self-reflexivity

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.

“To Speak is Never Neutral”: A Photo & Audio Journal Entry

There’s a kind of nervousness, I think that goes along with speaking out about anything. Is this the right time? Am I saying the right things? And what will people think of me? What happens if they know my deepest secrets, and I can’t take them back? 

And I think that initially there’s a kind of pride that goes along with telling. With the sadness, there’s a bit of adrenaline, like you did this thing you thought you could never do. And you have your family and friends supporting you, and it’s really powerful.

But then, once the telling is over, when the news cameras or the reporters leave, or even when you’re just walking out of your therapist’s office and going home, or after you hang up the phone after talking to a friend, a strange sense of quiet comes over you. And you ask yourself: what the hell did I just do? 

Then all that confidence just kind of melts away, and it’s as if you know that you never, ever want to talk about it again, that price you pay for talking about it – the price of remembering it all, of feeling vulnerable and exposed, is just too much. So you go quiet again. 

But that doesn’t last very long, because you start to just feel so fucking angry, so incredibly consumed with rage, all stuff that you started to let out when you spoke for that first time is coming out, but now you’re alone and you’re expected to deal with this deluge of emotions yourself. It’s a total Pandora’s Box.

Once the anger passes you might feel sad. And that brave face you wore for the cameras is swollen from crying and you can barely breathe through the tears and you there’s sinking feeling that you almost wish that THIS is what they’d seen, because this is the real shit that you have to deal with, this is what happens in the middle of the night when people aren’t around to listen.

But you do what you can. Maybe you make art, or go for a run, maybe you play music, and you get lost for while in something else. Maybe you speak about something that’s completely unrelated – you express yourself in different ways.

There are, of course, moments of irritation. When you see comments on articles, or people seem dismissive, and you’re really fucking tired of speaking out because why is this still happening? Why do we still live in a world where violence continues to perpetrated? And sometimes people are just so ridiculous in their attempts to legitimize it,  and you’re just tired of rhetoric, and the dismissal, and the blatant disregard.

But, you know, you can have joy, too. And that joy can be a result of speaking out, or it might not be. You can be happy at the same time as you’re sad, you can have mixed feelings about it. There’s not one single way to feel about having spoken out. And those who wish to mandate your joy, or tell you that because you seem happy are therefore you must be totally over it, they need to just shut the fuck up.

I think ultimately after speaking out, there’s a need for momentum, after that initial moment of catching your breath. That if you can just keep creating, singing, dancing, running, being, going on with your life, that maybe speaking out wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe what happened doesn’t feel like it is going to consume every single moment forever.  And maybe, just maybe, you helped somebody. Even if (especially if) that person was yourself. 

On Being Alone: Rethinking The Single Life

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a man or a woman reaches a certain age, an age that one also generally associates with sexual attractiveness, fertility, the beginning of economic security and the decline of teenage angst, that he or she will seek a partner, indeed, fervently desire a partner, and do everything within his or her power to meet, marry, and mate. In my nod to Jane Austen, here, I am suggesting, as cheekily as I am earnestly, that the societal standards that are steadfastly ingrained in our psyches regarding relationships are still rather predictable, conservative, and normative. And, if I may be so bold to admit—being myself a young woman of a certain marriageable and fertile age—rather draining, dreary, and downright depressing.

As you, dear reader, can deduce, I am single. Solitary. Unbetrothed, unwed. As long as I have been “eligible” to date, I have generally been single. I have had relationships, sort-of-boyfriends even, although given a variety of factors, including but not limited to my own anxieties, my enjoyment of solitude, mismatches based on the naïveté of youth or differences in styles of communication and emotional needs or bad timing, rejection, or the sheer difficulty of sustaining a relationship over a long distance, I have been alone.

