Race & Ethnicity

These posts address issues relating to the racial and ethnic identity of a given community, often as it intersects with other facets such as poverty, disability, and access to opportunities and services.

Pushing Back Against Privilege & What is Funny?

This week, I attended a show featuring six standup comediennes  sponsored by a leading nonprofit whose mission is empowerment of Jewish women world-wide. The host opened the show with jokes poking fun at assumptions about Jews, which felt welcome in an inclusive environment where the majority of the audience was Jewish. But I felt uncomfortable when the humor turned into exclusive abelist jokes, meaning prejudiced against people with disabilities, where the punch lines were that people with disabilities are inferior to others.

 One of the opening comediennes made a joke about a man telling her she was smart “for a lady,” and she recounted how she offered the quick retort, “you are good at using tools for a Mongoloid.” Hearing this word was a truly unpleasant throwback–Mongoloid is an old, pejorative term for a person with Down Syndrome that is also racist because it refers to the eyelid shape of people from Asia. This so-called joke also reiterates Douglas Bayton’s thesis in “A History of Inequality in America” about the trickle down effect of an oppressed group being labeled “mentally disabled” as the ultimate insult.

My discomfort grew when the headliner made a joke calling her mother “retarded,” and then minimized it by saying “retarded is a technical medical classification.” However, her joke was not using the “r-word” as a medical classification, she was actually mocking her mother’s lack of technical savvy. Furthermore, the r-word is not a “technical medical classification” and is no longer even in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders. The current technical medical term is Intellectual and/or Development Disability (I/DD). A profound response on why using the “r-word” is not edgy or witty as the comedienne intended, but instead is a hateful slur comes from self-advocate John Franklin Stephens’s open letter to Ann Coulter.

The headliner had another joke where she recounted being stood up on a date by a blind man, which included a ton of gags about how she asked him out because she felt sorry that “he couldn’t see how cute he was,” and she saw a future together where “he could never see her cellulite.” These jokes do not even make sense if you have spent any time around a person who is blind or has low-vision, because from such interactions you realize complex and creative workarounds for seeing without your eyes. These jokes are premised on the prejudiced idea that being blind and/or having low vision also means that a person is truly deficient: incapable of a sense of touch (feeling her cellulite) and lacking the social conditioning and feedback from others to recognize that he is attractive.

After the Comedy Show, I wanted to address why I found these jokes so appalling, and I talked to the headliner. At first, when I tried to explain the complex skills people who are blind/have low vision use to navigate their daily lives and why her joke made no sense, she jibed,  “so why did he stand me up?” I quickly realized she wasn’t interested in developing a more nuanced understanding of the lives of people with blindness/low-vision, so I got to the point told her that I found her jokes to be prejudiced and abelist. She agreed, and said with pride, “I am going to offend a lot of people with my comedy.”

I had to accept that she simply didn’t care, and was even proud of her prejudices, but I thought that the host organization, which aspires to empower Jewish women, should care that humor grounded in prejudice is not even remotely funny. What makes comedy funny is the joining together of ideas that reveal truisms and absurdities about the way we live. Jokes whose punch line is premised on a person of privilege mocking the vulnerability of a group of people, are not edgy or original or even funny because they cruelly and boringly reiterate the status quo. For example, during the 2013 Oscars, the online news outlet The Onion tweeted that the nine-year old star of The Beasts of The Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis, was a “cunt.” There is nothing funny about exposing a young African American girl to how society objectifies and sexualizes her, as this response articulates.

The following day, I emailed the coordinator for the nonprofit organization sponsoring the event, outlining many of my thoughts here. The coordinator wrote a congenial response that emphasized that as the host of the show, she does not and cannot control the comediennes’ content. She added that comedy shows are spaces for irreverent and sometimes offensive material, and she knew that none of these comics intended to offend or degrade anyone. I was disappointed by the host’s response because I felt like she missed my point: that until the comediennes can delve deeper and recognize that marginalized people, including people with disabilities, are first and foremost people whose rich experiences that can be very funny but are not to be made fun of, they will never be truly funny.

