Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why the phrase "half-blood" needs serious interrogation

This morning I woke up and did my daily routine: I went for a walk (1-2 miles -- good for keeping me healthy esp. with the chemo treatments, and just as an f.y.i. aside, the treatments are taking their toll on me, in terms of my level of fatigue--which is high (sigh) and which is one reason I haven't been blogging as regularly as I like), I drank some water, and I open up my laptop to read The New York Times. And the first thing that caught my eye this morning was this blurb from the article, "At Camp, Make-Believe Worlds Spring Off the Page":

"Organized role-playing literary camps, like the weeklong Camp Half-Blood in Brooklyn, are sprouting up around the nation."
[the emphasis in bold is my doing]

The article describes a trend for summer camps based on literary themes, most notably those centered around fantasy children/young adult works of fiction, like the Harry Potter novels or the Percy Jackson and the Olympian series.

Apparently the premise of the Percy Jackson series (and this I've gleaned from the article and from the trailers to the movie of the same name that came out last summer) is that Percy is a young kid who finds out that his Mom slept with a god and so Percy is a demi-god in the making--a "half-blood" if you will. So this Brooklyn summer camp divides up these kids into different "half-blood" groups--like some are the half-human/half-divine offspring of Apollo or of Ares.

[Note: they probably didn't choose some of the more "problematic" gods, like what would the group look like and what would they DO if they were the offspring of Bacchus or Hades? And apparently all the kids in this particular camp are boys, but it still doesn't make sense why they don't seem to have an Artemis group or a Hera group, although Aphrodite may also be problematic in a different way...]

So I get it. The "half-blood" designation is supposed to refer to the fact that these kids are pretending (like their literary counterpart) to be half human and half god.

But is it just me or does anyone else see A LOT OF PROBLEMS with the use of the phrase "half-blood"?

First of all, these kids are pretending that their Mom shacked up with a god--and that it's perfectly normative for these male gods to have fathered multiple children with various women who have apparently all cuckolded their partners or the "human" fathers of these children. Now, I know: I'm being nit-picky here. And I don't think that any of these kids are really confused or that it's sending a bad message about their particular mothers. But I do think that the idea that you can be a male god and have sex with any number of women, human or divine, is part of what gives license to male privilege and the idea that it's OK for men to have multiple sex partners and to father multiple children without also PARENTING them. Because I mean look at poor Percy--he grows up not knowing who his real Dad is until he's 12. So where was his old man? Off doing the divine thing? And he gets cut slack because he's a god? Who was changing Percy's diaper and teaching him to walk and taking him to school and providing for his basic material and emotional needs? THE SINGLE MOM.

Seems like there's a ripe human contemporary counterpart in the making if we think about male celebrities. I mean, don't we hear stories all the time, esp. in the world of music, about rock stars or even someone like Ravi Shankar, who leave behind bits of their seed in the form of actual children who grow up and, in the case of Norah Jones, becomes a major recording artist following in the footsteps of the father who fathered but didn't parent her.

Anyway, the real reason I find the phrase "half-blood" problematic is that it's an offensive term that has typically been used as a racial slur against mixed-race people and very specifically against mixed American Indian people.

For example, if you google "half blood definition" you will find the following from both and The Free Dictionary [which gets their source from the American Heritage Dictionary]:

half blood also half-blood (hfbld, häf-)

a. The relationship existing between persons having only one parent in common.
b. A person existing in such a relationship.

2. Offensive A person of mixed racial descent, especially a person of Native American and white parentage.
[emphasis in bold is mine]

3. A half-blooded domestic animal.

And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "half-blood" has at its core the idea that there is both a quantifiable ("half") notion of blood AND a qualifiable (as in hierarchical) idea embedded in the phrase "half-blood":

"half-blooded a., born of different races; spec. of superior blood or race by one parent only."
[again, emphasis in bold is mine]

It just makes me cringe to think that these kids are going to these "half-blood" camps and will be referring to themselves as "half-bloods" without understanding the long and painful racial/racist history behind that term AND without understanding how problematic it is to split one's "blood" and the not-so-implicit connotations of blood (and really, wherever you see the word "blood" you should insert the word "race") as purity--of being able to determine which bloodline is better than the other.