I have learned, over the years, that my description of my rather persistent singleness is not neutral. The reception and interpretation of my lack of a romantic partner has called up some of the most interesting, misguided, or presumptive statements and unsolicited analyses of my psyche and my behaviour. It has suggested to many that I may be too nervous to date, too preoccupied with my career, too picky about prospective partners, too conservative, too liable to pick “bad” matches, too this, too that. Funny how one’s personal life so quickly becomes open season fo armchair psychologists! And while these commentaries and assumptions can be only rather irritating at times, the banter of a nosy relative or well-meaning friend, I have recently noticed how awfully sinister, how awfully narrow-minded and rife with victim-blaming they can be.

  • How often they suggest that past relationships are failures, rather than experiences that can offer both parties the gift of insight, as if because something was time-limited or brief or is no more, that it was not fulfilling or wonderful or an occasion to learn.
  • How they imply that women and men who are single must be flawed, broken, undesirable, inflexible, psychologically damaged, unskilled at sex or love or communication, rather than, perhaps, individuals who may simply prefer solitude, prefer a different type of relationship arrangement, who may have done the emotional work that makes them less likely to enter hastily into (or stay in) abusive or unfulfilling relationships, who may have other types of partnerships and connections, or who may simply not have the desire to be in a romantic partnership (now or ever).
  • How they argue that there is one type of love and relation that is aspirational, against which all others pale. As if the love of our families, our friends, our colleagues, our communities, our lovers…were not enough. Eros trumps all, trumps philia, trumps storge, trumps agape.
  • How they infer that until we meet our (presumably monogamous) partner, and fall into some sort of nebulously and poorly defined thing called “love,” we singletons are mere shells of human beings, eternally waiting for our “other halves,” our “soul-mates,” or, at the very least, a person to co-habitate with, and at some point, possibly sign a legal contract that has nothing in actuality to do with love, despite social norms that try to convince us otherwise. As if we are less than whole people, always lacking.
  • How they advise that a single person must simply “love themselves enough” before they find a partner, as if self-love and worthiness were not things that people must and should do for themselves and for the many other relationships they have with their families, friends, and co-workers. As if self-love were not, above all, for one’s self. As if the very people who believe that they are worthy just as they are, who have developed communication skills, who can be vulnerable and sit with others’ vulnerability, are those who do love themselves enough. As if breaking up with someone cannot be an act of self-love, or, indeed an act of love towards others to avoid mutual disappointment or resentment.
  • How they discount the other accomplishments in our lives by assuming our happinesses or our successes are not enough if we do not also “find someone nice to settle down with.” As if the only occasions worthy of public and community celebrations are marriages (and having children).
  • How they presume that being in a relationship or being married automatically makes someone a more skilled communicator, empathic person, sexually open partner, considerate human being, or expert in love than any single person could ever hope to be.

I’m sure that I may be perceived as being too harsh here, or as making some rather broad and hyperbolic statements, or that I am assuming that these are simply things that the coupled say to the uncoupled. But these are also things that we single folks tell ourselves. They’re things that I’ve told myself, when relationships haven’t gone right, when I feel lonely, when I feel envious of those who have a partner, and when I get frustrated with the complexities and unpredictability of love and dating. And believe me, admitting to that is not easy. It is, however, useful and necessary.

The normalization of monogamy aside—and the aspersions it casts on the singletons—is that there is, of course, something more profoundly existential at play here, and that is that solitude and loneliness can call up some of our deepest fears and sorrows.

The fear of being rejected for our flaws.

The fear of not being able to handle the flaws of others.

The fear of not having our lovers’ snores or our bustling households to distract us from other sources of shame or feelings of unworthiness in our lives.

And that big fear: the aching, gnawing agony of our mortality. Death as the ultimate solitary event. Spinning silently through the vastness of space on this tilting rock, we cling to each other. The figure of a single person can remind us, painfully, of our need and desire to cling, to love, to make meaning in conjunction, even though we wax poetically about self-sufficiency, independence, and aloneness. If we are insecure or overdependent in our partnerships, the single person can terrify us, reminding us that we have not yet learned to tolerate being alone, to sit with the discomfort of being all by ourselves.

Singleness can also remind us also of how we exclude. How we don’t call up that friend, or that family member, or invite them over for dinner. How we can, so easily, take the companionship and presence of our partner for granted.

