The struggle to define who is worthy: mass incarceration and mass deportation

I just finished watching an interview with Susan Burton, author of “Becoming Ms. Burton” and founder of A New Way of Life, a re-entry program for women of color who are adjusting to their new lives after prison, and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” on Democracy Now!. Alexander wrote the introduction to Burton’s book, in which she tells her story of losing her five-year-old son in a hit-and-run by an LAPD detective (the department never acknowledged her son’s death) and falling into depression, alcoholism, and eventual drug use. The War on Drugs had been powerfully in effect since the 1960s (see here for background, especially as it pertains to the criminalization of antiwar Black activists by the Nixon administration), and poor people of color, as an extension of what Alexander and others describe as the surveillance state, were being locked up for minor drug offenses that often received long sentences. Burton’s initiative is a powerful reminder that the U.S. narrative around this does not break from our generations-long tradition of other-ing Black and Brown people justified under various forms of political obfuscation, policy-making like gerrymandering and redlining, and media depictions that demonize people of color as simultaneously a threat and a problem to be solved.


This resonates powerfully with the parallel track of immigrant existence in this country – to which Black Americans in fact historically belong (slaves were the first immigrants, along with their captors) – which has been threaded into our story as a nation of White, Anglo people. Immigrants then and now maintain a position of lower-status people waiting to adapt and assimilate, often taking up blue-collar and unstable work that includes abuses and exploitation as part of the modus operandi. While this is not news for those of us who read and think on the progressive side of things, the connection made by Alexander in the Democracy Now! interview between the abuse of people of color and of immigrants heartened me. Under the script of settler colonialism, which arranges social relations via the White Western settler-as-savior/Black slave-as-laborer/Indigenous people-as-uncivilized-savage-awaiting-enlightenment, both Black Americans and immigrants are positioned to serve the dominant (White) state-supported control and use of resources inside our national borders. Those resources, recursively, include the labor of these individuals which is poorly compensated or even amounts to indentured servitude under corporate investment in prisons (in the case of convict lease, which some argue still happens today).

Alexander and Burton’s work makes a stunning claim: that we have choices about the way we look at drug use and the individuals who struggle with it. They speak of the ways in which we criminalize people, including poor women of color who have suffered trauma, abuse, and isolation in and out of prison, with the reckless malice which has resulted in the destruction of lives, families, and communities. This, Burton argues, itself is criminal, this seeing people as expendable, consumable, convert-able into fodder for the political fire and brimstone bursting from nativist, racist political pulpits. Alexander adds that immigrants, especially immigrants identified as people of color, are now suffering such similar depiction under the banner of racial politics that discursively justify punitive social controls which result in the dehumanization and division of people from each other:

Today, the enemy has been defined as those ‘brown-skinned immigrants sneaking across the border,’ and, you know, Donald Trump has been banging the podium, you know, saying, we must get rid of them…If we had risen to the challenge of the War on Drugs the way that we could have and should have, the system of mass deportation would not exist today…

And then:

I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we’ll see more coordination and more unity between the movements to end mass incarceration and the movements to end mass deportation, and come to see it’s the same struggle to define who is worthy, who has dignity and value, and who is disposable, and ultimately, we are trying to birth a new America…

This speaks to the powerful need for social imagination, which Marx, Habermas, Stetsenko, and many others offer as a means of engaging with the possibilities always inherent to our realities and authoring ourselves and change through these possibilities. This world and its arrangements are contingent, open to disobedience as Hannah Arendt argued, and changeable.

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now! here (25:18-59:02).

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Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.

Capturing, captivated by the feminine mystique

  • Spoiler alert: I will not reference Betty Friedan’s book in this post (click here for free PDF) though it’s on my short list for the week.
  • I am listening to Satellite by Guster while I write this as well. More on this…

I was walking on Newbury Street in Boston, MA last week, a good spot for window shopping and not much else if you’re on, say a grad student’s budget. No complaints here, though — it hasn’t snowed yet and all of Beantown is praying, global warming or not, that the white stuff will stay away for a bit yet.

On my walk, I saw this picture tucked into one of the myriad entrances to little boutiques on my way to the Boston Common:

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Apologies for the quality. But I think the image has a lot to say, and I’ll bring in Guster (who I just learned is from Boston, in fact) song lyrics to frame the conversation:

Shining like a work of art
Hanging on a wall of stars
Are you what I think you are?

