16 June 2015

Your Basic Rachel Dolezal Questions Answered

William E. Artis, Untitled
(Idealized Head of a Woman).

(Photo by Jerry Dohnal. Original here.)
So, is Rachel Dolezal transracial or not?

First of all, please stop using the word “transracial” when talking about Rachel Dolezal, because it doesn’t mean what you think it means. Transracial already exists, but to describe children, usually of color, adopted into a family of a different race, usually white. These children are transplanted from the race, culture, and heritage of their birth into a completely different one, but that doesn’t mean they somehow stop being African-American, Ethiopian, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Salvadoran. 

In fact, the true meaning of transracial reveals the impossibility of Dolezal’s claim to racial transformation. Many transracial adoptees experience, in essence, a white childhood, surrounded by white family in a white neighborhood and growing up in white schools. Yet they still carry their “otherness” with them at all times—their skin, their eyes, their hair. They grow up moving through the world as people of color, and the people around them will still interact with them as such, no matter how “white” their upbringing.

Dolezal passed for black for a number of years, but she cannot undo her past. She was born into a white family, grew up as a white child, attended Howard University as a white woman. She can’t erase—or re-race—all those years that she experienced the world as a white girl and woman. 

Additionally, a lot of black folks would (and do) argue that her appropriation of the black experience is one of the whitest things about her. 

Well, some black people have passed as white and severed ties with their black families. Isn’t that the same thing? 

The short answer is: No, because privilege. 

We know for a fact that race is a social construction, not a biological division. In 1972, a Harvard geneticist published a paper showing that the majority of genetic variation appeared within “races” rather than between them. That is, most genetic variation happens at the individual level, not at the level of groups. 

But race still matters, because as a social construction, it has ordered social and economic hierarchies that consistently place whiteness at the top and blackness at the bottom. Race has been deployed for centuries to enforce social divisions to justify the exploitation of those considered “lesser” for the benefit of those considered “greater.” Whether we are talking about Africans cutting sugarcane to enrich plantation owners, or Chinese laying down track to enrich railway barons, or Italians working assembly lines to enrich industrial bosses, the dynamic (if not the scale) is the same. (Irish, Italians, Filipinos, South Asians, and many other nationalities have been labeled “black” at different points in history, although that has not changed the fact that people of African origins have always been consigned the bottom of the racial hierarchy.)

When someone of a “lesser” race with light skin, “good” hair, and “fine” features has taken the leap to pass as white, it has been to access privileges that would be difficult, if not impossible, to attain with a non-white identity. Moreover, passing in this case carries the risk of discovery and, along with it, blackmail, beating, rape, or death.

Dolezal did not simply reverse the path of passing. That would mean that she gave up privileges to live in a “lesser” position. 

On the contrary, Dolezal’s passing allowed her to take positions of leadership and authority, as a professor of Africana Studies and the president of the Spokane NAACP. She ended up gaining privileges by passing—just as African Americans who crossed over to whiteness have—and she took scant privileges from a community that has few privileges to offer. 

This doesn’t reverse or challenge the existing power structures, it reproduces them. 

Doesn’t all the work Dolezal did for the African-American community justify her passing? 

I’m not sure anyone is up for trying to quantify the “good” that Dolezal accomplished for African Americans and balance it against the fact that she took paying jobs that most likely would have gone to honest-to-goodness black women. With one hand she (presumably) gaveth, but with the other she tooketh away from people she ostensibly wanted to “help.”

(The revelation that she filed suit against Howard University for discriminating against her as a white woman, claiming that Howard was
“permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult pretty much undercuts the “good work” defense of Dolezal.) 

Furthermore, if the work was truly important to her, she easily could have done it as a white woman. White professors of Africana Studies exist. White members of the NAACP exist. Dolezal didn’t need to pass to help African Americans. 

Arguably, Dolezal could have been more effective as a white ally. What’s galling to African American communities and to white allies is that, by disguising herself as black, Dolezal took an easy path to black activism. White allies must unlearn racism. They must sit back and listen to voices of color. They must play supporting roles while people of color take center stage. They must prove, constantly, that they are down for the struggle. It’s hard work, and it’s emotionally challenging. But Dolezal decided to take a short cut. By making herself black, she no longer had to provide ally bona fides. 

She basically did what every anti-Affirmative Action right-winger fears that real people of color do: She played a [fake] race card to jump ahead. 

