Teachers

Fair warning: this post is like, hella sentimental. >.>

I’ve been thinking about a teacher of mine, Cora (not her real name). She is an English professor by trade. These days she is tenure-track at a big university. She teaches courses about things like visual culture, urbanism, and media representations of Blackness. Don’t swoon just yet, stay with me.

Cora was my TA for only one semester, freshman year of college. She was one of three TAs for a massive lecture course, filled mostly by freshman and sophomores who barely understood the title of the course, let alone any of its content. I was lucky enough to be in her Discussion section– we met once a week, and let’s face it, I skipped a lot. Actually, I skipped her class the least of all my classes that first year. She was challenging, clearly brilliant at the level of intimidating, but at the same time she listened to us, gave the impression of respecting rather than tolerating us. I rarely had the impression, freshman year or any year thereafter, that my teachers listened to us students, much less respected us. In general, college was about being told How Things Are; we were not there to contribute– unless the contribution was agreement, or a question eliciting more How Things Are statements.

Unlike the vast majority of other teachers I had in undergrad, Cora gave me feedback. She didn’t put up with my bullshit, and she knew when I was bullshitting because she actually read our shit. Although I was embarrassed, I was also amused when she wrote something to the effect of “You didn’t fucking read this” on a Faulkner paper that I failed. Well, I thought with surprise, They do read this shit. Kudos to any prof who does, because it really, really is shit. But without feedback, students’ work never get better. Cora went one step past feedback, though. She critiqued our minds, our worldviews, not just our papers. She critiqued them through lenses that, to my small [town] mind, had previously never existed. Realizing how out of my depth I was, I didn’t do the thing I usually do when I feel intimidated or overwhelmed (give up)– rather, I redoubled my efforts. I wanted to impress Cora, and I wanted her to like me, and I wanted to be like her.

Once, on one of my critical papers where [I thought] I was being obscenely clever and incisive, Cora wrote: “‘Question everything.’ – René Decartes.” She chose not to rip the paper apart for the piece of garbage it was. Yes, she gave critical feedback, but she also gave encouragement. She didn’t roll her eyes at my pretend-scholarly attack on some literary work that I didn’t like: she encouraged subversion. I didn’t have to be told twice.

After that class, I didn’t see Cora again until chance put me in her path four years later. I was elated to see her randomly in a coffee shop. She seemed glad to see me, too, and we caught up with each other about where we were and where we were going. I have not seen her since, although I have tried to keep up with where her career has gone (she is a badass professor at a good school and teaches awesome-sounding classes, now).

Shortly thereafter, I joined Peace Corps and moved to Cambodia. Cora completed her PhD and moved forward with her academic career. We fell out of touch again.

Some more years passed; I found myself parting from Peace Corps under dubious and humiliating circumstances. For whatever reason, I chose to write Cora. I guess I trusted her not to judge me– she’d had so many opportunities to judge me when I was her student, and I am sure that I frustrated her to no end, but she’d always responded with compassion. I wrote her and related what had happened to me at the end of my Peace Corps service, how I was struggling to get by and at the same time happy that I stayed in Cambodia. I don’t know what kind of response I expected– maybe surprised, scolding disappointment, like my mom’s reaction, or disillusioned lack of surprise, like my best friend Eileen.

She wrote back with this: “Listen to me:  You have no reason to be ashamed. You have a rare gift–the inability to accept what you know is not right, not just, not fair, not pure.” Having read that, I started crying. I felt small, unworthy, relieved, validated, protected. But I quickly sobered up. She continued:

Now I am going to tell you something: This is your life. This being on the margins, always fighting, this is your life.  Have you thought of what it will be like to live a life on the margins (as bell hooks terms it)? Are you prepared to go against the grain for the rest of your life and accept the consequences, some of which you are feeling right now? Think about that and get back to me.  It doesn’t get easier, Liz. It gets lonelier and harder. Are you O.K. with that? I need for you to really think about this and answer honestly. To some students I would say, “What are you going to do with your life?”  But to you, I have to say, “Who are you going to be for the rest of your life?”

 

Like a ten-year-old, I switched from humiliated, fearful self-doubt to look-on-the-bright-side, foot-sure self-confidence, and wrote back:

For whatever fortunate and unfortunate reason, I guess this is where I am: on the margins. But I suppose it’s all about perspective. Some day my thoughts, ideas, hopes, and such might not be “fringe” concepts, but that time is not now. I struggled most of my young adult life to fit in and not go against the grain, but failed at every turn. You’re right: that’s just not me. But I’m finally starting to accept that this is not a bad thing!

.      .      .

