threats are a problem or that it doesn’t happen; what I’m critiquing here is the way this is presented in simplistic ways and within an American-centric, pro-secular narrative. Such framing runs consistent with the logic of white supremacy because the construction of “American Islam” becomes the “superior Islam,” i.e. “superior” to the way the rest of the world practices the faith. Also, secularism is left unchecked, as if secular states are not violent. Secularism doesn’t mean everyone lives in peace; the majority of wars have been secular, and homophobia doesn’t come solely from conservative religious people, it’s part of heteropatriarchal white supremacy. I believe we need to decolonize and build societies that we actually want to live in – based on interrelatedness and mutual reciprocity.

Another thing that stood out to me in the article was how it mentioned Asra Nomani with no criticism at all of how she recently came out in defense of the NYPD-CIA spying on Muslim students. In the past, she has advocated for the United States to “adopt” the “Israeli model” of profiling, and she also supported Peter King’s hearing on the “radicalization of Muslims.” If to be a progressive Muslim means we should advocate gay-friendly and women-led mosques, shouldn’t we also challenge the way Islamophobia has become embedded in state policies, law enforcement, educational institutions, media, etc.?  How will our communities survive if we defend such oppressive practices and laws?

What I’ve noticed for a while now is that Muslims who confront oppressive forces within our community and Muslims who confront Islamophobia and racism often work in isolation from one another. Just wanted to stress here that this is only based my personal experiences, so I don’t want to discredit or ignore those who do confront interpersonal and state oppression simultaneously, but for those who don’t, sometimes it feels as though it is either we talk about one or the other. The challenge then becomes about reconceptualizing how we organize our struggles. How, for instance, can we work together and eliminate oppression within our communities without relying or depending upon the state to help us? A couple of friends recommended the Incite! anthology “Color of Violence” (cover pictured above) to me and I’ve just begun to read it. Perhaps understanding the following strategy developed by “Incite! Women of Color Against Violence” can help us think about connecting our struggles in more effective ways:

There are many organizations that address violence directed at communities (e.g. police brutality, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism, and so on). There are also many organizations that address violence within communities (e.g. sexual/domestic violence). But there are very few organizations that address violence on both fronts simultaneously. The challenge women of color face in combating both personal and state violence is to develop strategies for ending violence that do assure safety for survivors of sexual/domestic violence and do not strengthen our oppressive criminal justice apparatus. Our approaches must always challenge the violence perpetrated through multinational capitalism and the state.

With this in mind, white supremacy impacts marginalized communities in different ways, so the point here isn’t to organize around “shared oppression,” but rather understanding that our struggles are interrelated. We need to fight sexism, misogyny, and homophobia within Muslim communities, and we need to fight racism and Islamophobia directed at us.  Our responses to Islamophobia should address the interlocking systems of oppression and how our own internal struggles (i.e. oppressing women, threatening to kill LGBT Muslims, discriminating against Muslims based upon race, gender, class, etc.) make us weaker, enables state violence against us, and threatens our survival. Informants, like ex-FBI informant Craig Montielh, have used misogynistic tactics, such as pursuing sexual relations with Muslim women, for the sake of obtaining information and reporting to higher authorities. Misogyny not only makes great informants, it is also makes our community more vulnerable to this violence.

The question we have to ask ourselves is when are we going to wake up on sexism and gender violence in our community and how it is so strongly connected to our fight against Islamophobia and racism that targets both women and men?  So many times, I’ve heard and seen racist non-Muslims interject themselves into conversations among progressive Muslims and then vilify anyone who dares to even acknowledge institutionalized oppression against gendered, racialized, and queer bodies (and yes, this includes the non-Muslims who have used my blog posts for racist purposes).  This defense of state oppression is used by misogynists, racists, and homophobes alike who not only want to neatly categorize marginalized communities, but also infiltrate and divide them.

Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions


As 2011 comes to an end, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been on my mind lately.  Due to the dangerous intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other positionalities, it is important to stress on being conscious of these interlocking oppressions.  The term “intersectionality” is invoked a lot, but there is a huge difference between writing about it and understanding it.

Recently, someone who self-identifies as an “activist” exercised his misogyny by taking a paparazzi-style photo of a woman’s body part and shared it with his friends on Facebook.  Over a hundred perverted and horribly sexist comments were made under the image.  All of this happened without the woman knowing that a zoomed-in photo of her body was publicly on display for a bunch of perverts to gawk at and sexually objectify.

