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An Open Letter to VanCity Buzz regarding “Where to hook up at UBC”

To the editors at Vancity Buzz,

There are a few things I can count on at the start of every school year: struggling to navigate my way through rapidly-moving crowds on the busy walkways that were blissfully barren during the slow summer months; enduring long, languid line-ups at every student service building and food outlet; hearing the cheery sounds of music and chatter from the frosh-week booths that crop up all over campus. There is, of course, yet another predictable yet infinitely more frustrating and exhausting series of events that now seems to accompany the beginning of the academic school year: events or articles which seem to fantastically misunderstand that certain aspects of sexuality and campus life are perhaps not the ideal subjects for misguided attempts at satire or sensationalized clickbait.

We’ve seen our fair share of problematic publications come out of universities in recent years, from the sexist and racist chants contained within an Engineering songbook at McMaster University to articles from the Western Gazette TA Article – CTV (UWO) and The Ubyssey – How To Tell if Your TA Likes You (UBC) whose poor attempts at satire about seducing Teaching Assistants were swiftly condemned by students who work in these positions. All this comes, of course, in the wake of a larger discussion of incidents of harassment and assault on college and university campuses, one that continues to be a priority for many campus communities, particularly at this time of year.

While I often take a hard line on these publications and often swiftly call them out, a recent article by Lauren Sundstrom at Vancity Buzz gave me more pause than usual. In her piece “Where to Hook Up at UBC,” Sundstrom offers brief descriptions of what are alleged to be the top five places to have sex on campus. Prefaced by a brief disclaimer about consent, namely that it is imperative and that no means no, Sundstrom declares that while UBC may have achieved prominence in global university rankings, one of its unique strengths lies in the beautiful public spaces within which to hook up. Rounding off the top five places (which include, not surprisingly, libraries and washrooms, as well as the Aquatic Centre and the cliffs by Wreck Beach) was a strange and uneasy surprise: the graduate lounge in my own department. Sundstrom conveys information from a pseudonymous tipster named “Jonathan” that the English Department Graduate Lounge is an excellent place for hook-ups, given its relative isolation after hours.

hookup

            Many have been swift in their condemnation of the piece and its reference to the space. Far from merely tiring of the puerile humour of such frosh-week-style articles, which many critics will claim is “mere sensitivity” and the inability to take a joke, the criticism targets serious concerns about this type of public representation of and unsolicited invitation into a space that represents not only part of a professional environment and workplace, but a safe hub for a particular group of community members.

Admittedly, I have a bias about this space. I have been a member of the English Department for nearly six years in my capacity as a doctoral student, and I enjoy the comfort and convenience of the lounge every week as I enjoy a bite to eat between classes and engage in lively discussion with my colleagues and friends. Slightly-dated décor aside, the lounge is a space where design invites openness: the entrance to the room is constructed of glass, which allows passersby to see who is around. I cannot count the number of times I have seen a friend sitting at the table and have stopped by to chat when I would otherwise simply proceed onward to the computer lab; this gives me joy. Faculty members pass by and we wave. There is a modicum of privacy, too: the two couches are almost entirely obscured by a floor-to-ceiling shelf in the middle of the room, which allows a brief nap in semi-solitude. This is a space I have come to love. Recently, a few of my colleagues and I organized an impromptu shared lunch in the space; some faculty and staff joined us, and it was a lovely moment of community building.

Yet, it is also a space that makes me feel uneasy, a sentiment that I would never wish my other colleagues to have. Yet, in light of this article and its implications, I fear that some might. Several years ago, I was sexually assaulted in this same graduate lounge, by a former friend who had briefly and unexpectedly returned to campus. What distressed me most about what happened was the knowledge that aside from this one individual who had made the choice to enact harm in a space that so many of us consider safe, I had always felt at home there. It is not only about the physical space, of course, but about the community members who help to shape that space. Indeed, respect is a mandate of the lounge: clean up your dishes. Don’t leave food in the sink drainer. Refill the water jug. Pay for any tea or coffee you use.

But now, I’m fairly certain that I am not the only one who feels unsafe in that space, and the irony of having a space opened up without its occupants’ consent does not escape me, as both a survivor and a community advocate around issues of violence. It also does not escape me to think of what it means to offer unsolicited advice to disrespect community spaces, particularly in a university that occupies the unceded lands of the Musqueam people. It does not escape me that not all workplaces would be subject to such disrespect, including, I suspect, the workplaces of Vancity Buzz employees themselves. It does not escape me that such an article may cast undue and uncalled-for aspersions on members of the department, who conduct themselves with respect for others. Indeed, many of us have banded together to articulate our problems with Sundstrom’s article, whether through comments on Twitter, Facebook, on Vancity Buzz’s website, or through private emails to both Sundstrom and your editorial staff. Others have pointed out similar issues with Sundstrom’s other article regarding hook-up spots at Simon Fraser University, one of which is a washroom reserved for people with disabilities.

