The oft discussed issues of sexism, racism, and classism have one thing in common: power. In America, power is expressed as domination.
These, and all the other varieties of domination, all belong to the same ideology. It is why where any one of these things exist, all of them exist. They are designed for the same end: to empower one group and disempower another. Note the very binary nature of it, which tells us that it exists within a system of hierarchies. At one end are the powerful and at the other are the powerless. The gradations in between represent the groups and struggles. They represent conflict.
None of us are untouched by these cultural ideals. I have been sexist, racist, ableist, and classist. For those who attempt to take an objective position in assessing the situation, know that you have been all of these things too. We have all been there because we all live here.
Ta’Nahisi Coates, a writer whose work I enjoy reading and which I respect, recently wrote a piece titled Manhood Among the Ruins. In it he describes the eviction of a man and his family from their home. The point of the article was to show that whatever we may see in the behaviors of poor and/or black men, they are foremost powerless. In fact, Coates went so far as to say they weren’t sexist when they cat-call, just men grasping at power and making profane displays of it. While I think him correct in saying these men are powerless, I think him incorrect in saying they aren’t sexist. Such statements ignore that sexism is a tool of power and men reaching for this tool are are being sexist in order to exercise some power.
These men may not consciously register the meaning of their acts, but this doesn’t make it somehow not sexist. It just means that in their acts of profanity toward women they fail to recognize their complicity in perpetuating the very system they despise for dis-empowering them. They are taking from other groups that which they feel has been taken from them: Power.
As a race that inhabits the Earth, we want to sustain life. We don’t want to do that at all costs, because sacrifice does not lead to sustenance. It leads to abstinence. We must understand sustaining and abstaining.
When we sacrifice people while chanting “for the greater good” we are doing the least amount of good we can possible do at that hour. That is not sustaining the greater good, but diminishing it. If any of us is worth sacrificing then none of us are worth saving.
There is no greater good. There is only us and the decisions we must make to sustain the us. Sacrifice is naturally opposed to sustaining.
If values are the framework of society then culture consists of the walls, roofs, windows, and ornaments of it. As the integrity of a house is compromised if built at a bad location or with a shoddy foundation, so culture can often mask the issues until it is too late. That is to say, culture is not something we should aim to sustain since culture is but a fruit, not the tree.
We ought to be careful when speaking of sustaining culture. Humans have only made it thus far by constant evolution and societies have only become a mainstay by constant revolution. This requires constant re-examination of ourselves and the lives we lead so that we can adapt and sustain ourselves a bit longer. I’m not convinced sustaining culture should be one of our aims. Sustaining good, strong values is what’s important.
We’ve arrived at the nitty-gritty, the heart of the matter. What is it we value and believe? This is arguably the most important question facing human societies. In the answer lies the explanation for why we do the things we do. There lies the justification for everything we will do in the future.
Do we value life? Only if there are no armies or militaries among us. Oh, but the self defense, many will cry. Let us take it from this perspective: every society on Earth aims to preserve itself which is to say, values the lives of its constituents. If this is the case for every society on Earth, then we can all safely dismantle our armies. It is upon the ordinary citizens to defend their freedom. The citizen, or group of citizens, which contracts their safety out to trained killers has purchased war and tyranny. When we surrender our power to others, they have that power over us. So it is with standing armies. It is power given them by the people they pledge to protect, but who no longer have the right to the security they desire. But why?
Because no one can sell their responsibilities. It is always our own. The consequences will be what we purchased, whether we acted ourselves or paid others to do so on our behalf. Contracting our responsibilities out, such as what is done in any republic, means disengaging from the issues that affect our very lives. When we disengage, we become dis-empowered.
So then …what values do we sustain and how do we sustain them? If it is life, then we must surrender the violence we use against other people. We do this by taking responsibility for the well-being of ourselves and our neighbors without prejudice. Once we have made every citizen responsible in this way, then there’s no need for a republic. To sustain ourselves, we must rid ourselves of republics and by republics I mean representative governments.
The governing virtue of a republic is to remove responsibility from each individual and trust that a single person selected from among us can keep things going the way we like; it is fundamentally a relinquishing of responsibility. We cannot have a responsible society under those conditions. A people who value life must also honor their personal role in sustaining it. That is, we should aim less for a society of rare exceptional people and one where the majority are exceptional. The problem with that is we have taught to believe that only some of us are special; only some of us have the power to affect change and the rest are expendable lackeys who should merely support them. When culture teaches us this, it is because we value exceptionalism.
A great part of the issue is birthed by a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a unique human. When societies lean towards and ideology which says people are born special, it will raise a population that doesn’t believe in itself, but rather believes certain among them are better than them. This is how corruption is spread through a nation until the people are too feeble to affect the kind of change they crave and yearn for. It is essential to the development of a republic.
We must rethink our modes of government. We must understand what it means to be human in order to determine what humans need. We must reclaim our power to affect change for ourselves. We must understand sustaining and abstaining.
I hear people mention sometimes, usually after a scandal or tragedy or some other incident, that people can be so cruel and so cold-hearted. In my own experience, it’s those who lack empathy for others who tend to fit that description. The opposite of empathy is to be uncaring which makes it possible to be cruel.
Empathy is all about feeling what another person is feeling. It’s about gaining experience through the experience of others. If I can just empathize with the people around me, I can have all the right words to help them if I’m so inclined. Empathy seems designed to prevent us from abusing our fellow creatures. That, to me, seems to be it’s sole supreme purpose. That seems to explain the notoriously violent world we live in.
