Representation Matters: People with Disabilities Are Done Being Your Inspiration

 

 

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Photo of a version of the American flag with the stars configured to look like the symbol for disability. (Photo credit: money.cnn.com)

We need a long, hard examination of the way we’re representing people with disabilities on our stages and screens. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, but almost always ignore people with disabilities in those discussions, leaving our industries far behind where they should be on this issue.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs as PwDs is controversial. Able-bodied people fight hard for their “right” to cast able-bodied actors to play us, then shut us out of every aspect of the process. Able-bodied people insist they’re doing “extensive research,” yet portrayals of PwDs are more often than not astoundingly inaccurate, more about how you see us than how we really are.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs has been called “exploitative,” as if our physical presence must always be measured by the gaze of able-bodied people. It reminds me of the way sexist writers claim women are “flaunting” their bodies by simply appearing in public. Our physical presence in the world as PwDs (or women, for that matter) is not about you. Our physical presence as PwDs is so deeply othered that any public performance is automatically suspect– it must mean something. Add to that the relentless infantilization of PwDs by able-bodied people, and our every appearance as actors results in a flurry of pearl-clutching about how we’re being “displayed,” “used,” or “exploited,” as if PwDs are children who need protecting instead of actors who need jobs.

It’s “exploitative” when we play ourselves, but ennobling when you play us.

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During preproduction for the film The Upside, released in January 2019, producers refused to consider actors with disabilities for the role of Dell Scott, a quadriplegic character, instead first casting able-bodied actor Colin Firth, and then replacing him with Bryan Cranston, drawing criticism from disability rights activists. (Photo by David Lee/The Weinstein Company depicts Cranston seated in a wheelchair on a busy city street, laughing as actor Kevin Hart stands on the wheelchair behind Cranston, leaning down and laughing.)

We’re still so far behind it’s considered a special kind of acting triumph when an able-bodied actor plays us because, like actors who gain weight or allow themselves to be made “ugly” for a role, they’re working hard at lowering themselves, appearing less glamorous, less desirable, less perfect. The actor is ennobled by their humility, by the sacrifice it took to present themselves pretending to be what we are every day of our lives. 

We’re still so far behind that the types of stories we tell about PwDs all center around our difference: inspiration porn, tragedies, the Manic Pixie Sick Girl (and as she’s lowered into her grave, he realizes he has finally learned how to live), and the DEI Sidekick (Hi. I’m here to make the producers look inclusive and the protagonist look sympathetic oops time to die to provide motivation for the protagonist). There are more (so many more) but you get the idea.

Please note that all of these are almost always played by conventionally beautiful, thin, able-bodied white people, and that these issues are intersectional. While this piece focuses on PwDs, bear in mind that people of color with disabilities are facing two major hurdles; female-identified and genderqueer people of color with disabilities are facing three, etc. Women of color are in fact the vanguard of disability rights activism.

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Writer and activist Imani Barbarin, who runs the blog Crutches and Spice, is the force behind #DisTheOscars, an advocacy campaign around disability representation in the media. (Photo by Madasyn Andrews depicts Barbarin, a Black woman with long, thin dreads, smiling in a garden setting, wearing a blue flowered dress and a black jacket, with one of her crutches visible on her arm.)

In the United States, between 13 and 19% of the population are PwDs. That’s a sizable population, yet we are aggressively shut out of every aspect of visual narrative, our stories stolen from us and told by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people.

This begs the question, “What are our stories?” It’s an important question, because the answer is: ALL OF THEM, KATIE. We’re a massively diverse population occupying every race, gender, sexuality, age, belief, and socioeconomic status. The vast majority of our stories are not “disability stories.” We are people with disabilities– people first– and the majority of our lives are spent wrapped up in the same issues everyone else has. Yet nearly every film, play, or show that hires an actor with a disability is doing so specifically to tell a “disability story”; when that narrative is over, the actor is released. We’re rarely allowed to tell any other kinds of stories. Disability is only represented when the story is about disability in some way.

Because we are hired far less frequently than able-bodied people, even with similar training and experience, we’re seldom in the room when these stories are developed, and if we are in the room, we’re one voice– often brought in late in the process as a low-ranking temporary hire (“disability consultant”). It’s no wonder that stories about PwDs are so often about the impact the PwD has on an able-bodied person.

Lack of representation is a vicious circle. Because we are so seldom represented as anything but life support for able-bodied inspiration, PwDs are almost never considered for “straight” roles. It never occurs to producers and directors to cast an actor with a disability in a story not specifically about disability, because they, like the rest of us, live in a world where PwDs are dramatically under-represented throughout all of our media and have come to see that under-representation as “normal.”

Our industries create fantastic, imaginary worlds, but we can’t imagine a Juliet with a mobility device? Our imaginations can comprehend time travel, dragons, talking animals, alien cultures, telekinesis, and 500 different kinds of afterlife, but a disabled Hedda Gabler is incomprehensible? You think that if you cast a PwD, the narrative becomes about the disability because those are the only stories we allow PwDs to tell. 

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Marilee Talkington, a brilliantly talented actor, has a long career of playing both blind and sighted characters. Talkington has played blind characters on several TV shows recently, drawing praise from the National Federation of the Blind and their #letusplayus campaign. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs depicts Talkington from the shoulders up: a white woman with curly red hair, blue eyes, and coral lipstick, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless top.)

Allow people with disabilities to tell all kinds of stories, including our own. The right to portray someone different than you is not the exclusive province of the able-bodied. Able-bodied people defend their right to play us with “It’s called ‘acting'” without ever once considering that we can do it too.

Hire people with disabilities at every level, from conceptualization to casting to audience management, not just in temporary positions meant to shield you from controversy. When you talk about “inclusion,” remember: we’re here, and we are not going away.

 

 

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Teachers Have Been Telling You For Years that Rich People Cheat the System. Here’s What Else We Know.

 

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Photo: Angela Litvin, Creative Commons

The nation exploded in surprise that thirty people nationwide, including two famous actresses, were indicted for participating in scams to get their children into elite universities. Educators similarly exploded in surprise, but for a different reason– we were shocked that the wealthy and powerful were being held accountable for something that’s been widespread for decades. Educators have known about this– and more– for years, yet no one has listened to educators about the widespread inequities in education.

Are you ready to listen now?

Let’s start with the obvious:

Standardized tests are worthless. Educators know that performance on a standardized test is nearly useless in measuring a student’s overall performance in a subject or in predicting a student’s future performance in that subject. A standardized test only measures how good students are at taking standardized tests, which is why plonking down $1300 for an SAT prep course can bring a student’s scores up so dramatically in a such a short period of time. I’ve been teaching both university and high school students for 30 years, so believe me when I tell you that teaching someone how to take the SAT in my subject is entirely different than teaching my subject. Take a look at the job requirements for a Kaplan employee— they’re not looking for a PhD in the subject or experience teaching it; what they want is a high SAT or ACT score in the subject. High standardized test scores can be bought if you have the money for a test training class. Add to this our longstanding knowledge that people with economic privilege score higher on standardized tests overall, and you can see what these tests are really measuring.

But that’s not the only reason standardized testing is problematic. The SAT, PSAT, and AP exams (among others) are administered by a company called College Board. On the surface, they appear to be a nonprofit devoted to creating and administering standardized tests. Have you proctored one of these exams recently? I have. When students take the PSAT, a practice exam whose scores are never distributed to anyone but the students and their high school, College Board insists on students providing full legal names, home addresses, and social security numbers when each exam is already given a unique identifying code. College Board asks for pages of optional information such as phone numbers, GPA, and whether a student’s parents are US citizens.