Now, luscious, elusive associations with night-driving aside, I for one am disappointed and yet unsurprised by a song written from a straight male perspective to capture how a love interest is seen. I chose the word “capture” intentionally here. What is it about the male-singer-female-hearer dynamic that so resonates with what we consider “true” in hetero relations?  Being captivated seems the role of the female fan, screaming her head off and losing control, all the while sweaty and gorgeously tilted forward, waiting to be plucked for the deserving flower she is.

Source: “One Direction – From The Beatles to One Direction: 50 years of frenzied fans,” The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10252245/From-The-Beatles-to-One-Direction-50-years-of-frenzied-fans.html?frame=2648003

Guster sings to the beloved:

You’re my satellite
You’re riding with me tonight
Passenger side, lighting the sky
Always the first star that I find
You’re my satellite

Ornamental, beautiful, obscure, ready at hand and yet mysterious is she (are we, the women). (Oh, and ps I do really like this song.)

Bringing the conversation back to the picture I sneered at–er, saw. The image shows a woman captured, bound by a metal collar (likely gold or platinum, from the indulgent shimmer on it) that leashes itself to a pin of a poodle covering her left breast.

I am not a feminist scholar (yet), nor a critical race scholar (likely, ditto), but between the racialization of the Lisa Bonet look-alike model with light skin and dreads, the bondage chic, and the sexualization/dehumanization of this young woman to fit under the social lens of White male gaze we all walk around using…well, I’m happy I felt something. I think this is precisely the problem: that the mystification of women is just plain regular.

I’m ranging around on this post with a flush of creativity perhaps in part because I’m getting back to the page after months-long silence and it’s a long overdue stream of speak. However, emotions can drive potent expressions of the real. Part of me is compelled to connect an indignant moment in an out-of-reach shopping district I had in downtown Boston with theory. We are interpellated in society, according to Althusser, positioned as subjects by our simultaneous response to and participation in the reinforcement of ideology, in this case, a patriarchal one, i.e., that men are the watchers, the truth-sayers, and women are the observed and the attendant, the ornaments, the ones waited to be captured/captivated.

Yet I have to be honest. Emotionally speaking, I resent, as foolish as it is, the fact that in the romantic marketplace, I am already too old to be objectified as a fainting-away fan or a target of cash-spending, upwardly-mobile eyes. And I am angry that I am drawn into the dialectic of my own femaleness and society’s way of boiling it down to variations on a theme, a conversation I have been raised to be fluent in.

Maybe you will always be
Just a little out of reach

Guster’s last verse (sorry guys) leaves us with deceptively simple. What is out of reach, to whom? Who is “you,” to whom? Is my story out of my own hands, as soon as I open to the first page?

Being seen: re-humanizing aging

NPR this morning had a story about the overmedication of older people living in nursing homes, a scary but evidently not uncommon practice called “chemical restraint” in which antipsychotic drugs are used to pacify people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As you might expect, the drugs are not approved for such use and are recommended by doctors who do so without getting informed consent from the patient.

Terrifying, at least for people like me who worry about what is going to happen to them when they get older. The rush of fear is provoked by the prospect of one’s irrelevance in later life, passed over and forgotten, left to watch television for weeks on end before a familiar face arrives. (At least this is the form my fear takes.) The reality is, we’re terribly unprepared for the process of aging that is unavoidable in our own bodies, which occurs regardless of how many step classes we’ve taken or marathons run in our younger years.

478px-Elderly_Woman_,_B&W_image_by_Chalmers_Butterfield

In part I think this is due to our cultural (and perhaps global) obsession with the tightness, the health, the desirability of youth. We stare at 18-year-olds who casually bike by in short shorts; we gawk at how flat a model’s tummy is; we buy Spanx and breast-lifting bras and juice cleanses and hair dyes. (Yes, this is a gendered conversation, for the moment. But men have similar concerns.) We seek to abolish all semblances of weight or age that put us a day or a pound over our stats at senior prom, for we will one day become less desirable. Less see-able.

We veil our fear in envy; the reality is, we think we’re melting off the planet by fleeting degrees in the form of wrinkles, questionable blood tests. But this wouldn’t be so in a culture that didn’t over-sexualize youth and under-vitalize people above the age of 40. We would see it as normal to have our doctor tell us we need to follow up on a procedure, because it would be acceptable, even natural and – dare we imagine it? – beautiful, rather than fear-producing, that we’re getting older. Not erased slowly, but made slowly.

