Some would say it’s my fault, for wearing a dress like that to a political action.
How do you expect to be taken seriously?
(And, from certain older feminists): We fought to be seen as more than sex objects. How can you throw away that progress?
Understandable frustration. Wanna hear something scary (though maybe not all that shocking)? Recent psych studies (  ) testify to what many of us have understood through experience: that bodies read as “women” tend to be cognized as objects (to perilous, rape-y effect) whereas bodies read as “men” are perceived as human beings.
You have to wonder whether any of the images used in these psychological studies showed androgynous people, gender-queer people, fat people, elderly people, or visibly disabled people. (Anyone reading have access to the academic journals? Hook us up!) Normative standards of beauty and aesthetic ideals of ‘human-ness,’ from shape to skin color, must certainly affect the ways we are objectified or humanized. Politically, our looks affect our interactions as we pass out flyers, march and chant, photograph the action, deliver a speech, or bus or bike to the strike.
As for me, it’s not like it happens 100% of the time, but I can usually tell when strangers are paying closer attention to my hemline than my politics. Like the two guys waiting for their order at the taco truck on Monday, right next to the undocumented workers’ press conference against I-9 audits, or “silent raids.” I recognized one of the men from doorknocking in the neighborhood the day before.
“Hey!” I called. ”You came!” (Do I care that he’s probably just there for lunch? Nope.) ”Come meet the workers!”
At first they stay put at the taco truck; they want to chat me up, but they don’t want to walk over to the protest to do it. I approach them instead, talking talking talking. I make myself oily like a duck’s feathers, so the swamp water of sexism won’t soak me. (Awareness + acceptance* is my anti-patriarchy emotional preen gland.) I explain the background for the action: 125 workers fired with no notice — some after decades working for the industrial bakery, still making just $9.40 an hour. The guys’ ears perk up more. I allow myself to get more animated about it. ”Come!” I say. ”Come meet the workers!”
Eventually, some combination of the political content, the live brass band, and my encouragement does the trick. They walk over with me. I immediately introduce them to other people, older people. An elderly worker strikes up a conversation in Spanish with the neighbor who speaks it. Only then does it come out: the neighbor says, “Yeah, I know someone who works in here” (inside the factory that we’re protesting).
“Oh yeah?” says the fired worker slowly, scratching his ear. ”Who?”
I flit away, to go dance some more with the band. Before the neighbor men leave, I make sure to say goodbye, ask them what they thought. I hope they keep supporting the fight.
* * *
If the psychological objectification of women is a pervasive phenomenon, it undermines the unity of the working class in the U.S., and deserves to be treated as seriously as the white skin privilege that the Sojourner Truth Organization (an almost all-white group) helped theorize, back in the late 60′s and 70′s. Class-struggle theorists continue to study the feminization and de-feminization of various factory and non-factory work, which is important. At the same time, I would love to hear more about ways that radical organizers are handling the manifestations of body politics that arise in the course of the political work. The way I’ve learned to handle things isn’t necessarily the best way, or a way that is relevant or useful for everyone.
Important note: by *acceptance of sexism I don’t mean that I want to permit sexism without trying to change it. The first step to changing something is accepting that it exists. Patriarchy is how it is, right now. I’ve been lightweight slut-shamed in my organizing circles before; it’s no fun. Misogyny may not be as acutely dangerous for me as transphobia or homophobia are for other people, or as sexism is for women trying to organize in other contexts (see, for example: sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square, which may actually be state-backed efforts to sow discord in uprising groups). But sexism here, in my life, still exists, still disrupts the political work we are trying to do together, and I have little choice but to name it and figure out how to deal. In the words of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur (who recently became the first woman on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists list):
People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.
In a way, it’s good to understand that the brains of many strangers see me as an object first. Lets me know what I’m working with. Then, compassionately — whether patiently or impatiently, playfully or gravely — I can try to thin and whittle those delusions in myself and others, to sound out new relationships written through the small-scale but meaningful struggles now at hand.
The past few weeks — and especially the past few days — I’ve been reminded of how rape culture thrives on social power pyramids: where the contributions of people at the top — be they star athletes, beloved artists, or skilled political leaders — are considered so important that people instinctively ignore, justify, or minimize the violent behaviors of the community’s golden child (or children).