Here’s why: College Board makes millions selling the student data they collect to anyone with the cash to pay for it. Here’s the link— buried deep on the website– that helpfully provides various payment plans. You can buy information on individual minors for just 45 cents “per name,” pay $7.710 for the right to roam free through the collected information of minors in an “unlimited annual subscription,” or upgrade your annual subscription to an unlimited “Segment Analysis Service™” for $17,750. Here’s a chart of the kind of data you can buy— including race, GPA, “religious interest,” and whether the student is a “first generation” American.

Is the ACT better? No.

Companies that market various services to students purchase your child’s information in order to market to them. College Board pressures students to check the box opting in to “Student Search Services” by requiring test proctors to read a paragraph extolling its virtues, pretending that opting in will result in elite universities recruiting them– without considering that universities are just as likely to use that data to eliminate them from consideration. Students are also told that opting in will result in scholarships contacting them, a deeply unethical promise that plays on the very real fears around paying skyrocketing tuition. This private company’s executives are dangling the false promise of scholarships to students to entice them to hand over data– data that those executives sell to enrich themselves and ensure their own children have unfair advantages over the very students whose data they sell.

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Photo: gvarc.org, Creative Commons

Standardized testing exists to generate wealth for testing companies, and for companies that purchase the marketing data testing companies gather.

But testing companies aren’t the only private companies lining their pockets with public education funds. Two of the most successful education profiteers are companies that market educational systems and companies that create charter schools.

 

In the past few decades, schools were suddenly labeled “in crisis,” and the phrase “failing schools” was everywhere. Nothing had changed– in fact, literacy rates were at an all-time high– but suddenly schools were all “failing” due in large part to “bad teachers” protected by unions. Never mind that non-union states have lower test scores than union states. Facts were not the point. This was marketing meant to shift public opinion, and it worked beautifully. Standardized tests were quickly positioned as the key factor used to measure “teacher effectiveness” and identify “low-performing schools” by demanding that scores rise by a set percentage each year in order to “pass.” This makes no sense, as pedagogical effectiveness can only be measured using a complex variety of assessments and data. Just ask anyone who’s been through a WASC report. This also makes no statistical sense, since the student population at any given site or in any given teacher’s classroom changes from year to year, so you’re comparing two different populations. But, again, this was not about facts. This was fear-mongering meant to manufacture a crisis. The crisis was manufactured by business-friendly politicians so that corporations could sell us the solutions. 

In addition to the billions of tax dollars shelled out to testing companies, and the additional profiteering in selling your child’s data, there are further billions to be made in educational systems and charter schools, all of which depend on maintaining the mythology that schools are “failing” and that we must continually hemorrhage money into private companies to “save” our schools.

 

 

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I’ll just take this over to the private sector #savingschools #wedogoodwork

It’s important to understand that the educational system is unfairly structured in favor of the wealthy at its core. Public school funding is based on property values. Yes, you read that correctly: higher property taxes means more money for schools, because so much about K-12 public education is district by district. This translates into endless benefits for the affluent: higher teacher salaries that attract and retain talent, smaller class sizes and more varied classes (including the art, music, and theatre programs that translate into better grades and better student retention), better facilities, better extracurriculars– in short, everything that educators know improves student outcomes. Poor Black women are jailed for “stealing” educations when they falsify residencies to get their children into higher-rated schools, but those schools are only better because the wealthy unfairly structured the system. While the children of the wealthy are given the best of everything, my public school teacher husband has had to seat students on the counters because there were not enough chairs. But there’s plenty of money in his district to spend on educational systems and charter schools.

Educational systems. Without getting too deep into the ed policy weeds, pre-2018, schools that went into “program improvement” were forced into choosing from a list of draconian measures that included firing every single teacher or purchasing an expensive “program improvement” educational system from a private company. While the rules have become somewhat less draconian, “low-performing schools” are still singled out through testing and are still required to take steps to “improve.” These “educational systems” sold by private companies are expensive and proprietary. Teachers must undergo hours of training on the new system and have almost no flexibility for what we call “differentiated education”– changing things up for individual students who have different learning styles, the gold standard in pedagogy. While I have all the academic freedom I had in university teaching in my private school classroom, my public school teacher husband is required to teach to a system that is, in a word, wretched. I’ve found multiple errors in the material the system requires his students to use, everything from teaching students erroneous grammar to study questions that don’t match the reading . Even without the errors, no educator on the planet would say a one-size-fits-all system was pedagogically useful. It’s the antithesis of effective pedagogy. Yet these essentially useless systems drain billions of tax dollars out of schools and into the pockets of the corporate profiteers who sell them, while those corporate profiteers send their own children to expensive private schools with individualized instruction.

Charter schools. Charter schools are run by private companies but, somehow, are considered public schools and funded by your tax dollars. The charter school system was a gift from a business-friendly government to private companies as the first step towards privatizing education. Literally any company that files the paperwork can start siphoning tax dollars out of the local school system and into their own pockets without having to prove they actually know how to teach.  Don’t get me wrong– there are good charter schools out there run by true believers with a vision– but too many charter schools are run by people with no experience in pedagogy or school administration. In order to collect public funding, you need students, and charter schools have aggressively marketed themselves. Shady charter schools have run wild in areas that lack economic privilege, preying on desperate parents, promising a better education than the woefully underfunded public schools– schools the charters are helping to defund– and pretending to deliver results by manipulating test scores through weeding out low performers in the admissions process, “counseling out” low-performing students, and suspending them or just marking them absent on test day. Charters are notorious for low teacher pay and poor treatment of teachers because they’re exempt from hiring union teachers, just as they’re exempt from almost all the regulations and oversight we put in place to ensure high-quality public schools. While there are good charter schools, the program itself was designed as a love letter to regulation-hating corporations who wanted to privatize public education, and as such it privileged the needs of the wealthy over the needs of the students, and created a host of problems for which charter schools have become notorious among educators. And while all aspects of privatization of public schools, like charters and vouchers, have been the darling of the right, it’s worth noting that charter schools were created by the Clinton Administration and heartily supported by the Obama Administration.

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Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP

 

This is the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much I’ve left unsaid, including the critical influence of racism on all of this. This is just a taste in the hope that people will begin to listen to educators when forming ed policy. For decades, we have formed ed policy around the lie that educators cannot be trusted to helm education, and now we have a ship that has been all but handed over to corporate raiders and privateers.

For the past few decades, education policy in America has been set largely by business-friendly politicians who have done everything they can to use public education funding to line the pockets of the wealthy. They have allowed testing companies to collect and sell personal data about minors. They have wildly overstated the efficacy of standardized tests and increased their importance in every sector of American education to create revenue for testing company executives. They have used those standardized tests to create impossible standards for schools to meet, and when schools inevitably “failed,” they forced schools to purchase expensive “program improvement” systems from private companies. They’ve used those standardized tests to justify handing public funding to private companies to open “charter schools” with no oversight. In short, bad ed policy has opened the coffers of public education and tacked up a sign saying, “Carpetbaggers Welcome.”

Believe educators when we tell you where the problems are– and where they are not. Stop allowing the wealthy to enrich themselves by raiding public school coffers. Put education policy back in the hands of educators. 

 

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“We Shouldn’t Rush to Judgment” on the MAGA boys? Who Does That Serve?

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Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips.