Instead, we, in a society obsessed with being seen (think Facebook, blogs like this, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on), quail at the notion of fading away, and so we hold on, and share more, and expose more. At least, that is, the images and versions that are the most youthful, the least cranky or puffy or un-made-up. Swiping through to find that one really good one that makes us look 5-10 years younger.

And the circle turns back again. 20- and 30-somethings are given to think they are the focal point, the place of timelessness, the image we all crave. And so they are; social media and popular entertainment confirm that. But what if we chose to see people of all ages as valid, real, seen, rather than dehumanized versions of themselves once they become a liability – “too much of a handful” – to their families? What if we stopped the march of images as a basis for unreal comparison and started seeing the people around us, and ourselves, as perfect, real, slightly less-than-perfect, and even better for it? What would this do to elder care, and health care in general?

Shame and the case of Cosby  

Amid accusations by 15 women of sexual violence, Bill Cosby is now the subject of news reports and editorials across the country. Surreal that he is reported to have done a stand-up show in Florida just last night, to the applause and supportive cheers from audience members eager to hear his classic take on family.

It is a shock, for sure, that these allegations came out…but then, they came out decades ago to deaf ears in the American public. What’s so troubling is that in holding an actor, storyteller, cultural icon in such high regard, we as his public refused to listen to the stories of the women who did come forward to talk of his horrible crimes, which included drugging and raping his victims.

Is there something transformative that occurs once a person crosses a certain threshold of fame? The Huffington Post published a piece entitled “Rape in the Time of Celebrity,” which includes a graphic charting the directly proportional relationship between the number of rapes permitted a male celebrity and his amount of fame; Huff puts Cosby in the “legend” category with the likes of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, both of whom were accused not only of sexual assault but statutory rape.

Of course this is terrible. Of course it is the loss of an American symbol of the modern Black middle-class family (with lots of critiques of its Hollywood-izing of the challenges of being Black in this country, to be sure). But really, this is a sorrowful story in part because this continues to happen all over the world every day, though seeming to take a back seat to the big stories in the U.S. Look up sex trafficking, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and the kidnapping and marrying off of girls and women as a form of sectaran violence and you get fresh stories any day of the week. Do we talk about these violations of human rights enough? And more importantly, when do we begin to address them as issues that concern us all as a community, not just something we hope doesn’t happen to our sister, daughter, friend, or wife?

800px-Cortona_Rape_of_the_Sabine_Women_01

A crime against a woman in another country is, in fact, a crime against all women; as an expression of a system of oppression of women, such crime must be spoken of both as an individual case as well an inspiration for change beyond our day-to-day comfort and avoidance of the awful carnality of rape and FGM, the bruised, layered bloodiness of abuse, the horror and shock of 11-year-old girls being forced to marry grown men and have sex with them. Maybe it is more shocking to us that Bill Cosby could have drugged and raped several women and we could have forgiven him with our inaction. There is shame in this, if that is true.

Developing daughters

I went out with a few friends tonight, who brought their significant others who are now new friends. I love my cohort at CUNY and feel very close to them even though we’ve only been studying together for about 2 ½ months. It’s a blessing considering how lonely doing a PhD can be.

One of my friends’ husbands and I were chatting about their kids. He told me about the kids from oldest to youngest, the oldest son in his 20s down to their daughter, who just turned eight. “She’s doing well,” he said, “full of sense. Too much sense.” He chuckled, then sobered. “But we’re a little worried about the future.” “Why?” I asked, concerned that the kid had health problems or some other issues were coming up. “She’s developing early,” he replied, lowering his voice and glancing away with fatherly concern. “We’re going to have to watch out for her – her older brothers and me!”

The conversation continued on but I was troubled. I’ve heard comments like this before, almost exclusively from fathers about their daughters. And these “concerns” start when the girls are young; I have another friend who is a father to an 18-month-old girl who has told me with knit brows that his daughter “has long legs and is going to be a problem.”

Holy hell. When did it become a liability to have a daughter? Well, let me back up and say that in many countries, this is quite literally the case (whether it be an economic one and/or a sociocultural one). Daughters the world over have historically been seen on the whole as less desirable than boys, and it is only in modern times that women – in some parts of the world – are achieving what would be considered equal opportunity and potential, if not actual social and political standing.

