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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Immigrants are Americans

In a recent letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, someone named David Ferris wrote

Unfortunately, during the 2000-05 recovery, immigrants – both legal and illegal – got the jobs that should have gone to the youngest and poorest Americans. If we don’t make every effort to ensure that any jobs created go to our own people, we’ll be looking at another “jobless recovery.”

Hate to break the news to you, Mr. Ferris, but legal immigrants are Americans. I am the son of immigrants, and they are both full US citizens who work, vote, pay taxes, and donate to charities. I guess Mr. Ferris imagines he himself is not a descendant of immigrants…

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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Divided States of America

Sometimes I wonder if the South losing the Civil War was such a good thing. I don’t mean that slavery should still be a publicly sanctioned and popular practice. I do mean that Lincoln’s determination to keep the union together may have been misguided, in the long-term.

Blue states. Red States. Bipartisanship. Why? Ever heard the expression about too many chefs in one kitchen?

Real change doesn’t happen in the US because there are too many conflicting interests that need to “agree” in order to get anything done. Look at health care “reform.” So the republicans don’t want health care reform to pass, because they like things the way they are, and they also want to see a democrat motion get sunk so that the democrats will appear ineffectual and lose upcoming reelections. So the moderate democrats don’t want a public option. So they also want to put in weird anti-choice clauses. So the liberal democrats want reform so badly, they’re willing to compromise their principles. In the end, what do we end up with? Either a lot of hullabaloo about a bill that won’t pass… or a bill that doesn’t really make anyone happy.

Health care is just one example, though. Look at sex education (abstinence-only v. comprehensive), immigration, marijuana regulation, prostitution regulation, gun regulation, the death penalty, military and education spending. The supreme court is a constant flip-flop of dying and retiring judges who get replaced by “impartial” judges who are either left-leaning or right-leaning depending on who’s appointed them.

Obama is the worst example of what the “united” states faces. I have a lot of liberal friends who are disappointed in his first year in office. They had hope. They believed in change. They thought Obama was liberal (after all, the conservatives kept calling him a *gasp* socialist). Obama was never liberal. He’s moderate all the way down the line. That’s how he got elected. It’s also why he’s had trouble getting anything done.

If we had a DSA (Divided States of America) instead of a USA, I bet we would all get along better, and the two countries would get more stuff done. Sure, there would still be small internal disagreements, but in the end, a greater number of people in each country would be happier with governmental policies. In one country, abortion would be legal, the government would spend more money on education than the military, affirmative action would be commonplace, everyone could have health care, marijuana would be legal and tightly regulated (as would prostitution), and sex education would teach students how to have safer sex. In the other country, abortion would be illegal, the government would spend more money on the military than on education, there would be no affirmative action, only the rich or steadily (but not self-) employed would have health insurance, marijuana and prostitution would be illegal, and sex education would teach abstinence only.

Then you could choose what America you wanted to live in, and a lot more people would be happy, no? More importantly, a lot more useful legislation would be passed in both countries.

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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Girl skateboarders are cool

I’m so used to seeing, over the past couple of decades, groups of boys skateboarding or one lone girl skateboarder amongst a group of boys.

Recently, though, I’ve seen a few groups of girl skateboarders walking (with boards) or skateboarding around San Francisco, and I have to say it’s refreshing. It’s cool to see these youngsters going against the traditional gender roles.

It kind of reminds me of the boy cheerleaders in Leeds.

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Education Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Dress code enforcement obsession

I’ve worked in a number of high schools, both public and private. I also went to high school myself (obviously). In every school, there were always a handful of teachers or staff members who were obsessed with punishing (or at least commenting incessantly about) violations of the student dress code. I don’t think it’s appropriate for female students to dress in revealing clothing at school (what they do outside is their business). Same deal for boys showing off their underwear with saggy pants around their ankles (again, what they do outside of school is a different story). School is a place to learn. It isn’t a fashion show venue. There is a certain level of respect you show your teachers and fellow students by dressing appropriately and—unless you have to wear a uniform—there usually remains a great deal of leeway for you to express your individuality.