This shows up frequently, in small ways. I’ve heard more than one friend of a socially powerful feminist in the Bay confess to me that they feel afraid to tell her “no.” Not that this fear necessarily defines their relationship with this person (and these conversations happened a year ago; perhaps their fears have since subsided or transformed), but to me, statements like that are a red flag for rape culture. Someone is at the center, and getting on their bad side means you might get ostracized — or worse. Besides, what they contribute is so vital and powerful…
On March 1st, exactly one year after R and I broke up, I drove to his house to pick up one last smattering of my belongings, left out on the porch for me in a Trader Joe’s brown paper bag. Anticipating that it might be difficult and I might get sad, I had asked a good friend to come with me. And though I did feel nervous and sad, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Right on top of the pile there was a favorite belt that I’d been missing for like two years! When R and I were still together I lightweight hounded him about that belt — was convinced I’d somehow left it at his parents’ house. Don’t know where he ended up finding it, but I was glad to have it back, and as my friend and I drove away from his street, I thought I felt okay.
Still, the bag sat at the door of my closet, untouched, for a long time.
Again, though, once I finally screwed up the courage to go through it, it wasn’t so horrible. A swirl of memories: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. A lot of the stuff wasn’t mine, but some of it was. Pillowcase. (Useful!) Books. (Beloved!) The scarf on the header image of this blog. (Nostalgic!) And oh, what’s this? I recognized a notecard, some stationery of mine.
It was the birthday card I had written to R last year.
Even as we strive for liberation,
any truly emancipatory struggle must also be its own reward.
“To answer oppression with appropriate resistance requires knowledge of two kinds: in the first place, self-knowledge by the victim, which means awareness that oppression exists, an awareness that the victim has fallen from a great height of glory or promise into the present depths; secondly, the victim must know who the enemy is. [They] must know [their] oppressor’s real name, not an alias, a pseudonym, or a nom de plume!” —Chinua Achebe (Nov. 16, 1930 – Mar. 22, 2013)
via Julia Wallace of SU/LU.
Reform and revolution: I’ve got questions; you’ve got answers! (?)
‘Working class self-activity is working-class autonomy — autonomy from capitalism,’ argues [Lee] Holstein. Her problem with advocates of trade-union reform efforts, such as Moody, is that they ‘mush together the reform and revolutionary aspects of resistance and insurgency, treating forms of resistance and insurgency which are confined within the framework of capitalism in the same way as those which break out of that framework.’ For Holstein, by contrast, ‘self-activity is not just resisting and attacking, but resisting and attacking in a way that undermines capitalist power, destabilizes its institutional framework, and foreshadows and demonstrates, in the form and content of the current struggles, the potential of the workers to be rulers.’ (284–85)
Two questions for today, and then I promise I’ll get back to grad school work. ;)
Ginger-braised kale with curried chickpeas and toasted coconut.
feeling so scattered lately! creeping overwhelm, dropping some things, hiding from others.
amazing people around me, but the thought of trying to keep up with everyone makes me twitch a little.
projects — grad school — paid work with Buddhist Peace Fellowship (climbing toward a setup where more people can be compensated for their work) — solidarity with a long-term campaign to democratize a union, keeping revolutionary politics at the center — political meetings that meld seamlessly into feliz cumple fried chicken dinners and laughter, laughter — reading the communist manifesto out loud at alameda beach with a friend — vivid, vivid dreams — monkey-mind internet reading — still looking for the thing that is mine to give, mine to focus on.
meanwhile, i cook to come back to myself — a self seasoned with others. today’s kale was saqib, sierra, salima, aneeta, ryan…
may you (yes, you) be safe, may you be well fed, may you know you are loved, may you defend others fiercely, may you know your gifts, your historical context, your people and your purpose.
In Steubenville Ohio, a juvenile court judge will decide the fate of two young men who allegedly participated in the rape of a 16-year-old girl. But it will be up to the supporters of Jane Doe — especially working-class fighters — to determine the path forward: toward true justice, toward a world free from sexual assault, toward a society ridding itself of the bastions of power that, like stagnant ponds where mosquitos multiply, support the proliferation of rape culture. Steubenville seems to have the passion, the courage, and the determination: but do they have a plan? And what will it be?
From an outsider’s perspective, I see three key assets enriching the Steubenville rape-culture resistance.
- A critical eye toward court-determined “justice”
- A horizontal network of bold, moral people eager to get involved
- An orientation toward media and education by the people, for the people
Rape culture is about power, and the Steubenville case has opened up serious questions about how people in a community can take back the power to safeguard their own well-being — free from the small-scale despotism of patriarchal cops, coaches, or classmates.
1. No Justice, “Just Us.”
Update 28/2 8pm: Ah, some context might be useful since you can’t read the description on YouTube from over here! Heh, my bad.