Better to be a divine than to be human--sure, that's easy to see. Who wouldn't want to be able to fly or have supernatural powers. But we don't live in a fantasy world--and I just think it's too easy to to take that thinking to the next level--how much better to be white (the normative, the majority, the race that is associated with beauty and power and prowess) than to be "other"--one of those hyphenated, brown-skinned, minority Americans.

And finally, (and forgive me because what follows next is my attempt to be ironic through a self-conscious use of racial slurs--which I KNOW are offensive and hurtful, but I am trying to slam home a point with a blunt tool) but I just can't see any camp or book publisher being OK with titles like: Harry Potter and the Chink Princess or Percy Jackson and His Nigger Friends or Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Lost Kikes.

But on second thought, maybe "half-blood" isn't as offensive a term as these other racial slurs...maybe it'd be more like the equivalent of Harry Potter and the Oriental Princess or Percy Jackson and His Negro Friends, in which case I wouldn't put it past any mainstream publishing house to go with these titles...esp. "Oriental."

Anyway, if your child comes home proclaiming to be a "half-blood," it may just be time to sit him/her down and have a talk about language. I mean, I know language changes, and there's a movement to reclaim phrases. But last time I checked, large groups of Indian American activists were NOT agitating to use the phrase "half-blood" as a term of empowerment in the way that gay and lesbian activists have tried to take back the term "queer."

Monday, July 12, 2010

DOMA I hope you go DOWN!

Recently a landmark ruling in Massachusetts made by Judge Joseph L. Tauro (a federal judge in that state) stated that there was never a rational basis for DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which claims that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. Judge Tauro, in one of the two rulings he presided over, claimed that the definition of marriage under DOMA violates the equal-protection provisions in the constitution for gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry. There are two articles from the weekend New York Times that discuss the ramifications for this ruling, an editorial "Defining Marriage," and a piece that discusses the ramifications for states' rights groups (like those tea party folks and a group called 10th Amendment), "Basis on Ruling for Gay Marriage Stirs Debate."

I know not all queer people care about this issue. In fact, I have friends and acquaintances who firmly believe that their identities as gay and lesbian and queer folk preclude them from entering into an institution that is seen as so rabidly heteronormative (and perhaps with certain class and cultural markers that they are uncomfortable with as well--the whole wedding thing for example).

However, I also have friends who have had commitment ceremonies, who have gotten married in Connecticut and Hawaii and Vermont and California (pre Prop-8). And I know that what they want is to simply have the same rights as every other person in the nation--to marry the person that they love. To join in the institution of marriage, for better or for worse, with all the baggage that comes with marriage that is both heartwarming and challenging. To receive the institutional and legal benefits that comes with marriage (and believe me, now that I have cancer and have been in and out of hospitals signing various waiver forms about whether I should be resuscitated and who will make these decisions and who is allowed to see me in the immediate post-op room, being married comes in handy--before, when we were living together, I had notarized forms designating Southern Man as the person to make these kinds of decisions, but we all know about situations like Terry Schaivo...)

Anyway, thanks to my friend "J" I watched this clip about the legal challenge to Prop 8 and thought I should share it here, because I really dropped the ball in recognizing June as Gay and Lesbian (and Queer) awareness month. I also dropped the ball with Asian Pacific Awareness Month (that was May). Mea Culpa. Although given my own resistance to just naming a single month to concentrate on these issues, I'd like to think that from time to time you'll just see a post discussing these issues (and others, and the intersections of these topics) rather than just containing all my queer themed posts to the month of June.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rehabilitation or Gentrification or just simply surviving?

A few days ago I noticed that one of the pop-up ads on The New York Times from Levi Strauss talked about a town called Braddock, PA who were "answering the call mend what needs mending and build what's there to build." I'm not sure why I decided to follow the link--I usually avoid these ads. But I think it was the invocation of "pioneer" (Braddock is described as a town of pioneers) that had me intrigued. So I found this short piece on the Levi site:

We Are Workers: Episode 1.. The Seeds of Change

Which then got me to googling about Braddock, and I found this CBS piece about the town and its mayor, John Fetterman:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Now, one of the things that struck me from reading the article on the CBS site and watching the above video is the quote from the town council president, Jessee Brown, who admits that he doesn't see eye to eye with Fetterman and believes he is "overstepping his boundaries," caring more for his own self-image than the welfare of the town, with Brown adding the following:

"For some reason he's come to Braddock, which is a predominantly Afro-American community, that he seem to want to be the white savior for this community, and I just feel different."

A heavy charge, to be sure, yet one that seems completely valid. I mean, it was something that struck me and that I wondered about in the Levi ad. That the central figures in the town of Braddock, the talking heads in the documentary piece, are white townspeople, and in a few cases, folks who are not from Braddock but who have come to the town because they see something inspirational in it--in rehabilitating the buildings. They see something worth saving--and the emphasis seems to be on the physical structures--the decaying buildings and abandoned homes. Two figures in particular in the Levi short are young, 20-something, white hipsters, who are clearly there with good intentions--with wanting to help and make a difference. Yet, I was struck by the ways in which black and white townspeople shared equal billing in the ad--actually, the black voices did not seem to share equal billing--the white voices seemed to predominate the Levi spot, so that it wasn't until watching the CBS piece that there was confirmation that Braddock has a sizable black population.

According to the 2000 census (and I got this info from the wikipedia site on Braddock) white townspeople account for 30% and black townspeople account for 66%.

Yet you don't get this demographic feel from the Levi shot. It appears to be either 50/50 or 60/40, with white voices and perspectives and faces predominating over black voices, perspectives, and faces. The CBS shot is a bit more balanced--and it's good that they included Jesse Brown, who may have an axe to grind that is personal rather than political--and who is clearly in the minority in terms of his opinion of Fetterman, because Fetterman won the last mayoral race in a landslide and the people of Braddock, African American and white, seem to like the attention that the town is getting (Levi Strauss is donating $1 million to its revitalization efforts and other investors in the Pittsburgh area are pitching in to get Braddock back on its feet).

So here's what I'm wondering. Given just how depressed Braddock is--this town that has 3x the poverty rate as the national average. And given how much help it needs, is Levi coming in and other investors a sign of gentrification, which in social justice circles often becomes a code word for pushing out brown and poor people and moving in hipster white folks with disposable incomes OR is it really a matter of rehabilitation--of trying to improve the buildings and to get a youth center and a garden and an arts center up and running because you need to feed people body and mind and to give them a sense of purpose OR is it more complicated -- that there is the danger of Fetterman becoming the white savior in this poor black town but there is also the reality that the town is in need of saving and that people are trying to survive as best they can and they need help and thus will take it in whatever form it appears. I'm not quite sure I know the answer to this--certainly John Fetterman and others who have moved to and stayed in Braddock appear to have the towns best interest at heart. And certainly the town is depressed and needs help. And certainly its residents, black and white alike, would like to see the town revitalized. I suppose the question is, what will be the cost and who will pay? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Smacks of privilege . . . white privilege

This morning I read an article in The New York Times titled "American Dream is Elusive for New Generation." This four page article charts the "struggles" (notice I put this word in quotation marks) of Scott Nicholson, a young 24-year old white college graduate of Colgate (small liberal arts school), who is living with his parents in a suburb outside of Boston while he looks for the right job. He has been disheartened with his job prospects during these recession years and feels that he worked hard in college, got good grades, went to a good school, and deserves a good job, one that will inspire him to work (in the article, Scott admits that he turned down a $40,000/year job with an insurance company because he saw it as "dead-end work" and that "he would hold out for a corporate position that would draw on his college training and put him, as he sees it, on the bottom rungs of a career ladder" [note: Scott majored in Poli Sci and minored in History].