My final guideline comes from the blog “Black Girl Dangerous,” which gives excellent advice on how to push back against privilege. I  regret giving the organization my money to attend the event, and in the future I want to make more informed choices about the nonprofits and entertainers I support. In closing, I would like to recommend some standup Comedians who jokes, unlike those I parsed above, are irreverent and funny:

1. Margaret Cho http://www.margaretcho.com/2009/10/28/stand-up-clips/

2. Hari Kondabolu http://www.harikondabolu.com/videos/

3. Maysoon Zayid goo.gl/hRk5W9

New and Noteworthy–Justification of Inequality

1. This past week, Katie Couric interviewed trans model Carmen Carrera and actress Laverne Cox. When Katie expressed her voyeuristic curiosity about the women’s transitions, they both responded with eloquence and grace about why her questioning was inappropriate.  Colorlines. “Laverne Cox remembers Islan Nettles while Schooling Katie Couric.” January 7. 2014. http://bit.ly/19ZXgZo

2. Last week, I participated in a training on Disability Justice, and re-read this “oldie but goodie” staple of the disability rights movement. This essay fits in well with the above interview, because Douglas Bayton describes how the belief that oppressed groups are disabled has been a reason for their exclusion throughout history, and sadly a counter response has involved the oppressed group insisting that they are not disabled, not denying that disability is a valid basis for exclusion.  Baynton, Douglas C. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” 2001. http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=70 

3. The radio show Democracy Now! dedicated an episode to exploring the life and legacy to Amri Baraka, a poet, playwright, and political activist, who passed away on January 9, 2014. Amri Baraka started the Black Arts Movement, and in the 1960s the FBI identified him as “”the person who will probably emerge as the leader of the pan-African movement in the United States.”  Democracy Now! “Amiri Baraka (1934-2014): Poet-Playwright-Activist Who Shaped Revolutionary Politics, Black Culture.” January 10, 2014. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/10/amiri_baraka_1934_2014_poet_playwright?autostart=true

New & Noteworthy: Shattering the Pedestal

In a brief post just before 2013 draws to a close, two stories have recently caught my attention. It is funny to note how 2013 has been a year full of Internet outcry moments in response to celebrities of all sorts. There is so much to unpack in terms of intersecting oppressions due to race, class, and gender, and the links below blend wit and insight into this analysis.

1. Tim Wise’s twitter rants undermining his professed principles. Critical Spontaneity.
“Tim Wise, informed by Tim Wise.” August 15, 2013. http://criticalspontaneity.com/2013/08/15/tim-wise-informed-by-tim-wise/

2. Ani DiFranco’s plan to host her “Righteous Retreat” on a Louisiana plantation. Bitch Media. “Five Perspectives on Ani DiFranco’s Planned Retreat at a Former Plantation.” December 31, 2013. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/five-perspectives-on-ani-difrancos-planned-retreat-at-a-former-plantation 

New and Noteworthy: Windows to African American History

1. “Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761, A Cartographic Narrative.”  http://revolt.axismaps.com/map/

2. Malcolm X Diary & Family Lawsuit http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/11/malcolm_xs_daughter_to_release_his_diaries_this_week.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

3, Barlett’s Familiar Black Quotations http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/27/books/bartletts-familiar-black-quotations-covers-5000-years.html & http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=247166538

New and Noteworthy: September is National Spinal Cord Injury & Hispanic National Heritage Month

September is nearly over, but I would like to highlight two important special interest months

1. Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month  http://www.unitedspinal.org/september-is-national-spinal-cord-injury-awareness-month/

2. Hispanic Heritage Awareness Month http://www.hispanicheritagemonth.org/

New and Noteworthy: Parsing Inequality

1. The Economic Policy Institute created this fun website, which uses interactive accessible tools to dispell the myths and explain the causes, effects, and potential solutions to economic inequality http://inequality.is/fixable

2. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce’s report examined enrollment trends at 4,400 postsecondary institutions over the past 15 years to draw the conclusion that America’s higher education system is increasingly reproducing white racial privilege from one generation to the next  http://cew.georgetown.edu/separateandunequal/

New and Noteworthy: Anti-bias children’s books and addressing school & residential segreation

I have a part-time job in Elementary Education, and as a strong believer that “you have to be taught to hate (before you are six or seven or eight)” I am developing a reading list of anti-bias children’s books.

Below are my favorite websites for finding multilingual children’s books featuring strong characters of color, who are LGBTQ, have disabilities, etc. 

1. Topka http://www.topka.es/topkabooks/index.html Topka is a publisher of bilingual Spanish/English children’s books “in which the main characters are different kinds of children who come from different types of family, and in which the stories deal with the conflicts, situations and dreams which we all share.”