Singleness confronts us with how precarious and unpredictable relationality can be. That there’s not always “someone for everyone.” That even if you are emotionally healthy, even if you have a wonderful career, and a good sense of self, that you may end up without a romantic partner, or that the romantic partnership you envisioned in your late teens or early twenties—the fairytale romance—may not be exactly what you get. That your partner may suddenly become ill, or be unfaithful, or die long before you do: that you may once again be alone, and not through your own choosing.

Singleness reinforces the consequences of our choices and situations in life. That with togetherness, as with aloneness, comes compromise, different lacks of fulfillment, different ways of being, different sources of joy. And as they say, the grass is always greener on the other side.

As I enter my mid-twenties, I’ve decided to embrace paradox while I confront my own thoughts about singleness and about partnerships. While I have been told that I can be, at times, rather unromantic in my realism and cynicism about love, I have also been told that I am unrelentingly optimistic and hopeful. I can be wonderfully happy being single, and enjoy the freedoms that it affords me, but can also long for and dream of finding a partner who is my equal, my companion, and my fellow pilgrim on this strange and foreboding but curious and extraordinary road of life.

But most importantly—and I do hope this is the lesson that I can impart—I know, deep in my heart, that it is a truth universally acknowledged that we are all worthy of love, trust, companionship, acceptance, and kindness…whomever we receive it from.

“It’s About The Food,” Part One: Struggling with Negative Feelings about Food in the Face of Physical/Digestive Illness

Dear readers, welcome to a two-part series of articles about food. As many of my friends and family know, I am personally and professional interested a lot of topics that surround food, from my great love for the Food Network and my deep hatred of “fitspiration.” I thought that I’d take some time to articulate some thoughts about food that I’ve been mulling over recently. In this blog post, Part 1, I’ll be debunking one of the pervasive myths that “it’s not about the food,” namely that physical illnesses and aversions to food cannot lead to having distorted thoughts about eating or body image. Disclaimer: I am not a health professional, or a therapist. I am simply speaking from my own personal experience, and am not attempting to make broad claims about others’ experiences.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been struggling with a number of physical health issues, all of which center around my old nemesis: food. In addition to struggling with increased food sensitivities, which means that I can no longer process ANY alcohol, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, or artificial flavourings, I also struggle with reactive hypoglycemia, and a flare-up of the digestive issues that plagued my mid-teens after I was diagnosed with H. pylori.

In theory, this isn’t the worst situation in the world. I don’t drink anyway, so not being able to consume alcohol doesn’t change my life in any significant way, and since artificial substances aren’t necessarily wonderful for our bodies anyway, it’s very easy to give those things up. I haven’t had a Diet Coke for nearly 5 years, and don’t miss it at all. Dealing with reactive hypoglycemia, too, is also relatively simple: it can be controlled with a regular intake of small meals, with an emphasis on good proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates. Rehabilitating one’s digestive system is also not easy, but it IS manageable, especially with the right medications for temporary relief, and the right foods for long-term relief. These are common conditions, and certainly not acutely life-threatening ones. Some days are good ones, but the bad ones can certainly be awful ones. I’m hoping that within a few months, I’ll be feeling back to my old, irritatingly-chipper, active self.

In practice, however, having to once again be hyper-conscious about food (and knowing the severe discomfort and illness that can result when I am lax about it) is a painful reminder of the times in my life when food consumed my every waking moment: my years of anorexia. I’ve started to worry recently: would my increased attention to and scrutiny of food send me spiraling back into a relapse? Why was I starting to have negative body image again? Was I just imagining that food was starting to make me sick again, or was I dreaming it up as a way to lose a few pounds? Why, after coming to terms with the fact that I actually prefer my body as it is now (35 pounds heavier than when I was at my sickest) was I starting to worry about “feeling” fat?

