socio-cultural issues

Roll Call: On Violence and the Power of Naming

The teacher’s struggle:

at the start of each term

after I scan the class list

I fumble for weeks

mastering the correct pronunciations

and linking faces to their names.

Carefully crafting an archive,

always mindful of how often names are carelessly mangled

in the mouths and minds of those

who do not bother to ask how to say them

or to make an effort to remember.

It’s never just a name, you know.

It’s who you are.

It’s who you were.

It’s the one you chose,

or the one you were given.

It’s the one that marked a rite of spiritual passage,

or the one taken up when the Anglos couldn’t bother

to pronounce anything other than

John Smith.

It’s the one that your ancestors had,

the one passed on to you.

It’s what makes you stop—

and turn around.

and makes you smile

when it is spoken with love.

To deliberately forget a name,

to be unwilling to know it—

it and the life those syllables represent—

or to put it under a publication ban

when we all know full well

exactly who we are talking about

to act as if that is an act of protection

that’s violence.

It’s hard, I get it.

We’re all terrible with names, we say.

But even those of us who have to rummage

through the alphabet to recall

the name of an acquaintance,

we know what it is to scream that name in our hazy nightmares

to whisper it

to call it into a room, forgetting that there will be

no

answer.

I want you to say it.

Say her name.

Say their names, all of them.

Say Rehtaeh Parsons.

Say Loretta Saunders.

Say Rinelle Harper.

Say Tina Fontaine.

Say Amanda Todd.

Say Reena Virk.

Say Helen Betty Osborne.

Say Serena Abotsway.

Say Mona Lee Wilson.

Say Andrea Joesbury

Say Brenda Ann Wolfe.

Say Marnie Lee Frey.

Say Georgina Faith Papin.

Say Jacqueline Michelle McDonell.

Say Dianne Rosemary Rock.

Say Heather Kathleen Bottomley.

Say Jennifer Lynn Furminger.

Say Helen Mae Hallmark.

Say Patricia Rose Johnson.

Say Heather Chinnook.

Say Tanya Holyk.

Say Sherry Irving.

Say Inga Monique Hall.

Say Tiffany Drew.

Say Sarah de Vries.

Say Cynthia Feliks.

Say Angela Rebecca Jardine.

Say Diana Melnick.

Say Jane Doe.

Say Debra Lynne Jones.

Say Wendy Crawford.

Say Kerry Koski.

Say Andrea Fay Borhaven.

Say Cara Louise Ellis.

Say Mary Ann Clark.

Say Yvonne Marie Boen.

Say Dawn Teresa Crey.

Say Geneviève Bergeron.

Say Hélène Colgan.

Say Nathalie Croteau.

Say Barbara Daigneault.

Say Anne-Marie Edward.

Say Maud Haviernick.

Say Maryse Laganière.

Say Maryse Leclair.

Say Anne-Marie Lemay.

Say Sonia Pelletier.

Say Michèle Richard.

Say Annie St-Arneault.

Say Annie Turcotte.

Say Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Say Kristen French.

Say Leslie Mahaffy.

Say Tammy Homolka.

Say Breann Voth.

Say Marie-France Comeau.

Say Jessica Lloyd.

Say all the names I do not know

the ones we’ll never know, too,

and the ones not listed.

Say the names of our dead,

and those still alive.

Say the names you’ve never said before,

and the ones you’ve said a hundred times.

Scream them to those who refuse to listen;

whisper them in quiet acts of prayer.

Wave them like flags;

trumpet them as a call to arms.

Say them precisely because they, the ones who need to be called to account

know that to name is to refuse let to anyone get away with

the violence of forgetting.

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Lost in Translation: What the Vancouver Transit Police Advertisement Teaches Us About Language Use

grammar_policeWhen I recently told an acquaintance that I study and teach in a Department of English Language & Literature, they commented that I must be a real stickler for grammar and vocabulary. In some ways, that’s true. Part of my job is to teach my students to write well and to communicate their ideas effectively. The truth is, however, that I’m much less interested in perfect grammar and spelling than I am in whether or not an idea or argument is conveyed as unambiguously and clearly as possible (especially in academic writing!). After all, even in my own academic and personal writing, I often flout the usual rules or expected usages of grammar. I often start sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” I don’t always use semi-colons or dashes properly (although I do try). Ultimately, however, the goal of my writing – and the ways in which I teach my students to write – is to make sure that as much as you can, you try to make sure that your audience knows exactly what you mean to say.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication does indeed have to do with grammar, as this wonderful and popular example illustrates.

A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication has to do with sentence structure and phrasing. It’s this type of issue, I believe, that lies behind the issues with a recent campaign by Vancouver’s Transit Police, as part of their ongoing series of campaigns and services designed to address harassment on public transportation. As you can see in this photograph, the poster suggests that “not reporting sexual assault is the real shame” – a phrase which seems to suggest that a failure to report assault is a primary source of shame.

Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.

Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.

Vancouver-based artist Anoushka Ratnarajah brought attention to the problems with the poster’s message via an Instagram post, and the story was soon picked up by Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and various other news outlets. The Vancouver chapter of Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, issued a powerful statement to the Vancouver Transit Police. Playing on the phrasing of the poster itself, Hollaback! Vancouver’s response was that “we see something, and we’re saying something.” In the end, the Vancouver Transit Police issued an apology: as the CBC reports, they will be taking these posters down, and replacing them.

As was to be expected, perhaps, many of the commenters on social media have painted this pushback against the poster as just another example of “oversensitive feminazi crusading,” arguing that we live in a oversensitive and critical culture where even good-hearted gestures by authorities are being overly-harshly criticized. Just like the recent debates about whether or not so-called “trigger warnings” are useful or necessary, especially in a world where triggers and violence abounds anyway, it seems to be the case that those who have complained or criticized (many of whom are survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including incidents which have taken place on transit) are being characterized as merely reactionary, ungrateful, or sensitive.

