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To acknowledge the sadness among us

As someone who’s been in a same-sex relationship for over 15 years, was civil unioned in 2004 in Vermont when it was one of the few states that allowed such things (sounds a bit quaint and staid now, doesn’t it? civil. union. like the opposite of civil war), and, until today, live in a DOMA state, I suppose I should be feeling as joyous as those same-sex couples and their supporters whose faces and voices have been gracing my Facebook feed, television, and radio  — joyous, that is, unlike the many thousands who mourned and celebrated Reverend Pinckney at his funeral, or homecoming, in Charleston, SC, this afternoon. (Don’t worry, I won’t try to offer a clever interpretation of how the two are connected.)

Thing is, I’m not joyous at the announcement of SCOTUS’s decision this morning. I’ve made my position on marriage equality clear before on political grounds. But my reaction today stems from something else.

When I see and hear the rainbow flag waving, the hugging and the kissing, the laughter and the tears, it’s not exasperation or cynicism or anger that I feel. Just sadness. Because when long-term couples keep using words like validation and recognition and respect to describe what this means to them, I can’t keep hold of my political righteousness. I don’t forget how marriage is a normalizing institution meant to regulate gender norms, sexual behavior, child-rearing practices, wealth distribution and inheritance, kinship bonds, styles of caregiving, and, yes, desire itself. But the fact that the marriage equality movement brackets all of those concessions isn’t what I find depressing.

The joy I’m seeing expressed seems to be directly proportional to the lack of validation, recognition, and respect that gay and lesbian individuals and couples receive on a daily basis. Even the most out and proud folk, with skin like scarred armor, can’t live in a world where their only form of acceptance comes from within. Sure, it’s a quintessentially American cliche. You have to accept yourself before you can accept others (a load of shite, for the record). Stand on your own two feet. Be yourself. Blah blah. So when the highest court in the land grants recognition — if not of your fabulous gay self, then at least your everyday ltr — well, it’s hard not to feel a teensy bit weepy.

On the other hand, since I’m employing my god-given Asian math talents, I would also say that the number of buckets of tears shed, the strength of those (bear)hugs, the sheer curvature of those smiles is also directly proportional to the depth and breadth of homophobia that gay and lesbian individuals and couples experience on a daily basis. I’m not even talking about the murderous violence, the physical and verbal abuse, the overt taunting and harassment. I’m talking about the everyday grind of having to negotiate uncertain public worlds whose recognized forms of desire, erotic attachment, and relationality were not meant for you — were, in fact, designed to exclude and humiliate you. So when SCOTUS comes along and says: “in this instance, in this form, you’re ok, and we might even throw in some material perks,” well damn if Imna piss on that parade.

We all know this. And making same-sex marriage legal isn’t going to lift much of that mundane burden from our shoulders. But I want to add one more thing about the devastating effects of homophobia (also not a new idea) and that is it’s insidious ability — compulsion — to bring out the most sanitized and respectable in us. Here’s part of Justice Kennedy’s already-famous last paragraph:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.

He previously had referred to the “transcendent purposes of marriage” (though I confess to not knowing what those lofty aims might be). And I honestly don’t know whose marriage he can possibly be talking about.

But with all respect to Justice Kennedy, such high-minded words put me in mind of a rather less lofty text. As a young person trying to make sense of my own desires, I watched many a coming-of-age/coming-out movie (didn’t I say recognition is a powerful thing?). And the end of this one had long stuck in my mind — not because I agreed with it’s sentimental portrait of gayness, but precisely because I found it dishonest.

Let me be clear: I appreciate the lamentation against homophobia and sympathize with the feelings of alienation. But it’s that one phrase — “It’s only love” — that gets me. That comes off to me as distinctly unreal. For while love may be a part of same-sex relationships, as it might very well be for straight relationships (it’s kinda hard to tell), the movie itself makes evidently clear that it’s only a part. (If you haven’t seen it, loo sex, or attempted so, appears to be the ice breaker of choice. Will SCOTUS legalize that?).

So go on and love each other, my friends. The more joyful tears you shed, the more sad ones I will add to this sodden earth, mourning the mournful conditions that draw them forth from our eyes.

Family and nation, Desires I, African American lit

Last week’s grad seminar focused on issues of the family and nation, including marriage, miscegenation, and kinship. Here are just a few passages that stuck out to/with me.

On the reciprocal but uneven desires of same-sex marriage advocates and the law:

Reddy, Chandan. “Time For Rights? Loving, Gay Marriage, and the Limits of Legal Justice.” Fordham Law Review 76.6 (2008): 2849-72.

