State of the Research I

State of my Research:
Since I started grad school this fall I’ve decided to use this blog to talk about where I’m at in my research. Right now my topic is street transgressions, a term I made up and defined as: any breech of civil inattention with eye contact, gesture or speech. Civil inattention is a fancy sociological term for the way we ignore strangers on the street, how we acknowledge them without fully engaging. Generally one looks at the other from about 8 ft away, without making eye contact, and then looks away, you may look again at closer range. I’m considering any deviation from this to be a street transgression
I initially started using the term street harassment, looking at gender and race based interactions but found the term troubling and problematic for a few reasons.
1) harassment is so negatively charged that it ignores positive experiences that people have with strangers in public
2) harassment is a crime, it criminalizes the ‘harasser,’ something I find counterproductive to my project
3) I want to be as inclusive as possible here; catcalling, stop & frisk policies, pamphleteers, people asking for money, I think all of this contributes to where certain people feel safe (or unsafe) in urban areas.

News:
This topic has been in the news lately, with Hollaback bringing attention to gendered harassment:

and Eric Garner bringing attention to race-based harassment:
garner

Initially I was worried, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an academic studying urban black problems (being an urban black woman myself). In light of current events I feel a responsibility to the black community to continue my research.
My experiment seeks to use GPS to track where and to whom these street transgressions occur. I’d like to chose a demographic sample and have them track street transgressions on their phones. I hope that this simple data will help us figure out what is going on and how we can make the world feel like a safer place for everyone.

Feminist Style

After hearing about the VIDA Count on the bookriot podcast I’ve been trying to only read books by women this year. This summer I read the Golden Notebook and Americanah. When describing the books to a friend, he asked if I was into ‘alternative storytelling.’ It hadn’t occurred to me until then that neither of the books were conventionally written novels. In fact none of the books I’ve read this year have been. I don’t want to essentialize the sexes, and having only read women this year I don’t have the tools to do so. But it did make me wonder, do women write differently from men?

I’ve simultaneously been preparing for graduate school in geography. I love reading, and have developed lots of technical GIS skills in my recent work but I’ve been worried about writing. One thing that worries me is citation, I want to give credit where it’s due, and fully and truthfully acknowledge that no idea comes from a vacuum. MLA citations don’t seem like enough to me, I don’t want to pretend that these ideas are mine. Not to cite is stealing, but citing seems colonialist and anti-feminist. It doesn’t seem like enough to put someone in a footnote if my name is at the top of the paper.

I recognize that this reaction is gendered, that this false humility is performative. Women have to site sources, they have to give credit or their work won’t be viewed as legitimate. Women and minorities are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome: a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence. Society values white men in academia, women have to prove themselves with citations and data. In addition, a woman who doesn’t do this is viewed as aggressive and bitchy, whereas the same behavior would be viewed as entrepreneurial in a man.

Nonetheless, I have trouble with the way non-fiction is written these days by both sexes. To me the rubric for blogposts (like this) seems to be personal anecdote followed by study that supports this, then more anecdata followed by more scientific (or often pseudoscientific) data. These blogposts turn into articles and ultimately turn into books. These articles don’t seem to take into account the history of the ideas that preceded them. They pass off others ideas as their own.

What is the best way to honor our ancestors’ ideas, do we use citations, even though they have been used to undermine people int he past? Do we use the power of the internet to link back to the web of papers and ideas? Or do we co-opt the same misogynistic ideology and say these ideas are mine as much as they are yours or anyone else’s?

the onus of the ‘me’ generation

Millennials, my generation, get a bad rap. A lot of it is completely deserved, we’re certainly selfish and spoiled but who spoiled us? Our parents generation may have had it rough, but we’re also having a tough time in this recession. A couple years ago a bunch of studies came out showing that Millenials are the first American generation to do worse than their parents. Our parents had pressures and stresses, but of a completely different kind than ours. Many (or maybe most?) parents of Millenials in the Boomer generation were forced into jobs and roles they weren’t ‘suited’ to. The idea wasn’t to be happy, but to be working. But my generation grew up with the idea that we should find something that makes us happy, aren’t we lucky? But with this privilege comes the responsibility to actually be happy; easier said than done.