How can we celebrate Caitlyn Jenner yet condemn Rachel Dolezal? Both of them changed a socially constructed identity—gender and race respectively. Isn’t that hypocritical? 

Please reflect with me for a moment about the children we have seen in recent years who have come out as transgender, John Jolie-Pitt being the most famous. 

Many transgender children begin to form—or, at least, verbalize—their gender identities as toddlers or young children, long before they have a full understanding of how gender identity is constructed. 

Moreover, trans* kids either struggle with conforming to their assigned gender under pressure to be “normal,” or they express their true gender identities in the face of intense societal condemnation. Trans* children and adults face bullying, violence, and even death in order to simply be their true selves in the world. 

Dolezal was an adult before she began to talk about her supposed identification with African Americans, long after she learned how racial identities are assigned and constructed, and with full knowledge of how disguising her race would allow her to move more freely within black spaces. After “changing” (i.e., hiding and lying about) her race, she then went on to exploit her new “identity,” earning both money and cultural capital from her racial masking. 

Although “becoming black” (if such a thing were possible) could certainly come with severe consequences, as a “light-skinned African American,” Dolezal retained color privilege, and it’s unclear whether she has suffered at all from her switch to “blackness.” Even the racist hate mail she claims to have received may have been fabricated

And as I said above, Dolezal’s move across the color line was a dodge to avoid the hard work of being a white ally. 

People who are trans* struggle to live as their authentic selves. They are brave. 

Dolezal cheated the system for her personal gain. She is a coward. 

In addition, she will probably make a mint off her book contract/film rights. 

(Update: Dolezal asserted that she “felt a spiritual, visceral, instinctual connection with...the black experience” “from a very young age.” I say, You don’t get to sue Howard from the position of a white woman, then turn around and claim that you have “felt black” since kindergarten. You don’t get to take whatever positionality suits you, or works best for you at the time. Moreover, the luxury of passing is exactly that: a luxury. Most of us in brown and black bodies don’t have it and never will.)

What about that hair? How did she do it?

I hope that some African American journo, somewhere, is trying to find Dolezal’s hairdresser. Right now, the main guess is wigs ‘n’ weaves. In her gobsmacking interview in the college newspaper, The Easterner, Dolezal claims that she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006, and she turned her long blonde dreadlocks into a wig. This is also the year she started to claim an African American racial identity, which seems awfully convenient. (Update: It’s a weave.)

What important news is this Rachel Dolezal mess distracting me from? 

The Dominican Republic is at it again, poised to deport hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian heritage. A white cop holding down a black girl in a bikini is just one facet of how state power oppresses women and girls. Migrants continue to pour into Europe via Italy from Libya, and if the EU cannot come to an agreement with Italy, Italy is threatening to stop receiving the refugees, which could bring the death toll from the dangerous crossing back up.

Further reading (H/T to Kiese Laymon, whose Facebook posts are also very much on point; Sasha Harris-Cronin; and Jason Sperber):

Lisa Marie Rollins, Transracial Lives Matter: Rachel Dolezal and the Privilege of Racial Manipulation

Rebecca Carroll, I Am Black. Rachel Dolezal Is Not.

Awesomely Luvvie, About Rachel Dolezal the Undercover Sista and Performing Blackness

Tiq Milan, White Women Taking Up Space. Theoretical or Otherwise.

Ali Michael, Rachel Dolezal Syndrome

Adam Serwer, Why Rachel Dolezal Needed to Construct Her Own Black Narrative

Kat Blaque, Why Rachel Dolezal’s Fake “Transracial” Identity Is Nothing Like Being Transgender—Take It From a Black Trans Woman Who Knows (I take issue with the way Blaque tries to distinguish race from gender, but the rest of the video is right on.

Lisa, How Rachel Dolezal Just Made Things Harder for Those of Us Who Don’t “Look Black”

A good summary of the scientific non-existence of race and the real social construction of it: American Scientist, “Race Finished,” a book review by Jan Sapp

A basic case study of African Americans passing: “A Chosen Exile: Black People Passing in White America.” (From NPR’s Code Switch) 

I can’t vouch for all the facts in this article, but it does include a decent summary of the phenomenon of evangelical transracial adoption, which could place the Dolezal household into context: Rachel Dolezal’s Creationist Parents. (From Reverb Press)

21 April 2015

A Rereading of the "Most demanding 1st birthday invite ever"

This letter has been making the rounds on social media as fodder for mockery:

(Via Imgur)
I have an alternate reading:

Dear family,

We know we should be grateful that you are constantly showering our child with excessive gifts, but on the other hand, he has 25 books that he can’t even use yet when what we really need is formula. We’d think you’d agree that our child needs food more than another chewing toy in the form of a book, but so far we haven’t been able to convince you.

We’ve tried on several occasions to get you to buy us some much-needed basics, or toys that will usefully occupy my child while I try to take a fucking shower, instead of another book to add to his collection of 57 (more books than weeks he
s been alive!) or an outfit bedazzled with our child’s name on it. But since nothing so far has worked, we’re just going to tell you very specifically what to buy and try to discourage you in the strongest possible terms from getting us more useless shit.

Please let us know if you are not getting these gifts, because we actually needed them yesterday when I was pooping alone in the bathroom for like 5 minutes but my child decided he needed me RIGHT NOW and he was pounding on the door while both of us cried. We have discovered from experience that he likes other kids’ play tunnels and tents, and we will totally buy them if we have to. Then he will play with the toys that we bought that we know he likes instead of whatever inappropriate crazy thing you buy.

Do NOT get us personalized gifts, because then we can’t take them to the consignment store when our child outgrows them in 3 months and exchange them for clothes that we need. Since you are generally impervious to our rational explanations, here’s a totally scary bullshit reason to get you to
stahp, just stahp.

He doesn't even *like* books yet!
(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian. Yes, that is our messy pile of books.)
Have we mentioned that the costs of raising a child have made us very sensitive about wasting money? Our child is not yet reading, but we’re already stressed about how we are going to afford college. (Somehow, our suggestions to start a college fund as a gift have fallen on deaf ears.)

For this reason, we are asking for modestly priced gifts from bargain stores. Some parents ask for gifts from Pottery Barn Kids and try to milk their relatives. That’s not how we roll.

I’m so fucking tired all the time because our kid is having night terrors, and I would love to take a nap instead of running to another store to return another fucking thing that we already have.

A formal invitation to the birthday party made of paper and hand-addressed and stamped and everything is coming because we know that shit is important to you and you interpret an Evite to mean that we think you are lower than slime, when really we are just overwhelmed parents trying to plan a birthday party that will include a lot of overbearing, easily butthurt relatives.

Not signing “love” because we’re too exhausted, frustrated, and not feelin’ it right now,
_____________ & ______________

Additional thoughts: 

The family member who posted this to Teh Internetz is a total dick catheter. 

Enough with shaming parents already. Raising kids is hard. Mocking people who do it is easy. Maybe offer babysitting or a gift card to Target and STFU. Or even just STFU.

08 March 2015

International Women’s Day 2015

Women doing some of the mundane work of the movement:
"Souvenir booklet sales table at March on Washington, 1963."
Photo by Marion S.Trikosko [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
For International Women’s Day, I’m thinking about the women who go unnoticed by history but whose efforts were nonetheless essential for bringing about social change for the better. I’m thinking, for example, of the churchgoing women portrayed in the movie Selma who were packing bedrolls, medical supplies, and food for the marchers. 

Feminism doesn’t just mean lauding the women who have achieved renown (although I am certainly proud of them, too), but also appreciating the everyday labor that women do, the small actions they take to create a better world. It could be a personal conversation. It could be lessons imparted to a child. It could be letters written to people in power. It could be a work slowdown or stoppage. 

I think of women I saw in Dakar, standing up to men in the marketplace, or putting themselves in danger to stop fights, or talking with each other in courtyards about what was wrong in their country and how to fix it. They formed small collectives and pooled funds to lift each other up and improve their communities. Many women infuse the tasks they must do every day—make food, raise children, go to work, stitch together household funds—with social justice. 

To all of them, and all of you, thank you.

17 December 2014

Letters About Homework

Photo by Kevin Miller
Two letters I have written to my daughter’s teacher regarding homework. 

I want to emphasize that, overall, we are very pleased with her school and their educational approach. I am posting these letters primarily because I believe that the escalation of homework in the American educational system, starting at earlier and earlier ages, is detrimental to the overall development of young children. I hope these letters may help other parents who feel their children are overburdened. 

(Throughout, I have changed my children’s names to the pseudonyms I use on my blog.)

 Letter 1

(Excerpt from an e-mail to our principal in which I copied the original letter to my daughter’s teacher and added the paranthetical paragraph.)

Regarding homework, we have settled on a policy at home: If Silver wants to do the homework, we do it. If she doesn’t want to, we don’t. 

We arrived at this policy based on three things: 1) The research on the utility of homework in elementary school does not demonstrate any clear benefit to the student’s academic progress, much less to her social/emotional development. 2) On the other hand, research into the benefits of free play for young children demonstrate that children develop a range of skills, both emotional and intellectual, through unstructured, self-directed play time, something that Silver does not get at school. Most importantly, free play contributes significantly to self-regulation. 3) We struggle with Silver in several ways daily—to get out the door on time, to fulfill her (very basic) chores, to get along with her little brother, to stay within our agreed limits—and because we use positive parenting methods, each of these struggles can take a long time. Because of the points above, we are not willing to add homework to the list of struggles in our household. 

(An additional thought I did not include in the original email: Much of the current educational advice on homework—which seems to be a compromise, not a research-based conclusion—is to assign 10 minutes per grade level, e.g. 10 minutes for first grade, 20 for second grade, etc. I understand that, ideally, the HW packet would allow for work to be parceled out over a few days. This is not how it works for Silver. Silver either wants to sit down and complete her entire packet at one time—and gets extremely frustrated if the packet is too long for her to complete in one sitting—or she does not want to do it AT ALL. In this way, I feel she is often “set up” for HW failure.)

Articles on HW: 

Homework: An unnecessary evil? Surprising findings from new research (Kohn 2012) 

Studies support rewards, homework, and traditional teaching. Or do they? (Kohn 2011)

Is homework necessary?

Should I stop assigning homework? (written by a teacher)

What the research says about kids and homework

Less work, more play: A Quebec elementary school bans homework for the year 

Forget homework: It's a waste of time for elementary-school students  

Articles on free play: 

The American Association of Pediatrics on the importance of play  

The serious need for play in Scientific American (I can get the full text for you if you like) 

Scientists say child's play helps build a better brain from NPR 

All work and no play: Why your kids are more anxious, depressed from The Atlantic 

Old-fashioned play builds serious skills from NPR 

Article on happiness: 

Emotional health in childhood ‘is the key to future happiness’ (findings from the London School of Economics, not exactly the most sentimental bunch)


Teach Kids to Daydream: Mental downtime makes people more creative and less anxious

Family time
Photo by Kevin Miller
Letter 2 

(To my daughter’s teacher.)

I am writing to continue our discussion about homework. 

First of all, I have to say that this week’s packet is excessive. It would be for a 7-day week, and it is even more so for a 5-day week. There are a total of 7 open-ended questions throughout the packet. The character study alone would be sufficient for this week’s work. I described this week’s packet to my parents’ group on Facebook, which includes parents from all over the country (most of them academics). Other parents of first graders were unanimous that the homework was far above what their children are assigned. (“Mine has 20 minutes of reading Mon-Fri., nothing more.” “That is waaay too much for 1st grade.” “That HW seems like a TON. I know my son would lose it before it was done.”) 

I read the updated December 2014 guidelines for homework. I feel that my main concern was not addressed by the new policy. 

No mention is made of the amount of homework. Silver and I get home at 3:30 p.m. We pick up her little brother at 5:00 p.m., and when we get home, their routine is to help with and eat dinner, take a bath, and go to bed. This leaves a maximum of 1.5 unstructured hours of time that she and I have together during the day. If homework takes 20 minutes per day, that can reduce our unstructured time together by nearly 25 percent. 

Secondly, I still cannot in good conscience force my 6-year-old child to do her homework. If she wishes to do the homework, I am happy to sit with her and help her with it. If, however, she wishes to engage in pretend play, or draw, or lie on her bed and daydream (all her preferred after-school activities), I believe—and will continue to believe—that these activities are more healthful and vital to her intellectual and emotional development than homework. 

I base this not only on my knowledge of my own child and her emotional needs, but also on the extensive research—some of which I shared with you and [principal]—that finds that children (not just my own child, but ALL children) need free-play time and space to daydream. The research on the benefits of homework to elementary school-aged children is nowhere near as robust. I vaccinated my children because scientific evidence overwhelmingly tells me that it’s the best way to keep my children from suffering from common, terrible childhood diseases. My position on homework is similarly formed. 

According to the guidelines, homework is supposed to develop “‘21st century skills’ such as curiosity, imagination, critical-thinking, creativity and innovation, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, agility and adaptability, and collaboration.” Need I point out that play develops all these skills, and even better, the child develops them on her own initiative

I had an extensive talk with Silver yesterday about homework. She has a new plan she wants to try in the new year, but she is adamant that she has no interest in doing any homework before Winter Break. If there are consequences for opting out of homework, please let me know. 

Free play
Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian
As an example, here is what we did yesterday instead of homework: We came home. I asked Silver if she wanted to do homework. “No,” she said. “I want to play with you.” “What would you like to play?” I asked. She went to our Ideas Box, a box that holds scraps of paper where we had written ideas for pretend play. We pulled out two, and Silver decided she wanted to do the idea where we pretend we are on the moon. “Let’s make space suits!” she said. We ran around the house gathering materials for space suits, including helmets and air tanks. Then we made the rocket ship by spreading out a blanket to form the wings and positioning two chairs. Silver found a yogurt top to use as a steering wheel and a drum mallet to use as the thruster. She grabbed silk cloths to serve as seatbelts. 

We blasted off. We talked about how the ride was bumpy while we were in the atmosphere, but when we reached space, it became smooth. We landed on the moon. We put hula hoops around our waists to serve as tethers that would keep us from losing the rocket ship. We jumped around the play room in “low gravity.” Then Silver decided that it was time to go to the Space Station. We went into the space station and then could move normally because of the artificial gravity. We ate a dinner of astronaut food and went to bed. 

Then it was time to pick up Ocho. 

When we got home, Silver texted a short shopping list to Kevin [my husband]. She got mad when I told her to brave spell “carrots.” We talked about why she needs to brave spell, and she did it, but she was still angry about it. Ocho wanted to read a book. I told Silver, “We have had play time, but Ocho hasn’t had any time with me yet, so I need to sit with him and read a book.” Silver did not like this plan. We talked about whether she wanted to go to her Peace Corner. She did not. She sat with us while I read one book. Ocho wanted another book, but Silver wanted to play a matching game. “Why don’t you get the game and set it up while I’m reading the book to Ocho? Then when the book is done, the game will be ready.” We agreed to this plan. Silver set up the game. She didn’t want to wait until the second book was done, but eventually she sat next to me while I finished the second book. 

Kevin came home and played the matching game with the kids while I made dinner. When the game was done, Silver cut up some green beans and helped set the table before we sat down to dinner. 

Yesterday was a good day, and I feel like Silver got everything that she needed: connection time with her family, opportunities to practice emotional self-control, chances to provide help and feel a sense of responsibility, and—most of all—time to exercise her body and her rich, abundant imagination. I hope you understand why I feel that the time we spent yesterday could not possibly be better spent doing homework. 

Yours sincerely, 


My description of the HW packet (5 days instead of 7 due to Winter Break starting):
2 math story problems; emotional/social exercise where kids read 2 sentences, figure out which is the “accident” then answer 3 questions about how the kids in the scenario feel and what they should say; “character study” where kids read a book, draw the main character and come up with 3 adjs to describe her/him, answer 2 questions about the character, then do 2 beginning-middle-end exercises; and finally a “talking question”: If you could only keep 1 toy, which would it be and why? 

Additional thoughts

- Several articles have been published on whether ADHD is overdiagnosed in the United States due to school models that keep children—particularly boys—sitting for extended periods of time that are inappropriate for their developmental levels. Some have theorized that a lack of exercise and free play may also contribute.

- Two countries lead in education worldwide: South Korea and Finland. Their methods are drastically different. South Korean students succeed, but at a high cost to their students in terms of well-being and happiness. Finnish students, on the other hand, dont start school until age 7, and they build in frequent free time and include non-academic activities, and teachers are concerned with developing well-rounded children.  

Please add your children’s experiences with homework, links to further research, or relevant articles in the comments!

28 November 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

Collage by my daughter
I hate the myth that this holiday is founded upon, a sanitized story of cooperation that is more palatable to tell our children than the real story of genocide. I love the actual proceedings of the day: cooking and eating delicious food, spending time with family, appreciating what we have and the people we love in our lives. I despise the fact that some corporations require their employees to work on this day. Workers who "want" to work on this day because they can earn time-and-a-half and more should be more fairly compensated throughout the year so they can have holidays off, as the word "holiday" requires. Workers who want to spend this day at leisure with their families should have the unassailable right to do so. On this day, I try to recommit to noticing daily what a wonderful life I have, at the same time that I recommit to doing everything I can to make the world around me a more fair and just place. May today bring all of you a good meal and the warmth of love.

27 November 2014

My Thoughts on Cops, Race, Ferguson, Justice, and Whose Side I'm On

A demonstration in New York City protesting
the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO.
(Photo via WikiMedia Commons)
When I was about 18, I got into an argument with my best friend* over an article about a man who committed suicide by cop. 

I said something like, “It’s disgusting that getting shot by the police is so predictable that someone can actually plan to commit suicide this way.”

My friend countered, “You know who I feel sorry for? The cop. Imagine having to live the rest of your life knowing that you killed someone just doing your job, and that person used you to commit suicide.”

I don’t remember what I replied to him, but I remember still feeling angry and unconvinced. My friend is white. I am not. That day, I was unable to articulate to him that race had everything to do with where our sympathies lay.

Nevertheless, my friend’s words stuck with me.

I actually have family members who were cops—family members who are not on the brown side of my family—but I have never talked with them in depth about what it was like to be on the job. One of them said to me, “It’s pretty much like [the reality TV show] Cops.” Having seen snippets of the show, I was afraid to ask more. I was too much of a coward to confront the possibility that people I love might be doing things that would enrage me if I knew. (We already have plenty we disagree on.)

I have also met cops that I like (usually police of color), who have been personable, fair, and concerned, who have
exactly embodied the ideal of law enforcement as it should be.

Sometimes, news of a policeman killed during duty has sent me into a reverie, trying to imagine what it would be like to have every work day present the possibility of death. I have read writings by and about cops, describing how seemingly innocuous situations can turn bad, or how someone who presents as non-threatening might be extremely dangerous. I can sympathize with the idea that confronting the worst side of human nature, day in and day out, can taint a person’s view of the world and transform every individual into an object of suspicion.

Since Monday, I have been reading with a kind of grim resignation everything I can about the killing of Mike Brown. I read Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony, which I don’t believe for a minute, and Dorian Johnson’s testimony, which includes details that comport exactly with my own experiences of cops’ attitudes and speech with me and with other people of color.

These two accounts encapsulate two world views. In the first, Mike Brown is the belligerent aggressor, who escalates nothing into something, who is huge and terrifying, and Wilson must defend himself. In the second, Darren Wilson is the demon, and Brown must fight for his life.

The two accounts are parallel, yet mirrored. But no matter which account the reader believes, the end is the same: Wilson has a gun, and Brown does not. Wilson gets a hearing, but Brown gets executed.

The gap between these two accounts seems like a chasm. After all, they can’t both be true.

But I wish cops could understand that what they feel—being on high alert, aware that people going about their business might be hiding a threat, knowing that any day they could die at the hands of someone irrational, stupid, or hot-headed—is exactly how African Americans, especially black men, feel around them.

Cops and black men are having parallel yet mirror experiences of each other.

On the face of it, this could provide some common ground, the beginning of understanding. In reality, we know that the construction of race, a construction hundreds of years old and woven inextricably into the fabric of Western culture, functions precisely to perpetuate the divide. An illusion with very material consequences.

I have lived in places where police are not upholders of the law, but agents of bribery and corruption. The kind of life most of us want, with stability and security, is only possible in our current society with a professional, trained, and funded police force. 

It’s hard to hold both ideas in my head, that I want to have cops patrolling my streets at the same time that I also fear them, not just for myself, but for my some of my friends, and some of my kids’ friends who are brown and black boys and will grow up to be brown and black men. I can feel sympathy for an individual cop in a tight situation having to make a tough call (and let me be clear that Darren Wilson is NOT that cop). But such sympathy cannot erase the continuing rage I feel at an institution that regularly mows down men of color and  incarcerates them at a staggering rate.

I don’t have a solution. Rational discussions and state-sponsored “conversations about race” serve mostly to create the appearance of progress and building bridges without shifting the institutional bedrock that supports the structure of the status-quo. Violence usually hurts communities already suffering the most, but sometimes it is the only language that state power understands and responds to. (I am not calling for violence. I am simply looking at history.)

I do know that if cops have any kind of sincere desire to change this dynamic, it is incumbent upon them to listen and learn. Cops have power and resources; impoverished communities do not, which is why the equation of armed white cop + unarmed black man ends with the same tragic result again and again (while armed white men roam freely).

Ultimately, what police are supposed to stand for and what people in the streets are calling for is the same thing: justice. But the scales are weighted, and Americans need to take clear-eyed look at the ways race creates that imbalance. The scales have never hung equal, but until they do, we will have no peace.

* Read about my run-in with a cop and a vigilante with this same best friend here, as part of my reflection on the injustice of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. 