So when you turn on the TV and see crime sprees, bombings, rapes, and other vicious crimes against humanity, what you’re seeing a widespread epidemic of empathy loss. When you see rich people vacationing in poor areas of the world (those “exotic” trips) you’re seeing a total lack of empathy. We are so angry and so bitter sometimes that we’ve closed our minds to others who are in pain and in need. We blame them for the crimes against them. We shame them for being weak. We refuse to empathize because our pride tells us that we’re better people than those who suffer; they’re only suffering because they brought it on themselves and we would never be caught doing that to ourselves. Those victims should be so lucky to have our sympathy, but we can only allow such nonsense to enter our consciousness if we lack empathy in the first place. And that is a deeply personal issue.
And yet the consequence of empathy loss worldwide is war and crime; there is no peace. Peace can only be attained through empathy; when we see crimes against others as crimes against the human in the mirror. It seems almost too simple to suppose that most of our problems could be solved by cultivating cultures sensitive to our human flaws, but there it is. I dare any of us to show a situation of despair in which empathy could not turn it into a moment of growth and even happiness.
The tragedy in Boston is still unfolding, but the police aren’t yet declaring it a terrorist attack. Why not?
Because the term is applied selectively. The way this story is unfolding reveals the selective labeling of terrorists. It has mostly been a title reserved for non-christian criminals who commit acts of terror. Even though these deliberate bombings constitute terrorism by definition, it hasn’t yet be declared a terrorist attack.
I had considered that perhaps they might be holding back on declaring terroristm in order to reserve judgement to declare it an act of war. Yet this isn’t sufficient reason because even the attacks on 9/11 were seen as acts of war even as we labeled them terrorist.
Our reluctance to declare the obvious is testifying against us.
This is a teachable moment. Several (thousand, probably) commenters around the web don’t know that discrimination on certain bases is unconstitutional. The debate has been sparked by this little incident in Washington, where a florist denied service to a gay customer on the basis that he was gay. The most troubling comments come from those who are targeted by discrimination, but who don’t believe this sort of bigotry should be challenged. They defend the right of the bigot to treat them as lesser citizens. Here’s a quote to get this moment started:
i’m gay and i see no problem with her refusing service to anyone for any reason. i agree that it looks like that statute is unconstitutional. obviously i dont agree with what she did but i completely side with her right to do so. – A Commenter at Gawker.com
The florist does not have a right to discriminate against homosexual customers. That we allow this kind of discrimination does not mean bigots have a right to treat everyone that’s different from them with abuse.
There are two kinds of rights which we all try to merge or at least keep in sync in regards to our daily lives. There are legal rights and there are moral rights. When we break a law, we pay a civic penalty. When we violate ethical codes, we degrade someone else’s and our own humanity. Concrete examples of legal and moral rights are exemplified in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, respectively. I’m only pointing this out as examples, not proposing that these are perfect documents. The important thing about moral rights is that they attempt to tell us how we should lead our lives with other humans. The only penalty for violating the principles of ethics is being a horrible person and perhaps dying with a heavy conscience. The goal of leading a moral life is to have a little to apologize for as possible when we leave this world. I have a right to not be assaulted when I leave my house, both morally and legally.
Legal rights, on the other hand, are a form of arbitration we use to organize society. I don’t mean to imply that laws are made without discretion, but rather that as humans we use our best judgement to determine which acts are permissible in society. With this system of laws, rights are bestowed on citizens. Violation of laws usually results in civil, criminal, or other punishments. I don’t want to moralize here, but I do want to be clear about what’s being said when we use the term “rights” in this discussion.
As far as the law goes, the florist has no special privileges that allows her to serve one class of citizens and not others. None of her rights have been violated and her actions do not warrant a defense, least of all by the very group she aims to violate and oppress. Discrimination, according to the law, is refusing to serve a person or group of persons based on their appearance, beliefs, or background.
A Citizen Has Rights
Any discussion of rights must begin by defining the term citizen. In the United States, this has been the key factor for determining whether discrimination is allowed in almost any situation. Generally speaking, the theory in practice is that non-citizens have no rights, whether legally or morally. A non-citizen, as U.S. history goes, can be treated however a citizen sees fit. When challenged by the Declaration of Independence, the pro argument tends always toward redefining what a human is; when challenged by the Constitution, the pro argument tends always toward redefining what a citizen is. Even today, in the 21st century, people such as this florist are engaged in a fight to create different classes of citizens. In this case, homosexuals don’t deserve her floral services and she believes she has a right to close the doors to them. She doesn’t — not in any sense of the word.
What history has been trying to teach us is that discrimination against humans for existing in different ways is wrong. If I am born black, citizens don’t gain the right to treat me poorly. If I become paralyzed, the same applies. In fact, we begin to see corrupt egocentricity of this not while viewing it from the rights it denies the abused, but rather by seeing the abusers as people who believe they have greater rights than others. In this case, the owner has a greater right to discriminate than does the homosexual have a right to not be discriminated against; the subtlety in this point is very latent, yet it is an important distinction. The more we understand discrimination as the dominant group’s perceived right to dominate/shame/govern others, the more easily we can see what’s so vile about it. People who believe that human rights are a matter of what the simple majority says they are exemplify this point.
There’s this underlying sentiment from defenders of the florist who believe that business owners have the right to serve whom they please, but this line of thinking requires amnesia of the not-so-distant American past — my grandparents and even aunts and uncles grew up in places where racism was the law. Discrimination has been used (and is clearly still used) to mistreat, abuse, and exclude certain groups of people from enjoying the rights of citizens.
In 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Civil Rights Act (CRA) was passed into law. It’s goal was to outlaw discrimination against certain classes of citizens, especially blacks. Prior to the CRA, townships, municipalities, entire states, and even federal law discriminated against it’s darker citizens by denying them the exercise of their rights as citizens. This included, but was not limited to, the right to vote, freedom of expression, due process …and basically everything protected by the Bill of Rights. Some groups and localities even went so far as to draft special, separate laws which applied expressly to blacks. Examples are the Black Codes, Sundown Towns, and Jim Crow.