But when I stopped to really reflect on my relationship to food, I realized that many of my thoughts now, and even parts of my prior eating disorder, were actually a reaction to physical illness. In complete opposition to everything that I had been told in my experiences of eating disorder treatment, some of it was and is about the food. It’s about the fact that when food feels unsafe to eat, it’s hard to trust our bodies to treat us well. It’s about the fact that when I am feeling physically well, when I’m having a good day, that my body-image is perfectly healthy. Anyone who’s even struggled with a case of food poisoning, the flu, or a hangover will know how intrinsically connected our physical well-being is connected to a healthy self-image and sense of our bodies: it’s completely logical. I began fearing food after developing severe stomach problems at the age of 15, and needing to control my food was a reaction to the fact that I felt that food was controlling (and hurting) me. It did eventually spiral into a whole host of other issues, including my strange preoccupation with modelling and fashion, but was most certainly triggered by, in my case, fearing food for quite rational reasons.

What I’m frustrated with now, as much as I was when I was in treatment, is dealing with the common presumption that aversions to or negative experiences of food are necessarily derived from a psychological problem, rather than the possibility of it being able to be the other way around. It’s the stigma I face when I say that I don’t drink, and I get accused of being morally opposed to alcohol or not wanting to “drink my calories,” or the pressure that I encounter when I am asked to “just try” something that I know will not sit well with my stomach. It’s the attitudes I get from doctors who assume, especially because I am a young woman, that I’m just concerned with how I look, not with how I feel. It’s the flush of embarrassment and the feeling of being forced to explain why I’m not ordering certain items at a restaurant, and the misconception that I must be constantly dieting or trying to lose weight. I’m tired of worrying that people will still think I’m screwed up about food because I want to look like a supermodel, or trying to make people understand that I’m feeling unattractive or uncomfortable with my body because of how it feels on the inside.

To be perfectly honest, I would find it easier to say that I wasn’t eating certain foods because I wanted to lose weight or because I thought they’d make me fat, rather than the truth, which is that I’d rather not be doubled up in pain in the bathroom or feeling unbearably nauseous. Many people do not want to hear about or talk about digestive issues, even though they are incredibly common, and even though colorectal cancer “is the second leading cause of death from cancer in men and women combined” (Colon Cancer Canada).

I think that societally and medically speaking, we have been making significant progress in realizing that we have to take a holistic approach to health. We are slowly dispensing with the old Cartesian approach that it’s “all in the mind,” and realizing that issues such as Celiac disease, lactose intolerance, diabetes, and hypersensitivities to food can not only cause physical discomfort, but can lead to depression, brain fog, fatigue, and a strained relationship with one’s body. We are starting to recognize that paying attention to physiological causes of distress, and not making the assumption of psychosomatic illness, can lead to earlier diagnoses of a number of debilitating conditions, including cancer. With regards to eating disorder treatment proper, we’re also starting to learn that alongside emotional and psychological skills, we can teach ways to have a healthy relationship with food, to appreciate the power of nutrition, and that we can’t recover from an eating disorder without coming to terms with what and why we eat.

I’ll be very, very clear: I do not believe that eating disorders or a disordered relationship to food are completely disconnected from psychological issues, such as responses to trauma, as a symptom of anxiety, depression, or stress, or as part of the increasing and pervasive sociocultural pressure to look healthy, fit, and thin. Nor am I suggesting that everyone who has digestive issues or physical illnesses will have screwed up relationships to food or body image. People can certainly experience both at the same time, or experience them as distinct processes. It’s all extremely individual.

In my case, there definitely was an overlap between food sensitivities and an unhealthy psychological relationship to food. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt that I deserved to be punished because I’d not done well on an assignment, and thus have deliberately eaten foods that made me feel desperately ill. Like many women, I struggled with – and continue to fight against – the media messages which equate the size of my waist with my worth as a person. It’s complex. The line between body and mind is a very blurry one. Are there people with eating disorders who also who use their physical illnesses or digestive issues as excuses to eliminate more foods than are necessary? Of course: I’ve been there, and done that, and am certainly not proud of once having exploited my physical illness to serve my desire to be thin. The knowledge that I’ve done that in my past shames me to this day, and this is one of the major reasons that I often force myself to push through discomfort and illness, because I never, ever want to be accused of using this as an excuse to get out of anything, especially eating.

