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The 'Other' box

Saturday November 24, 2007 @ 05:33 PM (UTC)

I’m applying for a fellowship, so once again I face my old friend the ‘ethnic origin’ question. And, more than ever, I am stymied.

“What the heck?” you might say. “You’re white, Felicity.” The problem is, I don’t believe in ‘white’, or its oh-so-inaccurate euphemism ‘Caucasian’. Yes, most of my ancestors came here on boats from Europe, and only a few of them travelled a land bridge from Asia. But that’s not what ‘white’ means. ‘White’ is the absence of ethnicity.

I’m by no means the first to think this, and if you look into the history of Jews, Italian and Irish in America, you’ll see what I mean. All of those people are now expected to check ‘Caucasian’ on the form. Time was, they were featured in minstrel shows and (with the exception of Irish, perhaps) strung up for looking too long at ‘white’ women. Why are they white now? Because white doesn’t mean anything except what you’re not. Not ethnic, not unacceptable, unassimilated, or dangerous.

The truth is, I’m “white”. I have white privilege. But I don’t want to keep using these words. I’m an English major, I’m a writer, and I want words to have meanings. Meanings that don’t seat us deeper in our assumptions and cultural blindness. I don’t want to take to myself a word that says “acceptable”, “not dangerous”, “not Other”. There is no box for where I come from, no pie chart where I can map out how much of me is recently arrived, how much has been here since the 18th century, how much predates Columbus. There is no write-in big enough for all the countries and identities that are mixed up in my veins.

So what do I do? Do I lash out against the system in my tiny way, check the “Other” box to register the pathos of the system? What does that accomplish, and aren’t these statistics, however arbitrary the categories, the tools with which we work towards change and equity? Why should I vandalize them because they’re working within the system? My pen hovers over “Caucasion” and “Other”, comes down at last on the coward’s choice: “Decline to state.”

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday November 22, 2007 @ 09:54 PM (UTC)

I’m checkin’ my blogs and discovering everyone is too busy to blog, so I thought I’d throw a tiny blurb in the direction of anyone else obsessive enough to be hunting for content on Turkey Day.

Also, marvel, mortals, at the first ever (in my experience) ALL PIE THANKSGIVING.

Looks like we need it again.

BBC article:

A Japanese whaling fleet has set sail aiming to harpoon humpback whales for the first time in decades.

The fleet is conducting its largest hunt in the South Pacific – it has instructions to kill up to 1,000 whales, including 50 humpbacks.

The Golden Ticket

Wednesday November 14, 2007 @ 12:51 AM (UTC)

Long ago, in a galaxy far far away, I got my first rejection letter. It was a big magazine, a great magazine. Perhaps I should have set my sights lower.

Today I got my first acceptance letter. It was from that magazine.

Open the factory, Mr. Wonka. I want my boat ride.

The demands of art, the demands of self

Thursday November 08, 2007 @ 03:02 PM (UTC)

My friend (and distinguished poet) Jeannine recently wrote a little blogget on the continuing gender imbalance in publishing. It’s a little slanted towards poetry, but I’d be a big liar if I said these problems didn’t exist outside the versifying set.

In my comment, I typed and then deleted something like “Great, now I not only feel guilty on my own behalf for only having two stories out, I feel guilty on behalf of my whole gender.” I deleted it for two reasons; one, I thought it was whingingly reproachful, and two, it just doesn’t seem healthy to support more guilt, in however jocular a fashion. It occurs to me now that guilt is part of the reason there are fewer fiction and poetry submissions from women than there are from men, even though there are more female readers, English majors, writing students, et cetera. The ‘Time’ section of the Mslexia essay I linked to above talks about how women are, even today, more often the primary caregivers to children, and do more housework than men. It doesn’t talk about how that cultural role may be propagated, especially how it wins out against the potential fulfillment of writing.