If we ought to have learned anything in the past few years, it is that conversations about consent, about sexual violence, and about safe spaces on university campuses and in workplaces are nuanced and that they require both careful thought and accountability. Consent is about more than “no means no.” Indeed, as demonstrated by numerous consent-focused campaigns in recent months and years, it’s about affirmative and enthusiastic consent. This isn’t to say, of course, that people have never unwittingly or accidentally walked in on others engaging in sexual activity. Indeed, sex in public places may be a thing for some people, but the basic rule of sex with healthy boundaries is this: don’t get anyone involved who doesn’t want to be. This is not about prudishness or the condemnation of sexuality, which I’m certain other critics may charge the complainants with. Rather, it is about the reality that when articles point out — indeed, promote — the enjoyment of the participants in sexual activity over the safety or the access of the people who work and live and rest in particular spaces, this violates some of the most basic concepts of consent.

After a day off from work, I will again return to the department on Friday to enjoy tea and conversation in the lounge with its orange chairs and its terribly-bright floral tablecloth. I will, however, now carry with me into that space a distinct sense of unease and worry, as well as a heavy knowledge that its boundaries were breached by someone who has likely never even stepped foot into it nor has met the vibrant community of individuals who call that space a little home away from home.

One and Five Chairs

Joseph Kosuth,

Joseph Kosuth, “One and Three Chairs.” (1965)

Content Note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.

ONE AND FIVE CHAIRS

The empty chair is the passenger seat of his car;

I am fifteen years old.

They always tell young women not to walk home alone at night,

so I accept the ride I already know will take me anywhere but home.

When it is over, he asks for a kiss as a token of his generosity

in granting me “safe” passage.

O captain, my captor; I carry in my blood and the melanin of my skin

the knowledge of what we women have survived to reach the shores,

knowing full well that it is not freedom

that awaits us when we disembark.

——-

The empty chair is the dressing room of the high-school theatre;

I am sixteen years old.

Four hands on my body, under the guise of a prank,

grasping at my arms, then my bra, until the flimsy material comes undone.

It’s a joke, they say,

and I, the girl-doll, dutifully laugh.

As I re-clasp the bra at the middle of my back,

I run my fingers over my vertebrae.

It occurs to me that if I could sharpen them enough through starvation,

perhaps they could swiftly slice open any hands

that would ever again dare to touch this flesh.

——-

The empty chair is the bare stage of the black box theatre;

I am seventeen years old.

As our scene study from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to an end,

my theatre instructor tells my scene partner to

“keep going as if you were raping her.”

This is not in the script. There has been no rehearsal.

I am not permitted to file my objection, because

I am suddenly face to face with sweaty brow and insistent hands;

there is an audience and so I mumble: “those aren’t the lines.”

Of course there are no lines; this is unscripted.

At least, I reason, the scene has the authenticity of fear.

Weeks later, I learn that my scene partner has assaulted another woman in my class.

I want to say I am surprised,

but I know that he is well-rehearsed in his craft.

——-

The empty chair is the waiting room of health services;

I am twenty-two years old.

He is a stranger, a fellow student.

His chatter is friendly at first, then insistent. I am polite.

Of course I am always polite.

Then he is everywhere; even waits after-hours for me to emerge

from a late doctor’s appointment.

I pull phrases out from my arsenal: “Please leave me alone. I already have a boyfriend.”

Shoulder-grip. I am suddenly aware that there is no-one around.

“You need a new boyfriend.” His breath is hot on my neck.

At campus security, I am given a neon pink rape whistle

and a glossy pamphlet on stalking.

“Don’t worry,” the woman says to me.

“He just sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They’re mostly harmless.”

Mostly.

——-

The empty chair is the faux leather couch in the graduate lounge;

I am twenty-four years old.

It starts at my feet: my boots being wrestled off,

and as I sit up to protest, I am vice-gripped across my chest,

pressure against my sternum.

I do what I have been told I ought to have done before:

wrestle, twist, say no, no (louder), and stop, with an extra

please for all the socially ingrained female politeness that I still cannot shake.

Without my glasses, I cannot make out the figure standing near the

elevator doors that are in my field of view,

cannot scream,

cannot do anything.

A while later, there is another ding of the elevator, and I am released before anything else happens.

I splash water on my face, re-touch my lipstick.

Could have been worse, I say,

as I pull up yet another empty chair to my table.

Threshold: A Poem for New Year’s Eve

coin_janus_225-212

As the clock ticks towards midnight

and but for a microsecond I will be between two months, two days, two years,

I realize what Janus must have felt like.

Janus, that god of Roman antiquity

with his two faces:

one, looking into the past;

the other, facing the future.

