On Food (in)security and (Dis)ability

Hello!

It’s been a while since I wrote for a public audience, and that is in part due to this period of transition I am going through. The new year brought new opportunities, just as it brought me face-to-face with familiar anxieties and fears (particularly about being a person with a disability). In the midst of it all, my chosen family has been there to ground me and remind me that I am loved.

I am currently in the process of getting my “disability” recognized by the State (capital S), and it is 2 parts humiliating (“perform your disability according the the script aid out by regulations, please”), 1 part frightening (accepting “disability” as a factor that has shaped my life socially and personally) and 1 part depressing. I can’t be honest and paint this in rosy terms. It is depressing. I’ve lived with moderately severe hearing loss for as long as I can remember, but only recently has it become an “obstacle” in the truest sense. To avoid internalizing the ableism (specifically audism), I remind myself that disability is, in a larger contextual sense, social. The Social Model of Disability, is a necessary intervention against dominate discourses on disability as merely embodied- absent of social constructions of norms, and the medicalization and criminalization of “abnormality” in terms of mental processes, physical capabilities, and the other manners in which disabilities manifest.

Long story short- I am at a point where I know the vocabulary of my own “disability” well. I can anticipate the words from the Audiologist as they knit their brow over my audiograms, noting the progressive hearing loss. I can guess what the Opthalmoglogist will say about my degrading eyesight. I have a better sense that it’s all tied together- my poor balance, hearing loss, night blindness and loss of peripheral vision. All of the falls that didn’t make sense make sense now. All of my resistance to going outdoors after dusk makes perfect sense.

In other news, I’m also exploring the intersections between class, disability, and food access. It’s more of a personal, introspective study on the matter, but I am understanding more fully just how much these intersections matter, and what a disservice is done when “we” focus on just one aspect, and not all.

In gastronomic matters, I have been exploring winter crops more- particularly winter squash and leafy greens. On one level, it’s good fun and a break from the work-without-resolution. On another level, it is an exploration of my relationship with food. I’ve come to the realization that I am sparing when it comes to possessions, but when it comes to food, I have a tendency to hoard. It is, perhaps, a residual effect of living with the specter of hunger and food insecurity. In the back of my mind, I think “the more food I have, the more distance there is between me and hunger.”

I’m in a better place now. I have food. I have the means to meet my most basic needs AND plan for a future. Still, I look at my pantry and freezer- both overfull with carefully-packaged food, and think “I need more.” Alas, I am surrounded by abundance.

Just now, I looked around my kitchen saw this:

Bild

And when I open the cabinet, I see this:

Bild

Yet, I still dread hunger. My first feeling is a leaden anxiety in my stomach, not gratitude or appreciation of having “enough.”

I wrote all of that to point to the future direction(s) of this blog. I will write a lot more about food, just as I will write a lot more about what it means to be a person with a disability in a fundamentally ableist society.

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Links and News Round-Up: 15 January 2014

“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate— and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

and

“If DWYL denigrates or makes dangerously invisible vast swaths of labor that allow many of us to live in comfort and to do what we love, it has also caused great damage to the professions it portends to celebrate, especially those jobs existing within institutional structures. Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia. The average PhD student of the mid 2000s forwent the easy money of finance and law (now slightly less easy) to live on a meager stipend in order to pursue their passion for Norse mythology or the history of Afro-Cuban music.

The reward for answering this higher calling is an academic employment marketplace in which around 41 percent of American faculty are adjunct professors — contract instructors who usually receive low pay, no benefits, no office, no job security, and no long-term stake in the schools where they work.

There are many factors that keep PhDs providing such high-skilled labor for such extremely low wages, including path dependency and the sunk costs of earning a PhD, but one of the strongest is how pervasively the DWYL doctrine is embedded in academia. Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. This intense identification partly explains why so many proudly left-leaning faculty remain oddly silent about the working conditions of their peers. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

In “Academic Labor, the Aesthetics of Management, and the Promise of Autonomous Work,” Sarah Brouillette writes of academic faculty,

“… our faith that our work offers non-material rewards, and is more integral to our identity than a “regular” job would be, makes us ideal employees when the goal of management is to extract our labor’s maximum value at minimum cost.”

Many academics like to think they have avoided a corporate work environment and its attendant values, but Marc Bousquet notes in his essay “We Work” that academia may actually provide a model for corporate management:

How to emulate the academic workplace and get people to work at a high level of intellectual and emotional intensity for fifty or sixty hours a week for bartenders’ wages or less? Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring “I love what I do” in response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks? How can we get our workers to be like faculty and deny that they work at all? How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?

“[Teach for America] undermines the American public education system from the very foundation by urging the replacement of experienced career teachers with a neoliberal model of interchangeable educators and standardized testing…Cersonsky and blogger EduSchyster have meticulously documented TFA’s connections to dozens of charter schools as well as education reform advocacy organizations that focus on standardized testing and privatization instead of grassroots community involvement and student voices. In doing so, TFA is working directly against the interests of teachers, students, and communities alike. Neoliberal school reform is the true “educational injustice” here.”

I noticed a number of people on social media remarking that Cece was “free.” I thought of my friend Marcus who several years ago reprimanded me for applying this term to him. We were eating lunch about a month after he was released from serving five years in prison. I said, “So, how does it feel to be free?” He looked at me in his soul-searching way and replied: “I wasn’t free when I went in and I sure as shit ain’t free now.” I felt as though I had been punched in the gut because I of course knew this to be true. Since that conversation, I have tried to avoid using the term “free” when I talk about formerly incarcerated people.

Cece will suffer the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction and incarceration for years to come. This is what I call the ‘invisible shackles of the carceral state.’ Across the country, almost 6 million people are ineligible to vote in elections as a result of a criminal conviction. Cece who lives in Minnesota will bebarred from voting until her “felony conviction record [is] discharged, expired, or completed.” This means that she will be disenfranchised for several years. She is one of the “lucky” ones who won’t be permanently barred from participating in a critical aspect of civic life.

Thankfully Cece has a supportive community of friends around her and has already found a place to live. However, most returning citizens find themselves scrambling to afford and rent apartments upon their release from prison. In many states, formerly incarcerated people are banned from public housing. Some find a place in halfway houses. Many more are made homeless.

The path to becoming an “employee,” that elusive goal, is far from clear. Tracy Logan, 34, worked through Yates on Nissan’s assembly line for a year before winning a promotion to a position as a robot tender, overseeing the robots that spray paint on the car parts. To his surprise, he remained a temp. “When I first arrived at Nissan, that position was considered Class A—only Nissan personnel can hold that position,” he says. “I put in for it, thinking that would be a way of getting on with Nissan. Somewhere in there, they changed the classification of the job, but didn’t let us know.”

Such experiences are increasingly common, according to Leone José Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers Collaborative (CWC), a non-profit workers center that organizes low-wage and temp workers. Not only has temporary employment expanded into sectors that used to be sources of stable full-time employment, he says, but it’s often no longer really temporary. Some temps are brought on for only days or weeks, others work for years at the same plant through the same agency.

Organizers in the field, Bicchieri says, now talk about “staffing agencies” rather than “temp agencies,” and “direct-hire” workers rather than “permanent” employees. “It’s not a ‘temp’ job,” Logan says,“but it’s temp status.”

So is permatemping the new model in manufacturing? Nissan spokesperson Justin Saia maintains that temporary jobs can provide a route to direct employment. “Having contract workers enables us to further develop the skill sets of these employees to position them for direct employment opportunities with Nissan through our Pathways program,” he writes in an email. But on the other hand, he notes, “The contract jobs in our business model are designed to be long-term, stable jobs with competitive pay and benefits.”

Or, as Logan puts it: “They want us to be permanent temps.”

Stubbornly high unemployment among millennials costs the U.S. billions in lowered tax revenue and higher safety net costs, according to one study.

Millennials — defined as those 18 to 34 years old — have suffered from double-digit jobless rates for almost six years, according to a study by youth advocacy group Young Invincibles. The youngest, aged 16 to 24, suffer from 15% unemployment, the highest rates among youth.

The long-term consequences of high unemployment in an entire generation of young people has been well researched, with echoes throughout their careers in the form of lower earnings and fewer job opportunities.

But the short-term costs stack up high as well, adding up to almost $8.9 billion a year, the report concluded.

On average, a single 18- to -24-year-old without a job will cost the government over $4,100 a year in uncollected taxes and extra safety net benefits. That amount climbs to $9,900 annually among unemployed 25- to 34-year-olds.

Notification that her son is being detained at Correctional Centre 3 in Kampong Cham came as a relief to Touch Sart yesterday, after spending nearly a week wondering whether he was even alive.

Since her son, Theng Saroeun, was arrested along with 22 others at demonstrations last Thursday and Friday, police, court and prison officials have refused to confirm the identities or whereabouts of those detained. After six days of silence, prison officials yesterday finally allowed family members, lawyers and a doctor to visit them.

“My son is badly hurt, he was beaten seriously and could not eat,” Sart said. “He received seven stitches.”

The fact that they have spent nearly a week of detention without access to their families or lawyers – a violation of defendants’ rights in Cambodia – and held in an isolated prison far from their Phnom Penh homes indicates the government’s strong desire to keep them cut off from supporters, Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said.

The defendants – one of them a 17-year-old – were arrested on Thursday and Friday amid protests in Por Sen Chey district. Ten were arrested during a rally in front of Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc on Thursday, after, witnesses said, military officials guarding the factory initiated clashes with demonstrators.

Cambodian garment workers organized to protest for higher wages, and the police came and businesses, arrested 23 people, and killed 4 people.

These are the same garment factories that the celebrity ‘anti-trafficking’ activist Somaly Mam funnels “rescued” trafficking victims into.

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Recipe: A Traditional New Year’s Eve Meal

Happy New Year! I hope that 2014 is kind to you.

Yesterday, I prepared for the New Year by preparing a traditional meal of:

  • Buttermilk fried chicken
  • Collard greens with rutabaga
  • Black-eyed peas (“Hoppin’ John’s)
  • Cornbread
  • Salted, sliced tomatoes

I am a Californian girl with Southern roots, and this reflects in my cooking. I like the flavors of Southern cuisine, but I also like a certain… crispness (denoting intact nutritional value) in my food. That, and I am painfully conscious of the ecological issues that arise when I dispose of frying oil. So, what I do is cook my vegetables “just so” until they have the flavor I want without being a mushy mess, and I fry my chicken until the outside is crispy and put it in the oven to cook even more.

This particular meal is laden with significance. Hoppin’ John and greens represent abundance and sustenance. The peas represent coins, whereas the greens represent paper currency. Supposedly, all who partake in the meal will be blessed in the New Year. If nothing else, however, they entered the New Year with full bellies and nourished bodies- health and happiness indeed.

So, the process of making this meal begins about 2 days before the actual meal. The first thing I do is get the ingredients:

Buttermilk Fried Chicken:

NYE 2013 - Frying chicken NYE 2013 - Fried Chicken NYE 2013 - Double-dredging the chicken NYE 2013 - Buttermilk brine

Prep time: 2 days (to tenderize the chicken in the buttermilk brine) + 2 hours (to dredge the chicken and allow it to rest before frying)

Cooking time: About 6-7 minutes per batch + 45 minutes in an oven set at 300 degrees

  • 12 chicken drumsticks
  • 1 quart (about 0.95 liters) of buttermilk
  • Half a yellow onion, chopped
  • 1/4 Teaspoon round black pepper
  • Salt, to taste (I used about 1 tablespoon- double this if you are using Kosher Salt)
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 Teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 Liter of frying oil
  • 4 Cups flour (for dredging)
  1. To make the buttermilk brine: measure out 1 quart of buttermilk into a container or gallon freezer bag (suitable for brining meat). Add the spices (ancho prpper, paprika, celery seeds, salt, pepper), chopped onion, and garlic cloves. Add the chicken drumsticks, ensuring that they are covered by the brine.
  2. After the chicken has brined, take it out of the buttermilk brine and dredge it in flour. It should be coated. Now dredge it again, dipping it in the buttermilk brine and rolling it in flour.
  3. Let it sit for an hour. This allows the outside coat to dry and ensures that the meat is closer to room temperature, so that it fries more evenly.
  4. Pour the frying oil into a pan (preferably a taller pot that allows for 1.5″ of hot oil). Once the oil reaches about 320 degrees, add the drumsticks.
  5. Each batch should take about 6-7 minutes to brown up.
  6. As I said earlier, I prefer to fry it enough to get a crisp exterior and place them in the oven at 300 to ensure that they are thoroughly cooked.

Collard Greens with Rutabaga:

NYE 2013 - Collard greens in the pot NYE 2013 - Rutabaga to be added to the collard greens

Prep time: 1 hour (to wash and cut the collards, chop the veggies and prepare the rutabage + broth for the greens)

Cook time: 1 hour

  • 1-2 bunches, collard greens (1 will feed about 4 people)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed to release the oils
  • Salt pork or smoked turkey neck
  • Rutabaga, peeled and cut into cubes
  • Salt and pepper, to taste (the broth will be salty from the smoked meat)
  • 6 Cups water
  1. Peel and cue the rutabaga.
  2. Sautee the chopped onion, garlic cloves and salted meat in a pot
  3. Add the rutabaga, stirring until it has a light coating of oil
  4. Add water until the rutabaga and the meat are covered with water. Let them simmer for an hour, until the rutabaga can be easily punctured with a fork.
  5. Wash and cut the collards
  6. In another pot, sautee chopped onion, adding collard greens by the handful until they cook down.
  7. Pour the broth from the rutabaga and the salted meat over the greens and cover. As the greens cook, they should turn a nice bright green. Add the rutabaga then.

Black-eyed Peas

NYE 2013 - Black-eyed peas in the pot

Prep time: 24 hours (to allow the beans to soak) + 1 hour to chop the vegetables and make the broth for the beans

Cook time: 2 hours

  • 1 lb dried Black-eyed peas
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 stalks of celery
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • Salt pork or smoked turkey neck
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • A pinch, crushed ancho pepper
  • A pinch, paprika
  • 1.5 Cup of rice (brown rice will absorb more liquid and take longer to cook)
  1. Soak the black-eyed peas for 8-24 hours
  2. Make a broth with the salted/smoked meat of your choice- about 4-6 cups.
  3. Sautee chopped onions, celery and bell pepper, adding the beans.
  4. Pour the broth and salted meat atop the beans. The liquid should cover the beans.
  5. Season to taste with paprika, ancho pepper, salt, and ground Black pepper.
  6. When the broth becomes starchier and the beans cook, add 1.5 cups of rice (ensure that there is enough liquid, of course).
  7. Stir occasionally, making sure that the beans don’t stick or become too thick.

Cornbread (use any recipe, but you’ll need the following ingredients:

Prep time: 10 minutes

Bake time: ~35 minutes

  • Cornmeal
  • Flour
  • Sugar, honey or molasses
  • Salt
  • Baking soda
  • Butter or lard
  • Eggs
  • Milk or buttermilk (you could use the leftover buttermilk from the fried chicken)

The final meal looked like:

NYE 2013 - Agua Fresca, cornbread, black-eyed peas and greens

My partner praised me and complimented me as he reached for a second drumstick. Needless to say, I’m very proud of how the meal turned out.

Happy New Year!

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Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale”: Part 2

Writing is world-making, and speculative fiction and science fiction are genres of literature that are most telling of the writer’s biases. Too often, the worlds that speculative fiction and science fiction writers create are reflective of their unexamined or unchecked investment in oppressive systems. For this reason, dystopian novels often (but not always) take place in worlds where the social and literal deaths of Black subjects is foundational. This is the case with Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale.”

In yesterday’s blogpost, I wrote:

So I’m (re)reading Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and wondering what the story would be like if Of-fred had been a Black woman. Of course, Black people are only referenced once in the book- in an off-hand manner about “Children of Ham” being relegated to “National Homelands” (reminiscent of Bantustans in Apartheid South Africa).

This could be read as a convenient way of avoiding addressing the afterlife of slavery- because the reader is expected to understand that the valued, fecund bodies are those of cisgender white women (not Jews, termed “Children of Jacob” or Blacks termed “Children of Ham”, etc). Offred is allowed to be the ‘neutral’ narrator with whom the reader identifies because whiteness is presumed to be a universal and ubiquitous solvent- a solvent that dissolves, assimilates and destroys. 

If this text were to center a Black subject, the reader would have to confront the afterlife of slavery- a reality in which Black bodies which were previously valued for their fecundity and (re)productive value are now devalued, deemed ‘queer’ (or ‘deviant’) and ‘excess’ in the face of nationalisms that prize whiteness/heteronormativity/etc above all. Another interesting angle to look at the surreptitious use of contraceptives and methods to induce miscarriage among enslaved Africans, and the ways that the regime’s staunchly anti-abortion stance would doubly criminalize Black subjects on this basis.

I still agree with this assessment, but after finishing the book, I feel that I need to round it out.

For instance, I did not take into account the category of “Unwomen.” As Offred is the (presumed) white narrator of the text situated within the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic regime borne of conservative anxieties about the state (and future- hence the emphasis on the (re)productive capabilities of the Handmaids) of a white nation (or “race”), she takes whiteness to be the assumed norm, even when she talks about Jews (“Sons of Jacob”) and Blacks (“Sons of Ham”) being forcibly moved to the margins or simply killed.  So, when Offred uses the term “Unwoman” she refers to a category reserved for people with uteruses who did not have sufficient socio-economic (or marital) status within the regime to be afforded protection in the event that they are “sterile” or “infertile.” More pertinently, the category of “Unwomen” in Atwood’s text is implicitly white. And this implicit understanding is premised on the erasure of Black women from the story.

Indeed, the “Children of Ham” are said to be relegated to National Homelands, not unlike those of the South African Apartheid regime, but nowhere in the book are Black women named or mentioned. This omission is particularly glaring in light of Atwood’s decision to analogize The Underground Railroad with the “Underground Femaleroad.” In The Handmaid’s Tale, the “Underground Femaleroad” is an illegal (extralegal?) network of resisters who acted as a safe haven for runaway Handmaids. On page 246, Moira (a former inmate who shared quarters with Offred) recalls being brought from Quaker household to Quaker household to a short-lived freedom. Now, as a reader who is also a Black woman and a descendant of enslaved Africans within the instutition of chattel/racial slavery, I am curious whether there could be a Harriet Tubman in the “Underground Femaleroad,” but I know the answer, because Black women are neither named nor seen in the text.

This omission is doubly egregious when one takes the forcible removal and adoption of babies under the Republic of Gilead into consideration. In the contemporary (and historical) United States that presumably precedes the Republic of Gilead, there is a strong pattern of state interventions which led to the forcible sterilization of women of color (notably Black, Native and Latin@ women, as well as poor women and people with disabilities- legal in 27 states), in addition to the forcible removal of children in Black, Native, low-income, etc households. Dorothy Roberts’ “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare” covers this in a very thorough manner. For Black women in particular, the forcible removal of children from their homes is part of a long history- one rooted in the institution of chattel/racial slavery, where Black children were regularly wrested from the breasts of their mothers and sold for a profit. In short, it is an appropriation (I do not use this word lightly) of the pain of Black women

At this moment, I am reminded of Jared Sexton’s article entitled, “People of Color Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery” and his book,  Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism  in which he notes:

Multiracialism suffers from this conundrum: wanting to condemn identification with racial blackness as the source of social crisis, seeking to locate a politicized blackness as the barrier to a postracial future, while affirming ‘mixed-ness’ in ways that reinforce and expand notions of racial purity and the concomitant hierarchies of value that underwrite white supremacy and antiblackness. This is why the reclamation of whiteness, or more precisely, nonblackness, is elevated to the status of a virtue, a sign not only of mental and emotional well-being (openness to diversity, within and without) but also of moral rectitude (tolerance for difference and commitment to reconciliation). (page 65)

If we are to imagine a dystopian future that illustrates misogyny, sexism and ableism, how can we do so without Black bodies and persons as subjects and agents? Or is the erasure and/or relegation of Black (and female) bodies to the margins a way of side-stepping the fundamental reality that oppressive regimes are predicated upon a world borne of colonialism and chattel/racial slavery, which instrumentalized, in particular, Black bodies?
Recommended Reading:

Works by the following:

  • Hortense Spillers
  • Jared Sexton
  • Saidiya Hartman
  • Frank Wilderson III
  • Stuart Hall
  • Achille Mbembe
  • Dorothy Roberts

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Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

So I’m (re)reading Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and wondering what the story would be like if Of-fred had been a Black woman. Of course, Black people are only referenced once in the book- in an off-hand manner about “Children of Ham” being relegated to “National Homelands” (reminiscent of Bantustans in Apartheid South Africa).

This could be read as a convenient way of avoiding addressing the afterlife of slavery- because the reader is expected to understand that the valued, fecund bodies are those of cisgender white women (not Jews, termed “Children of Jacob” or Blacks termed “Children of Ham”, etc). Offred is allowed to be the ‘neutral’ narrator with whom the reader identifies because whiteness is presumed to be a universal and ubiquitous solvent- a solvent that dissolves, assimilates and destroys. 

If this text were to center a Black subject, the reader would have to confront the afterlife of slavery- a reality in which Black bodies which were previously valued for their fecundity and (re)productive value are now devalued, deemed ‘queer’ (or ‘deviant’) and ‘excess’ in the face of nationalisms that prize whiteness/heteronormativity/etc above all. Another interesting angle to look at the surreptitious use of contraceptives and methods to induce miscarriage among enslaved Africans, and the ways that the regime’s staunchly anti-abortion stance would doubly criminalize Black subjects on this basis.

I’ll come back with more thoughts.

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Links and News Round-Up: 22 December 2013

“Since the 2008 recession, companies have increasingly turned to temporary employees to work in factories and warehouses and on construction sites. The temp industry now employs a record 2.8 million workers.

The trend carries a human cost.

A ProPublica analysis of millions of workers’ compensation claims shows that in five states, representing more than a fifth of the U.S. population, temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than permanent employees.

In California and Florida, two of the largest states, temps had about 50 percent greater risk of being injured on the job than non-temps. That risk was 36 percent higher in Massachusetts, 66 percent in Oregon and 72 percent in Minnesota.”

and 

“The lightly regulated blue-collar temp world is one where workers are often sent to do dangerous jobs with little or no training. Where the company overseeing the work isn’t required to pay the medical bills if temps get hurt. And where, when temp workers do get injured on the job, the temp firm and the company fight with each other over who is responsible, sometimes even delaying emergency medical care while they sort it out.

The growing reliance on temps subverts one of the strongest incentives for companies to protect workers. The workers’ comp system was designed to encourage safety through economic pressure; companies with higher injury rates pay higher insurance premiums. Hiring temp workers shields companies from those costs. If a temp worker gets hurt, the temp agency pays the workers’ comp, even though it has little or no control over job sites.”

 

 

I’ll be the first person and the last person to say that anger is valid. Mistakes are mistakes; they deepen the wounds we carry. I know that for me when these mistakes are committed by people who I am in community with, it hurts even more. But these are people I care deeply about and want to see on the other side of the hurt, pain, and trauma: I am willing to offer compassion and patience as a way to build the road we are taking but have never seen before.

 

I don’t propose practicing “calling in” in opposition to calling out. I don’t think that our work has room for binary thinking and action. However, I do think that it’s possible to have multiple tools, strategies, and methods existing simultaneously. It’s about being strategic, weighing the stakes and figuring out what we’re trying to build and how we are going do it together.

So, what exactly is “calling in”? I’ve spent over a year of trying to figure this out for myself, and this practice is still coming to me daily. The first part of calling each other in is allowing mistakes to happen. Mistakes in communities seeking justice and freedom may not hurt any less but they also have possibility for transforming the ways we build with each other for a new, better world. We have got to believe that we can transform.

 

When confronted with another person’s mistake, I often think about what makes my relationship with this person important. Is it that we’ve done work together before? Is it that I know their politics? Is it that I trust their politics? Are they a family member? Oh shit, my mom? Is it that I’ve heard them talk about patience or accountability or justice before? Where is our common ground? And is our common ground strong enough to carry us through how we have enacted violence on each other?

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Black Bodies, Black Holes: Regarding Eve Ensler’s Colonialist and Messianic Fantasies

Notes: (1) I define “woman” to mean anyone who self-identifies with the term- regardless of assigned sex at birth or (presumed) anatomy. (2) This blog post requires a massive Trigger Warning re: rape, incest, and violences wrought against bodies.

Imperialist, Carceral Feminisms, For Whom?

Eve Ensler is situated in a long (Western) patriarchal tradition that fixates its gaze (and touch) on the bodies of Black and brown women for the sake of knowledge, and experimental explorations of the Other. In her latest piece entitled, “The Congo Stigmata,” casts a voyeuristic gaze upon a Black Other- this time, the body of a Congolese woman and rape survivor undergoing surgery for conditions resulting from sexual assault. She shows no interest in the woman, but fixates on what she terms, “the black hole.” The unnamed, deliberately faceless Congolese woman’s vitality is reduced to orifices and excretions- because she is not a “real” woman by the logics of Western, imperialist humanisms that begin with whiteness and manhood. A white woman like Eve Ensler is adjacent to the default “man” of this humanism, in part, because her Self and her social position is defined in terms of opposition and generative negations (e.g. to be not-Black is to be closer to whiteness- illustrating the way that the Black/White binary is leveraged to facilitate anti-Blackness that defines the being and worth of non-Black POC relative to whites).

Having said all of this, Eve Ensler and her ilk have made it clear that their “feminism” is not for the Black Other. It’s also most certainly not for Trans people either- as revealed by their cissexist and transphobic language that conflates anatomy with gender. Ensler and her ilk’s feminism is, at best, performative and self-serving. She refuses to acknowledge the systemic nature of violence, proposing flash mobs as “awareness-raising,” and leverages this attention for her own aims. Her work is part and parcel of what has been termed the “White Savior Complex” (which I amend to call the “Western Savior Complex”, because not all West-identified people with Messianic fantasies of “saving” Black and brown people ‘over there’ are white). This “White Savior Complex” values, above all, the “big emotional experience that validates privilege.

Black Bodies, Black Holes

Eve Ensler, writer of the “Vagina Monologues” and ‘genius’ behind “1 Billion Rising” again reduces women and their being to “holes.” In an excerpt of Ensler’s work published in Talk Magazine, she writes of a Congolese woman and survivor of rape who is sedated and immobilized on a table:

I have always been drawn to holes. Black holes. Infinite holes. Impossible holes. Absences. Gaps, tears in membranes. Fistulas [sic]. Obstetric fistulas occur because of extended difficult labor. Neccesary [sic] blood is unable to flow to the tissues of the vagina and the bladder. As a result, the tissues die and a hole forms through which urine or feces flow uncontrollably.

She conjures Delphine LaLaurie, the torturous Plantation Mistress** (and serial killer) who fixated on Black bodies and Black pain when she describes the “discovery” and probing of a raped Congolese woman’s bodily orifices as “spiritual.” She finds life, meaning and a future in the dying (necrotic) tissue of a Black body whose being she refuses to acknowledge or affirm.

Eliding the disparities in healthcare services provided to Congolese patients, Ensler writes:

After three trips to the Congo, I needed to see a fistula. I asked to sit in on a reparative operation. I need to know the shape of this hole, the size of this hole. I needed to know what a woman’s insides looked like when her most essential cellular tissue had been punctured by a stick or penis or penises. Wearing a mask and gown, I peered into this woman’s vagina, as she lay on her back, legs spread, her feet tied to steel stirrups with strips of bluegreen rags made from old hospital uniforms. As always, I was awed by the vagina, so intricate, so simple, so delicate. There in the lining was an undeniable hole, a rip, a tear in the essential story. It was almost a perfect circle, the size of a quarter may be, too big to prevent things from getting in or from falling out.

Is it “spiritual” (a sacrament?) because she derives a Self from her voyeuristic gaze upon a Black Other? For whom is this spiritual “moment?” Is she positioning herself as a “messiah” to the nameless, faceless Congolese survivors of sexual violence in a war borne of colonialists’ inexorable greed? She looks upon a “black hole” (hinting at the dehumanization of Black/African women, and the ways in which Black women’s humanity is defined in terms of negation) and sees absences, seeking to fill them with her self. Considered in light of colonialist constructions of Black/African women as hyperfecund bodies and bodies as sites of power, this is not unlike the ‘Terra Nullius’ justification for settler colonialism (so reminiscent of phallogocentric logic)- “there is nothing there, so I must fill it.” “I must give this body- whose utterances I ignore, whose orifices I explore- meaning.” For these Congolese women’s bodies are not legible to a Western, imperialist audience- which necessitates (according to her) divorcing them from their social and historical contexts (the colonial roots of conflict in the Congo region) and reducing them to their orifices (“black holes.”)

The unasked question is “why was she so fixated on the ‘holes’?” Is Black womanhood and being a “lack” to her? Why does she reproduce the voyeuristic fascination with orifices and excretions of Black bodies? And why does this reproduction always entail apathy regarding the felt pain of the Black body gazed upon? I addressed the inability to see (or tendency to dismiss) Black pain in a blogpost entitled, “Black Bodies, Black Pain: (In)difference, Disparities in Medical Care, and the Legacy of Dysaesthesia Aethiopis,” in which I wrote:

Another study, conducted by Anthropology student, Jason Silverstein found that white-identified subjects, when shown pictures of white subjects in pain versus Black subjects in pain, perceived Blacks as feeling less pain. This is hardly surprising in light of a history of the medicalization of Black bodies. For example, J. Marion Sims, a white man experimented on the enslaved African woman we know as “Anarcha” 30 times between the years 1845 and 1849 (in addition to experimenting on the bodies of enslaved African women by the names of Betsy and Lucy and 8 unnamed others), making advances in the study of gynecology.

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Two years later, U.S. physician Samuel Cartwright (who also proposed that “drapetomania” was a mental illness afflicting enslaved Blacks, which caused them to desire to run away) used the term ”Dysaesthesia Aethiopis” to refer to the supposed insensitivity of Black bodies to pain. The cure, according to Cartwright was the cleansing of Black skin, the beating of still-wet Black skin, and (forcible) hard labor under the sun.

At the end of the excerpt, Ensler’s gaze turns inward, even as she never takes her eyes off of the body of the (again, unnamed, faceless, dehumanized) Congolese woman on the barebones operating table. She compares her own rape (at the hands of her father) with the systemic violence Congolese women face, consuming and subsuming the Other to re-center herself.

As I stood there in mask and gown, I realised I had stopped breathing. This woman’s vagina was a map of the future, and I could feel myself falling, falling through the hole in the world, the hole in myself, the hole that was made when my father invaded me and I lost my way. The hole that was made when the social membrane was torn by incest. Falling through the hole in this woman. I was falling. I have always been falling. But this time was different.

What future? Whose future did she see (or rather, imagine and impose)?

Related Reading:

 

** This is not a far-fetched comparison, as the system of chattel slavery (alternatively, racial slavery) depended heavily upon the colonization of Africa, and Europe’s tacit “ownership” of the continent and its inhabitants. This intersection is clearly seen in the Dred Scott descision, which Prof. Andrea Smith explains succinctly in a series of tweets.

  • “The rel between colonization & anti-Black racism is clear in Dred Scott decision. Rationale for slavery is that Africa is property of Europe”, 3 December 2013 (link)
  • “Because Africa is seen as eternally the property of Europe, Black peoples can never lose their fundamental essence of being property.” 3 December 2013 (link)
  • “For Africa to be property, Africa must appear as always already colonized. Colonization must disappear for Africa to have status of property.” 3 December 2013 (link)
  • “Dred Scott: Africa “has been by all the nations of Europe regarded as subjects of capture..as property in the strictest sense of the term.”” 3 December 2013 (link)
  • “In Dred Scott, Only through the disavowed colonization of Africa can Black peoples be ontologically relegated to the status of property.” 3 December 2013 (link)

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