Nevertheless, I find this obsession with dress code enforcement to be disturbing also. Is her skirt too short? Is that girl showing off too much cleavage? Do I really want to see his polka dot boxers? These are all legitimate questions, but ultimately we as teachers and staff should focus on the task at hand, which is getting students to learn. And even though enforcement-obsessors are always careful to throw in the token mention about boys, the policing does seem to be very much about what girls (and much less so about boys) can and cannot wear, and that is ringing all the feminist sirens in my left-leaning brain. Is it empowering to dress in almost nothing, knowing that you’re probably doing that just to take advantage of how society sexually objectifies women and rewards women who embrace that sexual objectification? No. But is it a feminist act to obsess about and police the way women dress? I don’t think so, either.

To be honest, I really don’t notice it. If a student were wearing a wet t-shirt or only a g-string, of course I’d be fashion police in a second myself. But often I hear other adults commenting to me randomly (even interrupting a worthwhile discussion we were having about curriculum or logistics and scheduling) “That skirt is too short” or “Did you see what she’s wearing? That is not okay.” In some cases, there is just the shake of a head. In other cases, the faculty or staff member will actually leave our conversation and actively police the girl right away. In those situations, I wasn’t thinking, “Yes, it was too short. I thought I was the only one who noticed.” I was honestly thinking, “Weren’t we talking about something else? I didn’t even notice until you pointed it out.” I’m not in the habit of looking students up and down.

Leaving aside how sociologically problematic this constant vigilance about particularly what girls wear is, on a sheer practical level, I just feel there are other things to focus on. I’m a big fan of the cliché “You have to pick your battles.” And especially with teenagers, you do. I was a teenager once. Did my parents say something about everything I did that they disapproved of? No. We would have gotten into a million more fights then. They picked their battles and showed me what really mattered to them. I’d love it if every student dressed appropriately for school. I’d love it. Really. In the grand scheme of things, though, I’d rather focus on them doing their work, having patience with and helping other students who do not learn as quickly as they do, participating in class and extracurriculars, picking up after themselves, and learning to think critically. Call me new-fashioned, but if students can do all that, they can dress however they want.

Further Reading
School dress codes: Necessary or sexist?
Distracting Dress Codes

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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality Uncategorized

Turns out Jimmy Carter was right

Of course not all of the Obama hate is race-related, but a good deal of it is, and here’s a great example:
Secret Service probes anti-Obama message at Lakeville golf course

What Carter was wrong about was thinking it’s all about the South. This was in Massachusetts.

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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Isn’t it okay to be just rich and not filthy-uber-super-disgusting rich?

One time when I was in elementary school, my teacher asked us what socio-economic class we thought we belonged to. We lived in one of the richest suburbs in our state, and yet almost all of us said we were either “middle-class” or “upper-middle-class.” No one said “I’m upper-class,” but our teacher insisted anyone living in our town was by definition upper-class. Where did we get this idea that we’re “only” upper-middle-class? Even though relatively few people in the world make over US$120,000 per year for one household, the people who do just make that mark don’t often have a yacht, a second home, a third home, or an exclusive country club membership. They are rich compared to most people, and they live very comfortably, but they can’t just spend money without thinking. Everything at that level still has to be budgeted.

Beyond upper-class… I don’t know what you’d call it—aristocracy?… there are the folks who just make such an insane amount of money that the interest they make on that money is more than most people make in a decade, donating mind-boggling sums of money actually makes them money in tax breaks, and hiring full-time employees (personal assistants, housekeepers, chaffeurs) does not even make a small dent in their savings.

Why is life like this? We’ve all heard the expression the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I’m not trying to espouse communism here. Not everything has to be equal. But does the difference between the haves and the have-nots have to be so huge? Right now the disparity seems more painful than usual as we see politicians trying to balance budgets by cutting salaries and jobs of government employees who are barely making it while not giving themselves similar salary cuts, and as we see failing corporations giving bailout money to their top execs while laying off thousands of low-level employees.

These tough economic times got me thinking about the tour I took of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory in Vermont. Before you take the tour, they show you a little video about the history of the company. I don’t remember all the details. One thing stuck in mind, though—the attempt Ben & Jerry’s initially made to prevent this ever-widening wealth gap. For years, they had a policy that the highest-paid employee could not make more than five times what the lowest-paid employee made. Of course, in 1994, they dumped that to be competitive in hiring a new CEO. I find that sad. I like the idea of no employee being paid more than five times another employee. I mean, the highest paid employee is still the highest paid, right? And not just the highest, but five times higher than the lowest. Just think how much better things would be if all companies took this approach.