I find it hard to look backwards with regret

or to glance over my shoulder at sorrow

because like Lot’s wife

I know the dangers of looking back at the burning wreckage:

I feel it each time memory bleeds salt from my eyes.

The severed friendship.

The missed opportunities.

The closing gates of another year gone by

in a body destined for decay.

My mortality

—the knowledge that I am but a speck of dust

star-stuff, but nevertheless, only here for a whisper of celestial time—

ought to guide my gaze towards the year to come with eagerness

or hope, at the very least.

But I find myself, at every moment

on the precipice of the future

desperately trying to perform alchemy

and transform fear into bold curiosity.

We make offerings to soothe our worry:

no figs or honey left at altars

but promises and resolutions,

penned on our calendars

tabula rasa, a fresh slate—

we make incantations to time itself.

Beginnings, endings.

Birth, death.

War, peace.

Open, close:

can we not linger in the doorway,

between two rooms,

for just a moment longer,

even as the bells strike twelve?

Allerheiligen; Or, All Saints’ Day

The fog rolled in last night.

It came in slowly, after the fireworks had quieted,

after the hordes of trick-or-treaters had long been put to bed,

tired and satisfied after the great hunt.

It lingered this morning,

a thin veil on each building and tree.

The air was thicker with it.

It was thicker with memory, too.

My days of belief are long-gone,

the rosary tucked away in a nearby drawer,

the family crucifix lifted gently from the wall and packed safely into storage.

There are no more ghosts or saints in my philosophy,

only bones and recollections.

But were I home,

back in the land of my mother’s birth,

I would walk through the neat rows of graves,

each one marked with a lineage inscribed into stone or marble.

I would find the small piece of real estate,

passed on to generations, where my grandfather,

his second wife,

my cousin—23 years old, engulfed by an avalanche—

my grandmother (when room in the death-house was scarce, she became ashes),

all lie sleeping in the earth.

I would light one of those red candles,

and leave it burning through the night by their side.

I do not believe in souls,

but wish to leave the light on for them nevertheless.

Write Where It Hurts: On Literature, Death, and Suffering

CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses death, blood/needles.

It’s mid-November. The daylight hours are becoming more and more scarce, and so I am pleased that the large lecture hall for this semester’s English 110 class has a large row of windows. The sleepy students need all the sunlight they can get, especially as the term winds down and the long nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing start to catch up with them. They clutch mugs of tea and coffee, trying to keep warm and awake.  From my perch at the back of the lecture hall, sitting alongside my fellow teaching assistants, I see the students crack open their books, flip open their laptops, and settle in for the day’s lecture. A few of them fiddle with their cell phones. I try not to be annoyed that they’re texting in class, or checking Facebook, but it’s their tuition dollars that are being spent, not mine. I open my own notebook, uncap a pen.

As the clock strikes eleven, Dr. Moss starts in on her lecture. Today, we’re talking about bioethics and medicine. Perhaps not what you’d expect in an English class, but you see, we’re reading Vincent Lam’s collection of short stories, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures (2006), and weaving in questions of literature with questions of culture, gender, race, ethics, and science. Lam, who is an emergency room physician at Toronto’s East General Hospital, published his stories to great acclaim, including Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The stories, based on Lam’s experiences as a medical student, trace the journeys of four students—Chen, Fitzgerald, Ming, and Sri—as they navigate the emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal challenges of becoming physicians. We’re reading a selection of stories from the book for the class. One of the earliest stories, “Take All of Murphy,” details the four medical students as they perform an autopsy. We’re reading about death, in all of its cold, surgical reality.

I should probably note at this point that I’m not squeamish. When it comes to any medical show or documentary about surgical procedures, you’ll find me glued to the screen, though I know those aren’t people I love or know and that makes it easier to disconnect. I do like to watch when I’m getting my blood-work done, watch my platelets and red blood cells and plasma fill up those little vials.

I should probably also note at this point that people I’ve cared for have died. I’ve never been to a put-the-body-in the ground funeral, but I’ve been to memorials. I’ve never actually watched someone die, but I know what grief is like. When I was 15, the younger sister of a childhood friend died of a particularly nasty form of cancer. She was only 12 years old. In my apartment building, I’ve seen the elders I’ve known and greeted for years die off, one by one. My aunt, whose dementia is worsening, will likely not live another five years. Dying while forgetting is a terrible way to go. My mother worked in geriatric psych nursing for years, and so death was just a part of the stories she came home with from work.

So with all of this, it somehow takes me by surprise that while I’m sitting in this class, listening as Dr. Moss lectures on various aspects of this fictional autopsy, my heart is racing. I mean, I’m feeling really sick. I’m sitting in class and my head is spinning and I can’t stop thinking about the fact that in the past three weeks, two people I have loved – people from formative parts of my life – have died.