Under these discriminatory acts such as the Black Codes, the local diner or any other business was allowed to hang signs in the shop window which denied services to blacks. The florist, in this case, is using the exact same kind of discrimination to deny service to citizens based on their sexual orientation. The shop may as well have put a sign in the window that said “No Gays”. This would be no different from the sign in the picture, taken in 1938. Yes, 75 years ago. We would still have segregated doorways, bathrooms, and water fountains, not to mention these signs would be in the window of every shop in the country were the “rights” of business owners not challenged. Is this kind of discrimination OK? And if you believe it is, how is it different when applied to gays?
“Yes, but the business owner has a right to serve whom they please, right?”
The answer is no, according to current law. This is exactly the question the Civil Rights Act of 1964 answered. It’s not OK to discriminate against groups of citizens.
Why the Florist is Wrong
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 codified anti-discrimination law in detail. It didn’t stop at eliminating discrimination on the basis of race, but went even further to disallow it on the basis of sex, religion, national origin, and even disability status. This sweeping piece of legislation reinforced existing laws and called on the government to enforce them. Title II of the CRA could certainly include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Furthermore, this issue is spelled out very plainly and clearly by Washington state law: the florist is legally wrong because the law clearly states her actions are illegal. She’s morally wrong for believing she’s better than her customer. Even Jesus served prostitutes while not condoning prostitution. In other words, she erred morally according even to god she claimed to be serving.
The importance of being an official citizen has been the pivot upon which the rights of all classes of people have hinged. Bigots will always seek new ways to distinguish themselves from everyone else. Thus, new laws were encoded into state constitutions and local municipalities to continue discrimination and also to fight it. Washington has been trying to fight it, to deny business owners the “right” to be bigots. If they wish to do so, they must do so privately, but they can’t do it publicly — there are consequences for that. The florist is no different than the racist in her behavior here. Again I say, if the sign in the window is wrong, so too is this florist.
The problem with laws is that bigoted citizens are always seeking some exception which legitimizes their behavior towards others. Thus, each generation of Americans has to have their group added to a growing list of classes of citizens …and that in itself is the disease hiding in plain sight; that idea of exceptionalism, of business owners having a greater right to assholery than anyone else. It’s the fact that we have to keep adding names of groups and defining different kinds of people to label …all for the purposes of hating them. It’d be a grotesque social exercise if it wasn’t so childlike. It’s the young babe who doesn’t want to share a toy with a sibling and devises all sorts of exceptions and excuses why it can’t possibly be shared.
“Can we discriminate against blacks?” No.
“How about women?” No.
“…gays?” NO. There is no class of people which is fair game to abuse, the parent says. Respect people’s individuality and show them kindness.
We’re not letting this lesson sink in. The law has often been on the wrong side of this argument and this is why the law can’t be the reason we treat people with equal dignity. Humans have a claim to this that others cannot banish with the flick of a pen. It’s a difficult problem to solve because laws do have a role to play in helping us organize society. I don’t have a solution on hand at this time, but at least in the case of the homophobic florist, she’s wrong on two fronts: legally and morally.
If anyone reading this agrees that it was wrong to hang this sign in the window of businesses just 40 years ago (morally and legally), you can’t simultaneously believe it’s right for the florist to discriminate now. For those citizens who believe it’s OK to hang the sign in both cases, thank you for providing the answer to why this customer has a duty to sue and make a national issue of this discrimination.
Having praised and appraised the quality of the imagery in House of Cards, I think it necessary to critique something else which is probably much more important and relevant to the series: the people it portrays.
Relationships in the series are extremely interesting for what they speak to in our society. The deliberate, sometimes careful, placement of personalities and the arrangement of circumstances which place people within their contexts deserves some credit. A great part of the story being told is through these environments (such as what was done with the cinematography). Again, without so much dialogue, simply watching how relationships are constructed in the film can teach us something about how we deal with the respective issues in the real world. While it deserves credit for it’s artistic arrangement, it also needs to be critiqued for it’s poor exploration of many issues. House of Cards gives us a renewed example of white-washing in our entertainment. In this case, it has conveniently washed out the stories of people of color even though they are integral to the dominant political messages of the film. This series is being analyzed by many critics and I can’t even begin to address every message of the film (even if I want to try). What follows is my addition to the discussion.
In the first analysis, I focused on the culture on Capitol Hill as well as it’s personalities. In this piece, I want to contrast that with The People as represented in the film. This is a lengthy review so I’ve broken it down into four parts for your reading leisure and pacing.
High Contrast: The Black People
The film has not tried in any substantial way to include the breadth of the human color spectrum (there are a handful of blacks, one Asian character, and one Latino character). The casting choices don’t appear to be the consequence of a critique of racism in the film. This lack unintentionally provides a much more accurate picture of exactly what’s wrong in national politics: the exclusion of people of color. Race is treated as a non-factor and the authors try to maintain, in some sense, that race doesn’t matter; the face of politics is presented as colorless even as the overwhelmingly white cast hints at something very contrary. That the lack of diversity is detrimental. In attempting to neutralize race by limiting the variety of motives and the personalities of the actors in order to focus purely on the drama of politics, the series shows us instead that the whiteness of politics is problematic for us all.
Freddy and his BBQ joint give us high contrast to the bright white mono-culture on the Hill. In very brief, but poignant, imagery the scenes of Freddy and his rib shack speak voluminous truisms about what it means to be poor, marginalized, and at the mercy of politicians who don’t care about you. Frank brags that Freddy is always willing to serve him at any hour of any day. He approves of himself by overpaying for the food. But one look at Freddy interrupts the showcase of privilege and the banality of powerful white men, who dominate these common scenes so often that Freddy all but disappears into insignificance. I think this might be the author making a critical remark here, but thus far it remains unexplored in the series.
