Appropriation vs. Creative Activism

6 09 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it.  My principle concern comes from the fact that I am fascinated by indigenous cultures and indigenous activism.  I’ve read some really interesting accounts in my study of human rights on indigenous movements and creative solutions to common activist problems. But I’ve wondered if identifying with and being interested in these movements is a bad thing, especially when I’m thinking about how to apply indigenous ideas to activist movements in the United States as a white, middle class individual.

There was a post on cultural appropriation at Bitch Magazine that presented a really helpful guiding line for this problem.  Basically, it’s about attribution.  White people tend to appropriate the ideas of nonwhite people and of marginalized groups in general, whether queer, disabled, indigenous, or something else, and then claim them as their own–directly or through silence.  What this says to me (and correct me if I’m wrong), is that it’s good to recognize the creativity of solutions presented by marginalized people, and to incorporate them into, or use them as the basis for, an activist movement.  But it is essential to attribute those ideas to that group, and to the individuals that have expressed them.  It is not okay to take the ideas out of context, to strip away their origins, and to exclude those who presented the ideas in the first place.

Thoughts?





Alliance for Justice Panel on Healthcare Reform

30 07 2010

This morning, I went to a breakfast hosted by Alliance for Justice that featured a panel on applying the lessons of the healthcare reform debate to other progressive causes.  I was disappointed by how little the panel focused on the application to other causes part, but it was an interesting summary of how to organize for a huge systemic change like healthcare reform.

The panelists were all part of H-CAN, and so their remarks were particularly useful for coalition organizing and well-funded movements.  Big takeaways were: get the funding moving, bring in lots of people (not just those willing to sign on but also organizations that are partially in line with your cause and willing to help tangentially), respect history and don’t back down just because it’s slow, use creative strategies, don’t get too hung up on “purple” states.

I really liked what Ethan Rome said about defining the debate.  Using the public option as an example, he suggested that what you have to do as a progressive organization or movement is to take a concept that’s seen as being “on the left” and make that the center of the debate.  If you can manage to get people talking about an issue like that, then you’re not playing defense the whole time.  I found this particularly relevant with reference to feminism and especially feminist bloggers.  When I think about “feminism,” my mental picture is far different from what the big feminist organizations like FMF and NOW give you.  That’s because my feminism is centered around bloggers, and it’s about the opinions of people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, trans people, people in the developing world, etc. etc.  So for me, a big part of what I think we need to do is to get our online activist messaging into the organizational/political part of the movement.  We want people to think about issues like immigration, disability rights, hate crimes, etc. when they think of feminism.

Another point that Rome made was that although the victory wasn’t perfect for health care reform, it was a starting point.  I don’t love the actual bill that was passed, but he does make a good point.  You take what’s passed and you go from there.  Once the system in this bill becomes the norm, then the debate is whether to keep it or whether to have more.  Building blocks, basically.  I can get down with that.

On a tangential note, I think this event was actually a really good example of how to have an event!  I’ve been to a number of panel discussions, and this was one of the better ones.  First, the Alliance for Justice host kept it short and sweet, which is exactly what an introduction should be.  Second, the panelists were concise, funny, and practical.  They were all fairly dynamic presenters.  They told stories and they made jokes and they didn’t ramble on.  They gave some concrete advice that was relevant to the people in the room.  They may have gone a bit long on answering questions, but they answered the questions and they did so with good, practical advice.  I think a lot of speakers could learn a lesson from that!

Finally, since we’re on a practical activism roll here, I just wanted to share a few points I learned from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s webinar yesterday on the social determinants of health.  One, appeal to emotions.  Know your audience’s metaphors and use those, even if they feel general.  Phrases like “a family doctor for every family” work better than ideologically loaded and less descriptive terms like “universal health care.”  Two, on a related note, avoid acronyms.   Educated people may know what they mean, but to those who aren’t familiar, you just sound like you’re playing inside baseball or trying to show what you know.  And three, if you’re trying to sell a point to people on both sides of the aisle, you can actually do so by aiming the same message at both left and right.  For example, “of course everyone should be responsible for their own healthcare, but it’s not fair if some people don’t have access to healthcare because of where you’re born or how much money you make.”  The first part of the sentence reassures conservatives, and the word “fair” appeals to the conservative value of equity, while the second appeals to the liberal value of equality/opportunity for all.  Good things to keep in mind when crafting a message, methinks