Valentine’s Day sometimes brings chocolates and sometimes flowers. But Valentine’s Day in Oakland, California, brought angry women out to the Mi Pueblo supermarket in the heart of the barrio. There they tried to speak to the chain’s owner, Juvenal Chavez, not about love, but about the sexual harassment of women who work there.
Mi Pueblo worker Laura Robledo’s story, in her own words:
Hello, my name is Laura Robledo. I am a single mother of three children. Last October I started working for Mi Pueblo Foods at the McLaughlin Avenue Store, in San Jose. Recently I was suspended and later-on fired for alleged misbehavior.
During the first few weeks of employment, a co-worker began to sexually harass me on a constant basis.
The company allegedly conducted an investigation on this matter finding no apparent cause for disciplinary action against the alleged harasser. It seems that the individual that harassed me still works at Mi Pueblo. This makes me feel humiliated.
I believe management fired me because I decided not to remain silent. There could be more women that have been sexually harassed but are too afraid to speak up.
Last December I attempted to hand deliver a letter to Juvenal Chavez, the owner of Mi Pueblo Foods. But I was stopped by several male security guards at the entrance of Mi Pueblo headquarters in San Jose. In this letter I challenge Mr. Chavez to talk to me in person so I can tell him what it really means for female employees to work at Mi Pueblo Foods.
On Valentine’s Day, 2013, supported by members of local group Dignity & Resistance; workers organizing in Walmart retail stores; and union members and staff of UFCW, Laura again tried to deliver her letter, and again security guards blocked the way. Undeterred, workers and community members will continue finding ways to fight not only sexual harassment in Mi Pueblo Foods, but also discrimination against African-Americans, e-verify attacks on undocumented workers, and attacks on workers who wish to form a union at Mi Pueblo.
If I could instantly acquire two new digital skills, they would be:
Knowing How To Code
Knowing How To Make Good Videos.
As it stands, I know zero about the former, and above is my latest attempt at generating media from an action around the Mi Pueblo Grocery fight, an ongoing campaign that I’ve been working on for some months here in Oakland.
Learning, slowly learning.
The action was nice, if a little gender-simplistic. (Queers and gender-nonconforming folks, if they can get work at all, also face hella sexual harassment on the job; it’s not just women.)
Still, the fierce women trabajadoras in the video inspire me.
Moving, patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently.
Tonight a friend who lives nearby, and who I haven’t seen in a while, came over to spend time because there’s been some violence in their house and they are feeling unsafe there. After we talked and drank tea and worked quietly at our computers, they left and I made myself an easy dinner: miso soup with sweet potato, spinach, and red onion. It reminded me of this poem, shared with me a few years ago.
Ame ni mo Makezu
by Kenji Miyazawa
not losing to the rain
not losing to the wind
not losing to the snow nor to summer’s heat
with a strong body
unfettered by desire
never losing temper
always quietly smiling
every day four bowls of brown rice
miso and some vegetables to eat
count yourself last and put others before you
watching and listening, and understanding
and never forgetting
in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields
being in a little thatched hut
if there is a sick child to the east
going and nursing over them
if there is a tired mother to the west
going and shouldering her sheaf of rice
if there is someone near death to the south
going and saying there’s no need to be afraid
if there is a quarrel or a lawsuit to the north
telling them to leave off with such waste
when there’s drought, shedding tears of sympathy
when the summer’s cold, wandering upset
called a nobody by everyone
without being praised
without being blamed
such a person
I want to become
It sounds appealing, in a way, to melt into the “woods of the pines of the fields,” to become free from suffering by squarely facing pain, by knowing pain intimately, every day. To be “called a nobody by everyone;” to barely exist; to exist as friendly landscape, as natural shelter.
But is there a place here for community of emancipation?
Problems in this poem are either small enough to impact as an individual (through personal sacrifice, like The Giving Tree), or so huge (pre-industrial weather, no thought of a ‘climate change’ to reverse) that there is nothing to be done. What about the problems in the middle? Small enough that human action can have some impact, but big enough that it takes many many many humans, properly coordinated, to do it?
Isn’t that another way of feeling like a “nobody?” Seeing patterns of harm, knowing they can be stopped, but being unable to do it yourself, or even with your intrepid cohort?
I know the point is an attitude, an orientation toward the inevitable harshness of life. We feel, we cry, we try our best. We allow ourselves to be permeated by what exists, because this, as much as the ability to control or affect our environment, is part of our highest potential.
But I don’t know. I like to be effective. Don’t you?