Clearly Freddy works very closely with BBQ grills. The soot and stains exceed his apron, all the way up to the collar of his shirt and the unevenness of his complexion. His face is always dogged and weary. His gait carries fatigue. His appearance is always disorganized and grungy. The shack itself is so tiny it barely hosts two chairs and one table. The windows are covered by tattered, dingy cloth which can’t really pass for curtains. It’s a dark and dirty place. The outside of the building amounts to exactly a shack; time worn wooden paneling dark enough to pass for a shadow. Modestly secure doors with grating ensures the restaurants obscurity to all but those in the know. A shabby chain-link fence keeps outsiders from accessing the side/rear of the restaurant, where a single table fit for two rests beside the building.
Freddy is an ordinary black business owner, carving out a living in a black neighborhood, it’s horizon dominated by the distant Capitol Buildings of the congressional campus. Indeed, the distance represents the gulf between our politicians and the rest of us. Freddy is very humble and appreciative of Frank’s business and in turn, Frank can count on Freddy’s services no matter what. This loyalty of the most under-represented to the most corrupt politicians is an important characterization of the state of American politics. However, it doesn’t seem to be an intentional arrangement because other than the scenes we get of Freddy, the film doesn’t explore it.
When Frank visits the shack in his luxurious black SUV, with his body guard/driver, parked on the curb as black passersby walk as though they don’t notice, it becomes clear what’s out of place. These people are never even spoken of and consequently they appear to us on the street as outsiders …in their own neighborhood. They are out of place. Frank is the centerpiece of these scenes and other than to serve food, Freddy doesn’t receive any opportunities to connect his store with his neighborhood with his neighbors with the wider narrative of the show. Instead, these aspects come off disjointed and leave questions as to the motives of the producers in showing it.
Then, there’s the Black caucus. The Black representatives are whites in blackface, portrayed as no different in anyway from their white counterparts; they are part and parcel of the mono-culture. The outsiders, such as Freddy and his neighborhood customers, have no power in politics. There are no black testimonies on the political process, no cultural dialogue to connect the dilapidated rib shack with it’s representatives. It’s as though they exist to fill space.
What is the plight of blacks and black neighborhoods in a political environment that believes they’re only good for soul food and servile loyalty? What does it mean for us when our representatives are present and yet absent, divorced from the people on the ground, those living the mundane reality of being poor and obscure? Black neighborhoods come in far greater variety than is critiqued in the film. In order to make the point about the forgotten minorities, the film relies on imagery of urban blacks living in the shadow of the Hill. It doesn’t even try to explore these scenes. If the film was trying, Remy Danton’s story (Frank’s corporate sponsor) could have provided a wider picture of the black community. I don’t find these portrayals distasteful, but lazy; unless the second season plans to really address the consequences of racism and its impacts on politics, then these scenes become deaf to reality; like muted testimonies on the legacy of racism and how it continues to ail our society. In fact, the writers probably believe society is post-racial even as they cast an over-white line-up, but that’s just speculation on my part.
The show is so very white that any analysis of political representation the producers attempt to make becomes hollow. The black characters of the cast include Remy, the representative of corporate corruption; Carly, the owner of Slugline; Freddy the cook; an old school counselor of the white Rachel Posner,who remained nameless; the police commissioner turned mayor; and Cassandra, the secretary of Marty Spinella of the Teacher’s Union. It’s also worth noting how women as a whole are over-represented in union scenes and yet aren’t leaders within it. These were opportunities for constructive critique, but it remained absent. What we end up with is a portrait of how things look with no explanation of why or how. The lack of diversity flattens the series, especially with it’s tokenism of “successful” black characters. There can’t be depth without diversity, and without that depth the show becomes a well strung-together series of cliches, tropes, and stereotypes. Monotonous. Conservative.
It would be interesting if members of the Black caucus are explored in future episodes or if we learn more of Remy’s ascent to powerful corporate lobbyist. I think the show would benefit by exploring the life of Linda Vasquez, especially since her son was the cause of several scenes. What more could be added by filling in the blanks of Gillian Cole’s life as a minority at Stanford? With this kind of diversity the show would be come much more well-rounded, grounded, and give a truer characterization of the American people. In order to understand what’s wrong with people like Frank, a great deal of explaining must be done about non-whites in the country he helps govern. We know too much at this point about the white, male counterparts of these characters. We have no way of attaching meaning to the issues on Capitol Hill without exploring them. The show leaves a gaping chasm in the heart of the story and is a primary reason for the cold, distant vibe of the series.
Now that the outrage is out of our system (mostly), let’s have an adult conversation about Devyn Abdullah and her remarks about being black just a week ago on The Face. She announced that she doesn’t identify herself as a black model and has since explained what she really meant to say. I remain unconvinced. I think all of her statements combined reveal that she genuinely believes her blackness will not matter to her career and her performance.
Here’s my take on it.
Devyn doesn’t identify as black, but it’s not because she doesn’t know she’s black. Quite the contrary — she knows. It’s because being black and being a black model are apparently two different things. Being a black woman means something else too. Devyn doesn’t want to be those things. She just wants to be a pretty model whom everyone accepts on her merits. We all want to be accepted on our merits, but the real world has something to tell us (especially blacks) about what will shape our experiences: blackness.
Devyn understands the opportunities that could disappear before her eyes if she allows herself to be aligned with blackness. She may not understand the environment, but she’s very much attuned to the idea that something negative comes with being identified as black. In her mind, she’s controlling her image, manipulating views to her advantage, focusing on just being a model …trying to separate being black and being a model, while she is both. Claiming herself to be a self-identified “international”, apparently race-less, is her attempt to make the world colorless with just a wish. Unfortunately, she doesn’t understand that mostly what will matter is that she’s non-white. It’s called the 1 drop rule. It is a racial double standard which states clearly that 100 generations of whiteness cannot erase the one generation of blackness in your family.