I think women are constantly told to be nice, giving, and unselfish in our society. Boys are rewarded for being determined, ambitious and driven, virtues that in girls might be rendered as domineering, climbing and cold. In a million little ways, from being handed a toy instead of encouraged to reach for it to being admonished to smile at strangers, we are trained to be less aggressive and more socially adept than our male peers are expected to be. Some of this may show itself in Mslexia’s second section on Confidence. However, I think it affects time a great deal as well.

Even if a woman doesn’t have children, there are demands on her time. I’ve been trying hard to learn to say ‘no’. It feels so good to help, and helping has been so thoroughly emphasized in women’s socialization. My boss needs me to stay a half-hour later. My coworker is coming down with a cold on my only day off. It’s not just me—my boss’s new manager asks her to help run a second store on top of her own. These demands are immediate, time-sensitive, with a person on the phone or in front of us in distress that we can alleviate. If I take this time for myself instead of giving it, I will feel guilty. I’m a nice person, I want to help, I want to give…oh crap, okay.

Writing is seldom time-sensitive. However fragile the threads of meaning forming in the writer’s mind, they can usually be saved for the next quiet moment, the next stolen hour. Right now, someone says they need us—a child, a coworker, a friend, a boss. And if we say no, especially so we can go write words we aren’t even sure anyone will ever read, we’re selfish.

I’ve been called ‘selfish’ fairly often. A young woman is ‘selfish’ for pursuing a career or a dream rather than having children – even if, or especially if – she would like to have both. It’s not just that demands are made on her, tasks are offered or questions asked. It’s that her function in the world is ‘helpmeet’, her value contingent partially on her generosity, her ‘niceness’. Other people must always come first, that’s what we’ve internalized. No matter how hard we may try to gouge it out of our psyche, remnants remain.

Writing, any kind of art, requires an amazing egotism. It requires the artist to look at the breadth and depth of the world – or just of humanity – and say, “Yes, I need to be heard.” It takes a healthy self-respect to say that in the face of our own tininess, and it is incredibly hard to feel both that defiant self-confidence and the self-effacement of ‘niceness’, selflessness.

So we have to learn a new value system. We don’t need to be heartless or deaf to others’ needs—we just need to rate our artistic pursuits higher on the list of priorities. Not “I wasn’t going to do anything tonight but write, I can stay late,” but “They only want me here late as backup, my writing time is more important.” Not “Oh, okay,” but “If you can’t find anyone else to cover you, call me back.” Compromises are possible. I believe you can be kind and be an artist. It’s a struggle, and it’s not something anyone else can do for you, but I think it can be done.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I was going to spend my day working on a fellowship application, but I agreed to cover a closing shift at work.

What is this strange feeling?

Wednesday October 31, 2007 @ 05:11 PM (UTC)

I think it might be vague pride and approbation…adhering to…the Democratic Party?

You see, I just listened to an NPR rundown of the Democratic presidential debate yesterday. It was, as advertised, a pile-on-the-frontrunner. They were throwing stones at Hillary Clinton so thickly they probably blotted out the sun. However, they were throwing them, you know, at her. At the fact that she’s a mealy-mouthed weasel of a politician. Not, as the subtext of every Republican attack I’ve seen recently has screeched, that she’s ZOMG A WOMANZOR!

That’s my party. Infighting and backstabbing, perhaps…but at least they are calling a spade a spade, not a bitch.

Is there a universal law?

Wednesday October 31, 2007 @ 03:37 AM (UTC)

That when one wishes to quote a famous book, well out of copyright, in a paper, but does not wish to face the ignominy of a web reference in ones “Works Cited”, that book simply will not surface? There exist within the confines of this house no fewer than three copies, but I cannot find one.

Here, Moby Moby Moby….

My first earthquake!