2. Mantra Lingua is a UK based publisher of multi-lingual resources http://uk.mantralingua.com/

 Reports from Appleseed on School and Residential Segregation

3. Within Our Reach: Segreation in NYC Elementary Schools and What We Can Do About It: School-to-School Diversity.  https://www.appleseednetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/First-Briefing-FINAL-7_10_13.pdf

4. Preserving Affordable Housing in Gentrifying Neighborhoods: Strategies to Prevent Displacement. https://www.appleseednetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Preservation-Strategies-FINAL-7_23_13.pdf

Searching for Providence and Harvest of Empire

A few months ago, I read Patricia Foxen’s ethnography In Search of Providence: Transnational Mayan Identities. An ethnography is a descriptive work resulting from the study of human cultures, and Dr. Foxen has created an insightful analysis of Mayan K’iches’ who have emigrated from a rural Guatemalan farming community to Providence, Rhode Island after the Internal Armed Conflict. I found Dr. Foxen’s book fascinating, and so many parts spoke to my own personal heartfelt experiences. Her description of the Mayan K’iche’ communities in their “host community” of Providence reminded me of my experiences working with recently resettled refugees. Her analysis of K’iche’ in their “home community” in Guatemala gave me deep nostalgia for my experiences at the Mountain School.

Furthermore, I was intrigued by Foxen’s description of how the Maya K’iche’ use trickster behavior. According to Foxen, in El Quiche “the instability caused by poor weather and crops, an insecure economic environment, poor health, and social strife lead most K’iche’s to learn to be flexible and above all, listo (literally to be ready, or on one’s toes) for whatever opportunities present themselves” (194). Foxen elaborates on how as marginalized immigrants, K’iches’ leverage this coping mechanism to act as tricksters. 

Tricksters, present in many cultures’ folktales including those of the Maya K’iche’, usually appear as animals who are metaphors for how an oppressed people can use their position of weakness to outsmart their oppressors. Foxen gives examples of how K’iche’s acted as real life tricksters to survive the Guatemalan military’s brutal surveillance tactics, and later put these techniques to use when contending with “la migra, the police, and bosses” in the United States (195). Foxen noted that K’iche’ migrants take pride in their trickster abilities, which they see as part of their ethnic identity.   

Foxen’s study of May K’iche’s trickster behavior left a deep impression on me because I have studied tricksters in ancient folktales and in contemporary fiction, but had yet to delve deeply into how people in recent history have used trickster behavior. One work of contemporary fiction that I have studied that came to mind when reading In Search of Providence was Junot Diaz’s collection of vignettes Drown, which features Dominican immigrants acting as tricksters in order to adapt to their new lives in New Jersey. Diaz writes in English, and cleverly uses language to express the multiple worlds his characters are straddling. Drown begin with an epigraph by Gustavo Pérez Firmat that expresses this notion:

The fact that I

am writing to you in English 

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you. 

My subject: 

how to explain to you that I

don’t belong to English 

though I belong nowhere else.

To give further insight into the ideas expressed in this poem Bilingual Blues, I have linked below for a second time to an interview where Junot Diaz and Francisco Goldman discuss how they grapple with living in “two linguistic spheres.”

Another book that I have recently read that address Central American migration to the United States is Juan Gonzalez’s revised edition of Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. I delighted in taking my time reading Harvest of Empire, slowing pulling back the lens to gain a broader perspective on Latin American history from the Spanish Colonization in the 1500s to the present day. Thus far, my knowledge had been focused on Guatemala. Recently, I have begun to learn more about El Salvador from living in a city with large Salvadoran population as a result of a wave of immigrants and refugees who fled their country’s Civil War in the 1980s.

I especially liked Part II Branches (Las Ramas) and Part III Harvest (La Cosecha) for their comprehensive view of the revolutions in Latin America throughout the 20th Century and the discussion of the contemporary immigration debate. One close-up I particularly enjoyed was Gonzalez’s discussion Puerto Rico. Gonzalez himself is Puerto Rican, and included anecdotes about his family and own life, which added a personal note to the sweeping narrative.

Learn more about the books and radio show discussed in this post

1. Foxen, Patricia. In Search of Providence: Transnational Mayan Identities. 2007. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0826515819/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

2. Gonzales, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America Revised Edition. 2011.  http://www.amazon.com/Harvest-Empire-History-Latinos-America/dp/0143119281

3.  Alarcón, Daniel. ”Junot y Francisco : En vivo desde Nueva York.” Radio Ambulante. February, 2013. http://radioambulante.org/es/