For blacks, we understand the disadvantages that come when an employer sees your black face for the first time. For so many of our darkest cousins, it’s something too obvious to try to fake. For those of lighter skin, passing for more competent, more employable, more of a story people can “relate” (in the words of Devyn) by virtue of being fair is a double edged sword. It’s even tricked some of us into believing we’re exceptional, different, possibly not really black, though (again) I don’t believe this is the case with Devyn. I just get vibes of naivety and being unrealistic.
The varying degrees of blackness correlate with the varying degrees of the black experience. The one universal thing among us is that we have such a thing called a black experience …that is, living our lives in a white society under a double standard. Devyn has a black experience, but it’s not likely to be similar to Ebony Smith’s, her colleague and teammate on the show. It’s what informs her instinct to downplay being black en-route to a career as a professional model. She knows she’s black, but she’s trying to control the fallout of being black. Just be a plain ole’ model and don’t worry about the rest …right?
I don’t want to insult Devyn, but the fact is she’s just not getting it. What was so disappointing about her remarks for me wasn’t that she was willing to deny being black and to claim being something else. It’s that she wasn’t prepared to talk about it. She didn’t have a mature sense of identity, her confidence in her statements were shaky. She didn’t appear to understand the conversation, didn’t understand the implications and importance of her words. She thought it was just something she could say that would be revolutionary, surprising, fresh …something other than controversial. Devyn doesn’t appear to know exactly what she meant or what could be hurtful about being on national TV, identifiably black by all appearances, and make the statement that she won’t identify as a black model and to then defend that statement by saying it’s because a lot of people can identify with her story (because darkness discourages empathy?). She had no idea what any of this meant. That is what’s criminal about her statements.
Maybe it’s time we had a conversation about our mixed, light-skinned, and genuinely non-black, but definitely non-white sisters and brothers. Suppose they don’t want to carry the burden of being black. Should they be allowed to self-determine? Culturally, that seems inevitable. But they should be prepared to have that conversation, to explain who they are, to understand the implications and to expect there to be concern from others. Blacks didn’t make the 1 drop rule. We don’t cling to it because we want more people in the margins with us. More than that, it feels like betrayal. We know how hard it is being black in a white society. For blacks who deny or distance themselves from their blackness, it’s a slap in the face to those of us who love our blackness, embrace it. It’s agreement with white society that being black just isn’t good enough. Best not to even mention the word black when mentioning model, eh?
Devyn realized none of this as she spoke those words, though I think she’s had time to reflect after. I don’t think she’s evil and I’m not sure I believe she’s ashamed of her blackness. I think she simply isn’t understand what’s wrong with her view. Whatever was on her heart, she wasn’t prepared to talk about it. She didn’t know why it was on her heart, she never explored the reasons, the contexts. As a person seeking a very public career, she had not prepared herself to talk about it and had probably not even developed a mature sense of herself to be comfortable with it. She didn’t look comfortable to me.
White employers will appreciate her willingness to ignore her blackness. It will make her less of us (blacks), more pliant. Just think about the consequences of being openly black. Perhaps she had some vague idea about merit and detaching that from being black, of becoming simply a model. If that’s the case, someone should have told her by now, or she should already know, that meritocracy isn’t the rule when you’re non-white (or non-male for that matter).
Devyn wants to be liked, many humans do. The problem is that in her haste to be liked she’s discarding a piece of herself which can’t be discarded. In her attempts to define herself she’s closing the door behind her to aspiring models who can’t pass for “international”, whose past makes them less easily a person the global community can “relate” to. Having Ebony Smith there to contrast the two and gave us an immediate example of what was wrong with Devyn’s statements. Ebony is dark and beautiful. The questions she was asked centered on her two children, born of two separate fathers, neither of which she was in a relationship with. She’s 21. The drama was readily apparent as soon as she answered. She’s black with two children and two baby-daddies. What more was there to say? Her interview with Wendy focused not on her merits as a model, but on her black womanhood. Let no one talk about the awkwardness of the moment or how many people blew her off as “typical” black female fare. How many Ebonys are shut out of opportunities because they’re too dark or set-off someone’s stereotype alarm?
Many more. Devyn knows.
House of Cards is a new political drama series on Netflix. It stars Kevin Spacey as Francis (Frank) Underwood, an American congressman who narrates the show as it follows his daily activities on Capitol Hill. The show is very modern and crisp. Based on the series which premiered over 20 years ago in England (also named House of Cards), it is a show which gives a colorful, yet muted commentary on the inner workings of the democratic process.
After watching the entire season the first time through, only the most obvious of themes reminded me of the real world. However, a second viewing revealed some subtle (and often unexplored) subliminal messages to my eyes. The obvious themes included the corruption of politics, the death grip corporations wield over our political processes, the whiteness of Capitol Hill, the maleness of politics as a whole, the complicity of the media …these were to be expected and are well painted in every scene. It plays like artful commentary on what the American Congress symbolizes to Americans. We can all identify with turning on the TV and expecting white, old, male faces on CSPAN. The news runs noise-some soundbites of high shock value, but low social value all day, everyday. These topics make a fair showing throughout the series to no one’s surprise, but it’s done so beautifully. I can’t stop watching it.
Then there are the low notes of high volume, broadcast like visual sonar. So much of the story being told is in the cinematography of the scenes and the wardrobe of the cast. I felt very attuned to the messages within the images more-so than to those in the script.