In fact, we might be in a position to ask a question other than why gays and lesbians desire formal recognition by national law.

Instead, let us ask why national law in this historical moment seeks gay and lesbian desire for recognition. Why does the law recruit this desire? What vulnerabilities and instabilities are created through national norms such as those the law “desires” the LGBT community to desire? And, finally, might we see in these vectors of desire—between the gay and lesbian subjects’ desire for formal rights and the norm’s “desire” for that desire—a nonequivalence between the two desires such that one does not fulfill the wants of the other, but rather, both desires are vulnerable to the incompletion and exposure that modem desiring more often reveals. (2856)

On doing “justice” to history . . . :

Indeed, if “we” must take care to do justice to “history,” this is because history has a central role in making just “our” contemporary society governed as it is by legal norms that were once exclusive but are now striving for real universality. History, for the subject of historicism, has both a redemptive and an explanatory force in relation to the legal norms that were once exclusionary. It is redemptive in the sense that it is a promise not to forget those communities that were once excluded from the very norms to which the remembering subject belongs, lest the injustice of their historical exclusion be redoubled by the injustice of their erasure within social memory. And it is explanatory in the sense that these histories detail the specific social relations that denied a “people” protection and recognition by those norms. It is also explanatory in the sense that it relates the distinct meanings encoded in those norms by a “people” or marginalized “community” originally excluded from those norms, such that the norm is itself, in our present moment, a monument of sorts to the once historically excluded “community” or “people.” The irony of course is that the social history of the excluded community is now dependent for its conditions of representational existence on the popular affirmation of the norm from which it was excluded. In addition, what is socially remembered of that community is governed by the framework of the norm or norms themselves, such that the social history of the excluded people is told only through the prism produced by that norm or set of norms. (2866)

On the un-gendering of the Middle Passage:

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81.

That order [the socio-political order of the New World], with its human sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New-World, diasporic plight marked a theft of the body—a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time—in stunning contradiction—the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. (67)

This week we’re dealing with issues of desire, fantasy, pleasure, race, power, and related themes.

On the constitutive failures of heterosexuality and its unflagging endurance:

Jagose, Annamarie. “Counterfeit Pleasures: Fake Orgasm and Queer Agency.” Textual Practice 24.3 (2010): 517-39.

Although it has frequently been misrecognised as just such a strategy, drawing attention to the public failures of heterosexuality is not in itself an unsettling or destabilising gesture, as is readily evidenced by the failure of those failures to register significantly against heterosexuality’s social value. Far from being the end of the road, or even a malfunction, failure is a constitutive part of modern heterosexuality’s support system, buoyed about on every side by aspiration, consolation, optimism: the everyday bricolage of emotional making do. Widely known but known inside circuits of transmission that do not allow for its solidification as a transparent fact, the sexual incompatibility of the heterosexual couple can consequently keep arriving on the cultural scene as news, in large part because such diagnoses are almost always in the service of some more optimistically framed project, the failure of heterosexual sexual reciprocity a resource for the hopeful possibility that it might nevertheless yet be realised. Drip-fed by failure, this order of optimism is not the Pollyanna-ish kind, fattened on buoyancy and confidence. [. . .] For now let’s just say that whatever the futures of the intimate public cultures currently articulated in the name of heterosexuality, one thing is certain: the demonstration of the capricious relation between coital sex and female orgasm does not prevent heterosexual intercourse continuing to figure, however, ambivalently, the optimistic expression of a sexual ideology whose privileged ethical terms are equality and mutuality.44 It is under these specific historical circumstances that the much discussed, although little theorised, feminine heterosexual sexual practice of fake orgasm emerges. (527-8)

On politically “suspect” desires and racialized fantasies:

Rodriguez, Juana Maria. “Queer Sociality and Other Sexual Fantasies.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 17.2-3 (2011): 331-48.

So how do we begin to make sense of our politically incorrect erotic desires? More to the point, what kind of sense is even desirable or possible? [. . .] Perhaps it is this desire to rupture, traverse, disrupt, or refute the power of race that is being acted out in racialized sexual fantasies and play. These imagined moves of power are neither subversive nor staid, but for racialized subjects they present an occasion to stare into the face of racialized erotics and pain in a gesture of critique and imagination that attempts to unravel both individual subjectivity and the existing social relations that surround us. [. . .] To deny our fantasies because they are too complicated, too painful, or too perverse, to erase their presence or censor their articulation in public life, constitutes a particular kind of insidious violence that threatens to undermine our ability to explore the contours of our psychic lives, and the imaginary possibilities of the social worlds in which we exist. (342-3)

On “racial iconography” as an alternative analytic for reading racialized porn:

Nash, Jennifer. Introduction. The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 1-26.