Two of them. Dead. Just like Murphy in the story. Corpses.

My former French teacher died suddenly, at the end of October, on a hiking trip in Japan. Totally unexpected. He was an avid long-distance walker, every day, back and forth to school, during his 30+ years as a teacher. Beloved, dedicated. Just a few months earlier, I’d run into him on the path near my house, and we’d had a lovely chat about teaching and life. And then, at the age of 62, less than a year into his retirement: myocardial infarction. A heart attack. And now he’s gone.

A dear friend from theatre school died in November, one day before her 29th birthday, when the cancer finally caught up to her. A lump in her breast, discovered three years earlier. She was well again, for a while. The walnut-sized lump had shrunk. Her hair grew back. She traveled to India. But all those metastasized cells eventually consumed everything in its path. I’d just talked to her, a few days earlier. “Hospital birthday!” she’d written merrily on her Facebook wall as she prepared to be admitted. And now she’s gone.

Back to class.

Dr. Moss is still lecturing.

I’m trying to listen, real hard. I straighten up in my seat and I focus on holding my pen. I listen to Dr. Moss’s voice. I try to find comfort in its familiarity, the lilt and phrasing I’ve come to know well.

In the story, the body they’re autopsying has all these tattoos. When it comes to making a incision, the characters debate whether or not to cut through a tattoo, or to cut around it.

“It’s bad luck,” said Sri. “Cut around here.” He traced the ornate heart with the handle of his scalpel.

“It’s a nice cross,” agreed Chen.

“You guys.” Ming didn’t look up. She traced the incision lines on the arm. “It’s not going to work. Don’t you want to see the bicipital groove?”

“You should respect a man’s symbols,” said Sri. “My mother told me that. Look at his arm. These are his symbols. (Lam 43)

My friend Ali had plenty of tattoos, gorgeous ones, a whole gallery of art on her skin. I start to feel sad that the art has died with her. When people say that tattoos are forever, and that as a result, you’ll regret it, they’re lying. They’re lying and they’re in denial because they don’t want to admit that one day, body-canvases will be dead. And buried. Embalmed. Maybe burned to ashes. There is no forever, so you really don’t have to feel to badly about that Tweety-Bird tattoo or the name of a former lover that you etched into your arm. Everything comes to an end. Sometimes sooner than later. I start to think about their cold bodies. I have a hard time not seeing them just sleeping, in my imagination. When I picture them, I think that their eyes will fly open and it will all be as it was.

It’s noon, and we take a 10-minute break.

I find myself in the bathroom downstairs, sitting in the salmon-pink stall, and I’m trying to weep quietly. It’s not because I’m worried that someone else will come in—after all, most everyone uses the upstairs bathroom just a few paces away from the lecture hall, rather than this secret one near the loading dock—but because crying alone in an echoey bathroom just sounds so fucking sad. It’s one of the loneliest, most pathetic sounds I can think of. When it’s time to head back to lecture, I dab my eyes and blow my nose, arrange my hair around my face so that it doesn’t look like I’ve been crying. Fuck death, I think. Fuck this PhD. Fuck teaching. Fuck reading this story about cutting into dead bodies when I can’t get the thoughts of people I love just being cold dead flesh. I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in an afterlife but you know that would actually be really fucking comforting right now but I still don’t and so death is just death there is no after. Fuck death and fuck life and fuck everything.

I have a teaching evaluation a few weeks later. It goes well: I enjoy teaching, and my tutorial is full of brilliant thinkers. My students hand in their final projects and papers. I mark exams. I cry in the bathroom stall during lecture-breaks a few more times. The people I love are still dead, and I have work to do. Life goes on, but when I see Vincent Lam’s book on my shelf, I try to hide from its gaze. That book has undone me, in more ways than I even know.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

There are two reasons why I’m finally writing about all of this.

First, it’s been long enough that my grief has started to temper itself. I can think about my dead beloved ones without bursting into tears, although I still sometimes walk the river-path near my house and half-expect to run into Jacques-André on his familiar route, and I still expect Ali to announce that she’s off on some wondrous adventure around the world, sleeping on beaches in Australia or building cob-huts in Mexico. In late November, I attended a beautiful memorial for my teacher. This summer, I planted a tree for Ali on my property in the country. I’m dealing with the anxiety I have about more people I love dying, and accepting the fact that death is inevitable. 