Confrontations with the police does not excuse a male activist of being held accountable for his misogyny and violation of a woman’s privacy.  Those who commented in favor of the photo are also complicit in sexist oppression and objectification.  You cannot fight state violence while participating in another form of oppression and not acknowledging how the two are interconnected.  It undermines everything you claim to stand for.

I know there are a lot of men, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who are outraged by sexism and misogyny.  However, many of us make the mistake in seeing ourselves as being “outside of patriarchy.”  That is, because we have feminist politics and speak out against sexual violence, sexist exploitation, and patriarchal domination, there is no way we can be sexist.  On the contrary, I am not outside of it and neither are you.  None of us are.  I have read several posts written by men (some of which were recently pointed out to me) who tell this narrative: “I used to be sexist, but after reading feminist literature and making feminist friends, I am cured and better now!”  I have made this mistake as well and I accept that I will make more mistakes in the future. Being called out on your sexism is not always easy, but that is how you learn to unlearn.

Instead of congratulating ourselves or rushing to claim that “we are good men” and “not like those misogynists out there,” we need to understand our responsibility in constantly unlearning the sexist socialization we have internalized. We live in societies where sexist and racist oppression is so deeply engrained and even foundational to the established order, so saying “I’m not sexist” is not enough (likewise, saying “I’m not racist” is not enough for white people). Asserting this claim only puts us on the defensive and overlooks how we benefit from oppressive power structures. We cannot dismantle patriarchy externally if we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our complicities and actively confront sexism within ourselves, not just once, but every day, for the rest of our lives.

When a woman is addressing the awful reality of sexual assaults against women that occur in anti-racist spaces, we should not center our attention on thinking that she is only talking about “those men,” i.e. the assailants, the misogynists, the rapists, etc. Such an outlook only makes us perceive ourselves as “innocent” and “not sexist.”  We have to be conscious of the sexism we have internalized and how we exercise sexism in our everyday lives.  We have to take action to ensure we will not maintain and reproduce those power dynamics.  This is not about demonizing men or saying that all of us are monstrous at the core.  This is not about implying that all men will assault women in social justice spaces either.  This is about understanding our responsibility in challenging and eliminating sexism externally and internally.  In movements that are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc., if there are people being abused, assaulted, discriminated against, beaten, or excluded, we must work to eliminate that violence.  When you are called out on your sexism, apologize, listen, and hold yourself accountable.   Take responsibility for it and accept the consequences, even if that means you cannot be part of the group anymore or that some people will never be able to trust you again.  Do not get defensive and say that what you did “wasn’t sexist” or “wasn’t patriarchal.”  Don’t make this about you “being a good man” or that “you had good intentions” or that you have women friends who “don’t see you as sexist.”  Don’t attack the “tone” of the people calling you out on it either. Denying your complicity only exposes the sexist masculine power you exercise.

Furthermore, we have to move beyond “accepting” sexist and racist socialization.  Accepting that white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy has programmed us to uphold these interlocking structures of oppression is important, but it does not at all give us an excuse to normalize our sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, Islamophobia, ableism, etc.  I have come across individuals who say, “Yes, I admit I’m racist, I accept it.” There’s a huge difference between understanding your responsibility in unlearning racism and simply asserting that “everyone is racist,” as if that makes everything “ok.” No, it is not “ok.” We live in a racist society and all us are impacted by it differently (and if you are white, you benefit a great deal from white supremacy). Instead of just sitting back and saying, “I admit I’m racist,” you should be challenging yourself on a daily basis and actively doing something about your racism. Don’t use racist socialization as an excuse to normalize your racism.

Some people, to my own astonishment, have told me to my face that they hate Indians and Pakistanis.  They have told me things like, “I hate Pakistanis. I hope you don’t take offense to that.”  Of course I take offense to it; it is racist and against me, in particular. Others have told me they “hate Indians” and then say, “I admit I’m prejudice against them, but everyone is racist, right?”  What makes them think this is acceptable to say to me or to anyone else is the real indicator of how deeply entrenched racism is. Accepting that we are socialized to be racist and sexist does not make things “ok” because these oppressions have serious effects in the real world.  “I am racist” or “I am sexist” is not something to boast about or repeat shamelessly.  Move beyond accepting the status quo and be responsible.   Apologize for the damage you have caused and do something about it.  Don’t expect your South Asian friend to continue talking to you when you’ve demonized his/her culture and never held yourself accountable for it.  Don’t expect your Arab friends to return your calls when you “jokingly” referred to them as “terrorists” and thought that was cool.  You may have “accepted” your racism or sexism, but your friend may not accept how your racism or sexism targeted him/her, so if you care about preserving that friendship, do something about it.