In place of reading racialized pornography for evidence of the wound, as is the tradition within black feminist visual culture studies, I develop a new method of analyzing racialized pornography: racial iconography. Racial iconography is a critical hermeneutic, a reading practice that shifts from a preoccupation with the injuries that racialized pornography engenders to an investigation of the ecstasy that racialized pornography can unleash. By reading for ecstasy rather than injury, racial iconography performs what Judith Butler terms an “aggressive counter-reading,” one which suspends normative readings of racialized pornography and instead advances readings which emphasize black performances and pleasures represented on the racialized pornographic screen. By ecstasy, I refer both to the possibilities of female pleasures within a phallic economy and to the possibilities of black female pleasures within a white-dominated representational economy. I am drawn to the term ecstasy in much the same way some feminists have been drawn to the term jouissance, to describe pleasures that exceed or transcend the self and to capture a bliss that exceeds language. If jouissance describes an unnamable sexual pleasure, my use of ecstasy aspires to capture forms of racial-sexual pleasure that have heretofore been unnamed (and some that have been too taboo to name), including blissful performances of hyperbolic racialization and uncomfortable enjoyment in embodied racialization. The ecstatic pleasures that this book locates are varied and multiple—pleasures in looking, pleasures in being looked at, pleasures in performing racial fictions, pleasures in upending racial fictions. I am particularly interested in the ecstatic possibilities of racialization, pleasures which are both deeply personal (aesthetic, erotic, sexual) and deeply social, and that form the basis of political communities and identities. To that end, I use ecstasy to consider how race aids pornographic protagonists in staging, enacting, and naming pleasures, even as it always already constrains protagonists’ lexicons of desire. (2-3)

On “brown” sexuality as a strategy for white disavowal of anti-black violence:

Perez, Hiram. “You Can Have My Brown Body and Eat it, Too!” Social Text 84-85; 23.3-4 (2005): 171-91.

The brownness conferred on Kiko when he is designated as “Latin” (itself an already ambiguous sign) circumvents troubling histories of racial oppression that are more immediate to the white imagination in the form of enslavement, lynching, and police brutality. Already forgetful about its his­tory of state-sanctioned white-on-black violence, the United States remains blissfully amnesiac about its violent imperial history. The ambiguities of brownness function to unburden fantasies of black sexuality from their troubling histories; those same fantasies, and new ones, may be revisited on the brown body. In other words, one manifestation of the brown body occurs in the form of a black body un-moored, if you will, from material history and fixed instead to the landscape of a gay cosmopolitan imagina­tion. (185)

. . . Which segues into a couple of passages from African American literature that my students in U.S. ethnic literature can choose from to write their first papers around. Relevant, I believe, for today’s racial landscape.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963):

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.

I know your countrymen do not agree with me here and I hear them saying, “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words ‘acceptance’ and ‘integration.’ There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. (7-8)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987):

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own. (234)

Bodies beyond binaries

I spend a fair amount of time prepping for class, especially new courses like the Introduction to Sexuality Studies grad seminar that I have this term. So might as well share the knowledge. This will serve as my substitute for keeping track of the hours, which I clearly cannot manage to do. Diaries take a daily discipline that I cannot maintain.

For context, our previous meetings focused on theories of sexuality, queer theory, and queer of color critique; histories of sexuality, and histories of racialized and colonized sexualities; sciences of sexuality, sexology, eugenics, sterilization, and the racial/class politics of reproductive technologies. Today’s class is titled “Bodies beyond borders” and has sections on queer disability, intersex, and Two-Spirit/trans studies.

My approach to the course is one I’ve come to think of as “wide reading” (which, it turns out according to the interwebz, is an actual thing in education-think): put lots of stuff on the table, and hope that students find a few ideas worth their while. Here are some things that stick for me.

On desiring disability:

Clare, Eli. “Gawking, Gaping, Staring.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003): 257-61.

Cripples, queers, gimps, freaks: we are looking for teachers and lovers—teachers to stand with us against the gawking; lovers to reach beneath our clothing, beneath the words that attempt to name us, beneath our shame and armor, their eyes and hands helping return us to grace, beauty, passion. He cradles my right hand against his body and says, “Your tremors feel so good.” And says, “I can’t get enough of your shaky touch.” And says, “I love your cerebral palsy.” This man who is my lover. Shame and disbelief flood my body, drowning his words. How do I begin to learn his lustful gaze? (258)

On cultural presumptions about disability and sexuality:

Kafer, Alison. “Compulsory Bodies: Reflections on Heterosexuality and Able-Bodiedness.” Journal of Women’s History 15.3 (2003): 77-89.