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say a company has 500 employees with 10 earning an average of $10 million per year, 20 earning an average of $1 million, 25 earning $500,000, 75 earning $100,000, 170 earning $50,000, and 200 earning an average of $25,000 per year.

If the $25,000-a-year employee works 50 weeks out of the year (let’s say there are two weeks of vacation), that’s about $100 per day… before taxes. In this hypothetical scenario for this hypothetical US company, almost half of the workers are pretty close to the poverty line (the poverty-line salary for a 4-person family in 2009 is supposed to be $22,050), with 2% of the company living in the lap of luxury. If you make $10 million a year, you can easily send all your children to private school, you can have fancy cars for everyone in your family, you can own several homes, you can travel often and eat dinners out often, you can donate to charity, you can buy things at auction… and you still probably have plenty leftover.

Something’s wrong with this picture. This is the picture of a company that has the highest-paid employee making 400 times what the lowest-paid employee makes.

But what if we took the same amount of salary money and distributed it so that the highest-paid employees earn 5 times what the lowest-paid employees earn? Let’s say 10 employees make an average of $1 million per year, 20 make $900,000, 25 make $750,000, 75 make $380,000, 170 make $225,000, and 200 make an average of $200,000 per year.

In this new scenario, the highest earners still outearn the lowest earners. $1 million per year is nothing to sneeze at. You can live a very comfortable lifestyle with that kind of salary. And the best part is that the lowest wage earners would be earning the median income in the upper-class town I grew up in.

If this kind of approach were the norm, instead of having the rich and the poor, we’d have only the rich and the richer.

Of course, I know I’m naive. All the economics majors out there are going to say “You don’t understand. This system isn’t sustainable. With the highest earners making only five times what the lowest earners make, there’s little incentive for the best CEOs to go to this company. They’d all go to a company that would pay them more.” Well, it couldn’t just be one company that does it. It’d have to be a bunch of companies, and they would have to “sell” the new scheme to any potential employees. There’d have to be a movement behind it, a snappy name for it, like “organic, locally grown food” or “fair trade coffee.” The idea would be that this is for justice. It’d be like Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto… but for real.

And it doesn’t even have to be this extreme. I was using a hypothetical example going from 400 times higher to only 5 times higher. What if it went from 10,000 times higher to only 100 times higher? In some ways, salaries are a zero-sum game, but the economy and living do not need to be. If everyone can have the basics (food, health care, shelter, and education), I’m fine with a handful of people having more. Right now we don’t have the basics, though. We have a handful of people getting paid billions of dollars and then putting hard-working minimum wage folks out of jobs.

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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

It’s not always blaming the victim

I don’t watch Tough Love, and I don’t even know who this Steve Ward guy is. I also think there is altogether too much victim-blaming when it comes to women and rape. It doesn’t matter what a woman is wearing. She does not deserve to be raped. It doesn’t matter if she’s a tease or a flirt. She does not deserve to be raped. It doesn’t matter if she’s a prostitute. It doesn’t matter if she’d previously had consensual encounters with that man. It doesn’t matter if he bought her an expensive dinner. No one deserves to be raped, and women should not be blamed for being raped.

From what I’ve read in another blog about what Steve Ward said in a recent episode of Tough Love his phrasing was terrible and invoked victim-blaming for sure:

Steve Ward tells Arian, who is on the hot seat for doing poorly on her date that night, that her sexually aggressive flirting will, and I quote, “get [her] raped.” She, unsurprisingly, leaves the room bawling and telling Steve that “you just don’t tell a girl that.”

But his follow-up email clarifying his position did make more sense to me:

I have been told many stories by victims of sexual abuse and listened to them describe in their own words how they put themselves in a position to be taken advantage of. These stories typically involved fraternity parties, binge drinking, promiscuous behavior, “roofies” and mostly that sort of thing. In Arian’s case she will sexually provoke anyone, anytime, anywhere for her own amusement and my only intention was to caution her that one of those people could end up being the wrong person to provoke.