What I am aiming for, by being open and honest about these issues, is a way for those who struggle with physical illness and strained feelings about food that they aren’t alone, that they’re not crazy, and that it’s not just all in their head. It’s also okay if they struggle with the psychological elements of body image and food issues, too. Many of us do. It’s also okay to have had/have an eating disorder and still struggle with food for other reasons.

Most importantly, what I want people to hear, especially who have been told that it’s all in their head and not in their bodies, or that it’s a remnant of their past/current history of eating disorders: I believe you, and I support you in your efforts to be heard as you keep advocating for your own treatment and health. You’re not alone.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two of “It’s About the Food,” in which I’ll take a look at how the pressures to eat healthily and exercise to achieve a certain body shape are perceived as mere matters of individual choice and willpower, rather than as part of a larger discussion of the economics and politics of food and fitness.

“then they came for me”: why my activism is not a choice.

It’s been years since I read this quotation by Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken critic of Hitler’s Nazi regime:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

I don’t think I ever fully appreciated what Niemöller meant: after all, I am neither a staunch Socialist, nor was I a union member until I started working, nor am I of Jewish descent. I used to think that there would be very many “and then they came for…because I was not” before I would be forced to speak out about anything. I see this happening with many of my friends, who refuse to speak out, or who think that their behaviors or attitudes don’t matter, because they believe that they and their friends aren’t affected by issues of homophobia, sexism, or racism. I used to think that way too. Until I started to realize that those who are out to injure, destroy, and shame….are a lot closer to coming for me than they are not.

I used to think that I could just wait. Wait for language to change, wait for slurs to be slowly phased out until they become antiquated. Wait for policies to be changed by those who are actually in power. Wait to have children, so that I could raise both my boys and my girls to be sensitive about gender/sexuality/race/class issues. Wait. Just wait.

I can’t do that. And I think that if most of us think long and hard about it, neither can any of us.

—————————-

First they told me they were glad I was not or did not look like a lesbian or a man,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I identify as cisgendered and heterosexual.

and then I realized that it is erroneous to equate appearance
with a particular kind of sexuality or gender
and that if i were gay, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from men who rage about the humiliation
of having accidentally hit on a woman they didn’t realize was a lesbian
and that if i were transgendered, i would face a lot of hatred
not least from those who would consider me “monstrous” or “unnatural”
    and so I have decided
    that I will never have my sexuality or gender
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made jokes about black people.
and at first I did not speak up–
because I am only a quarter black.

and then I realized that if this were the 1950s
that it would not matter how little black blood I had
that I would be told I was a second-class citizen
asked to use separate entrances
and drink from separate water fountains
and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they denied their white privilege.
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am only three-quarters white.

And then I realized that being able to “pass”
as ethnically ambiguous
as closer to white than some
has protected me from a lot of racial violence
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my racial identity
    come at the price of another’s.

First they made fun of uneducated workers,
and at first I did not speak up–
because I have a university education.

And then I realized that I have had the great fortune
of the access and means to paying for an education
not least in part because of the financial means
of the middle-class family I was born into
    and so I have decided
    that I will not have my intelligence or my knowledge
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said that prostitutes were asking to be raped,
and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not a sex worker.

and then I realized that the response and support I have received
when I finally reported and sought help for my own rape
were largely because both the law and society
still thinks you’re a more credible victim if you’re
virginal and non-sexualized
   and so I have decided
    that I will not have my justice
    come at the price of another’s.

First they said all of those things,
and they also said that accessibility was not a concern
that healthcare for refugees was not a priority
that access to nutritious, whole food was merely a triviality
that land claims and the historical legacy of racism not their guilt to bear
that financial support for seniors was adequate

and at first I did not speak out–
because I am not disabled
a refugee
or hungry
or Indigenous
or elderly

but in the end
because I AM a human being
I will not have
my liberty
my health
my freedom,
my identity
my sexuality
my gender
my sense of self
my humanity
    come at the price of another’s.

“Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”; Or, Teachable Moments in Blog Comments

I’m up very late, thanks in part to an ill-timed cup of coffee, which means that I had my email inbox open this evening when I received notification of a concise but nevertheless incredibly shame-inflected comment on my one of my blog pages, which, in its attempt to assert itself within a particular hierarchy of knowledge acquisition, grated on my nerves. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience a momentary reaction of an embarrassed cheek-flush, a symptom of my recognition that indeed, I had completely misused a theoretical concept without intending to. Mistakes happen, you see: even though I’ve been a graduate student for many years, I sometimes forget the very basics of my theoretical arsenal in my moments of haste, just as I can often forget rationales for grammatical logic, or the rules of verb conjugation. Shit happens, folks.

The joy of sitting with the discomfort of a mistake, and accepting its inherent humanity is what allows for that comment to be completely discharged of its intended affective power: shaming language, indeed, as all incidents of linguistic exchange, is as dependent of reception as it is on delivery. So, that being said, to my commenter: I’m sorry if you thought your signifiers had more affective power than they actually do.

While, as an adult, I may be able to understand such comments and language (i.e. “are you fucking kidding me?”) as particularly negatively inflected, it dawned on me that in my experience as a student, and in my current role as a teacher, that there are many individuals who do not know how to interpret these comments as anything but the  infliction of embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

As a student, I feel grateful that I have rarely been on the receiving end of these types of comments about my lack of knowledge: this may, in part, have something to do with my relative luck in being able to retain information well, but it also has a great deal to do with having had a majority of teachers who offered kind direction and re-orienting when I found myself adrift in a sea of misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

I have, however, witnessed and experienced first-hand, and have all-too-often heard second-hand through the tear-sniffled or enraged voices of my peers, some really horrendous tales of knowledge-related shame and abuse from teachers. It’s sad to say that this kind of behaviour hasn’t been limited to the grade school years, but seems to have intensified in the post-secondary sphere.

There’s a culture of intellectual elitism that is, I think, often mocked by those who are not in academia. It is almost laughably predictable how it operates: we do argue about theory, we do turn our noses up at those who misquote whichever theory or great critical oeuvre, and many of us do, if you’ll forgive my bluntness, talk shit about those who we claim are our respected peers or our treasured students. We do not often gently re-direct, offer helpful guidance or encourage careful re-reading. We (and I include myself in this we because I, too, am not impervious to this culture of intellectual shaming) give looks of disgust. We call undergraduate students out in the middle of large lectures or discussion groups for “clearly not having read the text” when they have already braved their own fear of failure to venture an answer. We tell graduate students that they obviously haven’t read Marx or Hegel or Spivak or Kant, as we rudely shove their papers back across our desks.

Many of these students leave, and sometimes, they never come back. They become an abrupt end to an otherwise-stellar attendance record, or, if they decide to stay, are transformed into a blank and mute face in the back of a room. They learn not to ask any more questions. They may drop a subject whose challenge they once loved, in favour of a field that offers less passion, but also reduces the possibility of having one’s self-esteem ripped to shreds. Most tragically, many of them learn to hate the process of learning.

Rather than condemn teachers outright, and paint them all with the same brush of “the heartless, dismissive, intellectual abuser,” what I want to suggest is that perhaps the impetus towards frustrated, angry, and shaming comments to students (whether deliberate or not), is simply because we ourselves have forgotten what it felt like to learn. We have forgotten what it was like to feel uneasy in our grasp of a text.

After you have read Marx or Chaucer or Faulkner for 20 or 30 years, or, unless you are unlike me and have an amazing grasp of everything, immediately and forever, you will have achieved a level of mastery that offers you the gift of relative amnesia about your own learning process. This isn’t a bad thing: it’s usually what inspires the confidence to really own the classroom, to be assertive, to let your students know that you are a trustworthy source of information. And yet, if you are not careful, if you do not harness that gift, it may explode in utterances such as “are you fucking kidding me?” and “you’re a stupid idiot,” or in the presence of a derisive tone, a sneering glance, a cold shoulder.