Meanwhile, his grandfather and father, lamenting the lack of job opportunities available for Scott, believe that the key to Scott's success is to follow the trajectory of their respective careers: to call on the favor of friends as a way to get their foot in the door. Scott's grandfather, who fought in WWII and does not have a college degree, landed a position as a stock broker because a friend from the army had a father who owned a brokerage firm and thus offered the grandfather an entry level job as a stock broker, which he parlayed into a lucrative career. Scott's father, graduating from Babson college (a business school), also obtained his entry level position when a friend opened a factory and hired him into a mangerial position, and from this early start he is currently the general manager of a manufacturing company. Connections are how both men got ahead--and is how they hope Scott will also find career success:

“Scott has got to find somebody who knows someone,” the grandfather said, “someone who can get him to the head of the line.” [emphasis mine]

If you are reading this, you may feel a twinge of disgust for Scott, as well as his family members, and in particular his grandfather--certainly the comments on The New York Times site following this article all registered contempt for Scott turning down a $40K job and at the attitude of entitlement he and his family espouses.

What I was really struck by was the quote by the grandfather--that the solution to Scott's "dilemma" is not for him to take the $40K job or for him to take ANY job that will provide him with a salary and enable him to stop living off of his parents, but that the answer is to get a job not on his merit but because of who he knows--and that because of these connections, he will leapfrog over everyone else to get to the "head of the line."

And OF COURSE the Nicholson's feel this way...because of their class entitlement but also because of their racial entitlement (and there's probably a fair amount of gender entitlement in there as well--which the comments post-article allude to). Is it really fair for Scott Nicholson to land a job that is more than an entry level position just because of who he knows? Or because of who his father or grandfather knows? To rely on others rather than his own talents and skills? And if he is, indeed, a hard working person, then why is he content to live off of his parents rather than getting a job at Starbucks or any retail position to cover some of his expenses -- he could still search for a corporate job while holding down a retail job--it would require more energy expended on his part, but MANY MANY people do just this every day.

All I could think of when I read this article were the unseen people who were overlooked because Scott's grandfather and father had connections--because their friends hired them, and that this is supposedly the bedrock of the American Dream.

And if this is the case--if we are only supposed to get ahead and achieve the American Dream not based on our own merits but on who we know, then is it any wonder that we NEED programs like affirmative action or pipeline programs that can get students into college and into graduate programs. Because the history and legacy of institutional discrimination, of racism, of bigotry and prejudice, is not going to be wiped out overnight. The people overlooked from jobs were often people who were not "friends" with those who owned brokerage firms and factories. The brown skinned people. The working class people. Women. People with accents. People with last names that are hard to pronounce.

It seems to me that what is happening to Scott Nicholson is happening because we passed legislation that attempted to make civil rights a reality for all people (although we still need to work on this area in terms of protecting queer Americans). Scott is supposed to be playing on a level playing field, which means that he can't just rely on the fact that he is a white male college educated young man who desires a job that makes more than $40K and that isn't what he believes is "dead-end work" (the condescension of that phrase is enough to make me want to smack him). What Scott is facing is a reality that THIS is what it's like to be trying to make it ON YOUR OWN and imagine how much harder it is for folks who have college loans (Scott's parents and grandparents paid for the college tuition at Colgate, a private university with a pretty big price tag for tuition) or whose parents are working class and can't afford to have them move back home and sit around the house not working or who have to wonder when they come to an interview and are not given a job, whether it's because of the color of their skin or their gender or sexual identity--their perceived "difference" from the mainstream culture of corporate America (which, lets face it, is dominated by white, middle-class/upper-middle class men).

The American Dream may elude Scott Nicholson, but how many people got sucker punched and overlooked throughout the past few centuries? How many people of color really had access to the American Dream?