Blogging “Yes” Day 17: Violence in Queer Communities

22 04 2010

It’s day seventeen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and today I read the short but gorgeously powerful essay entitled “Shame is the First Betrayer,” by Toni Amato.  It’s hard to know what to say about this essay, because it says so much in such a concise format.  It does really resonate, though, and is an important reminder of how violence creeps up in queer communities, with queer people not only as victims but as perpetrators.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 11: Rape, Immigration, and Citizenship Privilege

15 04 2010

Today I read Miriam Zoila Pérez’s essay, “When Sexual Autonomy Isn’t Enough: Sexual Violence Against Immigrant Women in the United States” for day eleven of the Blogging “Yes” project.  You may know Miriam from Feministing, or from her own blog, Radical Doula.  She’s one of my favorite bloggers out there, and in this essay she sheds light on an important issue, namely sexual violence faced by immigrant women. I also want to recommend a related blog post on Feministe written by brownfemipower, Confronting Citizenship in Sexual Assault.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 7: New Forms of Survivor Activism

12 04 2010

For day seven of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read an essay by Sri Lankan writer and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepezna-Samarasinha entitled “What It Feels Like When It Finally Comes: Surviving Incest in Real Life.”  I found this essay particularly powerful because Piepezna-Samarasinha really gets into the different ways she went through the healing process after child sexual abuse, and in so doing provides an alternative to the Oprah model of survivor memoir that focuses on the event itself and the immediate aftermath only.  I think all kinds of survivors could learn some lessons about healing and about activism from Piepezna-Samarasinha’s experience, and I especially like how she focuses on intersectionality.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 1: Sexual Assault, Abortion, and Entitlement

5 04 2010

April, as you probably know, is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  Instead of doing a post about sexual assault, I’ve decided to do a little project.  One of my favorite books is the phenomenal anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape edited by Jacyln Friedman and Jessica Valenti.  I read this book when it came out in 2008 and it had a profound impact on how I understand rape and sexual assault and also how I came into my late-blooming (but enthusiastic) feminism.  So for Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, two years later, I’m going to be blogging day-by-day about the essays in the book.  There are 26 days left in April and 27 essays in the book, so I’ll do one a day except for one doubling-up.  I’ll use cut tags so it won’t clog your RSS feed reader up too much, but I’ll try to identify the topic of each post clearly in the title so you know whether you’re interested.  I won’t be blogging about the entire essay most days, but I’ll share my thoughts or vibe off of a topic brought up in the essay.  So, without further ado, it’s time for Day One, reading “Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back” by Jill Filipovic.

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Framing the Abortion Issue

19 03 2010

I touched on this topic in my Blog for Choice post this year, but I wanted to go into it a bit more, because I think issue-framing is something crucial that we sometimes ignore in our debates.  I’ve noticed that pro-choice people often use the argument, to try to look less “scary,” that no one wants abortions, or that both sides want fewer abortions.  Whether it’s true or not, this is a problem.

The problem is that this argument makes the debate about should women have abortions? I don’t think we want to go there.  Once we go there, then the point of contention becomes “how do we reduce abortions?”  And we know we disagree on this.  One side thinks the answer is abstinence-only education, crisis pregnancy centers, and making abortion illegal.  The other side thinks the answer is sex education, combating rape culture, and fighting systemic issues that take away womens’ effective right to choose.  Certainly, that’s a debate we need to be having, but not while the legal right to have an abortion is under attack.

What we should be asking is not should women have abortions, but should abortions be safe and legal? Abortions will happen.  Even if we “want fewer abortions,” we’re never going to get it down to zero.  We need to focus on the medical trauma that women go through when they go to unsafe providers.  We need to focus on how provisions like the Hyde Amendment and any number of state laws make it impossible for poor women, many of whom are indigenous women and women of color, to get a safe and legal abortion.  We need to focus on the costs to the system when women try to abort without proper medical attention, and then come in for emergency care.  We need to put that stark picture in pro lifers’ faces and say “is this what you want?”  Then, we need to address the issues that underlie abortion.  We can do this simultaneously, advocating for sex education, for enterprise programs in poor neighborhoods that give women more options, for an end to racist policies, for anti-rape messages in schools, for all these things that will in the long run decrease the number of abortions.  But we can’t make our argument about whether women should have abortions, or we stand a high chance of losing.