Tag Archives: racism

On Miley Cyrus and Racism

26 Aug

So this happened last night:

… and the internet (predictably) exploded.

And just to be clear, I agree that what Miley did was frankly disgusting, but not for the reasons that you might think.

Most of the criticism of Miley’s VMA performance has focussed on her attire and dancing style, with people claiming that her dress (or rather, state of undress) and sexual movements were vulgar, degrading and slutty. Quite a few people mentioned that her parents must be ashamed; there was a lot of discussion about how sad it was that sweet, innocent Hannah Montana had come to this. I saw a lot of derisive remarks about how Miley wants attention at any cost; some even went so far to say that Miley is sick and that this behaviour was a cry for help.

Then, this morning, I watched a fuckton of white feminists totally ignore the racist aspects of what Miley did in their rush to defend her from slut-shaming.

Now, let’s be clear: there was definitely a lot of slut-shaming going on, and it was really fucking disgusting. But what was equally disgusting was white feminists’ silence over Miley’s minstrel show.

What Miley is doing is cultural appropriation. She, a wealthy white woman, is taking elements from black culture in order to achieve a specific image. Her status as a member of a traditionally oppressive race and class means that she is able to pick and choose what parts of black culture she wants to embrace without having to deal with the racism and racialization that black women live with every day. In short, she can imagine that she is being “ghetto” without having any concept of what living in a ghetto would really mean.

Miley is doing her best to promote herself as a part of rachet culture, which Jody Rosen describes as “the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies,” while simultaneously treating the black women in her videos and performances as props. She is taking elements of black culture and using them to give her the patina of street cred that she wants so badly. She is playing at being black without even trying to understand what the lived experience of being black really is. She is appropriating cultural elements without taking any time to reflect on her position of privilege and how her use of the term “ratchet” or her twerking are contributing to the oppression of black people.

Even worse, in her performance last night Miley used black women as props – like, literal props – and barely anyone said anything. I saw very few people displaying any outrage over the fact that Miley was, at one point, slapping a faceless black woman on the ass as if she was nothing more than a thing for Miley to dominate and humiliate. I saw barely anyone discussing the fact that Miley’s sexual empowerment, or whatever you want to call it, should not come at the cost of degrading black women. I saw a whole lot of people giving Miley a pass for her behaviour because she’s young and naive and sheltered.

I saw many prominent white feminists use their sizeable platforms to defend Miley’s right to rub her ass on Robin Thicke while wearing flesh-coloured bra and panties.  I watched as those same people remained embarrassingly silent about Miley’s behaviour towards black women and black culture.

And I think that I get it? Sort of, maybe? I think that white feminists are worried that if they’re seen criticizing certain aspects of Miley’s performance, then that will somehow invalidate their defence of her right to express her sexuality however. It’s as if they’re worried that someone will jump in and say, aha so if you admit that there was something wrong with her performance, then you aren’t allowed to decry our criticism of her. That’s not how it works, though. Not by a long shot.

The thing is, it’s not an either-or type situation. We can and should be able to say both that Miley’s sexuality is her own and hers to use in whatever manner she chooses while at the same time acknowledge that Miley’s cultural appropriation and specifically her treatment of her backup dancers is frankly disgusting. We should be able to say that no woman should ever be shamed for how she dresses or expresses her sexuality while at the same time say that white people need to be really fucking careful about how and when they express their enthusiasm for black culture.

Above all, white feminists need to realize that calling out Miley for her racist performance is not somehow detrimental to the feminist cause. They need to wake up and realize that perhaps the black women that she objectified – you know, the women she literally treated as objects – deserve some of their attention, too. Above all, they need to start walking their own fucking talk and begin showing some of that intersectionality that everyone is so fond of discussing.

So yeah. What Miley did last night was gross, but not because it was raunchy or vulgar. It was gross because it was racist, and what’s grosser still is our tacit approval of her racism.

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Trayvon Martin, The East, and the Consequences of Privilege

16 Jul

I remember being a kid and wondering why the fuck all of the grownups I knew seemed so incredibly laissez-faire about everything that was wrong with the world.

I mean, here I was being told that I should treat other people with respect, that I should be kind to and tolerant of those who were different from me, that I should recycle and compost and pick up litter and do all kinds of stuff that was supposed to help turn me into a model citizen. And I did do all of those things, both because I was told they were important and because I wanted to; my understanding was that these things needed to be done if we were going to live in a decent world.

I remember thinking, though, that none of the adults around me seemed to be holding up their end of the bargain. Like, I was doing what little I could, but they should have been doing so much more: shutting down environmentally dangerous power plants or stopping cities from dumping raw sewage into the river or flying around the world ending wars or whatever. Instead, I would catch them tossing recyclable items into garbage cans, and when I called them out they would just shrug sheepishly.

And I was like, fuck grownups. It was pretty obvious to me that our world was such a fucking mess because all of the people in charge were both grossly incompetent and frighteningly uncaring. My only consolation was that some day I was going to be bigger and older, and then I would finally be able right all these wrongs.