The response of some of my fellow white people to the jeering mob of MAGA boys mocking a group of Native people (including Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips, pictured above) after the so-called “March for Life” anti-choice rally in Washington DC on Friday, has been less than spectacular. I’ve had all I can take of “let’s not rush to judgment” and “let’s avoid knee-jerk reactions” and “the media is playing to extremist assumptions.” 
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When you label people of color pointing out racism (or women pointing out sexism, or people with disabilities pointing out ableism, etc) a “knee-jerk reaction” or an “extremist mindset,” who does that serve? 
Whenever people of color discuss an incident of racism and we respond with “Let’s not rush to judgment” or “There could be guilt on both sides,” we’re deliberately ignoring every scrap of sociopolitical context. Who does that serve?
Let’s start with “let’s not rush to judgment.” We can all see in the video that their behavior is appalling, so what, precisely, is the white defense of the MAGA boys against people of color labeling their behavior “racism”?
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The white defense comes in various flavors of “we shouldn’t rush to judgment because we don’t know the whole story” and “They were just [standing there, dancing, smiling, etc] and did nothing wrong.” If you believe that there’s some important context that needs to be applied to this in order to fully understand it, you’re right. If you believe that there’s any context that could be applied to this to justify the actions of the MAGA boys, you’re wrong.
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If you believe knowing “the whole story” could exonerate the MAGA boys, you’re stating that the racist behavior of these MAGA boys could somehow have been earned by the Native elders. You believe that, at least some of the time, people of color share some blame in racism against them. That argument is, at its core, racist.
If you believe that the boys were “just standing there” or “just dancing” or “just” anything, you’re ignoring the entirety of the sociopolitical context, as if this incident happened outside of our culture and time; as if a white mob swarming a small group of people of color, MAGA hats, or chants of “build the wall” are minor details that have no cultural meaning or bearing on understanding this encounter.
Who does it serve to ignore the fact that the actions of the MAGA boys happened within a pre-existing framework of white supremacy? Who does it serve to ignore that MAGA gear is a symbol of racism, an implied threat? Who does it serve to ignore that high school racism in the US has been widely accompanied by students shouting “TRUMP” and/or wearing MAGA gear? Who does it serve to ignore that mobs of white males, especially displaying racist symbology, have a long history of terrifying violence in the US? 
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It’s Privilege 101 to excuse racism by scraping away the context and keeping focus on the actions of the moment, so that the person wielding their privilege is framed as just innocently doing X. “All he did was say she looked nice,” “All he did was stand there and smile,” “All he did was say that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood,” “All he did was use the OK sign.” It’s a well-worn trick to protect privilege.
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So when we pretend that the sociocultural context of this incident just doesn’t exist, who does that serve? It serves white supremacy.
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Racist pro-Trump graffiti found on a Spanish teacher’s door at a high school in northern California. Racist pro-Trump graffiti and other expressions of pro-Trump racism have risen to alarming levels at US high schools. While the election of Trump has clearly emboldened young racists and contributed to the frequency with which racists express themselves openly, Trump’s election is a result of longstanding systemic racism, not the cause of that racism.

 
Perhaps even worse than “let’s not rush to judgment” is the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction” rather than a reasonable response. When we make the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction,” we’re insisting that people of color don’t know racism when they see it and are just reacting emotionally, without thought. We’re insisting that our “thoughtful” reaction that does not “rush to judgment” is superior, and should be deferred to. We’re insisting that there are ways in which people of color bring racism upon themselves, and that they are required to test all events thoroughly against white-created standards to satisfy us that they did not deserve the racism we gave them. We’re insisting that people of color require our consent to identify our actions as racist.
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“But we don’t have the whole story.” While white people have no business telling people of color what is and what is not racist, let’s set that obvious fact aside for the moment to entertain the possibilities around “the whole story.”
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Look at the statements conservatives are making in the MAGA boys’ defense:
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“He drummed right in that boy’s face.”
“He walked over to them before they swarmed him.”
“There was a group of Black people there calling the boys racist and homophobic slurs.”
“That Native elder has a history of instigation.”
“One of the Natives told the boys to go back to Europe.”
“The Natives were just using the boys for a hateful political stunt.”
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Even IF conservatives are correct and every one of those statements is true, none of it excuses the way the MAGA boys behaved, none of it erases the sociopolitical context that gives cultural meaning to a swarm of MAGA gear-wearing white boys surrounding a small group of Native elders and jeering at them.
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People of color are not “rushing to judgment” or having a “knee-jerk reaction.” They’re identifying something they’ve learned to identify through generations of experience.
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Taken from the video.

There’s a reason the smug smirk on the featured MAGA boy’s face has instigated such a visceral reaction from everyone who is not white or male.
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Speaking from personal experience, every woman knows what that smug smirk means. Every woman knows what it means when a privileged white boy blocks your path and stands inches from your face with a smug smirk. Even most white men know, if they’re honest, the face of the smug, taunting bully. We have all been victimized by that boy, watched as the adults excused it, watched as their mothers lied– as this boy’s mother has apparently done— to make us the aggressors.
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To quote Ruth Graham from the Slate article I linked in the first paragraph:
“Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, ‘What? I’m just standing here,’ if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.”
To the widespread knowledge of what entitled bullying looks like, add generations of racism and genocide against Native people. Add the daily grind of being a person of color in the US and having “TRUMP” shouted at you as a taunt as you’re just trying to go about your business, having “Trump is deporting all of you!” shouted as you as you’re walking down the street. Add generations of having to carefully scrutinize white behavior, learn its signs and symbols, merely as acts of self-preservation. White people, we have no evidence that people of color are “rushing to judgment” here, and plenty of reason to trust the judgment of people of color when they tell us that something is racist.
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Most importantly, no one is asking white people for a ruling on whether or not this is racism. That is not our role here. Our role is to ask ourselves what our level of complicity is in allowing this to happen and what we can actively do to ensure that it never happens again.

 

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Rashida Tlaib Shouldn’t Apologize. You Should for Your Sexist Double Standard.

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Congressional Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).   (Photo: Al Goldis/AP)

Oh, the horror! Newly sworn-in Congressional Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) attended a MoveOn event last Thursday evening during which she used some colorful language to refer to former reality TV personality and Russian mob-linked “real estate developer” Donald J. Trump. She stated that the new Democratic majority in the House was going to “impeach the motherfucker.”

Interestingly, few on either side of the aisle are complaining about the substance of Tlaib’s statement. Even Republicans are beginning to recognize that a line has been crossed when your POTUS, whose understanding of foreign affairs is limited to which foreign leader has the hottest wife and which nation’s bribes– sorry, “Trump Hotel bills“– are the largest, spouts obscure Kremlin propaganda on live television. No, what people are upset about is her use of the word “motherfucker.”

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How dare she

While Tlaib is surely not the first person to refer to Trump in such a way, this event is being treated as if it’s a National Scandal. If you ever needed an example of the sexist double standard in American politics, here it is.

Tlaib’s comment has launched 1000 hot takes about how “dangerous” or “divisive” her single f-bomb was, but when men use the same kind of language, they’re consistently portrayed as lovable scamps, “tough talkers,” or “real.”

Trump himself has used profanity hundreds of times publicly at his rallies, used profane insults in his tweets about fellow politicians and about NFL players, used profanity to brag about sexually assaulting women, used profanity to insult nations with Black populations, and that’s just off the top of my head.

In Beto O’Rourke’s concession speech last November, he said of his campaign team, “I’m so fucking proud of you guys,” and everyone found it charming– so charming, in fact,  someone is selling several T-shirt designs emblazoned with the quote. And don’t come at me with their different contexts; Tlaib is being slammed for her language, not for her sentiment, while Beto remains the Great White Hope of the Left.

