Friday, June 15, 2007

Katrina, Debs, and Environmental Justice

Hurricane Katrina. Spartanburg Debutantes. Environmental Justice. One of these things is not like the other. Perhaps none of them is like the other. Or perhaps they all share something in common: they are all being housed at the Marriott Hotel in Spartanburg, SC. OK, well obviously Katrina and EJ are things that can't really be "housed" per se, since hurricanes and movements aren't things we think of as needing lodging. But I'm here in the Spartanburg Marriott, having presented my paper as part of a panel on Environmental Justice literature (mine was on the links between social justice and environmental justice in Ruth Ozeki's My Year of Meats, an excellent novel in case anyone is interested in some summer reading). The panel went well--the conference was great, in particular the morning plenary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the ways in which we, as a nation, have failed to provide substantial relief to people still suffering from the aftermath of the levees breaking and the lack of governmental support. And, of course, the way that environmental racism also impacts people living in New Orleans and the surrounding region, with respect to issues of environmental justice. Robert Bullard, a pioneer, a founding father, if you will, of the Environmental Justice movement, delivered a power point presentation with devastating images of the area. But there is also hope and faith and the passion of committed activists to want to DO more--to want to CHANGE the world--and to use literature and eco-criticism as a means to enact this change--to activate others in the world we want rather than the world we have.

And then, there's the debutantes. As I was walking back to the hotel after the morning plenary, I noticed a florists' truck and then these photos of largely blonde haired, blue eyed women and then the announcement that there would be a debutante ball going on that night. And the contrast between the ASLE (Association for Literature and the Environment) conference and this ball is so stark. Made especially so after this powerful talk about Hurricane Katrina. And I suppose I shouldn't begrudge others their pleasures--the rituals that they partake in. But I've never been comfortable with debutante balls. They smack of a kind of privilege and power and an infantilization, a "virgin at the sacrificial altar" kind of ritual that makes me feel that these young girls are being conditioned into a way of life that I can't fathom.

And yet, who am I to judge? Because that's what I'm doing--judging people based on their money and their conspicuous consumption. But it's just so hard NOT to have a knee jerk reaction--not to realize that the inequities we face are so great--and to see that inequity as starkly as the juxtaposition of a talk about a hurricane and a bunch of white southern belles setting up for this one extravagant night of consumption. With nary a person of color in sight.


Chas S. Clifton said...

Funny that you mention only the debs and not their escorts ...

I was in the same hotel, but I viewed the ball as an attempt to keep some social norms, norms that may or may not be attainable in 2007, and that may or may not work, and may or may not "take" on the young people involved.

I knew some women who made their debuts and thought it was silly, and others who saw it as a rite of passage.

So what to do?

Jennifer Ho said...

The escorts--yes, I suppose they are worth mentioning, although I was struck more by the parents than the escorts. The escorts seemed superfluous--similar to the bouquets and hair accessories that the debts brought with them. Necessary for the right look but rather inconsequential in their own right. The parents, on the other hand, seem to be the real center--despite the attention on their daughters. Because the daughters, their taking part in this ball, was confirmation of the place of the parents in a particular hierarchy of status, both financial as well as social.

And the fact that it was entirely white was not lost on me, at least. I do wonder whether it is an option for (a) there to be mixed deb balls of white, black, Asian, Latino--where the central factor is power and money rather than color (b) whether one could bring an escort of a different race.

Although I have never known any debs, I have heard that there are African American deb balls and Chinese American deb balls (in Los Angeles in particular). But these seem like replications of the "mainstream" or "white" deb balls that take place in the South.

Ultimately, I just don't see the point. Much like I don't see the point in owning the largest screen tv and most expensive home theater system. The conspicuous consumption, along with the gender rituals which reinforce (to me) the impression of women as commodities, makes me intensely uncomfortable. As does the idea that we are guiding young women into these roles, much like those magazines (Cosmopolitan, Glamour) which show women what they are supposed to look like, how they are supposed to act (and here I'm thinking of books like THE RULES or HE'S JUST NOT INTO YOU). All in all, I just think that deb balls should go the way of the dinosaurs.

Rouge Head said...

As a former deb in Spartanburg, many, many moons ago (OK 22 years ago) I can understand it does seem strange and non-progressive. Whether you are a "Deb" or not life it was you make it. Speaking at an age where I see it nothing more than fun - trust me real life, making a living will settle in soon enough.

When I was a Deb there were deb groups for all groups of girls - white and black.

Southern girls are southern girls - no matter the color - we all love to the belle of the ball at least once!

Take Care, Carter

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the comment Carter--I guess what I found odd, not just in Spartanburg but in the South in general is the segregated nature of most social venues--that there are "white" deb balls and "black" deb balls but not just a Deb ball.