Tuesday October 30, 2007 @ 08:34 PM (UTC)

Thus satisfying Reason #1 for moving down here, I have been in an earthquake. According to my cousin who has lived in the Bay Area her whole life, it was actually a fairly long one (one doesn’t like to guess at the duration oneself, being a brand-new quake observer!). It rattled and shook the heebie-jeebies out of our little house, but I haven’t found a single thing knocked over so far, and the kitties kept their reaction down to a tiny hissy fit. It was very interesting indeed—I could feel the motion of the Love waves!

And, tho’ Ryan poo-pooed me when I said, “Oh c’mon, that was pretty significant! That had to be a four or something!”, it was a 5.6, under fifteen miles away.

Book meme

Saturday October 27, 2007 @ 09:06 PM (UTC)

I’m not much of one for bloggy memes in general, but this one appealed to me. I got it from a friend. “These are the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users (as of 10/2/07).” Bold is what I’ve read, italics I have begun but not finished, strikethrough is supposed to be for things one hated. Underlining is supposed to be things that are on one’s to-read list, but I can’t really do that, because 80% of the things on here I haven’t read I should—and I don’t really want to admit which I don’t plan to read! Oh, and asterisks are for things you’ve read more than once. See why I don’t do these things? Complex.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Life of Pi: a novel
The Name of the Rose
The Brothers Karamazov
Jane Eyre (It’s not its fault, it was someone else’s audiobook and the trip ended)
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice*
A Tale of Two Cities*

Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Iliad
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations (kind of embarrassing—I’ve read most of it three times, and the last chapter, separately…eek)
The Kite Runner
The Blind Assassin
The Time Traveler’s Wife
American Gods
Atlas Shrugged
Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West (I was planning to finish this so I could scathe it properly, but I haven’t found the will.)
The Canterbury Tales*
Memoirs of a Geisha
Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books
The Historian: a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
Middlemarch (too young)
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible: a novel
Angels & Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park*
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse (I have no excuse.)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist*
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Miserables
The Corrections
The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes: a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Dubliners (You try to listen to an audiobook the cats don’t like while you’re driving them hundreds of miles)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame*
Freakonomics : a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit*
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

The Beauty Myth Kills

Thursday October 04, 2007 @ 09:17 PM (UTC)

I heard this segment on “Fresh Air” today. It’s about how cancer-fighting efforts tend to focus on detection and treatment rather than figuring out what environmental factors cause cancer. I’ve heard whispers about this before, especially about breast cancer and the way money pours into big companies that make cancer-fighting drugs and also make things like pesticides and fertilizers. But the first thing this doctor discusses on the show is a terribly specific, horrifying thing.

Apparently, in the US, black women under 40 get breast cancer massively more often than white women under 40, despite the fact that if you line up known risk factors and demographic data, young black women should get breast cancer less. Dr. Davis hypothesizes that one environmental factor is beauty products. Many black women in America go into chemical-filled beauty salons often, from a young age, and undergo regular harsh treatments for ‘relaxing’, ‘straightening’, et c. According to Dr. Davis, the US government doesn’t strictly oversee the contents of toiletries well…and of course, as she indicates time and again, we don’t know what chemicals to ban, even if we were overseeing things carefully.

I’ve read about the pressure — some of it economic, not “merely” social and aesthetic — on African-American women about their hair. (If you’re curious, this post is a good intro, and links to many more in-depth blog posts.) This pressure is not ‘mere’ in any way, and extends far beyond hair. (If you click on one link in this blog post, please click on this one: A Girl Like Me, a 7-minute film by Kiri Davis. It is amazing — there’s a part that makes me cry, but also some intelligent young women being devastatingly articulate.) But if Dr. Davis is right and the effect of ‘beauty’ products is sufficient to skew cancer statistics in this way…then America’s beauty culture is killing more people than we thought. More than just people with eating disorders or teens with suicidal self-hatred. The world tells huge numbers of women their natural hair is so hideous it has to be transmogrified, tortured, tamed — and it sells them poison to do it with? How ugly can you get?

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