Tag Archives: classism

Cole Takes on the Real Problems

Debbie says:

Laurie and I generally stay away from discussions about activism theory, sexism in interactions, and many other topics that engage us both, because this is primarily a body image and photography blog, and it’s stronger to focus on our own topics.

Every once in a while, something comes along that’s outside of our central themes, but also too good not to share. In this case, through the kind offices of Angus Johnston writing at Student Activism, Cole (who is 25) brilliantly takes down some of the common complaints of the white male progressive movement of our time. You won’t need much background, but if you want to delve deeper, the specific posts Cole (and Johnston) are responding to are here and here and are by Frederik deBoer.

Most of my post is Cole’s words:

It is completely bizarre to me to see all this concern about people being driven away from the left during a moment where we are seeing one of the largest and most sustained social movements in recent history. How can we have a conversation about the State of the Left without taking into context the Black Lives Matter movement? It is especially bizarre given that queer black women who helped lay the backbone for this movement embody the kind of unapolegtic radicalism that deBoer and friends take issue with. Like you all gotta understand how silly it looks to see a white dude talking about how the left is too mean and driving people away when in the middle of winter in Boston we are still having 1000+ people marches around Black Lives Matter. I frankly don’t even know how to process it.

She actually knows, I’m sure, that deBoer doesn’t consider #BlackLivesMatter the “real left,” because it’s not about him, and that’s the part he can’t tolerate. But she’s being kind.

it also is confusing given the scale of the problem. I can’t really say anything publicly, online or in organizing spaces without risking at least threats of violence and attacks. A simple request for men to be please be more aware of talking over women can easily escalate to male leftists screaming in my face and threatening to rape me. Fuck, I have even been shoved in meetings before. And then this has escalated into other forms of violence.

I find it particularly notable that deBoer says “I’m not censored or harassed or bullied. I’m just criticized,” without noting that this is not true of women or people of color on the left, though unless he’s been living under a progressive rock, he must at least be aware of the tribulations of women involved in Gamergate. And Cole herself is remaining semi-anonymous because she has recently been doxxed, something else that isn’t happening to deBoer.

Cole also incisively addresses class issues:

The idea that PC language is inaccessible to working class people needs to die in a fire. I’m poor, but I ain’t stupid and being poor doesn’t mean I’m more cruel than the cultured academic. If someone tells me that using a certain word hurts them, I stop. I’m perfectly capable of understanding the ideology behind various types of language uses — because in case you didn’t realize this, a lot of this ideology came out of working class movements. Academics chiding each other over inaccessible language has to be one of the most patronizing and belittling things I have experienced in my own organizing.

Beyond the fact that assuming poor people can’t understand this is bullshit, it is also a way for academics to not hold themselves accountable for shitty institutions they are involved in. Like you know what barriers I as a working class organizer actually face? Its not language or callouts — believe me, my family is old school Italian, I can handle people yelling. It’s the fact that for all paid organizer positions, you need a higher degree. It’s that for my org to get money, I need to navigate a grant system that is hostile to young, grassroots organizations and that requires a certain kind of language and presentation. It’s that feeing when you show up to a coalition meeting and you are the only one not dressed in business casual.

And she tackles the “each one teach one,” “be patient with us” philosophy of the privileged:

… let’s use one of deBoer’s examples — say this dude shows up to a meeting and claims there are innate gender differences. Okay, so what next? I could spend time, resources and energy educating him but there is no guarantee he’ll listen or how long it will take to get him up to speed and due to past experience, I know this could likely end in violence for me. But let’s say I take this task on. I would first have to figure out the best way to teach him, I would have to research and present materials, maybe I would have to dedicate whole meetings to this project — and if we are being honest, this project could take months to years. And at the end of it, there is still no guarantee he would accept leftist views on gender or that he would then be interested in long term organizing. How exactly is that a good movement-building strategy?

Or let’s say we don’t say anything and just let him organize with us. I’ve been in groups like this and I’ll tell you what happens. Over time, women will leave. Some will leave yelling and screaming and trying to draw attention to the issue while others will leave so quietly that no one notices. And before you know it, your organization has lost membership of people already on board with your message for someone who holds shitty beliefs, all for the sake of movement-building.

There’s even more, and all of it is as good as what I’ve quoted. Read it, think about it, bring it to your next activist project (or your classroom, or your nonprofit board meeting, or whatever you might happen to do with your energy to help change the world).

Thanks to Rich Dutcher for the pointer, and Angus Johnston for pulling Cole’s screed out of his comment thread. But most importantly, Cole, thank you.