A Panoramic View
From the font of the opening credits to the time-lapse footage showing a 24-hour cycle over the nation’s capital, the tone of the show is set beautifully in sound and imagery. My ears alight at the carefully orchestrated background noise: in the Capitol it’s the constant ringing of telephones and rustling paper and leather footsteps in hollow halls. In restaurants the light tingling of utensils and chairs moving across floors. The dialogues serve to highlight and remind us of the plot we’re following, but the themes of the show would still be plain, painted vividly in front of the eyes, with the sound turned off. It is given ambiance by the sounds of political life, but the imagery is much more important to the messages.
The artistic direction is inspired by the words conservative and contrast. Colors throughout the scenes have a crisp neutrality and the cold of contrast, which fits the political themes perfectly. Capitol Hill radiates a vintage modernism, a sense that things are new and yet the same. The Romanesque architecture of the exterior with matching attitudes on the interior; senators and representatives dominate. Nineteenth century furniture poses as 21st century, often completely embroidered with an old-fashioned sense of decor or set in the vintage richness of wood. Everything is trimmed in gold: picture frames, doorways,handles, windows framed in shimmery mustard curtains. On the Hill, walls are white, but cast frequently in cool grays, with the only contrast the stark light of day bleeding through windows adorned with draperies. Dark, expertly polished oak/cherry tables with cushioned chairs fill offices and board rooms. Antiquities provide the finishing touches: grandfather clocks in corners, roman columns inside and out, marble floors, ornate double doors. Every shape to catch the eye is square, having sharp corners and well defined edges, such as the patterns of windows, doorways, or rectangular frames. Rigidity. Coded into this building is the fundamental principle for which government stands: conservatism, keeping things exactly as they are, business as usual — as ancient Rome still inspires the architecture, this imagery proves how little is different. It is the bastion of those with the most power and influence, unrepresentative of The People. Among the affluent, everything transpires behind solid walls and the many, many closed doors. Windows are never open, nor uncovered. Rooms are lit only by rays of daylight that escape through the sheer veils; at all other times the rooms remain dim, as a place guarded from the uninitiated. These themes emerge chiefly through the imagery.
Capitol Hill is mono-culture. It is a symbol of a singular mind when it comes to power. There is a way to acquire it and a way to wield it: dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties. Uniform short haircuts sprinkled with tinsel (sometimes entirely tinsel) and no facial hair …old men clinging to symbols of youth and trying desperately to prove their vigor. They are all old white men with rare exception. They talk alike, walk alike, and work alike. Whatever conflicts arise among them, they all seem to have an understanding of what it means to be on the Hill. Their conformity is symbolic of what it means for things to simultaneously change and yet remain the same; bodies change seats, but it’s the same chair. The men here exist to keep things exactly the way they are. They are here because they seek power, and they will do just about anything to maintain it.
The rape apologists say ….
“In our anger and frustration, we apologize to Justice. We are sorry that we cannot find it in our hearts and minds to condemn rapists without also condemning victims for somehow deserving it. We are sorry that we cannot do victims any justice, for while they were allegedly raped they could have avoided this fate in any number of the ways we advised them — it’s not upon men to control their bodies and do the right thing. We apologize, Justice! Victims deserve the fate they get and rape is sometimes acceptable to us; it is understandable, but regrettable …but understandable still that it occurred. We must blame victims for not being safer, and not the criminals who decided to rape her.”
n 1: an expression of regret at having caused trouble for
someone; “he wrote a letter of apology to the hostess”
2: a formal written defense of something you believe in
strongly [syn: apologia]
3: a poor example; “it was an apology for a meal”; “a poor
excuse for an automobile” [syn: excuse]
When we say “rape apologist”, what are we really trying to say? There are those who say that teaching girls and boys that the world is a bad place and they ought to be careful is simply good advice, not an apology. However, the definition is trying to tell us something different; it’s an expression of regret that because the world is a bad place, the good must modify their behavior after the deeds of the bad. Those who don’t do so, the apologia goes, must assume some responsibility for the crime.
There is a problem with so-called “advice”, not just the kind given when incidences of rape occur.
n : a proposal for an appropriate course of action
This definition has literal and relative implications. When we teach children that the world is dangerous, we instinctively advise them on how to be safe. We should also teach them why it’s dangerous, to not commit crimes against others, and how to make the world safer. This exercises our moral skills, which are desperately needed to engage with society on issues of rape; laws will not do it alone. In giving them the misguided and often one-sided advice on safety, we simultaneously endorse the position that if something should happen to them, it’s their own fault. This in turn normalizes crime as something ever-present, something people can always avoid, and which criminals have no responsibility to deter. In other words, we don’t teach them to engage and challenge the big bad world, but how best to function within that bad world. We teach them moral dexterity, how to evade the bad, go around it, to play it safe. This is conformity and has the effect of never addressing the evils within that world. Evasion is the last thing we need when faced with evil. Accidents and crime show us the flaws in our society and expose the places which need great attention and solutions. To preach safety and evasion is to inversely justify criminals by blaming their victims for not being safe enough.
We teach cowardice when we teach evasion. We frame it as safety. Every child in our society is a potential criminal and we have a responsibility to take their behavior gravely serious, not just advise them on safety.
n 1: the state of being safe; “the safety of the children” [ant:
2: a safe place; “He ran to safety” [syn: refuge]
3: a device designed to prevent injury [syn: guard]
4: the successful act of striking a baseball in such a way that
the batter reaches base safely [syn: base hit, bingle]
5: contraceptive device consisting of a thin rubber or latex
sheath worn over the penis during intercourse [syn: condom,
rubber, safe, prophylactic]
6: a score in American football; a player is tackled behind his
own goal line
All of these terms are valid, but definition number three is most fitting for the discussion. In our efforts to give advice about avoiding danger, we use “safety” as a means of preventing ourselves from getting in trouble.
