Tipping toward possibility: an alternative framing of identity

This week in North Philly Notes, Milo Obourn, author of Disabled Futures, writes about the thorny issues of identity politics. 

A recent episode of NPR’s 1A featured a story about the great divide in political thinking that blamed, you’ll never guess, identity politics.

Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC’s On the Media was arguing that the U.S. has an “identity obsessed culture” which “erodes the ideal of e pluribus unum” and inevitably leads to authoritarianism. Identity politics in this reading is factionalism that keeps us from working together, not the result of long histories of resistance to very targeted and explicit violences and discriminations. I could not help but think of the images that circulated after the 2017 Women’s March of a person I read as an older woman looking bored and holding a protest sign that reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” The image is now a poster, pin, and T-shirt you can buy on Amazon. Even the wry commentary on the never-ending cycle of the same political and social arguments is commodified into the never-ending cycle of capitalist incorporation of political and social arguments. How to get out?

Disabled Futures_022719_smThis question of “how to get out” underlies many of the theoretical moves I make in Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion. In this book, I explore the concept of “racialized disgender” as a way of framing identity that is not about a series of contemporary differences but rather a complex and nuanced framework of power in which ideologies of ability inform and construct our understanding of gender. A framework of power in which racism and constructions of dis/ability and its use to do violence to bodies are inextricable. A framework of power in which no one living in contemporary U.S. society is unaffected or unharmed by the ways race, gender, and dis/ability are assigned to our material selves. And finally, a framework in which no one couldn’t use their own experience to start to unpack how all oppression is, to quote Staceyann Chin, connected.

My first book Reconstituting Americans: Liberal Multiculturalism and Identity Difference in Post-1960s Literature was a way for me to deconstruct the fear of an “identity politics” that looms in popular culture as a force of divisiveness that causes those with historically marginalized identities to cling to our pain and/or is criticized for being empty politically correct nonsense—the kind of identity politics that turned “diversity and inclusion” into buzzwords translating into serving tacos in school cafeterias to represent Mexican culture. I wanted in this first book to think about how narrative and literary representation can help readers understand the ways American liberalism has eroded or put up barriers to our understanding of the politics surrounding identity oppression as offering us actual avenues for justice, knowledge, and ways to thrive in this world. It was a “how we got distracted” after all this work kind of book. Our world is full of these distractions—instead of wondering why things are so deeply inequitable we focus on Black people and Jewish people not getting along; instead of wondering how to make people feel more valued, safe, and included we argue about whether we should call it a “safe space” or a “brave space;” instead of asking why we have so many homeless trans youth and trans women of color being murdered every year; we focus on whether it’s okay to allow people in bathrooms and the struggles cis parents have understanding trans kids.

When I started writing Disabled Futures, I was ready to move beyond why we get stuck and look at models for how to frame our work toward greater justice in relation to inextricable intersections not just between marginalized identities but between systems of power that impact us all. What made me ready? Two things. First, I lost a child in infancy, I got very depressed, and the only thing that I could manage to do productively was work related to implementing active change based on knowledge from my academic research. Need a workshop on white privilege and how white people can process and own that? I was on it. Build a team to offer trainings on why respecting names and pronouns is important? I’m your trans person. The loss of this baby, Woolf, made any more critique without implementation feel like yet another distraction. I wanted a more potentially realizable (if still complex and very challenging) framework for understanding questions of identity and justice. The second and related thing was that I stepped in as Brockport’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer and found myself excited to be in a different relation to the immediate systems around me, to have my focus be big picture systems and the communities that inhabit them, as well as building connections with students outside of the classroom where I could mentor them in self advocacy that was not draining and distracting, but helpful to their ability to flourish in their academic life as well.

As an academic, I have been trained in critique. I have not been formally trained to present solutions. Disabled Futures is not a solution per se. But I felt at the point I was writing it that I needed the perspective of solution to survive and to thrive and that is the perspective I carried into my writing. I am committed in Disabled Futures to the idea that analyzing complex representations of race, gender, and dis/ability closely offers shifts in perspective that can keep us out of the cycle of distraction and argumentation, without devaluing the political and social knowledge that comes from living with and advocating from our social identity positions.

Years ago, when I discovered disability theory it gave me the seeds of some of the connections I make in this book. It let me talk about woundedness and impairment without shame or feeling like I had to isolate the harm of violence from the power of processing and living through it. To me this was applicable not only to disability as we understand it in our current moment but to the ways disability and ability form and inform all of our identities. It was a way to talk about whiteness and identity without fear that it would become white supremacy (the only choice according to the 1A interview with Garfield); a way of thinking about how dominant social identities work in complex collaboration with marginalization, not as its opposition, and not in ways that leave any of us unscathed by history. It was a way of connecting to myself and to years of academic study that I hadn’t known before and it became the platform for a theory of possibility. I hope that readers will leave this book tipping slightly more in the direction of possibility.