Joe Biden’s profanity is considered charming earthiness, part of a roguish public persona that has served as the inspiration for hundreds of memes.

And in case you’re wondering whether race is playing a role here, I give you Kirsten Gillibrand’s use of “fuck” at NYU, June 2017.

Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Swearing is nothing new in American public life, yet when it’s done by a woman of color, suddenly it’s an unforgivable sin for which she should immediately apologize.

In many of the preposterous hot takes written from the Hypocrisy Fainting Couch, Tlaib is chastised for being “divisive” and for failing to understand that her profanity doesn’t “build bridges” to bipartisanship, as if all Mitch McConnell needs to repent his evil ways and lead his party to oust the Russian asset in the White House is a kind word and a smile.

Over and over, both in these op-eds and social media, I’ve seen people bloviating that Tlaib should apologize because “we expect more from women,” “women should adhere to a higher standard,” “we shouldn’t sink to their level.” What this means is that we have one standard for white men, wherein their profanity is winkingly categorized under “boys will be boys,” and another for everyone else, an impossibly high standard set up to ensure our failure before we even begin.

Tlaib’s moment of profanity isn’t nearly as destructive as the endless purity tests for women in politics.  Is she “likeable”? Pretty enough? Nice enough? Not shrill? Not too loud and demanding, but loud and demanding enough in a non-threatening way? Does she fight hard, but only about certain issues, not about, say, sexism? Is she thin enough? Does she dress well, but not too well? Does she defer to the men or does she treat them the way they treat her?

Has she ever made any mistake ever? Then she’s “unelectable” due to her “baggage,” a label we will cement to her name through dozens of articles “asking the question,” a stance that gives us plausible deniability even as we give the idea weight and importance.

When men make precisely the same mistakes, they’re forgiven, immediately, applauded for their half-assed “I apologize if I offended anyone,” if the incident is even given that much attention. In a nation where a child molester, a judge who protected a child rapist, an open white supremacist, an “acting Attorney General” who defrauded veterans and threatened those who complained, and an entire rogue’s gallery of grifters and grafters have all garnered the approval of Republicans at the highest levels of government, a woman of color is criticized by people on both the right and the left for uttering a single swear word in the fight for justice against that very criminality.

The problem we have is not that Tlaib said a naughty word. The problem is that our systemic sexism and racism holds women, especially women of color, to an impossibly high standard, and uses their failure to meet that impossible standard as evidence that they are unfit for power. “It’s not that she’s a woman,” the lie goes, “it’s that she did this thing”– “this thing” being something for which men are routinely forgiven– or even congratulated. The left laughs at Trump for saying Tlaib “dishonored” the country moments after using the same language himself, but our own hypocrisy is no better.

Tlaib herself, to her credit, is not apologizing, and has made an iron-clad case for impeachment in an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, but I will leave you with this quote:

“This is not just about Donald Trump. This is about all of us. What should we be as a nation? Who should we be as a people?”

We should, as a people, strive to treat woman and people of color with the same respect we treat white men. Those of us on the left, who claim we uphold diversity and equity as core principles, need to stop the devastating attacks on women and people of color while we wink and nod at white men for the same behavior.

 

 

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We Have Some Questions for Louis CK

2017 Summer TCA Tour - Day 16

Photo: Getty Images

Dear Mr. CK:

As the mothers of young transgender, gender-neutral, non-binary, and genderqueer people, we have some questions about your new stand-up that we were hoping you could answer.

In your feisty new set, you complained about our children, stating:

“They tell you what to call them. ‘You should address me as they/them, because I identify as gender neutral.’ Oh, OK. You should address me as ‘there’ because I identify as a location. And the location is your mother’s cunt.”

Far be it from us to deny you your self-identification, but as a means of supporting you in your transition from garbage man to our cunts, we will need some clarification.

Are you identifying as the location where our cunts reside? For example, right now, are you identifying as the crotch of an old pair of Darth Vader pajama pants, a pair of Hanes Her Way in Rocket Red, a lacy thong from Hips and Curves, a bubble bath, etc, etc, all at once? Are you planning to set up some kind of mechanism whereby we can all report the locations of our cunts to you at all times? It sounds stressful, but we are here to support you!

Or perhaps you’re identifying as all our actual cunts at once? If so, welcome! Having a wealthy celebrity suddenly announce that he is now identifying as part of our bodies comes as a welcome relief as you will of course begin contributing to your own upkeep. We look forward to your ongoing, regular contributions to the maintenance of our mutual cunts. Tampons and pads cost money! On any given day, at least one of us is menstruating, so you’ll be menstruating daily along with us. (You also . . . seem like the kind of man who might need some basic information about women’s bodies. This 1946 Disney short, “The Story of Menstruation,” will be a big help.) Additionally, some of our cunts have expensive medical issues. Everything from cervical cancer to a simple yeast infection puts financial pressure on women, and knowing that you will be there, Louis CK, every step of the way alongside us, is heartwarming.

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The beautiful clitoria ternatea. Photo by BT Wursten, Flora of Zimbabwe

Given the grammar of your sentence, it seems quite unlikely that you meant that you planned to have sex with all of us, but the possibility does need to be addressed. If that’s the case, please amend this joke to make grammatical sense. If you “identify” as the location of all our cunts, you’re talking about BEING us (or where we are located– hoping for clarification soon!), not being IN us. Also please amend your expectations. The man who had to force unwilling women into sexual encounters at the height of his fame and power is not up to the task of landing every one of us at this point. There will always be a few that will do it for the story, but I doubt you could crack more than 0.07%. We do, however, wish you the best of luck.

We have one final question, though. You seem very emotional about the fact that some young people are telling us how they wish to be addressed, and distressed that they are not like you were when you were young. Yet they are precisely like you. You were born “Louis Szekely,” and have told us all to address you as “Louis CK.”

Of course, given your new vaginalian identity, the point is now moot. I’m sure you will be taking on a more appropriate name, one that reflects your newly-revealed inner truth. From now on, we will respect your truth and refer to you as “The All Cunt.”

With Love,

Moms

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Transgender? The California DMV Has Some Questions From 1972 For You

My daughter is transgender. Like many of the kids in our area, where so many walk or use public transportation, she doesn’t yet have a driver’s license. When she turned 18, she needed a California ID. Sounds easy, no? Not for trans folks.

We had already gone to court and had her name and gender legally changed in the state of California. It’s an involved process. You need several official court forms and a letter from your doctor attesting that the petitioner is undergoing “medically appropriate treatment” for the gender change. California wisely leaves the definition of “medically appropriate treatment” up to the doctor and petitioner, as there are so many different options available now, and what is an appropriate medical approach for one person may not be appropriate (or even safe) for another. The filing fee is $435, and the court date is set after the clerk reviews all your completed documents, making sure everything is in order. You must appear in person on the court date, whenever it is. The court here groups all the name and gender change people together, and the judge we drew was a sweetheart, so our court appearance was a memorable day of various families and friends hugging, weeping, and laughing. The judge was clearly enjoying himself (“Don’t cry, Mom,” he smilingly said to me as I wept while he genially and casually changed my daughter’s life by affirming her identity.). We immediately went to Records and got several original copies of the court order, knowing we would need them.

Getting a new Social Security card was a breeze with the court order. We didn’t even have an appointment. We popped by, waited about 20 minutes, showed the very sweet woman behind the counter the original court order, and my daughter had her receipt in hand (and a warm congratulations) within five minutes of our number being called. The re-issued card came in the mail a week later.