Of course, every kid’s a zealot, and they don’t understand things like grey areas or compromise or picking your battles. Everything is done full-throttle, every issue is black and white, and every battle is there to be fought and won. If you’re in it, then you’d better be in it to win it, at any cost. And there’s really nothing wrong with living this way when you’re seven – in fact, these are very normal and natural tendencies to have. Unfortunately, this take-no-prisoners philosophy becomes a bit problematic once you have to earn your own living and raise your own kids.

All of which is to say that I’m not the grownup I thought I would be.

I have an easy life. It’s so easy that I mostly don’t even have to think about how easy it is. My life, society and culture are set up in such a way that I am able to benefit from certain things like race and class without ever really having to acknowledge that those realities exist. And, I mean, that’s real privilege, isn’t it? If you can forget that you even have privilege, or if you can easily ignore the various ways that it improves your life – well, that’s basically the definition of privilege.

Two things happened on Saturday night. First, I saw The Eastwhich is a smart, thoughtful movie about a woman who infiltrates an eco-terrorism group in an attempt to bring them down. Then, I got home and found out about George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

I should probably also add a third item to that list, namely the fact that after learning about Zimmerman’s verdict, I spent an hour on social media watching white people either denying that race had anything to do with the outcome of the trial or else trying to somehow make this whole thing about them.

The idea that we live easy lives built on conveniences that are deeply detrimental to others was a theme that came up over and over in The East. We burn coal for power, and the leftover waste poisons our rivers and lakes. We drive cars powered by fossil fuels and ignore the fact that burning those fuels is causing our planet to heat up at an alarming rate. Unless it directly affects us, we very conveniently ignore the environmentally destructive ways that both coal and oil are extracted from the earth. We buy clothing made in unsafe working conditions because it’s cheap. We cut corners in all sorts of dangerous ways because a few moments of ease is so much nicer than contemplating a lifetime of consequences.

The East is, for the most part, about a group of people who have decided that they’re not going to stand by and watch rich white people profit off of the misery of others. So they start fighting violence with violence, taking and eye for an eye and not really giving a shit if all of us end up blind because, to extend the metaphor a little further, most of us are already halfway to being sightless. Saying that an eye for an eye will make the world blind is to work off the assumption that all of us start out with two eyes, but really, that that’s just not true. Rich white people are born with two functioning eyes; the rest of the population has to figure out how to get ahead with whatever disadvantages they’re given.

On Saturday night I watched the neighbourhood watch captain of a gated community get off scot free for murdering a Black teenager in a hoody. I watched privilege play out both in the official news reports that I read and in people’s reactions on social media. I watched a whole fucking lot of people refuse to admit that the conveniences that make their lives as easy as they are exist as the flip side of the same coin that let Zimmerman walk free. I watched white people ask for comfort and sympathy when faced with hard evidence of a system that they are happy to benefit from until something like this comes along and shows its dark underbelly. I watched white people share pictures of kittens and cute babies, watched them tweet about how they were going to go home and hug their kids, without ever accepting the fact that because of their tacit permission for the way things are some folks wouldn’t ever hold their kids again.

I watched white people make this about them, and then I watched them slowly but surely provide themselves with the tools to forget that this had ever happened.

And I watched Black people wonder if their kid was next.

I live an easy life. I live on the backs of others, because I was lucky enough to be born at the top of a pile that has hurt and killed a whole lot of people. My life is safe, and the real kicker is that most of the choices that I make mean that it will continue to be so. And why shouldn’t I want to be safe? Why should I want an easy life, not just for myself, but for my kid?

Because my safety and ease come at a pretty fucking high cost, that’s why.

This is one of those days when the world seems to be nothing more than a relentless list of one terrible thing after another. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed – how and where do I even start to fix any of this? It’s too much, and I’m not enough. I want to pick up my magic time-travel phone, call my seven-year-old self and explain that I’m really, really sorry, but I’m not who she wanted us to be. I’ll try to explain all about grey areas and compromise and all that stuff, and maybe she’ll even try to understand, but I think that both of us will know that I could have tried harder.

I should try harder.

I’m just not sure what trying harder would look like.

I mean, how do you fight against problems that are so deeply woven into the fabric of the way you live? How do you fight, for example, against environmentally destructiveness of coal-fired power when every time you turn on the light or plug in your computer or watch your favourite movie, your actions contribute to releasing an extra little bit of noxious gas into the air? How do you fight against huge, often unethical drug companies while at the same acknowledging that they create and manufacture the drugs that have helped keep you and your loved ones alive? How do you fight against something like the mining of the Alberta oil sands, when every time you ride in a gas-powered vehicle you add a little more carbon dioxide to the air? And sure, I don’t own a car, and I take public transit just about everywhere, but isn’t that what we call compromise? I mean, I tell myself that I’m less responsible for ruining the environment than, say, the dude with the fancy SUV, but really, I’m still culpable, you know? I’m still benefitting from mining and burning fossil fuels, and I’m certainly not doing anything to end these practices.