For women with disabilities, this lack of recognition [of lesbianism according to Adrienne Rich’s analysis of compulsory heterosexuality] often takes other forms: because of their disabilities, they are perceived as being incapable of finding male partners and thus must have turned to lesbianism as a last resort; their same-sex desires are cast as signs of disability-related confusion; or their same-sex relationships are constructed as platonic due to their perceived asexuality. Indeed, many disabled women, queer and straight alike, have critiqued the pervasive assumption that people with disabilities are either asexual (for those with physical disabilities) or hypersexual (typically those with cognitive or psychiatric disabilities and illnesses). The sexuality of people with disabilities is understood as always already deviant; when queer desires and practices are recognized as such, they merely magnify or exacerbate that deviance. (82)

On African FGM vs. U.S. intersex infant surgery:

Chase, Cheryl. “Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism.” GLQ: Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 4.2 (1998): 189-211.

These representations [of African girls in pain] all manifest a profound othering of African clitorectomy that contributes to the silence surrounding similar medicalized practices in the industrialized West. “Their” genital cutting is barbaric ritual; “ours” is scientific. Theirs disfigures; ours normalizes the deviant. The colonialist implications of these representations of genital cutting are even more glaringly obvious when images of intersex surgeries are juxtaposed with images of African FGM. Medical books describing how to perform clitoral surgery on white North American intersex children are almost always illustrated with extreme genital close-ups, disconnecting the genitals not only from the individual intersexed person but from the body itself. Full-body shots always have the eyes blacked out. Why is it considered necessary to black out the eyes of clitorectomized American girls—thus preserving a shred of their privacy and helping ward off the viewer’s identification with the abject image—but not the eyes of the clitorectomized African girls in the pages of American magazines? (206)

On Two-Spirit and sexual colonization:

Driskill, Qwo-li. “Stolen from Our Bodies: First Nations Two-Spirits/Queers and the Journey to a Sovereign Erotic.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.2 (2004): 50-64.

The term “Two-Spirit” is a word that resists colonial definitions of who we are. It is an expression of our sexual and gender identities as sovereign from those of white GLBT movements. The coinage of the word was never meant to create a monolithic understanding of the array of Native traditions regarding what dominant European and Euroamerican traditions call “alternative” genders and sexualities. The term came into use in 1990 at a gathering of Native Queer/Two-Spirit people in Winnipeg as a means to resist the use of the word “berdache,” and also as a way to talk about our sexualities and genders from within tribal contexts in English (Jacobs et al. 2). I find myself using both the words “Queer” and “Trans” to try to translate my gendered and sexual realities for those not familiar with Native traditions, but at heart, if there is a term that could possibly describe me in English, I simply consider myself a Two-Spirit person. The process of translating Two Spiritness with terms in white communities becomes very complex. I’m not necessarily “Queer” in Cherokee contexts, because differences are not seen in the same light as they are in Euroamerican contexts. I’m not necessarily “Transgender” in Cherokee contexts, because I’m simply the gender I am. I’m not necessarily “Gay,” because that word rests on the concept of men-loving-men, and ignores the complexity of my gender identity. It is only within the rigid gender regimes of white America that I become Trans or Queer. While homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are problems in Native communities, in many of our tribal realities these forms of oppression are the result of colonization and genocide that cannot accept women as leaders, or people with extraordinary genders and sexualities. As Native people, our erotic lives and identities have been colonized along with our homelands. (52)

On questioning metronormativity:

Halberstam, Judith. “The Brandon Archive.” In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005. 22-46.

For queers who flee the confines of the rural Midwest and take comfort in urban anonymity, this video [The Brandon Teena Story (1998)] may serve as a justification of their worst fears about the violent effects of failing to flee; closer readings of Brandon’s story, however, reveal the desire shared by many midwestern queers for a way of staying rather than leaving. While some journalists in the wake of Brandon’s murder queried his decision to stay in Falls City, despite having been hounded by the police and raped by the men who went on to murder him, we must consider the condition of “staying put” as part of the production of complex queer subjectivities. Some queers need to leave home in order to become queer, and others need to stay close to home in order to preserve their difference. (27)

On state violence:

Spade, Dean. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Brooklyn: South End Press, 2011.