Getting a new birth certificate was a breeze with the court order. We filled out the proper forms, enclosed a $23 check and one of the original court orders (which is why you need several– they keep it), and within several weeks, the new birth certificate came. My baby girl bearing my grandmother’s name. So precious to me, and much, much more precious to her.

Down the line, everything we needed was a breeze, smiles and congratulations, stamp, stamp, “That’ll be $27.50” and you’re done. The DMV was another story.

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Actual, unretouched photo of our DMV clerk

The DMV was our first stop after we obtained the court order, as I naively believed it would be one of the easiest and would facilitate getting the rest done. It’s just an ID, right? She definitely is who she says she is. I had her original, official birth certificate and social security card with her deadname, along with an original, official, stamped court order and the entire packet of paperwork the court made us file, including the doctor’s note. I had several pieces of mail proving her address and my own, along with my own ID proving that I was the person listed as her mother on her birth certificate. I was, as usual, over-prepared. Or so I thought.

What would be good enough for the social security office, for the California Office of Vital Records, for the school system, for the passport office, for literally every other local, state, and federal government agency, was not good enough for the California DMV.

The California DMV has its own form, you see. The DMV will not accept an official court order. Instead they demand a special DMV doctor’s note, called a DL329. What information does the DMV insist transgender people collect that is so critical that an official court order is deemed inadequate?

You must get a physician or psychologist to attest that your “gender identification” is “transitional” or “complete,” and that you have a (check one) male or female gender identification and a (check one) male or female demeanor.

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The DL329. 

First of all, the California DMV does NOT need to know whether my daughter’s “gender identification” is “complete.” What the hell does that even mean? Because it sure sounds like the California DMV is asking my teenage daughter if she’s had bottom surgery. When I asked about this, they said it was “because it’s used for ID.” I use my driver’s license for ID all the time, and I have never once been asked by anyone to prove I’m female with my genitalia. Additionally, transgender people are precisely the gender they say they are. What procedures they may or may not undergo to change their bodies is no more relevant to their identity than it is when cisgender people have them. People have plastic surgery all the time, and the DMV makes nary a peep about it. What reason could the DMV possibly have for demanding information about the “completeness” of someone’s “transition”? It can’t possibly be for identification purposes. It seems that the demand is there for no other reason than to harass and abuse transgender people.

This also demonstrates a woefully outdated understanding of gender. EVERYONE’S “gender identification” is complete, even if you change your gender daily. Whatever your gender is in any given moment, as you experience it, is a “complete” gender. You may, like someone of any gender, choose to have various procedures to be happier with your body, but there is no such thing as a “transitional gender,” and even if you disagree with that, there’s no reason for the DMV to have that information to issue you a state ID in a state with picture IDs.

Do you reasonably match your picture? Great. Your genitalia does not need to be involved in this. No, sir, please do not show me your genital– SIR. Sir, please put that away. Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the building.

I suppose I understand male and female “gender identification;” at least, I understand what they mean by it. What I don’t understand is why they need a physician to confirm it and why there are only two choices. At least 1 in 2000 babies are born intersex, and there are plenty of people who are nonbinary. But sure. I’ll give them this one, provisionally, if only because I need room in this piece for the immense, mind-boggling nonsense that is the DMV’s demand for a physician to assess the gender of your “demeanor.”

The California DMV forces you to ask a physician or psychologist to check a box attesting that you have either male or female “demeanor.” There are only two choices, and I have no idea what either of them mean. I’m a cis woman and I would fail traditional “female demeanor” every day of the week. What does the DMV want the doctor to confirm? That transwomen can walk in high heels? Move daintily? Defer to men? Say “I love my career, but nothing is more important to me than being a good wife and mother”? What, specifically, does the DMV think it’s asking for when it’s asking for a doctor to assess the gender of someone’s demeanor?

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What the DMV is picturing as “female demeanor” (source: puzzlewarehouse.com)

Remember that this is in addition to the court order that I had in my hand at that moment proving that the human standing in front of them was legally female. Think about this: The DMV insisted that we force a doctor to attest that my daughter had a “female demeanor” in order to get an ID that reflected her LEGAL gender.

What made this all so much worse was that the staff at our local DMV were openly hostile. This is the Bay Area, and, naively, so very naively, I had expected them to be professional. Of course not.

We eventually got her ID. My daughter had me and my husband to fight for her. Imagine having to face that– and much worse– alone.

California, you’re supposed to be leading the way in these issues. Instead, the DMV is allowed to force transgender Californians to undergo humiliating, abusive treatment for no reason at all other than that they can, and no one in the state government has ever cared enough to stop them.

 

 

 

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I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On.

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Photo: Associated Press

Desperate refugees are being teargassed at the border for having the audacity to take the Statue of Liberty at her word. The economy is slipping badly due to Trump’s mismanagement. The (putative) President of the United States praises the people who financed 9/11 while disparaging the Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden, praises convicted criminals while attacking law enforcement and judges, praises dictators and white supremacists while insulting US allies, disrespects the rule of law, American tradition, American values, and the Constitution, and lies, and lies, and lies again.

Meanwhile liberal lion Nancy Pelosi’s speakership is being held hostage by conservative Democrats who are insisting she hand power to House Republicans in exchange. Climate change is poised to ruin our economy on its way to ending our ability to live on this planet and somehow– insanely– this has become a partisan issue. A new study rolled out that confirmed the findings of multiple studies over the past 18 months: people support Trump due to “white anxiety”– we used to call this “racism”– a fear of people of color “dominating” the US and “displacing” white people.

And that’s just the past few weeks.

That’s a tenth of what has happened in the past few weeks.

The US is being held hostage by a minority political faction hostile to the rest of us. A Republican recently told me, “Republicans aren’t interested in democracy. We’re interested in freedom.” Freedom to oppress, freedom to discriminate, freedom to defraud.

It’s a lot.

In the theatre community, I’m seeing a lot of despair. What good is art while racism and sexism are gleefully celebrated throughout our society? What good is art when 40% of the nation supports open hatred, open ignorance, open rejection of science, knowledge, and basic facts? Why are we fiddling as Rome burns? How can it ever be enough?

Yet we MUST GO ON. Because we are more than enough. We are the most powerful tool in the resistance.

There is no way to overstate the power of art. There’s a reason this whole destructive cycle began with the establishment of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative “infotainment” in the 90s. There’s a reason it ends up here, with Trump’s lying showmanship and conservative propaganda given more weight than actual journalism, science, or expertise.

The Cambridge Analytica papers showed that Steve Bannon invented the concept of the “Deep State” as propaganda, and that revelation had exactly zero impact on the people who believe in that lie. Why? Because art is more powerful than any one piece of factual evidence. The person who controls the story controls the truth.

Art matters. Representation matters. Art creates culture. Conservatives know this and are using it to promote the racist, sexist panic that preserves their political power.

When Donald Trump goes on television and insists that Mexicans are “rapists,” he knows that’s not true. When he claims white supremacists are “very fine people,” states that non-white countries are “shitholes,” says that Central American refugees are “terrorists,” “diseased,” “child grabbers,” or “Middle Eastern,” he knows that’s not true. When he insults prominent Black Americans, he invariably uses classic white supremacist language: Maxine Waters is “low IQ”; Don Lemon is “the dumbest man on television”; Andrew Gillum is “a thief”; Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis “does nothing” for his “burning and crime-infested” district, and many, many more. Of course he knows none of it is true.