But in a country like ours, it’s frankly upsetting, at least to someone like me who is a feminist* (the state of society permits me no choice), that these comments be considered commonsense or “normal.” Why is it that we’re seeing our female children as needing protection while boys are seen as able to defend against the evils of the world on their own? Internet-based abuse of children, a terrible modern crime that frightens parents and non’s alike, takes place in the lives of both girls and boys; both sexes can be violated and hurt physically and emotionally. So why do girls draw the fire, or rather, the protection against this imagined fire?

What is especially troubling is that it is girls’ physical development that caused these two fathers – and no doubt many other parents (see the many articles like this one about girls’ development during puberty versus boys’) – anxiety. I get that girls are going through puberty earlier, developing breasts and getting their periods earlier than in years past. However, this conversation is not about the time at which such development starts; it is rather about the fact of girls’ bodies becoming potentially sexualized, desirable to men (or gay women, but the hetero gaze is what I think defines this conversation).

Die_Gartenlaube_(1874)_b_819

Why is it that girls should be punished for this in murmurs, clucking fathers with fists-at-the-ready commentary, the sense that their becoming women is a danger to themselves? If these parents are so concerned about their daughters being objectified, oppressed as women, shouldn’t these folks consider the source of this power as the focus of their concern? Rather than making girls’ natural development a liability, maybe seeing patriarchal society as not only a place where women exist in a subordinate relationship to the ideology of the dominance of men, but also a place where there is potential for political and social change, where media representations, education, domestic dynamics, and other loci of social norms are interrogated, reflected upon, and altered in communal social practice.

This change can start with the fathers, if they want. I’m ready to listen.

* Click here to see the submission by Time Magazine that the term “feminism” be banned in 2015.

Race, class, gender, disability,…and younger-ish

I got my nails done today. Dark blue. I struggle with color choice on the rare occasions when I get a manicure, and I usually end up choosing something conservative – “classic”/“what people in Paris would wear” often goes through my head as I select the bottle of medium muted red – even though I come in, with all intentions, to get a color that goes with what I consider my “youthfulness for 38 years old.”

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Dumb-sounding, I know, but I think it strikes at the heart of something the census doesn’t pick up when it asks us to check off the boxes of cultural self-identification. Cultural identifiers are arguably arbitrary categories that have been established through the historical development of race (a concept which has been used to establish in-group status and exclude undesirables, such as immigrants, African Americans, Irish people, Jewish people, and others in our country; read about this in this article from The Atlantic), sexual identity, gender, social class, disability, and other categories, which post-structuralists would aver create false binarisms to the detriment of individual choice and the flexibility of self-view in different times, sociocultural contexts, and moments of self-becoming (by which I don’t mean a theosophical process but rather just becoming our selves as a process of individuation).

There’s a word for having a border existence, namely liminality, but I don’t quite mean that. Liminality means having a position of standing at the gates to a particular phase of social existence without having access; an example of this is the way in which children who are born in another country but brought to the U.S. without becoming citizens occupy a liminal position in society upon turning 18 years old, because they cannot take up the full citizenship they are given upon reaching adulthood and maintain a border position of great uncertainty and suffering. What I mean is the idea of one’s wanting to seem like a different version of oneself; this is a general idea and could be attributed to ideas like cross-dressing/drag or wearing colored contacts or straightening one’s hair, but I mean it to include also performing a different age group, i.e., trying to seem younger than one is.

How unhappy a prospect! And how shameful to admit it. Yet older women – yes, we may have to delve into the gendered aspects of this – dye their hair, lift their faces, suck their lipos, etc…Is this not a cultural identifier in some way? Perhaps it doesn’t stand to be included on the census, but it means a great deal to attempt to look 5-10+ years younger, and one’s cultural identity – even if it’s reappropriating from one’s own youth – is indeed based partly on age, which is already a clear cultural identifier.

Could we argue that our age identity, then, might encompass age in both chronological and manifest forms? As women, we may not take note of this, as we are encouraged to purchase younger-looking-skin moisturizers, hair dyes, skin tighteners, Spanx, and so many other products (and we could even get into the intersectionality of class here, as poorer women of course cannot afford to purchase $200 skin cream), but I have to wonder: Are we (self-)identifying not only as people, but as younger-ish, hotter versions of ourselves today? What does this tell the world about us? How are we categorized accordingly, and how do we see ourselves and our social identity?