Challenge yourself in your daily interactions with people.  Challenge yourself when you use racist, sexist, colonial, and/or ableist language.  Challenge the stereotypes you have of certain groups of people when you see/meet them.  Critique yourself and analyze every aspect of your life.   We all make mistakes and we are going to continue making them.  It’s how we respond to those mistakes and actively work to correct them that matters.  Listen to the people you have offended, hurt, discriminated against, marginalized, etc.  Don’t accuse them of being “too angry” or “too mean”  when they condemn what you said or did.  Deconstructing and unlearning racism, sexism, and other oppressions is not something you can accomplish overnight; it is something all of us have to do for our entire lives.  Read the anti-racist and anti-sexist work that has already been done, if you have access to the books and discourses.  Write about your resisting oppressive socialization, speak about it, teach about it, educate others about it, call yourself out on it, implement it into your life and work on it everyday. Never excuse yourself of your complicity, never be “ok” with it, but always assume the responsibility to struggle against it.

Banana 2 Conference and Intersectionality

This is a very overdue post, but two weekends ago, I had the honor to be invited to this year’s Banana 2: Asian Pacific American Bloggers Conference in Los Angeles.  I felt very grateful to speak  on the “Uncovering the Activist in You/Social Media for Social Change” panel with Fatemeh Fakhraie (founder of “Muslimah Media Watch”), Marissa Lee (co-founder of “Racebending”), Frances Kai-Hwa Wang (of “Adventures in Multicultural Living”), Cynthia Liu (of K-12 News Network), and our moderator, Keith Kamisugi.  This was the first time I was invited to speak on a panel and I must thank Edward Hong, an activist, actor, and blogger, for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and connect with fellow activists and bloggers.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort that went into organizing the conference.  I especially Loved how everything in the room was very social media-based (I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised because it was, after all, a bloggers conference!).  For example, draped in one corner of the room was a projector screen that showed live Twitter updates from people in attendance.   There was also a table in another corner that had laptops for people to access the internet and update their blogs and social media accounts.  Above the table was a cute speech bubble painted on the wall that read: “Blog Here!” (I actually updated my Facebook status from this blogging station after I spoke on my panel!)  In the back of the room, there was a white board where people could post up neat and witty sticky notes.   Just by reading the notes, I recognized the diverse Asian community in attendance: Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Filipino-Americans,  bi-racial and multi-racial folks, etc. (sorry if I missed anyone!)

Although I was the only South Asian and Pakistani speaker at the conference, I did not feel alienated or excluded.  On the contrary, I felt very welcomed and I got the sense that people were interested in what I had to say.  One of the first panels actually discussed what it meant to be “Asian” and how South Asians, as well as West Asians, should be included.  Fatemeh and I were the only Muslim speakers and I felt like we made a significant contribution to the discussion.  Given the size of our panel on social media activism, a maximum of five minutes to speak was requested of each panelist.  It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but I was surprised how much could share within that limit.  I was nervous at first, but after speaking with my fellow panelists, particularly Marissa Lee, who told me that this is the most encouraging audience I’ll be speaking in front of, I felt more comfortable about it!  In this blog post, I just want to share some of the things I mentioned in my talk, but also elaborate further on activist organizing.

Prior to the conference, I remember Edward outlining the panel for us and one of the questions he made us think about was, “Can an everyday person make a difference through social media?”  A number of times, I wondered why I was invited to speak at the conference.  My blog is not connected to a group, organization, or a major website.  I really just created my blog to share my experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American and to write about issues that I feel are important.  A lot of times, in my experience, I’ve come across people who didn’t see the significance in blogging, going to a rally, protesting, signing a petition, etc.  They don’t feel like it makes a difference.  I think part of the problem is that we’re socialized to think that revolutions happen overnight and that there must be immediate results from our protesting.  When we focus on this model of activism, it’s easy for us to get discouraged.  We overlook the other significant elements that are important in our struggles, such as reaching out to people, engaging with people on a very personal and individual level.  I strive to do that on my blog, especially when I receive e-mails from readers who share their thoughts about my posts.  Making a difference one person at a time, as cliche as it sounds, is still making a difference.  It is still significant, and with those of us who have access to social media, we can use our blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to network with fellow activists.  It is about sharing knowledge, learning from each other, building and creating communities, advancing upon our movements, expressing solidarity, meeting in person (if possible), and implementing new knowledge and contributions into our social justice activism.