The existential crisis of the Millennial generation won’t be middle aged men finding themselves in jobs they don’t enjoy and women having Friedan-like awakenings. We had the pressure to like Joseph Campbell, ‘Follow Your Bliss’ and probably picked job we were suited for (we probably didn’t go for the money, because chances are we’re not gonna make enough in any job). As a result we have to deal with the guilt of being unhappy in a job we ‘should’ be happy in. This pressure is immense.

As I struggle with this responsibility myself and go back to grad school I’ve noticed other characters asking the same questions about privilege and class and responsibility to be happy. In Doris Lessing’s the Golden Notebook, Tommy Portmain, the protagonist’s twenty-something son struggles to find himself. As the son of a bohemian mother and a wealthy businessman father he tries to decide whether to be poor and fulfilled or rich and empty (like I said, our generation is probably going to be poor anyway, so we might as well be fulfilled). He envies the milkman with no education, “he hasn’t any choice at all. He’s got a scholarship, and if he fails to make the exam, he’ll spend his life delivering milk with his father. But if he passes, and he will, he’ll be up in the middle-class with us.” “A hundred things to do, but only one thing to be,” he said, obstinately. “But perhaps I don’t feel myself worthy of such a wealth of opportunity?”
It’s similar to Matt Damon’s character in School Ties, who envies Brendan Frasier’s character, “Cause if you get what you want, you’ll deserve it. And if you don’t…you’ll manage. You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations.”

Brendan Frasier and the Milkman’s son can always blame their unhappiness on their circumstance, but how do the privileged justify their malaise, or even their bad days? They’re struggling with the responsibility of their wealth and privilege but also with the pressure of being happy.

their crisis subsides as they grow up. Tommy find contentment in disability, SPOILER ALERT – after a botched suicide attempt leaves him blind, he marries well and lives off a disability check. He never had to sell his soul for money (always having been a supporter of the government teet) and he gets to read and write and love and travel. Matt Damon’s character doesn’t get an epilogue but according to his own predictions, he’ll end up at Harvard, becoming a businessman like his family. More importantly to the plot of the movies he’ll still be an asshole. In our society it’s hard to sympathize for those who come from privilege so raw and explicit. As well it probably should be, but that isn’t to say that life isn’t difficult.

Strong Black Women are Women Too

Ironically, I’m writing a post decrying ‘angry black women’ because I’m feeling bitter and black tonight. It’s been a tough couple weeks for American Blacks with both Mike Brown and Eric Garner joining the scores of black people killed at the hands of police. On a depressing episode of the Read the hosts tried to keep our spirits up with news of Black Excellence. To support beautiful black women, I went out to buy the new W Magazine with Iman on the cover, but it wasn’t out yet, instead I bought a copy of bitch magazine with an article on ‘the Myth of the Strong Black Woman.’ In it, Tamara Winfrey Harris describes the myth of the sassy no-nonsense ladies, “the cold, overeducated, work obsessed woman” who is “half as likely to marry as white women.”

I just finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah,’ which lived up to all the hype, as far as I’m concerned. I was excited to hear what my Slate friends had to say on the Audio Book Club (like all podcast listeners I have an imagined relationship with them) and was so disappointed to hear their criticisms. While I loved the book, I think there are many things you can criticize it for. I too felt like the romance was not the strongest part of the book. But The Audio Book Club argued that it wasn’t believable that such a strong female protagonist would do something so weak, selfish and cruel. Emily Bazelon, friend to the blacks was the strongest champion of this opinion. I am so disappointed that these critics, even after reading a book that exposes and challenges these stereotypes, could not get past the idea of the strong black woman. It was unebelievable to them that a woman could be strong in her sense of self, but be ‘weak’ or vulnerable. Haven’t they seen the new stereotype of a woman who has it together in her work life, but can’t get it together in her personal life (have they missed Mindy’s character on the Mindy Project)?

What will it take to convince people to stop thinking of black people as animals? We are strong women, we have to be to withstand the racism and sexism of this culture. Some American blacks come from a line of women who survived the middle passage, who survived the back-breaking work of slavery. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain the same as whites. We are independent and capable, but we aren’t invincible. Strength should not be the only positive attribute a black woman can own, we are sensitive and vulnerable too and this is not weakness, this is powerful, this is what it means to be human.