Second, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that literature impacts our lives, how we can reach out to it for comfort, or wander unknowingly into it and finding ourselves bruised and battered, full of shock and awe, as I did, facing the blustery chill of Lam’s prose. In the year following the deaths of my beloved ones, the activist and academic worlds have been embroiled in an impassioned debate about the value and necessity of so-called “Trigger Warnings,” or ways of flagging that disturbing or graphic content may lie ahead for readers and viewers. From Inside Higher Education to The Chronicle to The Globe and Mail to The Guardian, students, professors, and cultural critics alike have waded into the debate. On the one hand, the inclusion of trigger warnings is seen as censorship or coddling; on the other hand, understanding the effects of graphic depictions of violence is understood to be a necessary part of acknowledging the need for sensitivity, and beyond that, the ways in which mental health issues (especially Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) can be aggravated by having to read or view difficult material. As Melissa McEwan writes, “The only reason I can imagine resistance to trigger warnings, or whatever variation, is that their ubiquity will create an expectation of sensitivity with which people can’t be bothered. The sort of people who say that people who need trigger warnings are too sensitive, rather than conceding that maybe it is they who are simply not sensitive enough.” McEwan continues: “Trigger warnings don’t make people “oversensitive.” They acknowledge that there is a lot of garbage in the world that causes people lasting harm. If for no other reason, I defend my use of content notes on the basis that to fail to use them is to abet the damnable lie that everything’s pretty much okay for everyone, and people who have been harmed are outliers” (“Triggered”, n.p.)

As someone who studies Canadian Literature, as well as trauma and sexual violence in particular, the use value of trigger or content warnings is not lost on me, even though I am not generally affected by graphic content. Whether it’s simply a result of intellectualization, or of desensitization, or who knows what else, I don’t feel anything visceral when I read about rape or torture or most forms of violence. I just don’t, and sometimes I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel other things, with regards to other subjects and other forms. I feel anger. I feel outrage. I feel sadness. Canadian Literature, true in some ways to the analyses that Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood and John Moss made more than 40 years ago, is a difficult literature, full of victims and survival and bleakness. “SadLit,” I sometimes call it. Canada, like all countries, has a difficult history. And beyond that, humans have difficult histories. Even when literature is not directly reflecting the violence and trauma of so many nationalisms, including our own here in Canada, it is reflecting the human condition, and that can be a terrible thing to write and read about. We are haunted by stories.

I recognize the lump in the throat and the racing thoughts, the thump-a-thump of the heart as our eyes scan the page and the story unfolds, leaks onto us, cuts into us. I see and hear my students and colleagues wrestle with hard words, words which seem to have a literal hardness: the sharp edges of language. The syllables of colonialist violence, the letters of sexual trauma, the alphabets of absolutely awful things. We all know that these are representations, not actual incidents of violence. Even when the representations are of real-life experiences, we ultimately know that these are just splotches of black ink on white pages. And yet.

And yet…we are undone. I am undone. You are undone. We are undone. To various extents, of course. Some of us have to turn the page, skip a scene, or close the book outright. Some of us choose not to read at all. Some of us read onwards, knowing the sting that will come, bracing for it, yet never quite managing to outwit the sharp sting. Some of us lash out. Some of us don’t flinch. It all depends on who we are, where we are, and what is happening to us. The moments of confluence between life and literature can be wholly unexpected.

I’m not angry at the books or stories that don’t envelop me in some sort of fantasy world, which don’t soothe me or provide me with happy endings. In fact, I’ve learned that I’ve come to love them in a strange way. For all my weeping and wailing and stomach-turning while reading Lam’s story, I know, I do, that he is just describing it the way it is. Amidst the backdrop of clinical sterility, “Take All of Murphy” illustrates that death is more than just one thing: it is a fact, it is the object of scientific study and progress, it is a source of philosophical confusion. It is. And I know, too, that in any other time and place, perhaps the story would have had no impact on me at all.

In any case, I am grateful. I am grateful that because of Lam’s story (for which I was obviously prepared, but one can never be fully prepared, can one?) I was able to let my grief spill out. Perhaps it was more necessary than I ever realized. I am grateful for conversations with my students, with whom I talk about some really, really fucking hard stuff, and we do so with respect. I am grateful for generous lectures by the professors with whom I have had the privilege of working, lectures which do not sugar-coat, but offer at least some cushions for the hard blows.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

It’s mid-August. I try to remember my beloved ones’ bodies as they once were: vibrant, alive. Each walk I take, I can walk it with the memory of Jacques-André in my footsteps. I trace the tattoo on my arm, think of Ali’s adorned skin. I re-read a poem she loved and taste its words in my mouth as she once did in hers.

I still dream about them sometimes. But I am, as they say, trying to move on.

Works Cited

Lam, Vincent. Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures. Toronto: Doubleday, 2006. Print.

McEwan, Melissa. “Triggered.” Shakesville. 4 Mar. 2014. Web.