This doesn’t mean that we ought to sacrifice correcting our students for fear of treading on their tender little hearts. In a discipline such as English, which is often widely regarded by some as being “too open-ended,” it is important to acknowledge that while there may be room for interpretation in a poem, you can’t change the meaning of “post-structuralism” to really mean “structuralism.” Students absolutely do have a responsibility in their own learning process, and due effort is required and expected. It should also be noted that students will often react personally and quite emotionally to most criticism or correction: after all, most of us have a hard time disengaging our work from ourselves. If we didn’t, we’d never bother to spend time studying anything at all. My point, however, is that teachers, in their discipline and their criticism, have a choice whether or not to be firm, clear, and assertive, or total fucking assholes.

As I begin my new term of teaching a group of students who have probably not read or studied anything related to multicultural and Indigenous Canadian literature, this is a particularly valuable reminder to have had, a seemingly well-timed pedagogical refresher from the blogosphere (if not the universe).

While it is a fine balance to strike, I constantly strive to create a environment in which errors (my own and those of others) are not sites for the assertion of our own egos at the expense of others’, but in which teaching is truly both a practice that values its form, tone, and intent as much as it does its content.

And I’m not fucking kidding about that.

auld lang syne.

This is what we believed when we were young: we reveled in the idealism of a fresh slate when at midnight, our cheeks rosy with the flush of too much wine, all was forgiven, and all could begin anew. Our hair tousled and our makeup smeared, runs in our stockings and our ties loosened, we sprawled ourselves in the damp grass of a nearby park, hardly noticing our chilled and shivering skin as we gazed up into the infinite stars.

And how quickly it all fell apart.

How quickly we returned to the glossy idolatry of less weight and more money. How eager we were to believe that we were unworthy of love, that the only fulfillments were the grasping hands of lust and the glittering bands of matrimony and down-payments for real estate. How easily we whispered divinity out of ourselves, how suddenly we preoccupied ourselves with our own turmoil, our mortality, our insufficiencies, our faces in the mirror.

And then, as age and time seeped into our skins, as we greeted the first of the year with bleary eyes and the not-too-distant hums of unpaid bills, leaky faucets, unsatisfying sex lives, the ghosts of loved ones and the ache of this mortal coil, the last drops of the awe and wonder of this last day of the year finally faded into the peeling wallpaper in our parents’ basements.

Hoping to outrun grief and sorrow, knowing its inevitability, we sat with it year-round, swaddling ourselves with its weight. We stared open-mouthed at the wide expanses of absence and loss, not noticing the quivering life that pooled in our hollowed hearts. Resolutions were made. And even as we flung ourselves forth into our good intentions, we knew, quietly, that we would continue to cling to all that pained us. We lovingly crafted self-fulfilling prophecies of unworthiness and emptiness, and found a perverse delight in the predictability and safety of our cocooned lives.

Silently, it made itself known.

The universe cracked open our wounds from within, bursting our fragile flesh at its seams, and we knew God. We knew God as the laughter of children, as the remembrance of those we have lost, as the breath in our lungs, as the kindness of strangers. We knew our own sacredness even as it spilled down our faces in floods of tears.

We recognized that time is both finite and endless, and that the connections that have been lost by circumstance or severed by death are never lost in the depths of our loving memories.

We realized that our bodies held more wisdom and pleasure than we had ever imagined, and we vowed to praise each scar and wrinkle for the beauty of its story.
We embraced compassion as the guiding principle of our lives, no longer determining our relationships to others by a series of projected emotional, sexual, or material returns and gains.

We rejected materialism as a practice, liberating objects instead to function as themselves, instead of surrogates for our insecurities and misplaced desires.

We resolved to free ourselves from the cult of individualism, having known the power of voices raised in protest, in song, and in the chorus of laughter.

Years later, we found ourselves sprawled on the dewy grass at midnight once more, our joints creaking with the heaviness of age, our children’s heads nestled on our soft stomachs, our friends’ or lovers’ or parents’ hands entwined with our own. 

Watching our breath disappear into the night air, the rise and fall of our chests the only certainty we had in that moment, it was enough. It was always enough.