Updated 10/13/14:

In which other white people on slate have trouble understanding why black people idolize white people (hint: there are a lot more white people in the US to idolize than black ones):
http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/the_audio_book_club/2014/09/roxane_gay_s_bad_feminist_book_club_discussion_guide_and_podcast.html

from the Gawker Review of Books Interview of Charles Blow:

First comes the recognition that we are devaluing black and brown bodies. And that that is not even a new phenomenon, that that is an extension of an American phenomenon, in fact it is even a world phenomenon. There is a mountain of social science that ranges from doctors not prescribing pain medication to black kids at the same rate as they do for white kids with similar illnesses to spanking being more prevalent among black boys. When you think about that body, and the violence that it must endure—

Right, like the word Ta-Nehisi Coates’s constantly used in his reparations essay, “plunder.” It’s similar to what he was getting at. I keep thinking about how there is not only always something coming at us, but something being taken from us.

Right. And endurance becomes this ambient thing in your life; it becomes your constant. It is not just to play and grow up and fall in love, but it is to endure. It becomes the paramount motivation in your life. The tragedy when you hear young men say, Oh I never thought I’d be 18 or 21 without going to jail or being in the grave. I’ve heard this too much. If that is being drilled into your mind, what kind of psychological damage does that do to you, and to your relationship to society? And in addition to that, whatever damage is being done, society is amplifying the damage by misconstruing the data and concepts so that we overestimate black crime, we overestimate black hostility, we overestimate black aggression. We ascribe it everything dark and negative. In that kind of hostile milieu of black bodies that have been tortured in a way, in a system that is designed to destroy it, these concepts of black being dangerous and wrong, you can have the unfortunate crossing of those wires and you get shootings. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that.

Maybe not “fix,” but you’re in a very powerful post at the Times. You have a platform every week to talk about whatever you want, or at least what’s topical in the news, do you—

Well, my job is to shine a light. Illuminating and educating as best I can is the tool that I have. Other people have different tools. And hopefully they can use what I do in their advocacy, in their boots-on-the-ground sort of work in neighborhoods, changing minds person to person. Other than that, I’m not sure how it changes.

The Women Reading Upstairs

When I lived in New York, I (think) I came up with an expression: The difference between being lonely and being alone is a good book. I had spent a lot of time lonely but not alone and alone but not lonely and the distinction seemed arbitrary. I was trying to find out how to flip the switch when a friend recommended Atlas Shrugged which I greedily devoured over the next month or so. What I realized was that it had a lot to do with how I felt I was being perceived by others. I felt loneliest when I felt the pity of others. When engrossed in a good book it didn’t matter what others were thinking about me. Recently I read Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The women of Messud and Heller are alone with books. Their worldviews are shaped not just because they were alone, but because of society’s perceptions of their loneliness as women.

Messud and Heller have both been criticized for these characters. Messud gave an interview in Publisher’s Weekly where the interviewer criticized her character’s likeability, a decidedly gendered attack. Heller’s book is on the Wikipedia list for ‘unreliable narrator.’ While I acknowledge that the women had boughts of anger and bitterness, I completely empathized with both of these characters. In fact in response to Messud’s interviewer, I would want to be friends with Nora and Barbara, they’re both whip-smart and well read, I’d love to see Nora’s art or compare biting cultural criticism with Barbara.

I see these women as potential friends but also as cautionary tales. The criticism of the books belies the scorn I would experience from society if I became a woman upstairs. Society only teaches us to measure us in the mirrors of others. Both stories deal with betrayal, but the moral of both of these stories is one of the narcissism of solitude. Of the distortion of individualism that we experience without others:

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “goodness, you’re a quick reader!” when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out…About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

I kept thinking, as I was telling Didi, that somehow what was in my head—in my memory, in my thoughts—was not being translated fully into the world. I felt as thought three-dimensional people and events were becoming two-dimensional in the telling, and as though they were smaller as well as flatter. that they were just less for being spoken. What was missing was the intense emotion that I felt, which, like water or youth itself, buoyed these small insignificant encounters into all that they meant to me. There they were, shrinking before my eyes; shrinking into words. Anything that can be said, can be said clearly. Anything that cannot be said clearly, cannot be said.

Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs

Foreign Movies

I have a couple movie recommendations, these two happen to be foreign.

Mother of George:

I caught this during its limited release this. It was striking in both style and content. The camera style gave some scenes the sense of slow motion that you feel when something dramatic is happening and your body and mind slow time down to process the intensity. The film is about a Nigerian mother who wants a grandchild, and the lengths she will go to get one. It is beautiful as well as powerful.

This weekend I saw The Past:

A recent film by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose film A Separation won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last year. Both films were about mess. How messy life can get sometimes, and how quickly things can get beyond your control. Both films were accounts of divorce that rang true, how it affects children (though arguably less than living with unhappy parents fighting all the time). How sometimes it’s no-one’s fault and there’s nothing you can do. Even if you have love and money and food, life is difficult. It’s heartbreaking and true, that sometimes you can’t even keep children out of it. Life is strife, it’s difficult situation after difficult situation, we react, we digest and we grow.

Movie theaters are a good place to cry. Other than your home, what places is is social acceptable to cry? Movie theaters, churches, I can’t think of anywhere else.

Women I Admire: Dominique Dawes

As a young black gymnast, Dominique Dawes was my idol. As a child my walls were bare except a big Dominique Dawes poster squished by my bottom bunk, wishing me goodnight and reminding me what excellence could look like.

20131028-044222.jpg
http://www.browsebiography.com/images/5/1620-Dominique%20Dawes_biography.jpg
Like most children I looked for representations of myself, and was lucky enough to live in a place where I could find them. They added the black American girl doll (Addy) during my childhood, I had a great black power library by my house, and a school full of educated and progressive teachers who knew that Black history was American history. I knew of Nadia Comenici of course, and did book reports on Olga Korbut and Mary-Lou Retton (same year I did a report on Josephine Baker) but no one held a candle to ‘Awesome Dawesome’.

Ultimately I was far too tall to be a great gymnast. Even the tallest gymnasts I saw on TV, who seemed to tower above all the others, was Svetlana Khorkina who clocked in at a whopping 5′ 5″. By 5th grade, I was 5′ 7″ Though it took me years to realize it, it just wasn’t meant to be.

P.S.

Women I Admire: Sissy Spacek

I always say that in the movie of my life I would want to be played by Sissy Spacek. Many people don’t get it, she looks nothing like me, I know, I’m black, and she’s white. But as a minority, I don’t have the luxury of a huge selection of people in movies who look like me. But more importantly, I don’t think it would matter, Sissy is a queen and I’m sure she would find a way to play me anyway, black or not.

Why do I identify so much with her? Like most actors, I identify more with her characters on screen, than her real life, (which I don’t know a whole lot about except that she has been married to the same man for 40 years, which is a triumph in and of itself). I first saw her as Carrie, the ultimate revenge fantasy for a high school misfit (actually, don’t tell anyone but I saw Carrie 2 first, it came out when I was having a rough time in Middle School). I also loved her in Badlands, where she played an adventuresome prairie girl, who takes up with a charming stranger and goes on a violent crime spree in the heartland. In 3 Women, she plays the awkward and demure character of Pinky, who has a nervous breakdown and changes drastically as the movie goes on. I could go on, but I won’t.

In her personal upbringing, Sissy Spacek was a self-described tomboy. Her character Holly turned into a bit of a tomboy, after learning to shoot a gun, but she also played the very feminine Pinky and Loretta Lynn. She’s played introverts and extroverts, Type As, type Bs and everything in between. What strikes me about Spacek is her ability to be sensitive without seeming frail on incapable. When I picture a sensitive person, I think of Sissy Spacek.

I tend to fall into the trap of thinking that actors are bad people. As an introvert, I don’t have a huge amount of respect for extroverts, but actors are some of the worst it seems, because they feed on the love and energy of others, and they make their living lying. Sissy Spacek almost makes me think that actors may not be so bad.