A petition to President Obama and the US Attorney General to press federal charges against Darren Wilson

A wishlist of books for the Ferguson Library

The NAACP march, Journey for Justice, beginning on Saturday, November 29

19 September 2014

Is Cooking Anti-Feminist? Part 3

Cousin Mary teaching my dad and me
her mother's secret kata recipe
(Photo by Kevin Miller)
Continued from Part 1, where I explore the connections between cooking, work, and leisure, and Part 2, where I unpack the dynamics between cooking and gender in my own family history.

In Part 3, I want to break down the argument presented in the study, The Joy of Cooking?, step by step. First, the authors assert that working mothers feel duty-bound to cook because of pressure from a traditional ideal of motherhood coupled with pressure from various “food gurus” who are advocating for Americans to cook more often at home. In the course of interviewing women to support this theory, they also uncover several barriers that make cooking difficult for their interviewees: poverty, work pressures, transportation, housing, child care. Finally, they propose a number of possible “creative solutions” to feed families without forcing mothers into the kitchen. 

The authors of the study seem to contend that no working mother wants to cook, but does so due to external obligations. They write, “Mothers felt responsible for preparing healthy meals for their children and keenly experienced the gap between the romanticized version of cooking and the realities of their lives.” Women are feeling even more pressure, they argue, because “modern-day food gurus” such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Rachel Ray, as well as political figures like Michelle Obama, “advocate a return to the kitchen.” (I’m just going to note here that Pollan’s book, Cooked, includes a gender analysis that demonstrates he is aware of these issues.) 

Of course, the ideal of motherhood exists; of course, mothers constantly feel guilty for not living up to it. But to say that mothers are manipulated to this extent simply by unrealistic standards is to ignore the ways that we defy these standards on a daily basis. A search for “good enough mother” turns up the words of many mothers who are rejecting the ideal. Periodically, studies come out that “prove” that stay-at-home mothers are best for their children, or that day cares will damage children irreparably. Do working mothers feel horribly guilty when these studies come out? Yes. And then they go back to work, either by choice or by necessity, knowing that their work is helping their children by providing the financial support they need and by modeling working womanhood. (And those studies get refuted.)

So while I don’t deny that ideology is a factor in mothers feeling oppressed by cooking, I would add that to pin the blame solely on idealized motherhood and foodies is to miss the point. 

If the ideal—and the sexism contained within it—is truly at issue, then how do partnerships that are less traditionally gendered look? I asked several mothers and fathers about how they divide cooking and other domestic work, and I received a range of responses. (Because this post will be long, I’ll include direct most quotes in a coda to this series.) I heard from stay-at-home and work-at-home dads who actively enjoy and take pride in cooking. I heard from opposite-gender couples who split cooking 50/50. I heard from same-gender couples where one partner did most of the domestic tasks. I heard from single mothers who are struggling to do it all. From a small sample, I received a breadth of possible family configurations, each negotiating cooking and domestic tasks in their own way. 

In the diversity of responses, one consistency stood out for me. Many women in opposite-gender couples, who had generally egalitarian relationships, said they cook because their male partners simply lacked know-how. No one had taught their men to cook when they were young. As adults, the men had little time or motivation to learn, so if their female partners wanted to eat decently, then they cooked. 

If families abandon cooking entirely, then we lose one path to gender equity: men who cook. I am fortunate that my son loves to help me in the kitchen. I count teaching him to cook amongst my small, daily feminist acts. One day, after picking up my son from preschool, my daughter asked him, “Do you want to play ‘Frozen’?” “No,” my son replied. “I want to help Mama make dinner.” Heart cockles: warmed. 

If gender dynamics and motherhood ideals can’t fully explain the problem of working mothers and cooking, what else is at play? One clue is revealed in this quote from Elaine, a white, middle-class married mother interviewed for the study: “When we get home it’s such a rush. I just don’t know what happens to the time. I am so frustrated. That’s why I get so angry! I get frustrated ‘cause I’m like, I wanna make this good meal that’s really healthy and I like to cook ‘cause it’s kind of my way to show them that I love them, ‘This is my love for you guys!’ And then I wind up at the end just, you know, grrr! Mad at the food because it takes me so long. It’s like, how can it take an hour for me to do this when I’ve already cut up the carrots and the celery and all I’m doing is shoving it into a bowl?” (emphasis mine) 

Elaine says herself that she likes to cook, but she is frustrated that she doesn’t have the time to cook the way she wants to for her family. I hear her longing for a certain kind of connection that a home-cooked family meal can bring, but time pressures turn a leisure activity into a stressful obligation. 