Kendra James, Tonya Harding, and the Dictatorship of Expectation

Laurie and Debbie say:

In 1994, the figure skating world was rocked with a major scandal, when skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked and hit in the leg the day before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan was unable to skate the next day, and Tonya Harding won the championship (which she might well have lost to Kerrigan if Kerrigan had been in competition). A couple of weeks later, Tonya Harding confessed to having been a party to the attack on Kerrigan. It took months for the media furor to die down.

Sarah Marshall, writing at The Believer, recaps and analyzes the Kerrigan/Harding story at some length. Here is some of her context on Harding and Kerrigan.

[Kerrigan’s] performance at the 1992 Games was not a triumph of athleticism—though even then Nancy was a far more formidable athlete than anyone gave her credit for—but it was a triumph of image-making. To the commentators, she was “lovely,” “ladylike,” “elegant,” and “sophisticated,” and the audience agreed. Vera Wang had based the design for Nancy’s costume on a dress from her bridal boutique, and as Nancy took the ice in Albertville, France, skating to the theme from Born on the Fourth of July, she seemed to be presenting herself as America’s hopeful young bride. Even her lack of competitive savvy gave her an air of innocence and sincerity: she was radiant when she landed a difficult jump, and appeared near tears after making a mistake. She had the style and grace of a woman, but the bashfulness and sincerity of a girl. She was beautiful without being sexual, strong without being intimidating, and vulnerable without being weak, and in the end she embodied no quality quite so perfectly as she did the set of draconian contradictions that dictated a female athlete’s success. …

When Tonya first rocketed to fame by landing the triple axel in 1991, the media had tried to put a more positive—and more salable—slant on her lifestyle, using the same information, which they would later call in as proof of her trashiness, to paint a picture of a spunky, all-American tomboy. In the words of one profile piece, “She’s only five feet one inch… and weighs only ninety-five pounds. But as petite as she is, there’s a tomboy streak in her that she’s proud of. She drives a truck and tinkers with her car… Yet there’s clearly a young lady coming through in her skating, and her personality.” In 1991, the skating world had no choice but to try to love Tonya: she had done what no other American woman could, and if she continued to grow as a skater—and continued to act more and more like “a young lady”—she could make her country proud at the Olympics, and earn both its love and its money.

Back then, she also didn’t need stories of ladylike behavior and quirky tomboyishness to convince her audience that she was worth believing in. At the pinnacle of her career, Tonya was, in a word, spectacular. At the time, the only other woman who had landed the axel was Midori Ito of Japan. Midori was a remarkable jumper, and she made the axel look effortless: launching all four feet nine inches of herself into the air, her body seemed light, buoyant, and meant for flight. Tonya’s axel did not look effortless. It did not even look beautiful. It looked difficult—which, of course, it was.

Of course, once Harding’s role in the attack on Kerrigan was revealed, no “positive slant” was possible. Harding  was completely demonized; Kerrigan was completely canonized. The media focused relentlessly on a single story. One thing Marshall does in the long article is shed some doubt on Harding’s complicity, by framing the confession in the context of Harding’s incontestably abusive marriage.

Twenty years later, African-American skater Kendra James links her own experience to the Kerrigan/Harding chasm.

Kendra James on the ice

Photo is figure skater Surya Bonaly.

Whether it was my my height, my different hair (no neat skating bun for me), the fact that I couldn’t buy skating stockings that matched the color of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t order and wear the same shades of makeup as the other (white) girls on my synchonised skating team, there was always something that kept me from feeling like I was adored the same way the other skaters were.

By the time I left high school I had all my double jumps down, passed all my moves tests, and was helping to coach a local synchronised skating team, so it wasn’t for lack of talent that the familiar accolades of “you’re so graceful” or “you have such artistry” seemed to always turn to variations of “you’re so athletic/aggressive!” or “you have such a unique style”. Someone at my club in Connecticut commented that I’d probably be amazing at track and field because my skating was so fast and powerful, and had I thought about that instead? New York City tourists have politely and very complimentary (in their eyes) told me that I’m “the best Black skater they’ve ever seen, and so powerful!” Strong, powerful, aggressive, athletic; not the words you want to hear in the delicate, feminine world of figure skating.

James goes on to draw other parallels between herself and Harding, such as choice of nontraditional skating music.

Racism is not classism, but African-Americans in this culture are presumed to come from lower-status class backgrounds, regardless of the reality of their lives. And abuse happens at all levels of society. Nonetheless, James’ conclusion matters:

We can’t excuse whatever part Tonya Harding may or may not have played in the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, but I get what it’s like to not be seen as the “‘lovely,’ ‘ladylike,’ ‘elegant,’ and ‘sophisticated,’ one,” and spending the energy trying to conform to a sport standard that’s not necessarily made to fit how the world’s been trained to see you. I suspect that several other Black athletes do as well; along with [Surya] Bonaly, Serena Williams comes quickly to mind.