Most of all, how do you fight against all of the insidious, institutionalized racism that you encounter a thousand times every day? You can call out the more obvious stuff, you can take people to task for using racial slurs or referencing racial stereotypes, but what do you do about all the big and little ways that privilege affects your life? What do you do about the fact that you live in a mostly white neighbourhood, a neighbourhood whose whiteness is definitely a large part of why it’s considered to be “safe”? What do you do about the fact that your career caters almost exclusively to privileged white people? How do you handle the dawning realization that the majority of your encounters with people of colour are mostly when interacting with those working service jobs, and could, at best, be described as casually friendly?

My seven-year-old self would almost certainly want me to take the route of the eco-terrorists in The East, complete with living off-the-grid in the burned out shell of a house in the forest. My seven-year-old self would want me to fight fire with fire, taking no prisoners and teaching huge asshole corporations that they can’t knowingly hurt others and get away with it. My seven-year-old self would want to do something equally huge and visible as a protest against Zimmerman’s acquittal. She would want me to fly to Florida, raise a ruckus, start a riot; she would want everyone to know how outraged she was.

And ohhh of course there’s a part of me that sides with my seven-year-old self. I want to do something big; I want to stand up against evil, and, if I’m being totally honest with myself, I want everyone else to see me doing it. There’s a strong desire in me to right the wrongs of the world, of course, but there’s also a dash of ego in there, whispering that I should right those wrongs in a way that makes me out to be a hero.

I mentioned the other day on Facebook that I want to be a brave person who changes the world, but that I wasn’t sure what bravery was or how change happened. In response to this, my friend Jennie said,

Bravery is not a single decision. It’s the overall effect of every brave decision you make: every time you do something because it’s right, or kind, or honest, rather than because it’s convenient or because it’s less hard. So do the needful, kind, honest, things, one thing at a time. Then, when something really hard comes up, you’ll have the practice you need, and you’ll do the needful thing.

So this is how I’m going to start: by practicing bravery in all kinds of little ways, so that when the big things come, I’ll know what to do.

I’m going to initiate more discussions about my own privilege, and the privilege found both in my neighbourhood and in many parts of the Toronto yoga community.

I’m going to think about the ways that my life more closely resembles George Zimmerman’s than it does Trayvon Martin’s.

I’m going to think about more items that could be added to this list.

I’m going to start teaching Theo about racism and privilege in ways that are appropriate for his age.

Most of all, I’m going to try really, really hard to not make this about me. When people of colour raise their voice, I’m going to do my best to make sure that they get a megaphone, and then I’m going to hightail it to the back of the room and listen. I’m going to try harder to promote writing and thoughts and music and art that come from marginalized people. Rather than wearing a hoodie in solidarity or joking about starting riots, I’m going to talk about how I, a white woman, can do these things without fearing for my personal safety. I’m going to keep calling out racism and classism and sexism and ableism and homophobia and transphobia and all that other bad shit, even when I feel uncomfortable doing that.

I’m going to be brave.

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Dove Does Not Give A Shit About Whether Or Not You Feel Beautiful

22 Apr

Sometimes I feel like social media turns me into some kind of awful, gruesome caricature of a feminist. I spend waayyyy too much time jumping in on Facebook posts or tweets or blogs to explain why this specific thing, whatever it happens to be, is actually problematic. And I try not to do this, honest I do. I know that it’s annoying as fuck. I know that I come off like I’m Lisa Simpson except ten times worse and with more swears. I know that. I promise I do.

All of this is to explain why I have been so quiet and patient about Dove’s latest marketing campaign, Dove Real Beauty Sketches. I haven’t said anything about it. Nada. Zilch. Haven’t commented on anyone’s links, haven’t tweeted about it, haven’t even whispered darkly about it to myself when I’m alone at night and unlikely to offend anyone.

But then my friend Shannon wrote this brilliant piece about it, and after seeing the reactions to her post in the comments on her blog and from people on Facebook, I’ve realized that I have to say something. I’m not going to talk about how their recent campaign continues to perpetuate the idea that a woman’s most important asset is her appearance. I’m not going to tear apart their youtube video, with its beautiful sadly hopeful background music and its tear-jerking content. Other people have done that better than I ever could, and I’m not going to step on their toes.

I do want to tell you one thing, though:

Dove does not give a shit about whether or not you feel beautiful.

They don’t. At all. Full stop.

All that Dove wants is for women to buy their products. And they’ve discovered that the best way to manipulate women in the Western world is to tell them that they’re beautiful. And you know what? This is a really fucking effective advertising strategy. Part of this success is because it goes against just about every marketing rule out there. Traditional advertising wisdom says that we should tell people that they’re lacking in something in order to make them buy it. Tell women that they’ll be more attractive if they use your makeup or skin cream or expensive shampoo. As Margaret Atwood explains in her short story Hairball, advertising to women is simple:

“You bombard them with images of what they ought to be, and you make them feel grotty for being the way they are. You’re working with the gap between reality and perception. That’s why you have to hit them with something new, something they’ve never seen before, something they aren’t. Nothing sells like anxiety.”