The truth of the matter is that even if you are never at fault for being raped and you never deserve to be raped, you can put yourself in a position in which you are more likely to be raped. And you can choose the wrong person to tease.

I liken this to the whole road rage phenomenon. Does anyone deserve to get shot by a stranger in another car? Do you deserve to get beat up because you yelled at someone who cut you off? No. No one deserves to get shot because of their driving behavior.

But even if you’re in the right, and that asshole who cut you off or didn’t signal or ran a red light and almost hit a small child crossing the street is wrong, if you make a habit of yelling at other drivers in your righteous anger, you are more likely to get shot, because it’s more likely you will provoke the wrong person. That person will still be a psycho murderer. But you will also still be shot. And your actions made your likelihood of being shot by a psycho murderer go up.

I’m a little rusty on my rape statistics, but I believe 80% of date or acquaintance rapes involve alcohol. So, yes, you can put yourself in dangerous situations, and there are ways to lower your chances of being raped. That doesn’t mean if you drink alcohol you deserve to be raped or that your rapist has a right to have sex with you if you don’t want it. Nor does someone walking around in a dangerous neighborhood at night deserve to be mugged. But she is more likely to be mugged.

Every day we go through life making choices, and some of those choices lower our likelihood of being assaulted, robbed, raped, or harassed. We never deserve these things, and certainly the perpetrators of these terrible acts are in the wrong. And, more importantly, rape victims are overly scrutinized for their behavior in ways that victims of other violent crimes are not. So I understand why Arian was upset, and I understand why people attacked Steve Ward.

Eventually, though, we need to come back from our kneejerk reactions against what we know are constant injustices and take some of these case by case. Yes, in an ideal world, a woman can act however she wants sexually and that will have absolutely no bearing on whether the men she encounters will be rapists or not. In an ideal world, I can also carry around loads of cash in my front pockets and that will have absolutely no bearing on whether I get robbed by a pickpocket or not. In this same ideal world, I can leave my front door unlocked, and no robber is going to steal my stuff either. We should strive for that ideal world, but we’d be idiots if we ignore the fact we aren’t quite there yet.

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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Why do women slut-shame?

Everyone I know is familiar with the sexual promiscuity double standard. Men who have sexual experience are studs. Women who have sexual experience are sluts or whores. Of course, the label slut doesn’t have to come from true promiscuity at all. It is just the perception of promiscuity. A girl or woman could be called a slut even if she is a virgin, as long as she dresses provocatively or has large breasts or speaks frankly about sex. She may not even do any of those things, but she may be someone other women look down upon for some reason or other.

I noticed two instances of slut-shaming this past weekend.

On one occasion, it was a social gathering, and one woman remarked that all the “whores” at her school were on the field hockey team. Most likely, they weren’t literally prostitutes. But the remark was intended to shame these women as definitely unlikeable and beneath her, and then vaguely too sexual.

On the other occasion, at church of all places, one church member remarked jokingly called another member a “slut” because of the latter’s shoes (which had been part of a Halloween costume) with stiletto heels. It was a joke, of course, and the recipient took it that way, too, but the joke hints at the truth—the truth being that even if you are a “good Christian,” if you also happen to be wearing certain clothes, you will be stigmatized sexually if you are a woman.

What baffles me most about this slut-shaming is that is often comes from other women, whether it is seriously putting down another group of women or jokingly putting down a close friend. Why do women engage in slut-shaming? Is it for the same reason men engage in wimp-shaming? I know a lot of men who call other men wimps, pussies, faggots, or any other name that denotes the men as “less manly” (manly, in this context, meaning heterosexual and not in any way like a woman, because “of course” the worst thing a man could be is like a woman). Men who do this seem insecure to me. They need to put other men down as less manly so they can appear comparatively more manly.

So is that what women slut-shaming other women is about? Do they worry they themselves might be labeled sluts? Do they want to appear less slutty? I don’t know. That may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s quite the same. After all, rarely do het men parade around in “gay” outfits and say “Look how gay I look” to other het men unless they want to get beat up. And yet a woman could wear what she considers herself to be a “slutty” outfit and say “Look how slutty I look” to her fellow non-slutty friends and get a couple of laughs and that’s it.