2011 Me: It’s hard, but everything’s gonna be okay! Let’s just keep fighting the good fight!

2017 Me: stfu.

So…

Some of the shit I wrote that Cora read, I look back on it now and I am beet-red with embarrassment. Some of it is the most gag-worthy whitestream feminist blather you’ve ever laid eyes on. Like, saying it was written ‘out of ignorance’ is a bit too kind, maybe. The residue of my privileged, white, small town upbringing (various oppressive circumstances notwithstanding) clings like smelly lakeweed too long out of the water. For a tasting sample, scroll back in time on this blog (or, for everyone’s sake, please don’t…).

To me, Cora embodies the empathic feminist ethos I wish I could achieve in my day-to-day, as well as my teaching, friendly conversations, class discussions, confrontations… Sometimes I wish she had called me out with anger and scorn, used the words ‘white supremacy’ or ‘epistemic ignorance.’ These tactics can be effective, too– I know from personal experience (here’s looking at you, Dee [not her real name]). Some Crunk Feminist Collective-style, Black feminist smackdown. But I think Cora, more savvy than Morpheus, probably recognized that 2004 Liz, and even 2011 Liz, wasn’t ready for the Red Pill. Maybe she saw that my fragile ego would collapse from too much truth-telling. Maybe she was thinking, I don’t need you to spend years in self-pitying recovery, wallowing in ‘white guilt’– I need you to get over white supremacy now and do your part to tear it down. Maybe she thought I needed to figure this shit out on my own, that she couldn’t be my teacher forever; at some point, we all need to take responsibility for our own learning, using the toolbox passed on to us by our teachers. Maybe it was a combination of logics, or maybe I’m overthinking it.

Cora was right: it doesn’t get easier, it gets lonelier and harder. I wonder about how her life has been. I imagine she has struggled and fought and confronted and been forced to pick and choose which hills she wanted to die on. I imagine friends and allies were few and far between at times, but the ones who stuck around are still with her today. I imagine she has fist-pumped after victories over racist, misogynist, and especially misogynoir colleagues, classmates, and coworkers. I imagine she has cried from frustration and laughed in the safety of like-minded friends. I imagine a lot of things, and probably romanticize a lot because that’s what I tend to do with people I admire, especially teachers.

The thing that I am certain she knew at the time she wrote those words to me, and the thing I have come to realize, is that even in the depths of loneliness and failure; even in times when we are constantly losing, or feel like we are living in a hell we deserve because of self-loathing brought on by internalized misogyny or queerphobia or whatever else; there is hope and compassion to be found in fellowship and community with others. My ego got the better of me for a very long time: no one knows what I’m going through, no one sees or understands. Well that is self-isolating rubbish. It feels very true and real at times, but I’ve struck on a rare moment of optimism where I feel that I can see Cora’s next, yet unwritten letter: she’s going to tell me that although it gets lonelier and harder, we find people who share our struggles; though we feel lonely, we’re not alone. Maybe we haven’t encountered these people yet, or maybe they resurface from the long-ago, or maybe they revisit us in dreams or memories. These aren’t just consolation prizes, they are reasons to keep pushing on The Wall (as Sara Ahmed describes it).

It is safe to say that I would not have done a masters in Women’s and Gender Studies; would not be attending #NoDAPL rallies; would not be fundraising for disadvantaged students; would not be writing this blog; and would not be a member of a union without the wisdom of certain people in my life. Some of them I only cross paths with once in a great while, like Cora; some I know only by Twitter handle; some are constants, like my mom, Eileen, Erin, my sister, Karlie, Preston, Matt, and many others who have continuously listened, engaged, challenged, and prompted me, and of course continue to teach me about what’s important.

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Reblog: On Being Depressed, Part I by The Belle Jar

Trigger warning: mention of suicide There’s a funny sort of paradox about depression where it’s probably the mental illness that people who haven’t experienced mental illness find easiest to identify with while simultaneously being a condition that is incredibly difficult to understand if you’ve never lived through it. I mean, I get it. We’ve all […]

via On Being Depressed, Part 1,826 — The Belle Jar

Stranger Things: More normal than you’d think.

I’ve been trying to write some kind of review on Stranger Things for a while now, but every time I sit down to do it, I find I just don’t have the energy.

So here goes. Really gonna try this time. Definitely gonna contain plot spoilers. This is probably best read after you’ve seen all eight episodes.

There’s about a million reviews on Stranger Things out there, the vast majority of them are full of positive hype, much of which the show deserves. If you like a nostalgic retro-feel 1980s homage, this is your jam. It’s Super 8 meets Stand by Me meets ET meets The Goonies, complete with an awesome soundtrack, solid casting, and an engaging (albeit not terribly original) plot. And it’s creepy. I’ve been craving a creepy show, and it’s been hard to find one that isn’t one rung down from torture porn (Hemlock Grove, what a crushing disappointment).