Sure, it’s lying, but more importantly, it’s THEATRE. He’s performing for conservative white Americans who support him primarily due to “white anxiety” and “racial resentment.” He’s putting on a show for them that may as well be entitled You’re Right to Feel Superior to Black People. It runs in rep with You’re Right to Be Afraid of Brown People, Women Exist to Be Decorative and Obedient, and I Don’t Care What the Constitution Says and Neither Should You: Give Me Unrestrained Power to Shut Down The Black and Brown Infestation and Make America Great (and White) Again. It’s running eight shows a week on the Great White Way along with Fox News’ Everyone Who is Not White and Conservative is Bad, InfoWars’ The Sky Is Falling and It’s the Jews’ Fault and Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham’s experimental dance theatre piece, Hate Keeps the Closet Door Shut.

Very few people actually believe Trump’s lies. They’re just fans of the show.

You don’t fight theatre with facts. That’s why facts and logic aren’t working, why Trump’s base will swear they believe his lies over their own eyes and ears.

You fight theatre with better theatre. You fight narrative with better narrative. And we are much, much better at this than they are.

It’s hard, I know. It feels at times like all is lost, like every scrap of progress we’ve made against evil since Civil Rights is being encinerated, like every step forward we’ve made for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, Muslims, Jews, everyone is being dragged back to the 19th century. But they’re not winning every battle. And THEY WILL NOT WIN THE WAR.

We outnumber them. And we are better at this than they are.

You, the theatremakers, filmmakers, TV writers and producers, all of you making art: YOU ARE THE VANGUARD. Fill your stages and screens with stories that fight this evil. Celebrate difference. Hire and promote women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Fund that show written and directed by Black women and promote the hell out of it. Cast a trans lead. Put three nonbinary people with disabilities on your story team.

Be deliberate. Go on. Your art is your activism, and there is nothing more powerful on this earth.

Keep pushing. They will not prevail. This moment in history is temporary. They will NOT be the ones who tell the American Story. We will. We are.

Go on.

 

 

 

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What Does it Mean When Trump Says He’s a “Nationalist”? Ask the Man Who Just Shot Up a Synagogue

 

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A candlelight vigil outside Tree of Life Congregation yesterday evening. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Am I surprised a man opened fire in a synagogue yesterday during a baby naming, murdering 11 people while yelling “All Jews must die”? No. Jews have been a favorite target of violence– political and otherwise– for two thousand years. But open hatred of difference has now gone mainstream, and is present at the highest levels of our society. The extremist right wing, which always feared and hated Jews, people of color, and LGBTQ people, is now dominating conservative media and directing the tenor of the national discourse. Open hatred has become fashionable.

“I’m not politically correct,” goes the refrain, as the speaker defends sexual assault, racial slurs, transphobic violence, on and on. The extremist right has framed this as “truth” vs “the perpetually offended,” as if bigotry represents “truth” and those opposing it are just comically “offended,” like a schoolmarm shocked to find “FVCK” carved on a desk. Opposition to racism, sexism, transphobia, and all abuses of power is strenuously belittled and mocked by the right as “political correctness” and “virtue signaling.” They have made it fashionable to mock opposition to bigotry. 

So it comes as no surprise that part of this fashionable bigotry is hatred of “globalists,” a longstanding euphemism for “Jews” repopularized in recent years by the Nazi-sympathizing alt right. “Globalist” is a reference to the very old antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews have no allegiance to any one nation and seek to dominate the globe as a whole, usually through banking (look for references to the Rothschilds) and skullduggery. Trump himself, just days before the shooting, decried the danger of “globalists” to a Houston crowd that roared its approval. In claiming to be a “Nationalist,” Trump is using alt right terminology that means he opposes “Globalist” Jews.

The extremist right believe “Jews,” as a nebulous, evil consortium (often said to be headed by philanthropist and frequent Democrat donor George Soros), are somehow “selling out” the US to other nations for personal gain– including the destruction of the “white race”– and global political power. “Nationalist” means “white Nationalist”– someone fighting for the preservation of a white-dominated, Christian America against Jewish Globalists. One of the things white Nationalists believe Jewish Globalists are plotting is the “destruction of white America” through the left’s “support of open borders,” which fosters “white genocide” by creating an “invasion” of Brown people. These Brown people are all “criminals,” “rapists,” and “terrorists,” an “infestation.” When the right claim that “the left” is funding “the caravan,” they mean that Jewish Globalists are funding it as part of their plan to destroy white domination in the US. This is why it makes no difference to these people whether immigrants are asylum seekers fleeing horrors or people seeking the American Dream. The operative for Nationalists is whether immigrants are– or are not— white. 

Black people– the lowest of the low to Nationalists– are portrayed as witless fools, “duped” into voting Democrat with offers of “free stuff.” “Welfare” encourages them to “outbreed white people.” This is what the “welfare queen” slur has evolved into– a subhuman tool of Jewish Globalists encouraged to breed with free food, free phones, and subsidized rent as Jews cackle over the impending destruction of the white race. One wonders what Nationalists make of the thousands of Black Jews in America or of African Jews.

Do I think Trump knows any of this? No. Would he care if he knew? Also no. Do the roaring crowds who approve this rhetoric know? Many of them, sure. And some are just along for the ride because they love the bullying, the anger, the hate. They love that the bigotry and hatred they call “patriotism” is now at the highest echelon of government. It’s why they elected him and why they remain faithful as the rest of the nation– and the world– looks on in horror.

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The chapel in the Tree of Life synagogue. (Source: tolols.org)

The mainstream right refuses to address– or even acknowledge– the popularity of white Nationalism in its ranks even as their leaders defend its principles and actors. This is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and an utter lack of any serious effort apart from some weak statements decrying “racism” (even as they campaign for the racists) is their admission of defeat. They’re all rushing to prove to conservative voters how loyal they are to Trump even as he screeches racist conspiracy theory rhetoric at rallies. Against that behavior, who believes mealy-mouthed tweets about being “against racism”?

Compounding this moral cowardice, the right consistently refuses to accept that anyone on the right can do any wrong. They have already begun pretending this synagogue shooting is a “false flag,” just as they are pretending the recent mail bombs are “false flags,” just as they have pretended that every murder and attack by far right extremists in recent years are all somehow orchestrated by the left. They claim the left has somehow planted every shooters’ right wing social media posts, evidence of membership in right wing groups, photos of the shooter clutching Confederate flags, giving Nazi salutes, and wearing MAGA hats– even claims of planting Nazi and pro-Trump tattoos.

The right will pretend there’s “violence on both sides” and point to an antifa kid setting fire to a trash can.

I tell you what, Tucker. I’ll GIVE you my trashcans if you BRING BACK THESE LIVES.

The false equivalency of “both sides” is dangerous, because it equates violent racist rhetoric with the rhetoric opposing it.

I agree, wholeheartedly, that there should be no rhetoric advocating violence, period. But it is dangerous– and I mean that literally, as in more people will die— to pretend that approving of a politician’s physical assault against a journalist, or popularizing lies like “Democrats are a violent mob” and “[If Democrats win, they] will overturn everything that we’ve done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence” are in any way equivalent to accosting right wing politicians in restaurants with protests against their actual policies, or statements calling attention to the very real rise of white Nationalism in conservative politics. Republicans are even equating putting googly eyes on a campaign billboard with Nationalist murders.