I don’t know what it is. And I’m also not sure if it’s my place to stop it. I’m always a bit wary, as a man, of telling women what is appropriate or inappropriate to do (from a feminist perspective). Any thoughts?

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Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Leslie Bennetts – Betty Friedan for a new generation

Two books that changed my life were recommended to me by a good friend during senior year of high school. One was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the other was The Feminine Mystique. Recently, I picked up Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake from the library, and I think it’s a life-changing book that everyone—both male and female—should read. It’s kind of an unofficial sequel to Friedan’s groundbreaking book of a similar name.

Yes, Bennetts is a self-proclaimed feminist. But she doesn’t spend most of her energy on ideological battles (she does shove a few into the last chapter of the book, which may anger some conservatives). She looks at working while having children from a pragmatic point of view. Her main point is that women who decide to quit their jobs for full-time motherhood are putting themselves (and their children) at economic risk, because they can’t anticipate the likelihood that their husbands will leave them, suddenly lose their jobs, or become extremely disabled or dead. Coupling those unfortunate possible future circumstances with the unlikelihood that someone 15 years out of the workforce will be able to find a job on par with the one she left makes it a no-brainer that simply for economic reasons, women should keep their jobs while having kids, or at least not leave the workforce for too long.

Added to that, Bennetts notes that the burden of being the sole breadwinner also adversely affects men and traps them in jobs they may not like or feel fulfilled in. More importantly, she debunks the idea that women have to “have it all” or “be perfect.” You don’t have to put 110% attention into your job and 110% attention into your children. Both men and women have various aspects of their life that need to have attention paid to—personal relationships, hobbies, achievement, community involvement, etc. And sharing work, children, and household chores ends up benefitting the whole family.

Even though Bennetts does repeat herself a lot, the book doesn’t feel as repetitive as some other one-idea books, mainly because Bennetts (who is a journalist by trade) goes so in-depth into her topic (using the full breadth of sociological studies, books, magazine articles, interviews, and personal anecdotes to flesh out her point).

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Life Movies Music I Like Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

On consumption and censorship

The recent news about Wikipedia being blocked in the UK (not totally but mostly) because of album cover art in an article about a 70s band being possibly child pornography got me thinking about censorship and consumption.

Generally, the debates I’ve heard about censorship are polarized. On the one hand, I hear the “decency” folks saying there are some things that cross the line and shouldn’t ever exist. On the other hand, I hear the “freedom” folks saying if you don’t like it, don’t look at it or buy it.

But what if you don’t like it and you still look at it? If I watch Deep Throat in a Women’s Studies class in college for the purposes of dissecting it and analyzing it, is that different from watching it at home for sexual stimulation… or laughs? This goes back to a debate I used to have with some of my fellow department members when I was an English teacher. Some English teachers think the job of an English teacher is to expose students to “great literature.” I disagree completely. I don’t think The Scarlet Letter, for example, is well-written or even interesting any more from a literary perspective. It is, however, historically significant, and it, like any work of fiction, can be analyzed and argued over. The point of teaching English is to get students to think critically about what they consume—not to consume blindly, but to see that every work of art (visual art, comic book art, music, film, novels, poetry) conveys its author’s worldview or agenda, even if the author herself is not conscious of that.

I like to think I can analyze and distance myself from anything I consume, but sometimes I can’t. I’m not a big fan of visual or audio displays of torture, for example. It’s very possible that these could be presented within the framework of a well-crafted artistic work with a good social agenda. Nevertheless, I am human and not an intellectual machine. I still experience human emotions and horror.

This is also why I find it hard to believe politicians (especially male ones) who actively campaign against pornography and even show “exhibits” in hearings on pornography are able to fully distance themselves from the material they’re criticizing, especially since they’re usually criticizing it by arguing that it affects people’s morality (so it affects other people’s morality, but not your morality?)

When confronted with works of art that are controversial, we all should remember that we are both human and intellectual. We can be subject to raw emotion and gut reactions but we can also distance ourselves and analyze what we see. I don’t see enough of that tension in discussions about censorship. I’d like to see it more often.