Social movements engaged in resistance have given us a very different portrayal of the United States than what is taught in most elementary school classrooms and textbooks. The patriotic narrative delivered at school tells us a few key lies about US law and politics: that the United States is a democracy in which law and policy derive from what a majority of people think is best, that the United States used to be racist and sexist but is now fair and neutral thanks to changes in the law, and that if particular groups experience harm, they can appeal to the law for protection. Social movements have challenged this narrative, identifying the United States as a settler colony and a racial project, founded and built through genocide and enslavement. They have shown that the United States has always had laws that arrange people through / categories of indigeneity, race, gender, ability, and national origin to produce populations with different levels of vulnerability to economic exploitation, violence, and poverty. These counter narratives have challenged the notion that violence is a result of private individuals with bad ideas and that the state is where we should look for protection from such violence. Conversely, resistant political theorists and social movements have helped us understand the concept of “state violence,” which has been essential for exposing the central harms faced by native people, women, people of color, people with disabilities, and immigrants. They have exposed that state programs and law enforcement are not the arbiters of justice, protection, and safety but are instead sponsors and sites of violence. Additionally, this work has developed the understanding that power is decentralized and that certain practices, ways of knowing, norms, and technologies of power are distributed in myriad ways rather than only from a single person or institution. It has cautioned us against an overly narrow, simplified vision of power that sees power as a possession primarily held by government officials. This perspective eliminates the false notion that we could win the change people need simply by using the electoral process to vote in certain representatives or pass certain laws. (20-1)


John Oliver on income inequality

Just two days after my first post on unbecoming privilege, John Oliver on Last Week Tonight performed a satirical take on the ever-widening gap between the super-rich in the U.S. and everyone else — noting as well that extreme income inequality is a global phenomenon. Amidst the usual jokes and banter, there was some incisive commentary on how this issue gets framed, raised, erased, and vilified as un-American in our country. A few highlights:

President Obama’s statement in December 2013 that “the combined trends of increased inequality and decreased mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe” — what he described as “the defining challenge of our time” — is quickly denounced by conservatives as instigating “class warfare.” The White House, in turn, retreats from the “ameliorative assault” on income and wealth disparities. (For a full transcript of the Dec. 4, 2013, speech, see “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility.”)

News clip: “A new analysis shows the richest Americans, the top 1%, made nearly 20% of all the available income in America last year [pie chart displays 19.3%]. That’s the widest income gap since the Roaring Twenties.” Oliver makes a crack about how un-ominous that pronouncement is . . . since the Thirties surely kept that rollicking party going.

But most important, says Oliver, “In this time, we have actively introduced policies disproportionately benefiting the wealthy, like cutting income tax, capital gains tax rates for the richest in half . . . .” So why, in a democracy, would the general populace not be (more) outraged by policies that advantage a few and disadvantage the many? Oliver’s answer: “optimism.”

Or rather: ideological contradiction. He cites a Pew Research poll reporting that 60% of Americans “feel the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy” but, at the same time, revealing that 60% also believe that “people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard.” (For the Pew Research report, visit “Most See Inequality Growing, but Partisans Differ over Solutions.”)

Oliver again, speaking from the position of a Brit raised in a class-structured society: “You’re optimism is overwhelmingly positive — except, except when it leads you to act against your own best interests.” He goes on to give the example of the federal estate tax on inherited wealth: “It helps to limit the terrible possibility of a permanent landed gentry.” He points out that “99.86% of estates owe no estate tax at all,” and yet that tax is always being threatened to be abolished by wealthy politicians. Even though a tiny fraction of the population is actually affected by this tax on $5 million estates, it’s routinely under attack because “people assume that it will one day apply to them.”

The absurdity of this long-shot optimism Oliver illustrates by showing clips of financial experts advising people on what to do when they win the lottery. Then he demonstrates the ludicrosity by playing “America ball”: the first game is for those who have inherited wealth (3 white balls are bouncing merrily around the cage, 2 are drawn as lottery winners); the second for those who were born poor (a broken machine is stuffed to the gills with disproportionate numbers of brown and black balls).

Central Americans at the border

In response to spit(e)ful Murrieta, CA, and preemptive League City, TX, and to reiterate the adage that “we are here because you were there,” I’ve compiled a list of pieces reminding us that migration and displacement have histories. In the cases of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, that imperial and economic history is not pretty.