These reasoning by apologists helps us to see the dangers of this kind of advice, which is best unsaid to victims of crime. Their apologies suggest we are powerless, that there’s nothing to be done except hide, that we lack the agency to teach (and condemn unequivocally when they err) our sons better, and that where we have agency it is best used by women to avoid trouble. When safety becomes the duty of non-criminals, crime gains legitimacy; it becomes normal and attention is diverted to victims for being caught in a crime. If the bad guys are running things it is only because we allow them to by apologizing for them. Apologies blame those who are caught in the crossfire as being careless of their own safety.
There are appropriate situations for safety advice. Don’t ride your bike on the expressway. Allow hot food/beverages to cool before consuming them. Don’t jump into the lion’s cage at the zoo. Don’t cross the street unless the “walk” signal is active. Ignoring any of these pieces of advice indicates our willingness to take on a greater risk, but does not increase the legitimacy of crimes against us. In fact, these pieces of advice remind us of the dangers of relying strictly on rules to mete out justice. Laws allow us to rely, unthinkingly, on statutes to determine whether something is right or wrong. Laws are a reason our morals don’t get enough exercise, and have fallen into disrepair; out of shape. Laws themselves are not moral codes; they are arbitrary rules designed to avoid problems rather than solve them. Moral codes provide solutions by reminding us of our responsibility to solve problems.
And so my willingness to take a risk does not translate into deserving to have a crime committed against me. My actions as a volunteer, as an actor in my own decisions, does NOT confer rights on criminals to commit a crime against me. I do not relinquish my rights to life by choosing to take greater risks. Another human does not get to come along and decide that since I have taken a great risk, they are justified in committing crimes against me.
What does it mean, then, to be a rape apologist? It’s blaming victims by implying their own behavior provided some justification for the crime.
We absolve the criminal by virtue of advising victims that they didn’t do a good job of preserving their own safety. The problem is that safety becomes the context and is assumed to be the responsibility of the victim, which in turn means that criminals have less responsibility for their crime.
What about the advice? Is there advice to give to victims?
There might be, but the situation demands accountability from the criminal foremost. It’s their actions which lead to the crime, and their actions alone. Often, apologists have argued that victims provoked the criminals. Let’s examine this argument by first laying out a definition.
v 1: call forth; of emotions, feelings, and responses; “arouse
pity”; “raise a smile”; “evoke sympathy” [syn: arouse,
elicit, enkindle, kindle, evoke, fire, raise]
2: call forth; “Her behavior provoked a quarrel between the
couple” [syn: evoke, call forth, kick up]
3: provide the needed stimulus for [syn: stimulate]
4: annoy continually or chronically; “He is known to harry his
staff when he is overworked” [syn: harass, hassle, harry,
chivy, chivvy, chevy, chevvy, beset, plague,
Do victims “call forth” crimes upon themselves? Some people believe so, especially apologists who regret that victims just weren’t safe enough. Do victims “provide the needed stimulus for” criminals? Are ordinary people prone to provocation to the point of committing a crime? Surely. This makes them no less responsible and criminal for their actions. Do we blame banks for having money in the event of a robbery? Persons with wallets for thieves who steal them? Trayvon Martin for being black in a hoodie, therefore provoking Zimmerman? It is the criminal who must be prosecuted in each case, and the victims announced as 100% innocent in the crime. If victims bear any responsibility for crime, then we are a society consisting of 100% criminals. If that’s not true, then only criminals commit crimes and victims bear no responsibility for them.
Even if a victim provokes a criminal, that does not confer rights on the criminal to commit a crime. A crime isn’t a crime because it is provoked; it is a crime because it is WRONG TO DO, in it’s own right, without regard to circumstance or provocation. That is the nature of crime; that there is no circumstance under which it is acceptable.
I have known victims of rape and for everyone of them I feel in my soul as though the crimes committed against them were done to me. They are me and I am them. As friends we are tempted to wonder that if we had just talked our loved ones out of even going to a certain place, this wouldn’t have happened. The truth is that criminals are always looking for the right opportunity to commit their crime. As soon as a good moment strikes, they have already committed to seizing it. If it didn’t happen to that friend of mine, it would definitely have happened to someone else. Feeling responsible for not protecting the ones you love is the same feeling of responsibility we ought to have for protecting our neighbors from the same horrible crimes. These prospective criminals are lying in wait. Just because they don’t harm someone you know, doesn’t mean the crime goes uncommitted. It often just means it is delayed or that someone else became the target.
This is just another good reason to focus our energies on rapists, not on their victims. When the spotlight is on them, when they know the weight of the consequences coming to them; when we teach young men and women that rape is categorically wrong and unforgivable, we begin to teach and to stand for zero tolerance of the heinous crime. However, when we nurture a culture which vascillates on the severity of rape and which blaming victims is legitimate, we encourage the crime and the criminals.
Now we must ask: what are apologies good for?
To be clear, making a defense for rape, even one of regret (and especially if we keep in mind the very definition), is an apology at best. When we approach rape crimes from the perspective that the victim bears any responsibility for the crime, we are apologists. We are laying some responsibility on the victim, which is exactly the same as pardoning the criminal some responsibility for their actions. Rape must always be unequivocally condemned, the rapist blamed, and accountability demanded from the criminals entirely. Until that day, rape will always be seen as something slightly less than criminal. The crime will always be seen as somewhat acceptable by rapists, because they are assured they can blame the victim for their actions.