Considering gay economies of desire, intraracial romance, and sexual intimacy

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Wu, author of Sticky Rice, writes about issues of race and sexuality, the subjects of her new book, a critical literary study.

Last month, Sinakhone Keodara, a Lao American actor, screenwriter, and entertainment executive, made headlines when he announced on Twitter his plans to file a class-action lawsuit against Grindr, a popular geosocial networking app for men interested in dating other men. The problem? The commonplace declarations that announce “no Asians,” which are allowed by moderators to remain on user profiles. Those who broadcast this restriction are mostly, but not exclusively, white.  Their ubiquity creates a hostile climate for Asian American men.

In a separate statement, Keodara clarified that white men should not “flatter [themselves]” to imagine that Asian American men need to convince them of their appeal. Rather, these outward expressions of racial loathing tap into a larger historical fetch of inequities leveled against people of Asian descent—from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the World War II Japanese American internment, and the Department of Homeland Security’s present-day profiling of Arab and South Asian Americans.

Keodara’s refusal to uphold white men’s primacy in the gay economy of desire resonates with the premises of Sticky Rice: A Politics of Intraracial Desire.  “Sticky rice” is a term coined by gay Asian American men to denote those amongst them who prefer intraracial romantic and sexual intimacies. As the logic goes, Asian American men who stick to themselves—like the types of rice grains favored by many Asian cuisines—disrupt presumptions about their aspirations to both whiteness and heteronormativity.

Sticky Rice_smMy book is not an ethnography of these men, however. It is a literary critical study that borrows from their language of intraracial bonding to revisit some of the most widely read selections in the canon of Asian American literature. In so doing, it revises an origin narrative about this body of work that has taken the heterosexuality of its seminal texts for granted.

John Okada’s 1957 novel, No-No Boy, presents a key example of how returning to old texts with new lenses produces a more nuanced story about the rise of an Asian American arts and culture movement. The novel, ignored upon its publication, was later championed by an all-male vanguard of separatist cultural producers in the early 1970s. These novelists, poets, and playwrights were known for their public condemnation of femininity and queerness. Okada’s work, they asserted, portrayed a shining model of politicized Asian American manhood in line with their stringent ideals.

No-No Boy, set in the period right after World War II, tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two Japanese American men, a disabled veteran and a nondisabled draft resister. The former holds the approval of the United States for his patriotic sacrifice to the nation, while the latter is condemned for his refusal to join the Army from within the confines of an internment camp.

The novel is often read as a treatise on the impossibility of choosing between a violent and—ultimately—fatal assimilation and a resistance that could not be realized in the midst of the Cold War. What has been overlooked in the literary criticism on No-No Boy is the erotic and sexual attraction between the main characters. I argue that the bond between the two men dissipates the either-or dichotomy that divided Japanese Americans during and after the war. Moreover, it calls into question the favorability of proximity to whiteness and heterosexuality alike.

That men of color could afford or would want to turn away from these trappings of legitimacy is often unthinkable. The lawsuit Keodara is threatening against Grindr, after all, is a reaction to the social acceptability of rejecting Asian American men on racially discriminatory grounds. We all know that a common response to rejection is more impassioned efforts at inclusion.

However, rather than compensatorily clinging to mainstream standards, the male characters in Asian American literature’s seminal texts show that we need a wholesale rethinking of love, intimacy, justice, and community. Their bonds with one another and their relentless intent to stick together become the basis on which we can imagine a different order of values.

Research Libraries, University Presses Oppose Trump’s Immigration Order

This week in North Philly Notes, we report the American Research Libraries and Association of American University Presses’ statement opposing President Trump’s Immigration Order

January 30, 2017—President Trump’s recent executive order temporarily barring entry into the US by individuals from seven countries is contrary to the values held by libraries and presses, and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) stand unequivocally opposed to this immigration ban.

The order blocks some members of our communities as well as students, researchers, authors, faculty, and their families from entering or returning to the United States if they are currently abroad or leave the country, even if they hold the required visas. The ban will diminish the valuable contributions made to our institutions and to society by individuals from the affected countries. This discriminatory order will deeply impact the ability of our communities to foster dialogue, promote diversity, enrich understanding, advance the progress of intellectual discovery, and ensure preservation of our cultural heritage.

The work we do—particularly the books we publish and collect—illuminates the past and sheds new light on current conversations; informed by this work we believe that the rationale for the ban both ignores history and places assumptions ahead of facts. More importantly, this decision will greatly harm some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The United States should not turn its back on refugees who are fleeing their war-torn homes and have already endured long, extensive screening procedures in the relocation process.

Finally, while temporary, the ban will have a long-term chilling effect on free academic inquiry. This order sends a clear message to researchers, scholars, authors, and students that the United States is not an open and welcoming place in which to live and study, conduct research, write, and hold or attend conferences and symposia. The ban will disrupt and undermine international academic collaboration in the sciences, the humanities, technology, and global health.