This has been the way that advertising has worked, more or less, for at least the last sixty or so years.

And then Dove came and seemed to flip the whole thing on its head in a way that seemed to be totally new and brave and laudable. They’ve taken the formula described above and are using it backwards – for instance, they’re looking at the gap between perception and reality and saying that, in fact, the perception that you are an ugly, worthless person is wrong, so let’s bridge the gap back to reality where you are actually incredibly beautiful and worthy. Instead of bombarding women with images of what they ought to be, they’re bombarding them with images of how they feel that they already are – curvy, wrinkled, imperfect – and telling them that this is real beauty. Instead of hitting people with something new, they’re hitting them with the so-called truth about themselves, full of platitudes and love and golly-gee niceness.

And all of this has been incredibly, insanely effective. Women are now buying Dove products not because they feel that these products will improve them, but because they’re loyal to a brand that sees them as truly, uniquely beautiful.

All of which would be fine, I guess, if that was actually what Dove thought.

But Dove does not give a shit about how you feel about yourself. Dove just wants to manipulate you into buying their products.

How do I know this? Well, setting my general cynicism about large corporations aside, I know this because Dove is owned by Unilever. And while Unilever uses Dove to sell warm, fuzzy, watered-down feminism to Western women, it uses several of its other companies to do the exact opposite.

Unilever also owns Axe, which is well-known for creating advertising campaigns that are, well, the opposite of empowering to women. A typical example of their preferred style of advertising is the that one I’ve posted below, in which a young man spraying himself liberally with Axe is suddenly surrounded by a mob of thin, bikini-clad super models. These commercials are not only degrading to women (by putting forth the idea that men are only attracted one specific body type, and that for women to fail to attain that body type means to fail to be beautiful), but they’re also degrading to men (by perpetuating the stereotype that men are all sex-crazed beasts who just want to go to booty town with as many hot, sexy ladies as possible).

It is seriously such a fucking joke that Dove makes videos about how many unattainable images of beauty a young girl will be subjected to as she grows up and how this will warp her self-perception, while at the SAME FUCKING TIME Axe is creating those unattainable images of beauty.

Even worse, Unilever owns Indian brand Fair and Lovely, a skin-bleaching cream marketed especially to girls from lower-class families. This cream, which is part sunscreen, part moisturizer, and part skin-lightener, promises women with darker skin that they will be able to find better, higher-paying jobs by having fairer skin. It’s even marketed as being “empowering” to women because having lighter skin gives them more “choices” in life.

Yeah, that’s right. The same company that, in North America, tells you to own and love your body the way it is, tells Indian women that they need to be whiter in order to be successful.

Like I said, Unilever and, by extension, Dove do not give a shit about whether or not you feel beautiful. The only thing that they’re interested in doing is manipulating women into buying their products. For North American women, they do this by telling them that they are beautiful, no matter what they look like. For North American men, they do this by promising that their products will attract droves of hot babes. And for Indian women, they do this by telling them that if only they looked more like white people, they could achieve all of their dreams.

Dove described their Campaign for Real Beauty as “a global effort is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.”

They’ve used the tagline, “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

Their website is full of criticisms of the beauty industry, self-esteem builders, and gushing comments from loyal Dove users.

All of this is bullshit. 

And you know what? I feel really bad saying that because I know a lot of women who have been inspired by this campaign. I know women who feel that this campaign has helped remind them that they, too are beautiful. I know so many women who really, really love this campaign. And I don’t want to tell them that they’re wrong! I just want them to know that, at the end of the day, Dove doesn’t care.

Dove doesn’t care, but I do. And lots of other people do. There are even organizations out there, organizations that are not owned by giant corporations, that care. We think you’re beautiful, and we’re not standing to make any kind of profit off of that thought. More than that, we think you’re smart, capable, funny, kind, all-around great people. We love everything about you.

And you know what? When I tell you that, I am not making a fucking cent off of it.

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Here are a few videos of advertising campaigns from Dove, Axe and Fair and Lovely, in case you want to compare:


On Race and Feminism

3 Mar

In the online fallout of The Onion’s vile tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, one fact has become abundantly, dismayingly clear:

White feminists have a hard time talking about race.

And we have a hard time talking about the fact that we have a hard time talking about race.

Jessica Luther has a fantastic post up over on Shakesville about the lack of white feminists decrying what happened to Quvenzhané. And while I think that what she wrote is perfect and spot on and everyone should go read it right now, what I find truly fascinating is the weird backlash that she’s received from other white feminists.

It was the same backlash I saw on Twitter the other day when @graceishuman called out white feminists for not defending Quvenzhané.