Open Carry

a weak smile

deflection against a cat-call from across the street

an armour of polished teeth

and that lipstick we had chosen to feel pretty

just for ourselves

so we smile for them, baby

capitulate a grin

rather than wonder if they might have wiped our frowns off our faces

with their fists

upon returning home

we find our tongues bloody, cheeks bitten from clenching them so tightly

——

headphones, earbuds

smooth plastic tucked into our ears

music

but sometimes no music at all

feigning distraction, ignorance to an insistent advance

——

gold rings, pretty things

soft plastic simulacra of cut stones

shimmer from our fingers

insurance policies

the pretense of belonging to another

faking property-claims to prevent trespassing

were these the dreams that De Beers imagined us having?

——

fake numbers

imagined partners

digits and names drawn from thin air

conjured quickly, rapid-fire

——

arsenals of phrases

some of which it has taken years to say without trembling

muttered softly to ourselves, practice makes perfect

——

i’m not interested

i would like to be friends

please leave me alone

no, thank you

no

no stop

please

stop

                      < counter-attack >

you bitch

you cunt

of course you call yourself a feminist

you friend-zoned me

misogyny isn’t systemic

the acts of individual men

just a lone shooter

not my problem

but i’m a nice guy

 there is no war on women

——

if there is no war on women

tell me

why are so many of us forced

to carry openly

——

and why are our troops falling so often

in direct mass attacks10290701_10152027538556829_7141210446534251931_n

Skewing the Data: Mixed-Race Identity & The Problem of Counting for Race

CWILAA few weeks ago, I attended a panel hosted by the Institute for Gender, Race, and Sexuality at the University of British Columbia, entitled “CWILA and the Problem of Counting for Race.” CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) is a non-profit organization, founded in 2012, as a “discursive space to address gender disparities in Canadian literary culture, as well as the wider politics of representation, the critical reception of women’s writing in the literary press, and the ways in which we can foster stronger critical communities.” Through their first two annual counts, CWILA demonstrated that there is a significant imbalance when it comes to gender representation in Canadian literary culture. Considering the myriad ways in which these imbalances continue to circulate, (as evidenced by statements from the likes of David Gilmour, whom I have written about here) the collection of data seems to serve a useful purpose in providing some numerical and concrete grounding to what often feels like an abstract and unquantifiable problem. Data can help to back an argument, to lend “credibility,” when people would otherwise dismiss lived experiences or personal narratives as “mere anecdotes.” 

Of course, a lack of equitable gender representation in literary culture is but one facet of the problem of visibility, of the need for a dynamic articulation of the whole spectrum of lived experiences, especially by those who have histories of being silenced by systemic oppression. As CWILA continues its work, the various identity formations that intersect with gender—the intersectionality that occurs when we think through gender in relation to sexuality, race, class, and disability, among others—emerge as new spaces for discussions around how to collect data in order to demonstrate inequality in cultural production. 

Data is important. As panelist and author Madeleine Thien noted in her eloquent list of thoughts on the question of numbers, “numbers are interesting because they give us another perspective and another way of observing.” Of course, while Thien is clear that “we are not numbers,” she elaborates that “we are using numbers to understand a system that we have created. The numbers help us see the ways in which our system is a meritocracy, a celebration of great literature, and the ways in which it is not.” This could be said, too, of any way of counting for inequality and problems of representation, whether it be in the field of cultural production, political life, or the spheres of violence which often disproportionately affect marginalized populations.

Of course, the methodology of counting is not entirely un-problematic, for race as it is for any of these categories. As UBC English professor Dr. Laura Moss mentions, “To measure gender, CWILA instructed volunteers to look for pronouns in publishers’ material or self-identifying material: he/she/they, etc. To measure Canadian and non-Canadian, we looked at mentions of somewhere in Canada as a place of birth, residence, or work: Canadian by birth or by choice. To measure race and ethnicity there are no indicators like pronoun or markers of residency that will indicate race or heritage.” So, too, it must be acknowledged that counting on the basis of categories rarely, if ever, allows for fluidity of identity, for shifts, for identification somewhere on a spectrum. It’s hard to get a handle on your data-sets if they’re constantly shifting beneath you. Sometimes, in order to collect a snapshot of a given situation, we must invoke parameters of rigidity, even if they are not perfect. As writer and UBC English professor Dr. Larissa Lai stated in an interview with CWILA founder Gillian Jerome, “Well, I think the methodology of counting is fraught. And then the methodology of racial categorization is fraught. As is the methodology of gender categorization. So you’re already in the swamp!”

And so, as I reflect on this panel, I think about my own swampy self.

I am aware that when I write and speak (as a scholar, as a teacher, as an activist, and as a creative writer and blogger) that my racial identification is always lurking in the background, even when I do not directly address it. And so I wonder: simply based on my name, and on my appearance, how might I be counted in a study of literary or scholarly representation? How might I be filed away and categorized? How might I count or categorize myself?