ARL and AAUP have longstanding histories of and commitments to diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. As social institutions, research libraries, archives, and university presses strive to be welcoming havens for all members of our communities and work hard to be inclusive in our hiring, collections, books and publications, services, and environments. The immigration ban in its current form is antithetical to notions of intellectual freedom and free inquiry fundamental to the missions of libraries and presses. By serving as inclusive communities, research libraries, archives, and university presses have deeply benefited from the contributions of students, faculty, staff, and scholars of all backgrounds and citizenships.

ARL and AAUP support all members of their communities and all students, researchers, authors, and faculty who are impacted by this executive order. The two associations urge President Trump to rescind this order and urge Congress to intervene on behalf of those affected by the immigration ban.

 

Something to be Proud Of

In this blog entry, Jamie Longazel, author of Undocumented Fearswrites about the pride, shame and legacy of his hometown of Hazleton, PA.

People talk a lot about being proud of where they’re from. Understandably so: It’s nice to feel connected, to be able to associate with a place and call it ‘home.’

I’m proud of where I’m from. I was born and raised in Hazleton – a hardscrabble, former coalmining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Like anywhere else, we have our own dialect (we say “youse” instead of “you all”), cuisine (you ought to try the cold pizza!), and ways of doing things that folks from other places probably wouldn’t understand.

Undocumented Fears_smMy book Undocumented Fears is about my hometown. And I can say with confidence now that pride is what drove me to write it. Part of me knew this all along. At first, though, it felt like my pride was either backwards or upside-down. What I now call pride actually felt like the opposite in the beginning. Shame, perhaps.

I was not proud of what my hometown did, you see. Certainly not in the way we traditionally think about pride and place.

Back in 2006, Hazleton was getting national attention when it passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. This was a local ordinance meant to punish landlords and businesses who rented to or hired undocumented immigrants. It also made English the official language of the city.

The ordinance came at a time when Hazleton was going through some significant changes. The decent-paying, long-term manufacturing jobs that kept the city afloat for several decades were on their way out. Warehouses, distribution centers, and a meatpacking plant – with lower paying, temporary, and sometimes dangerous jobs – were on their way in.

With these economic changes came demographic changes. Many Latina/o immigrants relocated to Hazleton over a very short period. Ninety-five percent White at the time of the 2000 census, the city was approximately 36% Latina/o by 2006.

Change can be confusing. Sociologists have long known that in moments like this, communities tend to come together and try to make sense of it all. We grasp for explanations. We seek to redefine who we are.

I get it. The poverty appears starker each time I visit, and it breaks my heart to see my city and its people go through that. This is why I have been so committed to figuring out what is actually going on.

When I think of home – especially since learning more about Hazleton’s history – I think of anthracite coal. In its ‘heyday,’ European immigrants toiled in mines in and around Hazleton facing notoriously low pay, disturbingly high rates of disease and death, and mine bosses who mastered the art of pitting ethnic groups against one another. To me this legacy is central to who we are.

In 2006, however, politicians started warning about undocumented immigrants who were committing crime and draining all the resources. Following their lead, people started blaming immigrants for their troubles.

Chalk it up to ignorance if you’d like, but also keep people’s yearning for collective identity in mind. I describe in the book how debates over the ordinance introduced degrading myths about who ‘they’ supposedly were (e.g., illegal, lazy, transient, noisy) – stereotypes that Latina/os troublingly have to endure in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, these myths provided the established, predominately white community with a contrast against which they could articulate a fresh conception of ‘us’ (e.g., law-abiding, hardworking, rooted, quiet).

What prevailed was an image of Hazleton as ‘Small Town, USA’ – which, like the idea that Hazleton is being ‘invaded’ by undocumented immigrants, just plainly is not true.

This is not to say that Hazleton and its people are undesirable or unworthy of this designation. The point is that ‘desirability’ as it is presented here relies on demonization and is fed to us from above. We’re pointing our fingers in the wrong direction. We’re being told who we are rather than deciding that for ourselves.

The form of industry changed, but in Hazleton, and across the country, for that matter, there is a wide gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It is as if the coal barons of yesteryear are still around today. They do not want us to know that, of course, for if we did we might carry on the legacy of our mining ancestors and rally against low pay, brutal working conditions, and unfair treatment.

The ‘pride’ we often see in nostalgic yearnings for the ‘good ol’ days’ in ‘Small Town America’ in this sense isn’t pride at all. It’s detachment. It’s a decoy….It’s a dream.

I learned something about my city while writing this book, and I learned something about pride. Real pride requires authenticity. It requires confrontation. Pride is what keeps you from backing down when someone challenges your identity.

I show off my pride today by choosing the gritty reality of a post-industrial city over idealized and racist myths offered by opportunistic politicians.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer prosperity. But we can’t just close our eyes and imagine a time when it supposedly existed. We ought to see ourselves as poor and working people who are part of an ongoing struggle in which immigrants are allies, not enemies.

If we want our poverty to end, we need to know who is actually perpetuating it. Then we need to rally together across our differences and demand changes in the way we are treated. That would be something to be proud of.

%d bloggers like this: