Respectability Politics Won’t Free Us of Police Violence

Photo:  fischfosser via Flickr
Photo: fischfosser via Flickr

I am reminded of what I have always known, but what some would choose to deny: that there is no way to work your way out — earn your way out — of this sort of crisis. In these moments, what you’ve done matters less than how you look.
-Charles Blow

The article that really gave me chills this week was Charles Blow’s account of his son having a gun pointed in his face at Yale for being a suspected burglar (aka, walking while black). Blow’s post isn’t particularly long or one of his more purposefully eloquent pieces of writing, but you can just feel the sadness and anger coming across the page that he can’t protect his son from the discrimination one experiences as a black person in the U.S.

He agonizes about what could have happened if his son had made a “suspicious” or panicked movement in his surprise and distress at having a gun pointed at him. He laments the fact that he had to have a talk with his son in the past about what to do if this very situation were to happen, even as he rejoices that he did.

Most of all, I’m thankful that Blow took a clear shot at respectability politics by pointing out that no black kid is safe from this harassment and violence. No parent of a black child is free from the specter of losing him or her through the perception that this child is a threat.

Racial Justice Roundup, MLK Edition

SelmaMartin Luther King Jr.’s day of remembrance seems to have arrived at a particularly opportune time of the year, given the heightened dialogue around black lives and race relations in the U.S. I watched the Selma movie this past weekend to put myself in an even greater mode of reflection about where we’ve been as a country and where we’re headed when it comes to race. I’d definitely recommend the film.

In the social justice world I often hear talk about how society has made much progress in racial justice throughout the years, but that we have a long ways to go. This is still true. We have to acknowledge both the past and the present.

With regards to the latter, here’s roundup of racial justice links I found interesting this past week:

  • Organizers took MLK day as inspiration for a weekend-long set of actions in various cities across the U.S. Here’s what went on in just the Bay Area, for example.
  • The best long-form article I read last week was on the making of Silicon Valley with respect to race and class. An important read, given the high intensity economic pressure that Silicon Valley and the tech sector exert on low- and middle-income residents throughout the Bay Area.
  • Speaking of income and neighborhood change, this video by a young man named Kai about the changes he’s seen in his home community of the Mission District in San Francisco is quite well-done.
  • As most people heard, the Oscars were pretty white this year. I’m also particularly surprised looking down the list of past non-white actor nominees to see very few Asian/Pacific Islanders.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin (Review)

A Clash of Kings‘The thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes. Watch and see.’
-George R.R. Martin

Whew, this one took me a while to get through — 969 pages is no small feat. I think one recommendation I have for someone picking up A Clash of Kings after a year or two away from the A Song of Ice and Fire series that it’s a part of is to recap the first book (A Game of Thrones) before digging in. I spent the first hundred pages remembering who the heck all the various characters are. NOTE: Anyone looking to avoid spoilers about A Game of Thrones should probably stop reading here.

To Martin’s credit, he picks up pretty much where the last book left off. The realm is in turmoil, there are multiple “kings” vying for the Iron Throne, basically your ideal setting for a long story of battles and journeys — which seem to be key components of all good fantasy. Martin continues with the alternating POV style that he began in A Game of Thrones, where each new chapter switches the character telling the story. For the most part, I think that strategy works well for Martin, since he has so much geographic area to cover with his tale. It’s like a giant, narrative game of Risk.

When I read the first book in the series I actually didn’t think that I would read the second, not because I didn’t envision myself enjoying it, but because I planned to watch the TV show instead (I know, I know, book people don’t hurt me).  But in starting the second season of the show I got the sense that I was missing a lot of back story, so I turned to other Netflix disks while I gave myself a chance to read the second book.

Unfortunately, I kept picking the book up for a few days and then putting it down again to finish other, shorter books. While I love the depth and nuance that Martin creates through his works, sometimes they do get just a tad… long. When I got to the last three or four hundred pages though I really gave Clash of Kings the attention it deserved and got more firmly sucked into the story.

One aspect not unique to Martin’s work that I took issue with throughout Clash of Kings was the depiction of women as weak and powerless. My frustration is complicated, because I do think Martin is trying to depict a time similar to our Middle Ages, where women really didn’t have much power at all. Even so, the frequent portrayals of sexual violence against women, related in a very casual manner through the eyes of the male characters got a little challenging to accept. I would have loved to see a few more “strong” female leads. Catelyn Stark arguably plays this role, but her pieces of the book are surprisingly uninvolved — there is no place where she really carries a pivotal impact on the plot. Arya, another potential strong female role, is a child and that identity seems to trump her feisty nature and brains when it comes to power. I hope that both their roles grow in later books.

As I said, this phenomenon of normalizing rape and sexual violence in fantasy books seems to extend to many other authors outside of Martin’s work, and I can’t help but wonder if the prevalence has something to do with the fantasy writer playing field, which to my knowledge seems fairly white and male. I used to read a lot more fantasy when I was younger, and I think the skewed demographics, along with the sheer length of many of those books has led me to step a little away from the genre. I’m happy to have dipped a toe back in with a solid work like Clash of Kings, but I also think I got my fix for a while.

3Stars23/5 STARS

Colorism in Literature

Color Eye
Photo: Andreas Levers via Flickr

Over the past year I’ve been thinking more about the ways that colorism (or the valuing of lighter skinned people over darker skinned people) comes into play in literature just as much as in film, modeling, and other more visual industries. Amit Singh, in a recent Media Diversified article does a great job of highlighting examples of colorism for the latter and why it is such a big problem. As he notes, “there is one set type of attractiveness that is sold to us and resold to us on a daily basis through popular culture and advertising.” He discusses how even the actors and models “of color” that are allowed to succeed are the lighter-skinned ones and the ones with more Caucasian features.

It’s not just on screen and in magazines though that we experience colorism — it happens in literature too, even though we might not get shown a literal image. In reading science fiction and fantasy, so often the darker-skinned characters are the ones with the evil magic or the worst intentions — the assassins and kingdom-takers. And in less-fantastical books the darker characters are still often looked upon with suspicion and fear, or at the very least set apart as different because of their dark and/or non-Caucasian features. How many times have we read “The Asian nurse did such and such” or “The guy with dreadlocks told me blah blah blah?” In each of those situations an author is choosing to define his or her characters by how far they deviate from whiteness, rather than choosing a more complex way to describe them.

I’m the first one out there to jump up and down cheerleading for authors that write diverse characters. If authors do intend a character to be a person of color I’d love to know. But it’s very important when we call those characters onto the field not to be using whiteness as the standard of beauty or the gatekeeper of “normal.” Authors have just as much responsibility as magazine editors and television producers to not be recreating the color value spectrum for consumers.

I think we are getting better in a lot of ways, but authors need to push harder on the work of diversifying their cast of characters in nuanced and meaningful ways. Likewise, we readers need to keep ourselves open to all the characters in the books we read, not just the ones that are seem the most like us.

The Isolation Door by Anish Majumdar (Review)

The Isolation DoorThe first memory I have of my mother is her straddling an open window, pink sari bunched about her waist like a protective cushion, shouting she’d jump.
-Anish Majumdar

I love when fiction clearly comes from the heart and from personal experience, and that’s exactly the sense I got from reading Anish Majumdar’s The Isolation Door. The work is the complicated story of a young man, Neil Kapoor, trying to deal with both his mother’s schizophrenia (plus the family dynamics that go along with her care) and the challenge of starting a rigorous acting program while falling in love and making friends with his classmates at the same time.

Neil’s mother has been in and out of the hospital ever since he can remember, and his father and aunt have very different ideas about how to handle her during the times she is able to stay at home. There is a constant sense that Neil’s home world is falling apart, and he’s clearly unsure of what role he can (or should) play in caring for his mother’s mental health.

At school, Neil is facing the confrontational teaching style of his main instructor in the acting program and navigating his feelings and connections to some of the fellow students. In his relationships with the other students we see a replication of certain dynamics that Neil has faced throughout his experience growing up with his mother, as well as some elements pushing him toward changing who he is and the behaviors he’s used to cope.

While this is certainly not a “happy” book, for the most part I really enjoyed Majumdar’s style of writing, with its strong mix of dreamscapes, memories, and present life. The first half can be a little jerky as you get used to his style of describing relationships — the characters seem to connect and change their relationships with each other awfully fast at times, particularly in Neil’s “theater life.” But overall I really enjoyed his writing.

Through telling a fictional story inspired by his own experiences, Majumdar is diversifying our sense of who struggles with mental illness. The main character doesn’t shy away from describing his family’s background or talking about the aspects of his life that are built on South Asian culture. At the same time he’s also tapping into universal experiences of trying to fit in and figure out what he wants out of life.

In this sense, I think Majumdar is doing an admirable job of working through the complications of being an author of color. It seems so easy to be categorized as either “too ethic” or “not ethnic enough.” I hope that he won’t get pigeonholed one way or the other as the book continues to get read and promoted.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

4Stars24/5 STARS