Also, because the favorite interrogatory of anti-immigrant protestors seems to be “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” let’s have the experts remind us that immigration law has a history too — one that’s quite convoluted, structured by colonialism and racism, and hardly as straightforward as the aggressive question suggests. Indeed, I would ask: what part of illegal — or legal — immigration do you understand? But, of course, the protests aren’t at all about legality and illegality, knowing the rules and following the procedures. They’re about belonging and non-belonging, race and racism, the deserving and the un-deserving. Historical and legal details aside, the thing that gets me the most about the question (besides its obvious hypocrisy for the typical American who doesn’t know the answer) is that it not only ridicules its imaginary interlocutor as self-evidently stupid, but also naturalizes national borders as though they were cut into planet earth, as though the exercise of national sovereignty and its “legal” machinations implemented through some 140 years of restrictive immigration policy were always and forever the case — much less just

Since I can’t find an on-line distillation of Mae Ngai’s book, let me just quote one passage from it:

The controversies over immigration policy taking place at the beginning of the twenty-first century center on whether immigrants contribute positively or deleteriously to the nation’s economy and culture, but there is virtually no political support for open or numerically unrestricted immigration. If the principle of immigration restriction has become an unquestioned assumption of contemporary politics, we need to ask how it got to be that way and to consider its place in the historical construction of the nation. (5)

I like this passage because it frankly questions the assumption that nearly all contenders over immigration reform take for granted: why do we have numerically restricted immigration in the first place?

Unbecoming Privilege I

This is my first entry on what will likely be a series of reflections on “unbecoming privilege.” I suspect there should be some irritating academic punctuation going on in there — a slash or a couple of parentheses and maybe even an implied “d” at the end — but I’ll leave it for now and let the sound resonate with potential meanings (undoing privilege, privilege is unbecoming, on becoming privileged, on becoming unprivileged, etc.). I’ve been thinking about this topic for years, but I don’t really know how to approach it. It has something to do with the “model minority” myth and processes of social assimilation, liberal multiculturalism, and upward mobility. It has something to do with interracial politics and perceptions of success and blame. It has something to do with the weird ways that class and queerness — gay male materialism — intersect and get manifested in this country. It has something to do with the history of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines and post-1965 U.S. immigration law and occupational preferences. It has a lot to do with the contingency, if not utter randomness, of my family’s history of movement and mobility, and even more so with my own idiosyncratic views toward, discomfort with, various forms of capital (which is not the same thing as power). And at the end of it all, structural conditions of possibility notwithstanding, I cannot discount the importance of that gravest of all abused American moral values: hard work.

At bottom, it has everything to do with inequality and injustice.

A chance opportunity to write a review of Gina Apostol’s eloquent and engrossing novel Gun Dealers’ Daughter (2010/2012) for the American Book Review enabled me to get down a few thoughts, but really from a far far distance (class-wise and geography-wise).

At any rate, I’ll try to record passages from other people’s work — at random, as I come across them, not necessarily because I agree with them wholeheartedly — that get at some of the things I’m thinking about. This one is from the Preface to Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk (2000):

The book you hold in your hand is offered as my flawed attempt to draw from Du Bois as I write of my South Asian American brethren whose presence in the United States complicates the narrative Du Bois offered a century ago. “How does it feel to be a problem?” Du Bois begins Souls [The Souls of Black Folk (1903)]? White supremacy treats black folk as if they are themselves a problem, a history that lingers on as more and more is said about “personal responsibility” and as the U.S. government divests itself and the economic system of any culpability in the genocide against blacks. As South Asians have entered the United States in the past thirty years, there has been a tendency to compare our destiny with that of black folk. If these brown folk can make it, say people like Thomas Sowell, Dinesh D’Souza, and the neoconservatives, then why can’t black folk? A hundred years after Souls, Du Bois’s question remains.

But there is also another question that needs to be asked, and this book will take it as its central problem: “How does it feel to be a solution?” Addressed to all Asians, but increasingly with special reference to South Asians, this question asks us brown folk how we can live with ourselves as we are pledged and sometimes, in an act of bad faith, pledge ourselves, as a weapon against black folk. What does it mean, this book asks, for us to mollify the wrath of white supremacy by making a claim to a great destiny when we are ourselves only a product of state engineering through immigration controls and of the beneficence of more socialized systems of education in South Asia, or when we are but the children of those who have accumulated a certain amount of cultural capital because of those processes? (vii-viii)

Interestingly, Apostol’s narrator-protagonist — the elite-born Sol, the titular gun dealers’ daughter whose father sells arms to the U.S.-backed Marcos regime in the Philippines (c. 1972-1986) that become the instruments with which the government’s counterinsurgency forces massacre guerrilla rebels and their families and local supporters — uses the same language of problem and solution when challenging the even more elite-born Jed and his revolutionary idealism:

We live outside of the country’s rules. We can do whatever we want. We can commit crimes. We can even play at revolution. We could kill people, for all we knew. And then in the end we will always get away. We’re cockroaches. It’s we who are the problem, Jed. Don’t you see? [. . .] We’ll always have our wealth, we will always have our names. There is something suspicious, dishonest, in playacting revolt. We’re cockroaches. We’ll outlast even our crimes. (138, 139)

I won’t give away the plot (the review does, though, spoiler alert). But the novel, at least for me, raises the sort of moral-political question that Prashad seems to be driving at, albeit in a very different context: how can those racialized people who possess cultural capital — and, yes, financial capital — live with ourselves in the midst of extreme inequality and not be deployed as rhetorical and ideological weapons against those who are deprived of such (precarious, contingent) possessions?


call me diversity

… because I just won another diversity award, this one at the division (Arts & Humanities) level. Last year, I was given a university-level diversity award. Some people work to make their institutions more diverse and inclusive. Others embody diversity by virtue of their, uh, bodies. I, apparently, do/am both. I am diverse. My name at my institution is diversity.

Let me tell why this isn’t bragging. Let me tell you why there’s shame attached to this allegedly well-meaning sign of recognition.

I wrote a bit in an earlier post about my ambivalence toward the previous award, acknowledging my sincere gratitude to the colleagues and students with whom I do this work (diversity work is not solo work, like reading a novel, which is often what I would rather be doing), while expressing my annoyance with the fact that the awardees would be publicly recognized at, of all places, a football game. At the end of that post, I suggested that the comparatively lower amount given to diversity awards versus staff, teaching, and scholarship awards intimates that the former “operate as safety valves and cynical covers. What could be a better alibi declaring that the university values diversity than by having an annual award dedicated to it?” — even if the value of that award is at the bottom of the pay-out scale.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful (see below), I take this most recent (less-than-)celebratory occasion of becoming Crown Prince of Diversity at my school to elaborate on that last point. In fact, I will take this occasion to post some remarks that I had prepared to give at a campus event held this past spring semester called “Diversity Talk: Changing the Discourse, Changing Course” — but that I ended up changing (toning down) the night before.

In both cases, though, I aimed at trying to bridge the gap between diversity-talk as a “climate” or “student life” issue and diversity-talk as it relates to the institutional structures that shape the pursuit of research and teaching in “diversity” fields. (The necessity for scare quotes indicates how weird and ridiculous it sounds to call ethnic, gender, sexuality, disability studies studies in and about “diversity.”) In other words, yes, it’s important to address issues of racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and homophobia on our campus and to seek to create an environment where everyone feels welcome and safe. And, without doubt, my campus and the surrounding area has been subject to various, highly visible forms of discrimination, hate, and intimidation toward minorities over the past year or so. But I’m always disheartened and appalled when the very scholarly fields that directly address those histories of violence, oppression, and subordination are neglected and left out of the climate and recruitment-and-retention conversations. The most explicit evidence of that sidelining is the way that certain interdisciplinary programs are treated and perceived: as financial drains, as serving only a small number of students, as being led by an exclusive clique of faculty who are situated in and represent only one disciplinary area of the university.

So, of course, I wonder why. The simple answer is that those fields — in their critical iterations — constitute threats to the neoliberal/corporate/globalized whatever-makes-money university. As Roderick Ferguson points out in his recent book The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012), the social movements of the 1960s and 70s and the changes in higher education to which they gave rise forced university administrations (along with the state and capital) to affirm — rather than outright exclude or suppress — what he terms minority difference. But that affirmation, he argues, often took the form of managing difference, in effect, neutralizing by accommodating some of the transformative hopes that galvanized the earlier generation of student and faculty activists and mediating them through the hierarchical and normativizing structures of academia.

My sense is that in the post-multiculturalism era diversity awards — like diversity mission statements, diversity reports, diversity course requirements, diversity personnel protocols — operate through a similar logic of affirmation-as-management. And my “Diversity Talk” remarks tried to articulate one specific modality through which they do so, a modality whose (facetious) equation might look like: devaluation + frustration = diversity award. So here’s part of the first version — the angry version, the version that I ended up not delivering:

“I was hired as the first Asian Americanist in the English department in 2005 — and, to date, the only person recruited through the typical hiring process as an Asian Americanist. Across the four campuses, the English department consists of nearly 100 full-time tenure and tenure-track faculty members. It’s hard not to see my appointment as a gesture of racial tokenism — a recognition that focusing on Asian American literature is a legitimate area of specialization in English studies and should therefore be done in this department as well. But, of course, we can’t really afford more than one position in that area because we have so many more pressing needs. The message is clear: one is good; one is enough; more than one is too many; more than two and we might have a yellow peril on our hands. Within the grand scheme of English studies at my institution, Asian American studies represents a tiny fraction of the field — 1%, in fact. It constitutes about 1% of ‘what we do.’