That backlash? A whole bunch of white feminists explaining why they, personally, chose not to write about it. And I’m sure that they had some spectacularly good reasons (I’m not even being sarcastic), but that’s not what this about. Not by a long shot.

I have actually never seen so many people miss the point of something all at the same time.

What this is about is the lack of intersectionality in feminism. Specifically, it’s about the fact the women of colour do not feel that they are represented or heard within the feminist movement. As Kirsten West Savali wrote for Clutch, it can feel like the feminist movement encourages women of colour to,

” … shrug off our Blackness for the greater feminist good; the end result being a contemporary plantation tableau defined by Ole Miss and Mammie slaying the patriarchal dragon while the issues of racism and classism are hidden behind the veil of  “progress.”  And while this scenario is about as feel-good as The Help, expanding white privilege — feminist or otherwise — is not equality.”

So how the fuck did it ever get to this?

Is it because we (white feminists) feel that racism is an entirely separate issue from feminism? 

Most white feminists that I know would answer that no, of course it’s not, in the same way that homophobia, fatphobia and transphobia are not separate issues either. They would readily admit that women of colour experience misogyny in ways that white women do not. They would say that of course they care about racism.

But these same women, in their own writing, mainly stick to topics that specifically affect them or women like them. They very rarely address issues that are faced only (or mostly) by women of colour. They almost never talk about racism within the feminist movement. Which is funny, considering the racist history of our movement; shouldn’t this be something that we still talk about, all the time?

Is it because we worry that we’ll be co-opting women of colour when we speak out against something like what happened to Quvenzhané? Is it because we’re worried about making a misstep, about somehow accidentally being racist in our fight against racism? 

I would wager that the answer to this is yes, yes and yes. I’ve heard this same argument from several women as explanation of why they didn’t speak out against The Onion, or why they primarily focussed on the misogynist aspect of The Onion’s tweet and not the racist aspect. White feminists mentioned again and a again that they felt that women of colour should take the lead in this discussion, the rationalization being that white women speaking for others’ experiences was, in itself, a racist act.

And yeah, I guess if you’re a white feminist speaking for women of colour, that’s racist, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t call out racism when you see it. Like, fuck, I don’t want men speaking for me, but I sure as hell do want them to stand up against sexism. We complain so often about having to educate men with regards to feminism, and yet we (white feminists) do so little to educate ourselves when it comes to racial issues.

We make comments like, Well, I don’t even know what to call them, like do you say black or Black or women of colour or Women of Colour or minority or non-white or what? I don’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing.

We make comments like, They can write about the issues they face, and I can write about the issues I face. What’s wrong with that?

We make comments like, I thought we were all in this together.

For a group of people who are so hell-bent on (rightfully) pointing out male privilege, we sure as hell don’t like to be reminded of our white privilege, do we?

Which brings me to my next point …

Is it because we don’t want to admit that, as white women, while we do face a lot of overt and insidiously subtle misogyny in our day-to-day life, we face less barriers than women of colour do?

Privilege is comfortable. Privilege is easy. Privilege is invisible and difficult to quantify, facts that make us comfortable ignoring the fact that we benefit from it.

Privilege lead to write a post the other day that I felt was clever and insightful but, as others pointed out, was in several ways flawed and problematic.

I have a lot of privilege, white privilege, cis-privilege, thin-privilege, but it’s easier for me to talk about the privilege that I don’t have. I suspect that the same is true for many other women.

Being reminded of privilege makes people defensive – especially when those same people are complaining about the oppression that they face as women. There’s a tendency within feminism to want to gloss over racial issues and say, Well, first let’s fight against the problems that ALL women face, and THEN we can talk about racism, and I think that feels okay to a lot of us because in a fucked up way it feels like equality. In reality, though, it’s not equality at all – it’s asking women of colour to do work that will especially benefit white women, and then having those white women turn around and refuse to address the additional challenges faced by non-white women.

I think that another issue at play is that it can be hard to view yourself as both the oppressed and the oppressor. But the fact is that we do participate in the oppression of others, and our reluctance to examine that is pretty fucked up. Like, white feminists are perfectly articulate about how privilege works when they’re talking about male privilege, but they seem to plead ignorance pretty quickly when they’re reminded of the privilege that’s associated with their skin tone.

So what do we do about all of this?

Well, first of all, we fucking sit up and pay attention when women of colour tell us that they feel that we dropped the ball on this one. Because you know what?

A) They know what they’re talking about, and

B) They’re right

And then, after we admit that we fucked up, we talk about it. We talk about race until we’re blue in the face. Because pretending that this isn’t happening isn’t doing anyone any favours, and continuing to ignore the racial issues within the feminist movement is only going to serve to further divide us.

Finally, we need to change how things are structured in order to see real equality. We need to give more platforms to women of colour. We need to be more willing to listen to what they have to say. We need to be willing to be called out on our racism. Most of all, though, we need to let women of colour lead the way and let THEM tell us what they want and need in order to do that.