White Nationalism and the racism, antisemitism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment underpinning it are not new to America, not by a longshot. But it’s undeniable that over the past 50 years, the US has made some small gains in the fight against it, and it has come roaring back, rearing its ugly, violent head and insisting on its dominance. This is the “movement” that caused 74% of white voters to vote for Trump as opposed to just 6% of Black voters, 26% of Jewish voters, and 28% of Latinx voters. That divide is no accident. It wasn’t “jobs” or “the economy” unless you mean the relentless drumbeat of “your taxes pay for Democrat handouts to Black people and immigrants” or “immigrants come here to take our jobs.” Much of the rhetoric on the right was racially charged in 2016, and it has only escalated from there, emboldened by what they see as a white mandate. Nine GOP midterm candidates have open ties to Nationalist or Nazi groups as the bulk of the party continues pandering to Nationalists either with dog whistle racism or open allegiance.

When we say “we must come together as a nation,” unless we’re coming together against Nationalism, all we’re doing is enabling it. At the barest minimum, we must all immediately and vociferously stand against the racist, antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ rhetorical violence spinning out of control in our political discourse. Better yet, we should stand firm against the dangerous policies such rhetoric is designed to enable.

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“Who Will Believe Thee, Isabel?”: Measuring Kavanaugh

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Next week, we will finally hear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony detailing her memory of Judge Brett Kavanaugh attempting to violently rape her in high school, when he was 17 and she was 15. Dr. Ford has been harassed, threatened, and bullied by the GOP Senate Judiciary Committee, while their minions in the public have doxxed her and sent so many credible death threats the FBI has opened an investigation. It’s ironic given that Dr. Ford has been pleading for standard procedure to be followed and the FBI be allowed to reopen Kavanaugh’s background check in order to investigate her claims. The GOP is desperate to prevent that, shamefully lying that this is not what the FBI does, despite these same Senators stating the opposite on record multiple times in the past. That’s how desperate they are to hide whatever the FBI would find in an investigation. And considering Kavanaugh has already been caught bending the truth in his confirmation hearings about an entirely different matter, I can empathize with their panic. They’re trying to get an ethically suspect man onto the highest court in the land, and their plan was, evidently, to just move as quickly as they could before anyone noticed he was ethically suspect.

Well, that “just run fast and hope no one notices” ploy did not go according to plan, and here we are.

Now the right has moved from “he didn’t do it”– an obvious untruth, given the ethical gymnastics the GOP is performing to prevent the FBI from calling even a single witness– to “it doesn’t matter if he did. He was so young!”

This is, in a word, nonsense.

Whenever a woman accuses a man of sexual assault, men (and even, tragically, some women) line up to  attack the victim and excuse the perpetrator. They eagerly tumble onto the internet in dozens, breathlessly calling the woman a liar, blaming her for the assault, saying she had it coming.

And, increasingly, what we see is “it’s fine that he did it.” The reasons are myriad– he was drunk; he was male; “boys will be boys”; and even, shockingly, asserting sexual assault is not actually a crime. Conservatives have focused their efforts in Kavanaugh’s case around his age at the time of the attempted rape– 17. “He was too young to be held accountable all these years later,” goes the tale.

This is a dangerous lie for multiple reasons. First, it teaches teenagers that it’s fine when teenage boys sexually assault teenage girls. Powerful people will stand between the boy and consequences— forever. A girl who comes forward will be humiliated, called a liar, blamed for the assault, instructed that it’s not such a big deal, told she deserved it, told that the boy’s future is unquestionably and permanently more important and more valuable than her own. She is taught that if a boy tries to rape you– or succeeds– the culture will rise up to protect him. No one in authority will stand with you. In fact, you will be punished by authority figures for even trying to tell boys no.

Conservatives are enthusiastically teaching young women and girls that they are less important than boys and men. In fact, conservatives are enthusiastically teaching young women and girls that they are less important than property. Teenagers are often arrested and charged with vandalism, police stating that the behavior needs to be “nipped in the bud” early to prevent further crime. But sexual assault is winked away with “boys will be boys.” These are the “values” of “values voters.”

However, the idea that a boy is intrinsically valuable– much more valuable than any girl he would ever assault– only holds true when the boy is white.

When an unarmed Black teenager is shot and killed, rather than mourning the loss and holding up his youthful innocence, white people rush to defame the boy. Trayvon Martin was 17 and unarmed when he was murdered by George Zimmerman. The very same people now defending Kavanaugh rushed to smear Trayvon’s character with school discipline records and “tough-looking” selfies. Michael Brown was 18 when the same people now defending Kavanaugh called Brown a “thug” responsible for his own murder. Little Tamir Rice was just 12, but the same people defending Kavanaugh still blamed this child, playing with a toy gun in a public park in an open carry state, for his own murder and called him a “thug.

Black victims are routinely framed as dangerous and suspect, while white shooters are framed as acting in self-defense, as “troubled,” or as “social outcasts who just needed a friend.” Their good qualities always foregrounded— “brilliant,” “soft-spoken,” “an honor student.” Sweet, smiling pictures are used in the press, while the press rips apart the internet to locate the most “thuggish” possible picture of the murder victim.

When a white boy sexually assaults a girl, men claim the boy is the real victim– victimized by the girl’s truthful report. The crime is winked away as natural male behavior while the girl’s vain hope that her victimization be taken seriously becomes the real crime. When Black boys are murdered, white people claim the shooter is the real victim, acting in righteous self-defense when faced with a savage, barely-human thug.

When Black boys are accused of sexual assault, the very same people laughing and winking at Kavanaugh’s “red-blooded natural male behavior” scream for their deaths– even after those boys are exonerated by DNA evidence.

The people excusing Kavanaugh– essentially claiming it’s his right to force himself on a girl– are cut from the same cloth as people who believe Black boys should be executed for the same behavior. The sitting president of the United States believes it was Kavanaugh’s right– and his own— to sexually assault women but still calls for the execution of the Central Park Five, after they have been proven completely innocent by DNA testing.

This is what we’re dealing with here.

Seventeen-year old boys are not feral animals. They’re a few months away from voting. At 17, you’re considered old enough to enlist in the military. This means the US military is officially certain that people of that age possess the decision-making skills to make a life-altering commitment, and the discipline to serve in the US military. We believe people of that age possess the decision-making skills and discipline to choose a university and a major, to drive a car, to work. In eight states, it’s even old enough to purchase a firearm without parental consent.

Yet a sizable segment of our population believes it’s a minor, irrelevant issue that Kavanaugh at 17 attempted to force himself on a 15-year old girl, and that the real crime is her accusation. They believe no 17-year old boy should be held accountable for their behavior . . . unless they’re Black.

This isn’t about sexual assault. It’s about cultural power. It’s about protecting the rights of wealthy white men to victimize the rest of us without consequences. When a wealthy white man is involved, the victim is always the white man.

This is who we’re about to put on the Supreme Court. This is who runs the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan, and Orrin Hatch, and Chuck Grassley, and Devin Nunes, and the entire white male conservative cadre– the real American thugs.

Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure in 1604. That play is 414 years old. And yet it perfectly encapsulates the power dynamic white male America works strenuously to protect. The “false” of white men “o’erweighs the true” of everyone else.

Contact your Senators here

 

 

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Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace

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Only 2% of K-12 teachers nationwide are Black men, and just 4.5% are Black women. Black teachers are 50% more likely to leave the profession than white teachers. Just 4% of university faculty are Black. (Photo: teacher.org)

This piece is the second in a three-part series about education in the US. The first is Back to School: How to Be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color.