However.

Stranger Things has some major shortcomings that made it cringingly hard to watch at times. As happens with most things I watch/read, at one point I said aloud, “If they kill Barb, I’m gonna stop watching this.” Obviously I didn’t. :P But that I found myself saying that at all points to ST‘s first major weakness: predictability.

ST is at its heart a reverential throwback, playing on all manner of (especially Spielberg-esque) 1980s movie tropes, which as The Atlantic‘s Lenika Cruz points out, is both good and bad. The nostalgic ambience makes for an immersive environment, on the one hand. But on the other, the temptation to fall back on, er, other historically relevant tropes certainly makes the show less relatable for some of us.

I wasn’t upset that they killed Barb because I believe characters should never be expendable. Rather because from the moment she appeared on screen, she is immediately recognizable as precisely the kind of character deemed expendable in 80s cinema, as well as the present: nerdy, not conventionally attractive, peripheral, marginal. All things that I (and many other people who don’t generally see themselves represented in media) can connect with. And all things that, in combination with being feminine, female-bodied, and/or a woman, can be lethal for a character. The giveaway for me was the short hair. “This girl’s a goner,” I thought. Man, I hate being right.

It isn’t merely that characters like Barb are pathetic tagalongs, tripping up the much more glamorous adventures of their more conventionally attractive (in all its senses) counterparts– in this case, Nancy. And it isn’t that they rarely-if-ever are the hero protagonists. It’s that they have to die. In Barb’s case, a gruesome on-screen death. “Unnecessary” doesn’t begin to describe it. The creators, the Duffer Brothers, felt the need to dismember Barb and then later show us her rotting body to reinforce this violence.

“But but but,” I can hear the refutations of the DnD ST fandom begin, “the four heroes of the story are nerdy, not conventionally attractive, marginalized characters. They’re always getting beat up by bullies, their only ally at school is the science teacher.” That’s wonderful. I’m glad the nerds/misfits/outcasts get to be heroes for once (except that this is arguably another 80s trope– à la Goonies, Weird Science, Bill & Ted). But all those heroes have something in common: they’re (cis)boys. Barb can’t be a hero, or even a hero tagalong, and in fact it’s okay to disembowel her– ’cause she’s a girl. It’s pretty straightforward misogyny, really.

“But but but,” another refutation may start, “what do you call Eleven, if not a hero? And she’s a girl.” Sadly, the most interesting character in the story becomes a martyr for the boy-heroes, but not before they play out their heteronormative fantasies playing dress-up doll with her. Cruz’s review is a very solid description of ST‘s failures when it comes to El’s plotline, so I won’t reiterate them here.

I suppose some might try to raise Nancy as a girl-hero, but whatever character growth she accomplishes is certainly dampened by her choice to stick with her abusive boyfriend. To be fair, her alternate love interest is also her stalker at one point, so…

At the end of the day, it’s the Duffer Brothers who mold the girl/feminine/female-bodied characters on the show and choose their fate. The Duffer Brothers play out their fantasies (and the fantasies of countless [especially nerd] boys) in ST, through boy and girl characters alike– oh, and it is really that binary. Friendships, adventures, romances, and heroism all revolve around the boy characters.

I had other issues with ST, including the treatment of madness, single motherhood, and the show’s overwhelming whiteness. It’s not perfect, but Stranger Things is entertaining, and a wonderful fantasy, especially if you’re a cishet boy. Who knows, maybe Season Two will have something for the rest of us.

Reblog: On #NoDAPL and Paying Attention: They Sicced Dogs On My People Today

Read this piece on the Dakota Access Pipeline and Native protests against it.

Transformative Spaces

14232544_10208616269138580_3157349067699097161_n-2Dakota Access, LLC has declared war on my people — Native People — by attempting to snake an unwanted pipeline through Native land, drinking water and sacred sites. Today, this corporate force confronted peaceful Water Protecters with vicious dogs and pepper spray.

This is where we are now.

At least six Water Protectors were bitten by corporate attack dogs. Witnesses described some of the injuries incurred as “serious.” Dozens of protesters were treated for pepper spray exposure, and a horse was reportedly wounded in the attack.

But corporate violence was unable to beat back the gathering Water Protectors, and construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was once again brought to a halt.

Your awareness raising has been crucial and will continue to be. We are slowly, collectively forcing the mainstream media’s hand, and visibility is so key in this profound and dangerous moment. Please keep helping in whatever ways you can. I truly believe that this battle has the potential…

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Review: The True Cost

The True Cost: A Review.