Because reaching down and giving a boost to someone who has less privilege than you do is what real fucking equality looks like.

And to those of you who aren’t interested in doing that, I would ask that you please stop using the word equality. You’re not interested in equality; you’re only interested in benefitting yourself.

I don’t want to just benefit myself. I want my actions to benefit everyone. And right now, I especially want my actions to benefit this kid:

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Idle No More

26 Dec

Last night, as we sat down to Christmas dinner, my mother’s dining room table practically groaning under the weight of all the food, I couldn’t help but think of Chief Theresa Spence, who is now on the 14th day of her hunger strike. As I piled my plate high with turkey, stuffing, potatoes and turnips, as the members of my family bowed their heads for grace and then raised their glasses in a toast, I thought of the woman who, only 100 miles away in Ottawa, was willing to die for her people.

Today, as others are rushing out to buy cheap goods in a glut of mass consumerism, I’m reminded of how very much so many of us already have, while others have so little.

Theresa Spence is the chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community near James Bay, which drew media attention earlier this year due to its ongoing housing crisis. Residents in Attawapiskat, and many other First Nations communities, face a shortage of funding when it comes to, well, just about everything, but the situation is especially dire with regards to housing and education. Late 2011 found families in Attawapiskat, including young children, living in uninsulated tents; some of those who were lucky enough to have more adequate housing still lacked basic necessities like running water, and were using buckets for toilets. Although the crisis in Attawapiskat drew significant media attention, it seems that little there has changed over the course of the year.

Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement it helped spark aren’t just about the subhuman living conditions in Attwapiskat and other reserves, though. It’s not just about the dire conditions found on so many First Nations reserves across the country. It’s not just about Bill C-45, which was passed earlier this year and both reduces the federal protection for Canadian waterways and also facilitates the government selling of reserve lands without consultation. Yes, it’s part of the fight against all those injustices, but it’s also about so much more.

It’s about the fact that our government has continued to ignore or downplay the rights and needs of this country’s Indigenous Peoples.

It’s about the fact that a small group of powerful, mostly white people still insist that they know what’s best for the diverse and culturally rich Canadian First Nations, even though history has proved time and time again that they don’t.

It’s about the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized in 2008 for the Canadian residential school system, which forced countless Indigenous children from their homes and into schools where they were beaten, sexually abused and grossly mistreated, and actually promised to help forge a “new relationship” with the First Nations based on “partnership” and “respect”, and yet refuses to meet with Chief Spence.

It’s about the fact that the next year, at the 2009 G20 summit, Harper said that Canada had “no history of colonialism.”

It’s about the fact that in the years since Harper promised to improve relations with First Nations peoples, he has instead cut aboriginal health funding, and his government sent body bags to a Manitoba reserve after its leaders requested federal assistance in dealing with an outbreak of swine flu.

It’s about the fact that over 600 Aboriginal women are missing, and no one seems to give a shit.

It’s about the fact that the Indian Act is so fucking oppressive that I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, a First Nation can only be “formed” and formally recognized by the crown if the Minister of Indian Affairs approves it, even if that nation and its people have existed since long before white settlers came to North America. For another, First Nations peoples have very little control over reserve land, and the Minister must approve any land sales or transfers. Not only that, but First Nations people need to seek government approval for selling or bartering any crops, livestock and other products grown, reared or cultivated on reserve lands; any First Nations person failing to do so will be guilty of an offence. Reserve lands, including roads, bridges and fences, must be maintained by the Band Council, and if the Minister decides that they’re not doing an adequate job, he can order them to make repairs, and any money for those repairs must come from the Band Council. Oh, and if you’re an Indigenous Person, you’d better hope that the government doesn’t declare you to be “mentally incompetent”, as that means that the Minister can force you to sell, lease or mortgage your land as he sees fit. Even a dead Indigenous person isn’t safe from the Minister; no wills drawn up on reserve lands are considered legally valid until the Minister approves them.

Like, what in the actual fuck? Other Canadians don’t have to live this way, and if they did, there would be a fucking revolution. Why are we okay with our government treating the First Nations this way? Even worse, why do people make remarks about Indigenous Peoples wanting special treatment, sneering at things like government-funded post-secondary education and exemption from paying certain taxes. To anyone privileged enough to make comments like that, I have only this to say: you fucking try living through a Northern Ontario winter in an uninsulated tent, shitting and pissing in a bucket and knowing that the government maintains control over nearly every aspect of your lives but pretty much refuses to lift a finger to help you, and then come talk to me about special treatment.

Chief Theresa Spence’s demands are simple: she wants to meet with the Prime Minister and the Governor General. She wants to sit down with them and discuss the plight of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. She has said that, should Harper refuse her request, she will die for her people.

Harper won’t meet with Spence. Instead, as Spence starves herself in a teepee near the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, he’s enjoying Christmas with his family in Calgary, and composing hilarious tweets about bacon.