As in my experience, you never know who’s reading your posts.  I’ve seen my posts being re-published on many different websites, not just anti-racist blogs.  In fact, my chapter published in “Teaching Against Islamophobia,” was a result of a university professor reading my two-part online essay on Muslim women in American and Middle Eastern comic books.  I do not deny that there are limitations with social media, but it is an important tool that we can use to strengthen and further our activism.  I mentioned Egypt briefly in my talk because it does exemplify how social media can be used to coordinate rallies, but I also made it a point to say that it would be very problematic and simplistic to characterize the Egypt uprisings as a “Twitter Revolution.”  That is, people were marching in the streets, putting themselves at risk, and even giving their lives for the sake of justice.  Even when the government shut down the internet, people were still protesting.

For a lot of us in the west, social media was a great way to follow the updates in Egypt.  If I didn’t have social media, I would have been stuck with mainstream American news channels that were distorting the reality in Egypt and discussing the protests through an offensive Islamophobic and orientalist lens.  If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t have been able to easily choose an alternative source, particularly Al Jazeera English.  I remember speaking to some co-workers who were surprised when I told them about Egyptian Christians and Muslims holding hands, forming human chains to protect each other during prayers, and standing in solidarity with each other.  Because of their access to social media, I was able to easily share Al Jazeera English with them.

Similarly, when we use social media to network with people and other communities, we benefit by learning from each other.  One of the most important things I’ve learned about through my discussions with friends on Facebook and the blogosphere is something called intersectionality, which refers to the interconnectedness of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, and how they often operate simultaneously.  bell hooks stresses a lot on intersectional approaches because so many white feminists from privileged class backgrounds disregard racism, classism, and other factors that play immense roles in oppressing women.  This approach has taught that we cannot be speaking out against racism while participating in sexist oppression (and vice versa).  We can’t be condemning homophobia while we’re perpetuating Islamophobia (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage!).  We can’t be outraged by Islamophobia while making racist jokes about other communities and folks of color.  We can’t be advocating feminism while spreading racist stereotypes about women and men of color (and I would recommend reading this excellent post “Bad Romance: Feminism and Women of Colour Make an Unhappy Pair” by Sana Saeed).  We can’t fight gender discrimination while advocating racial profiling and congressional hearings on Muslims.  We can’t be standing up for Muslim rights in America while supporting orientalist wars in Muslim-majority countries, and I would further add that such a stance plays into the hands of “US-centrism,” where we believe what happens in the US is “more important” than what happens “over there.”  We need to understand the relationship between US imperialism in other countries and oppression in the US itself.

For those of you who are familiar with Andrea Smith’s work, you may recognize that my last point comes from her brilliant piece “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supermacy.” A year or so ago, a good friend of mine shared Smith’s essay with me and I have to say that it remains one of the most important, thought-provoking, and valuable pieces I’ve read on people of color organizing.  Smith asserts that instead of focusing on “shared oppression” or “shared victimization,” we should understand that white supremacy affects us all in different ways and that we need to take responsibility in recognizing how our struggles often run into conflict with each other.  An example she uses is how US-born communities of color join the military “in order to advance economically out of impoverished communities.”  As a result, she adds, we “become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries.”  Meanwhile, “all non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands.”  The point in keeping us all accountable is to develop stronger alliances and more vigilant strategies in ensuring that our commitment to social justice and liberation does not oppress others (either within or outside our communities).  I believe Smith’s following example demonstrates how effective this strategy is:

“Native peoples who are organizing against the colonial and genocidal practices committed by the US government will be more effective in their struggle if they also organize against US militarism, particularly the military recruitment of indigenous peoples to support US imperial wars.  If we try to end US colonial practices at home, but support US empire by joining the military, we are strengthening the state’s ability to carry out genocidal policies against people of color here and all over the world.”

I mention this strategy because I think it really makes us focus on the rights, dignity, and care of all peoples.  Its purpose is not to discourage us or to assert any sort of political superiority.  It’s about helping us build communities and understand each other better. I know there were things about the Asian-American community that I didn’t know about prior to attending the Banana 2 conference.  I wasn’t aware that Japanese-Americans were the first community to actively speak out against the vilification of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 (and they recently condemned the disgusting, anti-Muslim rally that protested against an Islamic charity fundraiser in Orange County).  I know there is a lot I can learn from you and I know that the same system that hurts your people is also hurting my people.  I know that when we get to know each other, learn about struggles, and build alliances, we only become stronger.  I know that when I do not stand up for you, no one will stand up for me.  When other people of color see Asians speak out against Hollywood’s whitewashing in “The Last Bender,” for example, it’s important to express solidarity and understand that this is not solely an “Asian issue.”  It’s something we should all be concerned about.