Industrialized clothing production has always been problematic, but those problems have become intensified and have much more far-reaching consequences in recent decades. This is due in large part to a phenomenon known as “fast fashion.” In the not-so-distant past, the fashion world had two, at most three “seasons” of new clothing. However, global capitalist markets and industrialization have sped up production, shipping, and other processes that bring new styles to market, so much so that new fashions can hit shelves practically weekly. Hence, “fast fashion,” which encourages consumers to treat clothing as disposable.

The True Cost (2015) is an exploration of the causes and consequences of fast fashion in particular, and global capitalism in general. The film’s creators journeyed from Texas to the UK, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, from China to Haiti, and other places around the world. The film features interviews with experts from a multitude of fields, including ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, Free Market Institute director Benjamin Powell, physician Pritpal Singh, and animal rights activist and fashion designer Stella McCartney.

Perhaps most importantly, the film prominently features individuals struggling against the systemic problems associated with global capitalism in their own niches. Though they may be less famous in Western contexts, their stories are no less important. They help to shed light on the day-to-day consequences of the capitalist system, the ways in which seemingly disparate sectors are intrinsically connected within this system, and what individuals can do about it. Bangladeshi union leader Shima Akhter, American organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, and Cambodian parliamentarian Mu Sochua are among these voices.

The True Cost takes a wide-lens view of the garment industry and the various economic pockets tied to it. I’ll discuss a few of the major themes that are the focus of this film here.

Agriculture

The huge growth seen in the fashion industry would not be possible without accompanying intensive industrialization of agriculture. As infrequently as we ponder the impact on garment workers as we shop for clothes, much less frequently do we think about farmers, who are one more step ‘removed’ from the final product. These industries appear disconnected to most of us, yet our constant consumption of “disposable clothing” would not be possible without industrialized agriculture. The industrialization of agriculture includes the mass use of herbicides, pesticides, and other agrochemicals that are not only dangerous for the natural world but also to human beings.

When her husband died of brain cancer, Texan LaRhea Pepper realized that organic farming isn’t just important, it is “imperative.” While she doesn’t have “a smoking gun” that directly connects the agrochemicals used on the farms surrounding her community to the many farmers she personally knows who have died from cancer, she has more than enough evidence to know that there is a dire need for organic farming techniques. She echoes ecofeminist Vandana Shiva’s sentiment that nature is the original economy, and when the land and waters suffers, humans suffer. Pepper says that we must “respect the life that’s in the land,” a lesson passed down to her in her farming family.

For farmers around the world, ‘modern’ agricultural products and techniques are tempting, despite the harm they can do to people and the environment. Yet it is a hard trap to escape from once signed onto, especially for farmers in “developing” countries, such as India. GMO cotton and other patented seeds have proven to be “ecological narcotics,” as Shiva calls them, because they require ever more chemicals (e.g. pesticides) to maintain their productivity. This in turn creates a dependency on GMO-patenting companies like Monsanto—which are the same companies producing agricultural chemicals. Even more disturbingly, Shiva asserts that the corporations selling carcinogenic farming chemicals are also investing in the development of cancer treatments and pharmaceuticals. In other words, these corporations benefit from causing, as well as treating, human ailments. It is easy to see that there is little incentive for this system to change itself, particularly when it prioritizes profit over human well-being.

Marketing

We think of propaganda “as a foreign thing,” says Mark Miller, professor of media studies at NYU, “but it’s actually as American as apple pie.” Advertising is essentially a form of propaganda that encourages us to buy stuff. Psychologist Tim Kasser has found that increases in materialistic values are associated with increases in anxiety and depression. After reviewing research on marketing, this is perhaps a predictable outcome of advertising that is designed to makes us feel insecure, incomplete, and incompetent—problems that can be ‘solved’ through the constant consumption of new products. Modern day marketing has become the art and science of what 19th century advertising copywriter Samuel Strausser called “consumptionism.” Miller explains that the logic of consumerism wants people “to treat the things we use as the things we use up.” This model is plainly unsustainable, but as economist Richard Wolff points out, American capitalism is treated as above criticism, regularly getting “a free pass” on its dysfunction.

Waste

Most of the waste we produce is non-biodegradable. In recent decades, a growing proportion of that waste is clothing. Increasingly, people think of fashion “as a disposable product,” according to journalist and True Cost producer Lucy Siegle. Many of us try to be more conscious of this, and believe we are doing good when we donate clothing to charity. But the “journey of a t-shirt donated to charity is unpalatable in itself,” says fashion designer Orsola de Castro. For example, almost 90% of the clothing we donate to local charities actually gets shipped to “developing” countries, such as Haiti. The unintended consequence of this is that it puts Haitian clothing manufacturers out of business, so there is less home-grown business and less local capital.