Rather than engaging Spence himself, Harper has deputized his Minister of Indian Affairs, John Duncan, to meet with her. Duncan, in turn, has publicly decried Spence for refusing to meet with him, and has urged her to end her hunger strike, out of “concern” for her health. As if it’s not offensive to Indigenous Canadians to say that our Prime Minister is so busy and important that he has to pawn them off to the ministry that has been specially created to deal with them. As if there’s nothing inappropriate about a white man to telling a First Nations woman how to behave or what to do with her body.

Look, I’m not a member of the First Nations. I’m a product of colonialism, descended from settlers who came here from France in 1645. I’m as white as they come. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t my fight. This should be every Canadian’s fight. The treatment of the First Nations peoples should matter to everyone, no matter what the colour of their skin; this is a case of human rights, not just Aboriginal rights. We all need to take action on this issue.

At the end of the day, we all share the same country. And we need to make this a country that treats all of its citizens with dignity and respect, not just its white citizens, not just its privileged citizens. Other countries view Canada as a fair, peaceful nation where all people have the same rights and privileges – we as Canadians need to start living up to that reputation.

The Canadian First Nations have spent more than a century waiting for things to improve, waiting for better treatment at the hands of the government and hoping that every new promise made by each successive Prime Minister would prove to be more substantial than the empty talk of all the ones that came before. The time to wait is over; now it’s time to stand up and fight back.

Thank you, Chief Theresa Spence, for being so brave, braver than I could ever be. I stand in solidarity with you.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

I can’t do yoga (and other lies people tell me)

21 Nov

I honestly can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation:

Person I Just Met: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a yoga teacher.

Person I Just Met: Oh, neat! Where do you teach?

Me: Right now I’m mostly just subbing, but I teach a regular weekly class at [local studio]. You should come!

Person I Just Met: Oh, um, yeah, maybe. We’ll see!

Me: It’s pay-what-you-can and all levels. I would love to have you!

Person I Just Met:  I can’t do yoga. I’m just really not flexible. Sorry!

Here’s the thing: anyone can do yoga. I honestly believe that. I have taught a yoga class to a room full of octogenarians who stayed seated in comfy chairs the entire time – if they can do yoga, then so can you. It doesn’t matter how flexible your body is – any and all poses can be modified to meet you where you are. And really, if you want to try yoga but lack of flexibility is your excuse, how will you ever improve your range of motion without first taking up something like a regular yoga practice? Everyone has to start somewhere – why not start now, today, whatever shape your body is in?

Having said all that, I know there are a ton of reasons why people shy away from yoga, and most of them have nothing to do with flexibility. Part of the problem is that the yoga culture in the west is kind of fucked up.

Yoga is an ancient Indian discipline dating back several thousand years. The first definitive text on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is estimated to be about 2,000 years old, and the practice itself is even older than that. Yoga is one of the six astika, or orthodox, schools of Hindu philosophy, and in its original form was mainly a mental and spiritual practice with some physical elements.

The second sutra in Patanjali’s book pretty clearly outlines what was, at the time, understood to be the main goal of yoga. This sutra reads, yogah citta vrtti nirodhah, which is typically translated to mean something like, “yoga is the cessation of the movements of the consciousness”. In short, yoga is all about getting your brain to shut the hell up so that you can enjoy a little peace and quiet, for once. Yoga is also about moving past the busy, restless, endlessly nattering part of the brain, the one that Buddhists often refer to as the “monkey mind”, and towards the purusa, which I will loosely define here as a sort of universal consciousness. Yoga is meant to help you see clearly, and one of the things yoga philosophy tells us we need to learn to see is that all beings and all parts of nature are interconnected. We are all part of the same larger pattern, and we are all part of each other. Realizing that is the original, ultimate goal of yoga.

Here in the west, though, we view yoga mainly as a form of physical exercise. Although we chant OM at the beginning and end of every class, and although as part of our practice we often perform surya namaskara (sun salutations), movements whose original intent was to honour the Hindu solar deity Surya, the way we view yoga is pretty much totally secular. Oh sure, some people will tell you that it makes them feel “spiritual”, but most don’t think about the religious aspects of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of cultural appropriation that goes on in western yoga, a lot of white people wearing mala beads and chanting in sanskrit without really understanding what any of it means. In my time in the western yoga world, I’ve seen so many examples of people exoticizing Hinduism and Indian culture, but not many attempts to learn more about what all these words and symbols mean.

I could go on and on about cultural appropriation in yoga, and maybe someday I will. Right now, though, it’s mainly the above-mentioned white people that I want to talk about. See, yoga in the west has, for the most part, become the domain of young, skinny, upper-middle-class, heterosexual white women. I’m not sure how this came about, as, up until just a few generations ago women were forbidden from practicing yoga, but, well, here we are. And I, a young, skinny, white, middle class, heterosexual white woman want to tell you that this is a problem.