Towards the end of the conference, I was trying to articulate about something that I think I can express better on my blog. It’s about an unfortunate phenomenon called “celebrity activism,” which happens far too often.  It’s when being an “activist” becomes a “title” and social justice movements transform into another oppressive hierarchy.  This undermines everything we’re supposed to be standing for: equality, justice, dignity, and yes, Love.  There have been many times when I’ve felt discouraged by fellow activists who assert their political superiority in all sorts of manners, whether it’s because of their emphasis on “sexual liberation” (that is, if you’re not having sex, you’re seen as “backwards” and “regressive”) or their accusing you of being “too negative” and not “positive” enough.  I have seen fellow activists vehemently attack others for not being “consistent” enough in their politics.  In other words, there are “qualifications” one needs to be an “activist.”  There is a specific “way” one needs to speak and behave in order to be considered an “activist.”

On “sexual liberation,” I want to share what bell hooks writes in her book, “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center”:

The focus on “sexual liberation” has always carried with it the assumption that the goal of such effort is to make it possible for individuals to engage in more and/or better sexual activity. Yet one aspect of sexual norms that many people find oppressive is the assumption that one ‘should’ be engaged in sexual activity. This “should” is one expression of sexual coercion.  Advocates of sexual liberation often imply that any individual who is not concerned about the quality of their experience or exercising greater sexual freedom is mentally disturbed or sexually repressed.  When primary emphasis is placed on ending sexual oppression rather than on sexual liberation, it is possible to envision a society in which it is as much an expression of sexual freedom to choose not to participate in sexual activity as it is to choose to participate.

To address my other point on “positivity” and “earning” the “activist title,” I need to ask the following question: what does it mean to be an activist?  When we say that we must have a certain mind-set, or a “smile or die” attitude about social justice, we are forgetting about the fact that there are people out there who do not have the “privilege” (I don’t like this word; can anyone suggest an alternative?) to join organizations, to go to rallies, to write blog posts, to write to elected officials, etc.  These are people who are fighting for their rights 24/7, for their basic right to be treated as human beings.  To suggest that these stories aren’t important because they’re “too negative” is exclusionary and oppressive.  Human beings have feelings, they’re allowed to feel angry, sad, and miserable about the situations they’re in.  Arrogantly denying their feelings and telling them they need to be “more positive” is counter-productive and extremely inconsiderate of the fact that racism and oppression affects us all differently.  Malcolm X was angry, does that mean he couldn’t make a difference?  We need people to share their stories and experiences.  If they can’t feel free and comfortable to speak in our movements, then where can their voices be heard?  There is a lot of hurt out there and we cannot heal if we behave like the pain doesn’t exist.

Something else that also happens with “celebrity activists” is that we give them a “pass” on any problematic things they may say.  I am not diminishing the importance of speaking in the mainstream and I mean no disrespect to the scholars, activists, authors, filmmakers, and artists who are doing amazing work (which is why I will not say their names), but there are some who, due to their status, are excused on ridiculing and even exploiting others.  In some cases, the status of these “celebrity activists,” coupled with their “physical attractiveness” is used to gloss over the errors they make in their analysis.  When we excuse problematic statements that reinforce serious stereotypes about communities just because the individual is “hot,” we are asserting the oppressive notion that “physically attractive” people deserve better treatment.  In these situations, let’s consider if these same statements were made by someone that media and society would classify as “unattractive,” would we still excuse them? (and this topic on physical attractiveness and the way we treat people is an important one and requires further anti-racist analysis).

One of the things I appreciated about my experience at Banana 2 was that I didn’t feel a hierarchy. I didn’t get the sense that some bloggers/speakers thought they were better than anyone else.  While I heard things I disagreed with, I felt that this was a receptive crowd and that if we engaged in friendly, respectful discussions, we could learn a lot from each other.  I’m grateful for the opportunity I had and I hope whatever I shared in this post (and at the conference) is found useful.  I’m confident all of us can benefit from each other and build stronger, more effective alliances and strategies that ensure the end of oppression for all peoples.