The study authors themselves name many of the barriers to cooking: food costs, particularly for healthy foods; basic food insecurity; long work hours; unpredictable schedules; differing family schedules; inadequate transportation; and long commutes to work. Some mothers live in particularly dire situations: “During the month we spent with Flora, a poor black mother who was currently separated from her husband, she was living with her daughter and two grandchildren in a cockroach- and flea-infested hotel room with two double beds. They prepared all of their food in a small microwave, rinsing their utensils in the bathroom sink.” 

Is cooking really the problem here? 

Would Flora benefit more if she were released from a gendered obligation to cook? Or would she perhaps find more relief if her city had a program to house the homeless like Salt Lake City’s

Sign from the New York City strike
of McDonald's workers this summer.
(Photo by Annette Bernhardt,
from WikiMedia Commons)
At the same time I read this study, which features at least four parents who work in the fast food industry, I also read William Finnegan’s article in The New Yorker about the efforts of McDonald’s workers to unionize and raise the minimum wage. Most of the workers he interviews have jobs at two different locations, if not three, and yet their hours are held under forty hours a week to keep them part-time. One mother who has worked at McDonald’s for fourteen years makes $8.50/hour, a 50 cent increase over the base pay—which is minimum wage—in a city where a living wage for a single parent with a child is calculated to be $30.02/hour. Finnegan writes, “American fast-food workers receive almost seven billion dollars a year in public assistance,” which includes food stamps. 

Moreover, employees do not get regular shifts. Instead, every Saturday evening, hours are posted for the following week. Each worker receives a thin strip of paper with her or his schedule. Imagine what this unpredictability means for parents trying to arrange child care. 

As if this level of exploitation isn’t enough, some workers don’t even get paid for the hours they put in. Finnegan reports, “Two former McDonald’s managers recently went public with confessions of systematic wage theft, claiming that pressure from both franchisees and the corporation forces them to alter time sheets and compel employees to work off the clock.” 

This kind of treatment is inhumane, for parents and non-parents alike. And it isn’t just the fast food industry. American workers put in longer hours for less pay than their counterparts in other developed countries, and they also take fewer vacations. No legal limits exist to prevent American workers from answering e-mails and analyzing spreadsheets when ostensibly having family time at home. 

Rather than an accusation against cooking for causing misery amongst working women, I would like to see an indictment of a brutal work culture engendered by skyrocketing inequality. I would like to see an examination of farm subsidies that make processed foods artificially cheap while making raw foods unattainably expensive. I would like to see a report on the economic conditions that create food deserts in certain neighborhoods when food is so abundant in others. I would like to see a denunciation of a political climate that makes raising the national minimum wage to a paltry $15/hour an impossibility. I would like to see rage against weak and ineffective initiatives to end poverty while the top 0.1 percent continue to attain new heights of wealth

The study authors suggest in their conclusion a variety of “creative solutions” to feed families healthy meals without continuing to overburden mothers. They suggest town suppers and healthy food trucks, to-go meals that parents pick up at their children’s schools to heat up at home. 

While I am interested in collectivist solutions, the logistics bring up more questions. Where would the food come from? Who would grow it? What food traditions would be represented? How would it all get funded? If families buy the meals, how could the meals be affordable yet made with good quality, fresh ingredients? 

The main question I have is, who would prepare these foods? How much would they get paid? What hours would they work? Because I can imagine, all too easily, that these programs would rely on part-time workers juggling two jobs, some of them parents. Parents who would work long hours to prepare food for parents, who are working too much to prepare food. Alternatively, I can imagine stay-at-home moms being asked to volunteer their labor, just as they are tasked with filling in labor gaps in their children’s schools. 

This isn’t a solution. It’s a displacement of the problem. 

The answer to the question, “Why do working mothers find it so hard to cook?” is not an easy one, but cooking itself is not the problem. The way most Americans, not just working mothers, find it difficult-to-impossible to engage in one of the most fundamental human activities is but one symptom of a cancer in American culture. 

So what can we do? We can insist on connection. We are all linked: the farmers who grow our food, the migrant workers who harvest it, the drivers who transport it, the grocers who stock it, the corner-store owners who sell it, the food workers who prep and cook it, the parents who bring it home, the children who either eat it or complain about it. 

Cooking can be feminist or anti-feminist. But insisting on a more just and equal world is feminist to the core.