I am deeply aware that I am, in so many ways, a question mark. A fully Italian name, with seemingly-matching olive skin. My mother tongue is German. My mother is white and my father is black. When my parents separated, my sister and I were raised by our mother in a primarily-white suburb of Vancouver. And, in many moments in my life, I have had the privilege of passing. While my sister and I share the same parentage, the rolling of the genetic dice meant that while I was born with lighter skin and straight hair, my sister was born with darker skin and curly hair. Even now, when my sister and I are out together, it is she who is more readily-racialized than I am. It is because of this complexity that the question of race, and accounting for my own racialization, has always been fraught. I am genetically, biologically, half-Black, and yet I have had virtually no connection to “Black” culture for most of my life. What is “Black” culture, anyway? I did not inherit the stories of my father’s family, the stories of growing up in Barbados, growing up Black on an island with a history of British colonization and the Atlantic slave trade. And yet, that history is still mine, somehow. It’s in my skin. Do I count in percentages? Half-half? 70%-30%? 

Sometimes, I wonder if this is how people see me. Half and half.

My attempts to reconcile my complex racial and cultural identity, however, are always affected by the ways in which others choose to define me, and by the ways in which they choose to interpret the data that I offer them. The forms of data-collection about my racial identity have all been different. The ways in which they breach the boundaries of my skin, interrogating my blood, all have different nuances and different textures.

Some are curious: “Where are you from?”

Some are probing: “Where are you really from?”

Some are presumptuous: “But aren’t you actually Italian/Spanish/Middle Eastern/Greek/Portuguese/something else?”

Some are institutional: “Please identify your racial background.”

Some are cold, callous: “What are you?”

The issue, of course, is not only the questions themselves, which can range from innocuous attempts at mutual racial or ethnic identification, to genuine curiosity, to the fetishizing eye of the guy on the street who tells me that I can’t possibly be half-white “with that ass.” The problem, all too often, is that the data which I offer is scrutinized, questioned, discounted, or trivialized. I am counted, only to be discounted.

Example One:

2003. I am sixteen years old, sitting at the year-end highschool awards ceremony, when an acquaintance casually asks me if my parents are in attendance. I glance up at the bleachers, quickly identifying my mother and proudly pointing her out.

“The woman in the red sweater?” My mother, in a blue cardigan, is seated beside a work-colleague, a black woman wearing a bright poppy sweater.

“No,” I say, with annoyance in my voice, “the woman in the blue cardigan.”

My schoolmate looks puzzled. She looks at my white mother, then back at not-white me. She frowns slightly.

“Ohhhhhhh! So are you adopted?” she exclaims.

Before I have a chance to respond, the school band chimes in with their hearty rendition of “O Canada,” and I shrink back into my seat for the rest of the night. As I cross the stage to receive my award for Student of the Year, I think: “Why can’t white mothers have brown daughters?”

I’m aware, of course, that everyone has a different relationship to these questions. Even I have different relationships to them, depending on which mood I’m in. It’s not that I don’t embrace my mixed identity, or that I am attempting to conceal it from others. In fact, sometimes I am quite happy to talk about it. What I wish to convey, however, is that self-identification is still always partially dependent on how others see my self, not merely that identity or lineage which I claim as my own. 

Quite coincidentally, as I was writing this article, I had another opportunity to see this problem of counting for race, and the politics of self-representation in action, when I filled out a survey organized by my university’s student society. The survey was broad, typical, a sort of attempt to grasp a sense of students’ experiences on campus, in terms of academics, resources, funding, discrimination, and so on.

Gender:Sexuality QsWhen it came to the identificatory questions of gender, sexuality, and disability, there were options to identify as “unsure,” to “prefer not to disclose” (re: disability), or to “prefer not to answer” (re: sexuality/gender). [Of course, the parameters of the survey require that these options be actively chosen, that one must choose non-choice or non-disclosure, rather than simply being able to leave all options blank.]

Yet, when it came to the question of race, there was no such option available. While I could choose more than one category, for instance, both “White” and “Black,” there was no way for me to express that my biology is never read as such, and thus has little impact on how I actually experience race as an embodied being. And heaven forbid I should choose the category of “Other – Please Specify” a category that I have stared down far too many times on census forms and applications, a category that reminds me that I am a question mark, I am neither/nor, I am both/and, I am in-between, I am invisibly-visible, I am different things to whoever is reading me, I am exotic cheekbones and a year-round tan and I must-be-adopted and I am only ever-always-Other. Please specify.

Not answering is almost never a choice, neither in the survey nor in my day-to-day experience.

noanswer

I don’t have a choice.

I do deflect answering for a while, sometimes, if I’m feeling unduly pressured or uncomfortable. I try to ask why they’re interested. I do try. But I am so often worn down, tired of prying eyes and mouths, and so I give them what they want, I give them their data. 

Example Two:

2013. I post a link to an article about mixed-race identity on Facebook, with a preamble of sorts about how it much it resonates with me.