The main issue is that people feel intimidated not necessarily by yoga itself, but by the other students in the room. In a worst case scenario, people might feel unwelcome, even unwanted. The message that the yoga community often sends out is that students have to look a certain way, wear certain clothes, have a certain body type and a certain sexual orientation in order to practice yoga. There’s a lot of privilege going on in the western yoga world, and not a lot of yogis who are willing to acknowledge it. And you know what? That’s not cool, because yoga should be for everyone. Yoga is for everyone. Rather than ignoring or dismissing the problem, we in the yoga community need to sit up, take notice, and ask ourselves how do we solve this?

One way to help solve this is to create safer spaces for different types of students. For example, I love Kula Yoga’s Positive Spaces Initiatives, which include classes like “brown girls yoga”, and “queer yoga”. I think that we need more classes like this, more safe spaces catering to the needs of different groups. We already know that some people prefer specialized classes – prenatal yoga, for example, or yoga for seniors – so why not expand this idea? How about yoga for fat chicks, or yoga for trans folk? After all, yoga should be for everybody, not just a select few.

We also need more pay-what-you-can classes, which most studios call “karma” or “community” classes. The average cost for a yoga class in Toronto is between $16 and $20 – paying that amount even just once a week is not manageable for some people. We need to find a way to make sure that yoga is affordable to everyone, not just those with a steady income.

Mostly, what I really think we need is for people to realize that yoga isn’t about how you look, both in terms of poses and clothing, and is really about how you feel. As my (very wise) friend/teacher Charlene recently said, “Yoga isn’t the series of poses and movements that you do during class. Yoga is how you feel after the class.”

The thing is, I honestly believe that yoga has changed my life for the better; that’s why I teach it, so that I can hopefully share that experience with other people. I’m not saying that everyone has to do yoga, or that it’s going to have the same effect on other people as it’s had on me, but I do honestly believe that everyone should have the opportunity to have a regular practice if they want one.

After all, as yoga teaches us, we are all equal and all part of the same greater system.

Guest Post: Why I Choose To Wear A Remembrance Day Poppy

8 Nov

As promised, here is a post from my friend L, who blogs over at Life In Pint-Sized Form, explaining why she chooses to wear a Remembrance poppy. Thank you, L, for taking the time to put together such a wonderful, informative and heartfelt post.

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Why I Choose To Wear A Remembrance Day Poppy

Remembrance Day is upon us – the day the Armistice was put into place that ended the First World War, and the day that Canadians take a moment at the stroke of 11 AM to remember our veterans, our dead, and the victims and senselessness of war.

Well, that’s what we’re supposed to be remembering. Instead, we have a lot of hypocrisy – people who support wars, who even glorify them, wearing poppies. Notably, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, wears a blood-red poppy on his suit lapel while he bids goodbye to the Canadian soldiers going to their fate in Afghanistan.

Makes it kind of hard to remember that the poppy is supposed to represent “never another war”.

Yesterday Annabelle from The Belle Jar wrote about why she chooses not to wear a Remembrance poppy. She states that it’s because she doesn’t agree with the reasons for wearing it. She doesn’t forget, because we as Canadians don’t forget war. It’s on the History Channel. It’s in movies, it’s in popular culture. There’s a show on TV right now called Bomb Girls, about women who helped the war effort in ammunition factories. We don’t forget the wars. We don’t forget the senseless fighting, the history that came out of it and the way we are because of it.

I respect Annabelle’s choice to wear the white poppy, or not to wear a poppy at all. However, I do choose to wear the red poppy of Remembrance Day, and this is why.

An 18-year-old boy left his home on the Melbourne Chippewa reserve to join the Navy. He became an officer on a ship headed for the South Pacific, where he fought against the Japanese in the Second World War. He fought despite the fact that his family lost their culture due to the actions of the Canadian government, that he lost his language, his cultural arts, and his identity as a Native man.

That man is my grandfather.

While we remember the many veterans who fought in the many wars Canada has been involved in, the iconic images of these veterans are whitewashed. We don’t see the people of colour who, despite the treatment they received from our country, fought wholeheartedly for Canada. Stood beside their white military fellows, held the same guns. Manned the same cannons and threw the same grenades. Died in the trenches and on the seas . . . their faces never to be seen again under miles of thick, bloody mud.

Why don’t we see those faces when we remember?

I choose to remember the sacrifices that our citizens of colour made during the wars. I choose to remember that they didn’t give up their lives, they gave up their culture, their language, their right to freedom, and still fought. I choose to honour those veterans, those Native, African-Canadian, Asian-Canadian soldiers. Those ones we never see.

And I wear the poppy not just as a way to remember, but as a statement: freedom doesn’t just belong to white folks. The sacrifices weren’t just made by your English grandfather who manned a gun in World War II. They were made by people who clawed their way back to the surface after our country did its best to bury them through colonization. Who have seen more loss than all of us combined.

I proudly wear my poppy for peace. For sacrifice. For the victims we lost, and for my grandfather and his Native peers.

Lest we forget.