A few years ago, when I was the senior lecturer at [name redacted] university, the only time my “senior lecturer status” was ever mentioned was when the department chair offered me a class in Black theatre because they “had to” due to my “status.” I told them to hire a Black colleague instead. My “status” as “senior lecturer” had never come up before and never came up again. In fact, that same year I was roundly scolded for “assuming” I had a particular class just because it had been offered to me. They suddenly announced at the last minute they were hiring a white man, lecturing there for the first time, and when I brought up the fact that the job had already been offered to me, I was sternly rebuked. So much for my “senior lecturer” status. I was scolded again by senior staff for later refusing to assist the new hire without pay.

My story is not unique. It’s not even particularly unique in my own academic career. White educators, especially white male educators, experience enormous privilege in the workplace, whether they know it or not.

White men are over-represented in all academic leadership roles. In public high schools, 70% of principals are male, almost all white. Independent schools fare no better; 90% of school heads are white and 64% are male. Over 86% of public school superintendents are men and 92% are white.

White men also enjoy a host of privileges as teachers. In an era when student test scores have become a (mystifyingly) critical marker of teacher performance, white men are assigned high-performing classes more often than women and people of color. Men are given better evaluations than their female colleagues and colleagues of color, even when teaching online classes with literally identical, copy-and-paste content. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in non-union independent schools, men are paid a full 32% more than women. Even in unionized public schools, men are paid 12% more than women. This may sound impossible given the codification of pay scales in teaching positions, but schools have a great deal of flexibility in determining which step on the pay scale a teacher begins when hired and what kinds of classes, certifications, and degrees they will accept for pay-raising post-graduate education. Educators of color are less likely to be retained, and Black teachers’ expertise in both subject matter and pedagogy is routinely downplayed or overlooked.

In short, discrimination is rampant in academia, and, although this piece focuses primarily on race, it’s not limited to race alone. Teachers with disabilities are routinely refused accommodations, and in most areas of the country, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming teachers are deeply discriminated against. Shockingly, half of transgender teachers report being harassed by colleagues and administrators.

White educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for educators of color. Male educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for women. Cis educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming educators. Able-bodied educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for educators with disabilities. While this piece focuses on race, there is much work to be done in all areas of inequity, and the techniques described below can be used to create diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

EXAMINE RETENTION RATES. A site’s retention rates are key to understanding the experiences of those who work there. Is your site able to retain white people, but struggles to retain people of color? Are men retained longer than women? Has your site lost a number of women of color all within a short time frame? Examining your retention rates will provide valuable insight into whether your site is truly welcoming and equitable. If your site utilizes exit interviews, perhaps compiling the answers of the people of color who have left your site within the past few years will prove enlightening. Believe what people of color tell you about working at your site, and pay careful attention to trends in the compiled exit interview data.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE HIRING AT YOUR SITE. Diversity in the workplace, both in teaching staff and in leadership, has numerous benefits. Although our student population is now “majority minority,” US teaching staff is 80% white, with many sites lacking even a single Black or Latinx classroom teacher, even in diverse areas, while evidence continues to mount that students of color have better outcomes when they have teachers of color. A 2015 Stanford University study showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions than white students. The odds of being assigned to a “gifted” or advanced program are 66% lower for Black students and 47% lower for Latinx students than they are for white students, even with high placement test scores. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers do, even when evaluating the same students. Non-Latinx teachers have negative perceptions of Latinx students, especially when they’re EL students. A more diverse teaching staff is the first step in creating a more equitable education for students of color. White staff will also benefit from working alongside educators with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Is your site hiring? Spread the word to colleagues of color. Post on social media and ask your friends to keep an eye out for candidates of color. Mention to administrators the critical importance of a diverse staff. Advocate for candidates of color when they apply. When you have the opportunity to invite guest speakers to your classroom, look for people of color regardless of the topic. Both students of color and white students need diverse role models.

SUPPORT YOUR COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. It’s not going to do much good if you hire educators of color and then dismiss, minimize, or contest everything they have to say. This is diversity without equity—hiring people of color and then relegating them to a voiceless underclass. Practical ways you can support your colleagues of color (and remember that all of these can be extrapolated to colleagues with disabilities, LGBTQ colleagues, etc):

  1. Educate yourself. Read writers of color and believe what they have to say about whiteness. If you’re uncomfortable with their critiques, work to change the impact of whiteness on their lives rather than fault writers of color for telling the truth of their lived experiences. A better understanding of the experiences of your colleagues of color will increase your effectiveness as an ally.
  2. Listen and believe your colleagues of color. Do not argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism, especially if your argument is about intent (“I didn’t mean it that way!”). Impact is much more important than intent. If a colleague of color trusts you enough to educate you about something racially problematic happening at your site, or something racially problematic that you’ve done or said, listen to them. Your colleague of color is taking an enormous risk by discussing this with you. Honor that by listening sincerely. Then support your colleague if further steps need to be taken, such as bringing a proposed policy change to administration, or requesting administration reverse a racially charged decision.
  3. Work with administration to get diversity and equity training for the whole staff, and approach the work sincerely by educating the staff about white fragility beforehand. I’ve been through many diversity trainings, and I honestly think most white people imagine diversity training will just be a lengthy affirmation of our cherished belief that we are “not racist.” We imagine that we will sit for a few hours shaking our heads in dismay about “those racists over there” while congratulating ourselves for being “not that.” White people in diversity trainings become enormously fragile, defensive, and even angry the moment they realize that diversity training is actually about combating our own implicit racism and the ways in which we support systemic racism. White people will angrily or tearfully insist we’re “not racist” and “a good person,” insist we “don’t see color,” insist the trainer is incompetent, crow about our resistance to the training (such as boasting about “stumping” the trainer with whataboutism or examples of “reverse racism”), state that we feel “attacked,” dismiss accounts of racism by people of color as “exaggerated,” and more. Staff-wide education around white fragility could provide some tools to mitigate those all-too-common negative reactions to the work. Until white staff are past fragility and defensiveness, little progress can be made.
  4. Work to create clear policies and procedures. When we leave decisions to “case-by-case bases,” more often than not, implicit biases create inequity. Clear policies and procedures, applied equitably, can insure that decisions are as untainted by implicit biases as possible. For example, it’s startlingly common for white male administrators to plan privately with white male educators, securing the most desirable classes and assignments for the white men and then offering the remainder to the women and people of color on staff. “We didn’t know you were interested!” is always the excuse, an excuse created by keeping initial planning secret so the question is never asked. Codifying equitable policies would avoid the resentment that such favoritism breeds, increasing retention.

DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. In the US, the vast majority of educational leadership is both white and male. Such homogeneity not only reduces effectiveness, but perpetuates itself in that white males are far more likely to hire and promote other white males, minimize or discount their errors and failures, and assume competence even with extraordinary evidence to the contrary. (We’ve all been in situations where a white man who failed spectacularly at another site is hired for a position of leadership at ours.) Homogeneity in leadership leads to the implicit biases common to that group running unchecked through the industry as a whole. Leadership– from department leadership all the way through the superintendent and school board or board of directors– must reflect the diversity of the surrounding community if it is to effectively serve that community.

Diversity without equity is not effective. Hiring women and people of color and then refusing to pay them equitably, promote them, or even listen sincerely to their input is not reflective of a true “commitment to diversity,” a phrase every school and university across the nation displays proudly on their websites. We have much work to do in our industry– and in our culture at large– to live up to that promise. Let’s get to work.

Next: Back to School: How to Fix the “Broken Education System”

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