An acquaintance, who clearly hasn’t read the article (which is funny, because it is exactly all the issues involved in questioning someone about race), comments, publicly: “what r u mixed with hun?”

I don’t bother to dignify that with a public answer. 

Later that day, I get a private message. No offense meant by the question, it’s just a QUESTION, you see, it’s just because she thinks I look exotic and beautiful and she’s just so CURIOUS. But, so, what am I actually, though.

It’s late, and I’m tired of this. I reluctantly type: “My mother is white, and my father is black.”

A bubbly response, emoticons galore: “Oh! I totally knew it! I’m like a pro at guessing race, LOL!”

I close the conversation on Facebook. I walk away. I feel defeated. I feel as though my data, my cells, my blood, my skin have been stolen, perverted, manipulated, sold for exchange on the market of exotic Otherness that is traded like trinkets. I am merely a token, a prize in a game of “What Kind of Not-White Are You?” and I have participated, albeit under coercion, in my own objectification.

But I am a human being, not a game.

It is perhaps, no surprise, then, that when I am asked to identify myself, even for the purposes of having my voice heard, or my lived experienced counted, for recognition that yes, I am a writer and scholar and thinker of colour, I sometimes cringe. This is it, this is the swamp of racial identification, the part of the double-edged sword that turns against so many of us. Yes, I am no longer a question mark when I offer up data, but I am still always Othered. I don’t know quite how to reconcile that. I have far more questions than answers, more lingering doubts and uncertainties than feelings of security.

Laura Moss mentions, that as data-collectors, non-profit organizations such as CWILA “need to be completely aware of the multiplicity of identity and not shut doors by collecting data.” In a strange, way, too, I am aware that I, as a mixed-race person who lives in a space of ambiguity, I often shut these data-doors myself. Sometimes, because I have no choice, sometimes, because I am not sure on which side of the door I stand, and at times, because I cannot bear to leave that door open, because I am uncertain as to what or whom I will find at the threshold. 

I have no idea of knowing just how many data-sets I have skewed in my moments of uncertainty, of shame, of confusion, or of sheer exhaustion with the question of race. Some days, especially when I am hiding behind a computer screen, or it seems irrelevant to the questions being posed, it’s easier to pass, to click “Caucasian/White.” It’s not entirely untrue, anyway. When I am presented with “African-American” as the only near-option for racialization, I cannot in good faith select a very specific history of Blackness that is not, in fact, my own. Some days, I’m not at all sure how to answer, given the blurry boundaries of race and culture in my life. Some days, when I am given the choice, I select both “Black” and “White.” Some days, I’d really like to write “biracial but still-ambiguously-racialized sparkle pony” or put “who the heck is asking, anyway, and why?” in the blank space of “Other.” Many days, I would simply rather not answer the question at all.

In Diamond Grill, a beautiful and often-murky biotext about mixed-race identity in Canada, Fred Wah writes: “I’ve assumed a dull and ambiguous edge of difference in myself; the hyphen always seems to demand negotiation” (171). Despite my own often-ambiguous and troubled relationship to these questions, or to the process of collecting data, I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race, not when the stakes are so high, not when the representations of people of colour—especially representations which do not rest on racial stereotypes, or representations which does not require them to speak only about racialized experiences (or for other similarly-racialized people)—are so sorely lacking. I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race when, as Roxane Gay revealed in her count of book reviews in the New York Times in 2011, “nearly 90% of the books reviewed are written by white writers.” And, moving beyond the literary and scholarly worlds, I cannot ignore the necessities of counting for race when incarceration rates for African-American men are six times the rates for whites (NAACP), and when, according to Canadian government statistics, Indigenous women are “five to seven times more likely to die from violence than other women.” (Amnesty). Counting is not the end-point, of course. It is only the beginning. 

Data is imperfect.

Questions are messy.

Identity is complex.

But it’s only by thinking through these issues, and asking questions (even if they have no answers, or many answers, or contradictory answers) that we negotiate the process not only of counting for race, but being accountable to ourselves and each other as we relate through and across the various identities, histories, and bodies we inhabit.

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*Thank you to CWILA and the GRSJ for hosting the panel which inspired this essay, and, in particular to Laura Moss, Madeleine Thien, and Mary Chapman for their thoughts, queries, questions, and observations on this “swampy” subject.

**A profound thank you is extended to my sister, Maria Lorenzi, for her thoughts and our conversations as I wrote this article. As a statistician who works with data on a daily basis, her perspectives have been invaluable to my own understanding of the possibilities and limits of data collection. Beyond that, she is the person with whom I have shared the most in this experience of mixed-race identity, and I am grateful for her love, her support, and the ways in which we guide each other through these murky, joyful, confusing spaces of the self.

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References and Resources

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Thien, Madeleine. “The Work That Remains Invisible.” The National Post26 November 2013.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. Edmonton: NeWest, 1996.