“So what does this mean for the 1% that has to fulfill all of the same requirements for tenure and promotion that his similarly-positioned colleagues have to do? It means that there are no senior colleagues who are experts in your field. It means that the kinds of conversations you can have about your research are necessarily limited — limited to the level of theory, or methodology, or readability, or clarity, or tenurability, but not extending to the level of the archive, or possible archive, that you’re grappling with or trying to document. It means that there aren’t a whole lot of people around who keep abreast of trends in your field and who might surprise you and say: hey, have you checked out this new monograph, anthology, novel, film? It also means that you can’t bank on walking down the hall and asking your colleague what it’s like to teach such-and-such a book in this department or whether a syllabus you’ve constructed offers a good sampling of the field’s history and current directions. It means that you don’t have colleagues at your institution who are already plugged into the professional networks that operate in your field. They are not editors of journals or book series in your field; they don’t know personally the senior folks in your area; they can’t hook you up.

“All of this means that you have to look elsewhere for intellectual community — conferences, workshops, symposia — and make those connections on your own. (I attended and participated in about 16 conferences and workshops during my first 5 years as an ass-prof, fresh out of grad school.) Your relationship to your own institution grows increasingly tenuous, more prone to disidentification and alienation. And that alienation comes from the recognition that somewhere along the line there was a serious lack of foresight in the idea of hiring one person who specializes in Asian American studies. This lack of foresight is not merely an indication of the lack of care given to the new faculty member; it is more consequentially an indication of the lack of regard given to the field that the new faculty member is supposed to ‘represent.’

“As a side note, it’s worth emphasizing that enrollment-based justifications for new hires are based on a customer-service model of education that maintains the status quo through institutional reproduction. The assumption is that if there aren’t masses of students clamoring for Asian American studies courses, then there’s no need to expand the faculty or curriculum. But students aren’t going to desire something that they don’t know exists, and that the institution, by virtue of its non-support, devalues to begin with. This is how institutional reproduction works in an officially anti-racist climate: posture as if student demand — potential revenue generators — determines where resources are allocated.

“To resume my narrative, since intellectual support — with the notable exception of the Diversity Enhancement Program for junior faculty of color — was not already in place, I felt like I was supporting the institution more than vice versa, especially in taking on the role of coordinator of the Asian American studies program in my second year when there was no one else to do it. And while many people warned me not to — cautioning that it would take time away from my research and might very well prevent me from getting tenure — I went ahead with it anyway because I didn’t want to work at an institution that didn’t have an Asian American studies presence at all, however minimal. I also felt a responsibility to keep the program going, even if the history of the program’s existence was rather vague to me. As it turned out, the job was an enormous time-suck, deeply frustrating, and only confirmed my sense that the university could care less about the field I work in. (Of course, good things came out of it too — my great, if still too few, colleagues in Asian American studies and in adjacent fields.)

“In the end, I’m not too worried about whether my school thinks Asian American studies is important or not. But there is one thing that does worry me: the possibility that I was played for a fool. Others have noted that, although tenure and promotion requirements regarding research, teaching, and service may be equal across the board, the kind and intensity of labor engaged by certain junior faculty members, particularly women and other social minorities, is patently not equal. My (rather sinister) reading of this uneven playing field is that the university is not blind to it, is well aware of the added burdens that women faculty and faculty of color assume, and is entirely fine with that. If they succeed, great, we have another do-gooder on our hands who can further the university’s ‘diversity mission,’ who can be called on for anything and everything related to diversity. And if they don’t succeed, well, it’s too bad that they overcommitted themselves to service when we explicitly told them not to do that, advised them to protect their time, encouraged them to focus on pursuing their research and getting tenure above all else.

“This, then, is what I cannot bear to consider: that I have fulfilled — and continue to fulfill — the vomitous stereotype of the model minority: the extra hard-working Asian houseboy who gets it all done. With a smile.

“Sara Ahmed writes in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), ‘When our appointments and promotions [and awards?] are taken up as signs of organizational commitment to equality and diversity, we are in trouble. Any success is read as a sign of an overcoming of institutional whiteness. [. . .] Our talk about whiteness is read as a sign of ingratitude, of failing to be grateful for the hospitality we have received by virtue of our arrival’ (43).

“The trouble in mind? That I was played, for a fool.”

And now they’ve given me a jester’s cap, for a crown.