Consumer Capitalism as a Worldview

The True Cost creators interviewed Kate Ball-Young, a former sourcing manager for retail chain Joe Fresh, and in many ways her worldview neatly encapsulates the abstracted beliefs about globalization and capitalism held by most Americans today. Of garment factory workers, Ball-Young asserts that “they could be doing something much worse,” like coal-mining or something. She clearly has no idea just how hazardous garment manufacturing in countries like Cambodia, China, and Bangladesh truly is, both in the short and long-term. “There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous with selling clothes,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps that is true, but she appears to be disconnecting her own work from the very industry that provides her with a source of income in the first place. Ball-Young is emblematic of a Western mindset that as long as we can’t see where a thing came from, then we don’t need to ask hard ethical questions of ourselves, even when we sell or consume that thing.

For me, one of the most serious problems with this mindset is that we are not just cultivating an ignorance of where things come from, but indulging in a fantasy that real people did not create those things. Whether it is clothing or cars or food, we would much rather purchase and enjoy the end product guilt-free than contemplate the journey from field or mine to factory to storefront that a product must take. In doing so, we can overlook the human element of global capitalism—especially human suffering. Maybe we take it a step further by patting ourselves on the back for ‘supporting livelihoods’ overseas. Accompanying this belief is the attitude of TINA: “There Is No Alternative.” When we as consumers choose to believe that “there is no alternative” for the people producing our goods, we can excuse human rights violations, environmental devastation, and other associated problems because—well duh, what other choice do those people have? But what happens when we confront someone who believes this with, Well, aren’t we complicit in a system that has eliminated alternatives? We can’t abstract ourselves as individuals from these complex and interconnected systems in which we participate—and, frequently, which we benefit from. We must acknowledge that our choices as consumers has the power to perpetuate or alter these systems.

Some Criticism

As can be seen from this brief overview of a few of these major themes, the scope of the film is daunting. In its attempt to be accessible by not getting too deep with any one topic, The True Cost touches upon a variety of interconnected issues only superficially. This ends up becoming a core critique from film reviewers, such as Vanessa Friedman. In her New York Times review, she wrote of The True Cost’s director Andrew Morgan, “it’s hard not to feel in the end that he was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In trying to do everything, he skirted a lot of things, including acknowledging the shades of gray in this subject.”

Another shortcoming of this film is that it is not explicit enough in stating the disproportionate effect of exploitative industries like fast fashion on people of colour, most of all people of colour in the ‘Global South.’ To put it into perspective, (particularly white) Western consumers are exempt of accountability for their part in exploiting the time, health, and labor of people of colour in ‘distant lands.’ So while I commend the film for putting women of colour’s voices and experiences front and center, it cheats its own argument by shying away from the ways in which gender, race, and nationality play into global capitalism’s systemic violence. The film also does not in any way note how global capitalism is in part an expression of Western colonialism and imperialism, and how people of colour (especially women) continue to suffer the greatest burden of this legacy.

Finally, although there is some discussion of disability and mental health throughout the documentary, this is done without exploration of the experiences of people who are multiply marginalized. That is, the film’s creators do not flesh out the ramifications of living and working within an oppressive system that contributes to mental and physical disabilities disproportionately in communities of colour and in the ‘Global South.’ And where women of colour are place front and center to tell their own stories in their own voices, disabled people are not afforded this treatment. Rather, they are featured more as props backgrounding the ‘horrible’ stories of environmental contamination explicated by the director/narrator.

The Bottom Line

Nevertheless, for people who have never met a garment factory worker (let alone are friends with any), The True Cost may bring the human element of exploitative industries, like fast fashion, to the fore of their consciousness. Maybe they will start to pay more attention to workers’ struggles around the globe, including in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh. Maybe it will start to sink in how these systems do much for the West at the expense of the Global South, especially women of colour. Maybe they will start to see how our decision-making processes impact the direction industries take, and thus how we need to take responsibility for those decisions and their effects on our fellow Earthlings.

This documentary is best for people with limited knowledge of the themes it discusses, as it provides some solid, entry-level information. It’s a great starting point for getting a big-picture grasp of the abusive nature of global capitalism. From there, hopefully viewers will continue to more deeply educate themselves on these issues.

Here is some literature that might prove helpful for such continuing education on global capitalism, the interconnectedness of its systems, and how this impacts all of us:

And for those specifically interested in “buying better,” check out this page on the film’s site.