We have made great mistakes when it comes to justice in the United States and I believe much of it can be attributed to the prevailing attitudes that society as a whole isn’t responsible for exercising moral judgement, but rather to merely enforce laws. Only in a society in which we sympathize with the criminal is it possible to hold victims accountable. We see this in the outpouring of concern for the rapists in Stuebenville and every other rape case in which the victim’s behavior is blamed for the outcome. It’s very difficult to hold criminals accountable in a society which relies too heavily on laws to do the work and where people surrender their agency for the sake of convenience. Raping is never OK. Where loud, clear, unequivocal consent is absent and sex still occurs, this is rape. This isn’t hard. Simultaneously, when we rely on playing it safe to deter crime, we shift accountability for it to the victim. Safety is all well and good, but the person needs counseling is the criminal. In such a world, crime is the standard and victims are put on trial. This neither challenges the crimes nor leads to justice. In such a world, justice is conspicuously absent.
Rape culture can be examined by defining the terms we use to guide the conversation. I’ve provided some definitions of some of the key terms used in arguments raised in the discussion about the responsibility of victims in provoking the crime. However, there are many more terms that we can examine to understand what it means to live in a rape culture, such as rape itself, assault, sex, and consent. Only by examining the etymology of the key terms dominating the discussion can we begin to understand what each person has to say about the subject. It’s also one of the key ways to understand our own beliefs and explore their implications; sometimes we only see what’s wrong with our stance after peers are able to point out the glaring flaws. In this way, it becomes a lot easier to see just what’s wrong with operating from the perspective that victims bear any responsibility for crimes against them. The very notion becomes absurd upon closer examination.
If we must apologize, let it be to victims for allowing things to get so out of control that they are looked upon as those least deserving of justice.
The cry of the modern American seems to be “don’t wake me.” Mentions of race inspire cringing faces. Don’t wake me.
Awkward moments in film, where non-white people fill roles true to a legacy of separate-but-equal, to Jim Crow and to Reconstruction, make it to the Oscars with great applause …because that is a great portrayal, a role well performed, a role such as white faces know it and can appraise the authenticity. Non-white (check), maid (check), thug (check) ….BRAVO. That’s how it is! That is what we know! Brilliant performance! That is authentic. The quiet dreaming of black mammies, brown house maids, or naked (brown) female bodies is cheered on the silver screen and adorned with accolades approvingly. Let no one critique the inherent racist notions of a society that only invites blacks to the Oscars when they are playing roles fit for racist stereotypes. They then shout with one accord “don’t wake me.” Silence the voices of dissent, the ones pointing out the hypocrisy and those trying hard to shake dreaming eyes out of their slumber saying, “don’t you understand? This is what we mean by racist,” while the sleeper replies “Shhh! Don’t wake me.”
And who gets to have the last word? It is a privilege to be able to say “those are the sensitive people, whose feelings cannot be trusted because …you know ….they are over-reacting.” This is the voice with the last word. It is a privilege to lie asleep on feather-beds, wrapped in silk sheets and clean comforters. The children half a world away lie naked in the dust; the dust where the food won’t grow, can’t grow. Their bodies are scarce and scarcely covered. Their eyes pierce the television screens in hours after dark around the world. Thank goodness for cable TV. It’s easy to miss this advertisement of poverty and famine while we sleep to the sound of channel-surfing, looking for the next wave of entertainment to wash over our eyes and plug our ears. “Don’t wake me,” says the sleeper, “there are no starving children in my dreams.”
The boss sits in his chair, listening to an employee describe how diversity might enhance company products and services. The boss doesn’t get it; what does diversity have to do with good services and making money he wonders. The executive with the power to make decisions that help solve problems is the sleeper. “Don’t wake me,” he says, “there are no women/blacks/non-whites in my position because …well, they just don’t have what it takes, it’s obvious to me, what do you think?” The employee stares in disbelief and then disappointment and then says …”but you don’t hire any, sir. How do they get this job if not when the gatekeeper opens the gate?” The boss stares, then reddens, then dismisses the employee. Was he the racist? His prided wounded, he doubles down on his beliefs and vowed never to awaken.
As I go out each day I look with eyes wide at the sleeping multitudes around me. Many are a wake, no doubt, and we look upon each other with anticipation and uncertainty. Can this be real? How easy is it to walk by a person sleeping on the concrete? How easy to watch the suffering, to pretend it doesn’t exist and to blame victims where it does. It must be so nice to be able to ignore this, to never be called to action, to never be called to solve problems, but to always drift from pleasantry to pleasantry, silencing the voices of warning, quieting victims …constantly asleep simply because it is desirable.
It’s cowardice that maintains suffering, not cruelty. The greedy capitalist fights hungrily for every dollar, checks every law, and revises every bill to ensure his riches and stability. This is done openly, brazenly, and not without announcing the belief that this is the best way. The coward, on the other hand, sulks beneath consoling herself that she’s not strong enough, that perhaps she’s wrong, that there’s nothing she can do against such great suffering, that she just doesn’t know what to do …anything she can tell herself to delay action, to justify inaction. To defend cowardice. I hear the cries of unfairness to judge the multitudes so, yet what is the person that allows their home to be taken without a fight? What is the person who keeps silent as they walk by a homeless person? What is the person who sits awkwardly in the classroom, afraid to comment on racism or sexism? Why …we would all call them cowards for allowing others to take from them without open, loud, and firm complaint.
And we deserve the society we get as a collective. The doom of those who fight is the doom that awaits the cowards they live amongst. For the coward will not put out a fire, even if it would consume the village. And why not? Because they fear the flames. Likewise, our society fears the flames. If, when you had fallen asleep, there was freedom and opportunity and when you awakened it had disappeared, would your fragile mind adapt or would you quickly resume your pleasant nap? We have been asleep so long that waking up is the most difficult thing to do. The reality that stares back at us, bare and ugly, is in such a state of decay that it revolts us. “This can’t be true …can it?” we ask ourselves as we wander amid the ruins of civilization.