To be clear, many of these commenters are missing the point, or choosing to ignore the ways in which activists have suggested that it is not the entirety of the poster, nor all of the Vancouver Transit Police’s initiatives that they take issue with. As Hollaback! Vancouver clearly states: “This is the text from a See Something Say Something Campaign, the real-time, easy-to-use, confidential, texting initiative launched in April by the Vancouver transit police. Transit users can report harassment by texting 87-77-77 and police are notified and can investigate as early as the next stop. This initiative is an important piece in supporting victims, but we hope transit police will reconsider the victim-blaming message sandwiched in their ad.”

More importantly, I think that many people are missing the fundamental problem: despite the VTP’s intentions, the ad is clearly not…well, clear. A very brief close reading – the kind I’d have my students do in my classroom – shows just how these ambiguities work, and how/why the critiques of this poster were justified.

1) Who is the audience?

The advertisement seems to be targeting both victims and bystanders, and does not necessarily make it easy to understand who is being addressed. While “if it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong” can apply equally to victims and bystanders, the third line seems to focus primarily on the victim: “nobody should touch, gesture, or say anything to YOU.” The last line, the “see something / say something” slogan, seems to suggest that the bystander (the person who may be witnessing an assault or instance of harassment) is being addressed.

2) What is the source of shame? Who is it placed on?

Because there are two different audiences being addressed, it becomes confusing as to who, exactly, the shame is meant to be placed on.

  • Is it meant to be the bystander, who sits/stands by and does nothing?
  • Does this assume that the bystander CAN or should intervene physically? Or is the shame, as phrased, in not reporting after the assault?
  • Are bystanders meant to feel shame for not reporting an assault on a passenger?
  • Is shame actually a productive way of forming a community of care?
  • Or, as many others, including myself, have pointed out, is it intended to reach the victim? Should victims feel shame for not reporting their assaults, and, presumably, not “helping to prevent” future assaults?
  • Again: is shame a productive or useful way to get victims to report or seek help?

I hope it’s evident, at this point, that you can unpack a lot of issues with audience and intended meaning just from one short phrase. That, after all, is the power of language: a lot can be said with very few words. The next step, however, is to figure out how this poster can avoid some of these communicative problems.

3) A simple question: how can we modify or re-write this phrase in order to have a less ambiguous and potentially harmful meaning?

A simple suggestion: “There is no shame in reporting sexual assault.”

As you can see, we haven’t taken shame out of the linguistic equation. We’ve simply rearranged it. After all, the problem isn’t using the word “shame”. Rather, it’s how, when, why, and where we use it. Articulating the fact that victims of sexual assault or harassment often feel shame is incredibly important to acknowledge. When it comes to street harassment, or incidents that are often perceived as “minor,” it’s easy for victims to feel ashamed, to worry that they won’t be taken seriously, to wonder if they provoked it. Shame and sexual violence too-often go hand in hand. As you can see, if you read through many of the stories collected by the Vancouver initiative “Harassment on Translink,” feelings of shame and guilt still abound.

It’s our job (all of us, including the authorities) to make an effort to make sure that we are recognizing the possible experience of shame, rather than suggesting (even inadvertently), that sexual assault survivors should feel a sense of shame for their inaction. We all want sexual assault and harassment to end, and we acknowledge that reporting can be, and clearly is, a part of that effort.

But I cannot say it enough: reporting sexual assault is NOT a victim’s DUTY. It is one option, and it is the absolute right of the survivor to choose whichever option is safest and best for them. It is all too easy for those who have never had to report, or for whom reporting may have been relatively easy and/or offered justice/healing, that it is a simple and necessary task.

Ultimately, what I take away from this incident is a difficult truth: despite the fact that we use it every single day—no matter which language we speak, read, or sign— language is a very tricky business. Whether it be from one language to another, whether it be from one context to another, whether it be from the way we understand something to the ways that others read, hear, or interpret it, we have all been in situations where our words have missed their mark. We all know what it’s like for something to get lost in translation. Sometimes, of course, we don’t realize it until someone’s pointed it out to us.

When we call others out for their use of language (whether their words are explicitly or implicitly harmful), many of us do it because we believe that change can happen. We believe that we can help to educate, to re-frame, or to re-think through a particular problem in how ideas are expressed. As the CBC’s interview with Constable Anne Drennan notes, this is precisely the outcome of the critiques and feedback that individuals and organizations offered:

“When the complaints began to arrive, they started looking at the ads from a different perspective, Drennan says.

“We [could] see where they are coming from,” she says.

The ads will be taken down over the coming days as cars return to service yards, Drennan says, and will be replaced by new posters with wording approved by an advisory council that includes representatives from women’s support groups. (CBC)

The old adage that “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us” is, as most of us know, patently untrue. We know the degree of injury can vary, depending on the language used, and depending on the individual who reads or sees the language in question. We know that our “intended” meanings may not necessarily be the received meanings, and it’s important to recognize that good intentions do not devalue or cancel out the harm that can be done. However, I firmly believe that with a greater understanding of the immense power of language (as well as the ability to speak and write about, well, how we speak and write!) we can use our words for great acts of compassion, education, and justice. sticksandstones

 

RESOURCES:

If you have a story to share about harassment/need resources:

Vancouver: Hollaback! Vancouver & Harassment on Translink

Vancouver Transit Police – check out their OnDuty App & find out about reporting via text message

Hollaback! International

Everyday Sexism

Stop Street Harassment

Your Words are Not Victimless: Rape Culture and David Choe’s “Bad Storytelling”

Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic discussions of sexual assault.

BooksIn my line of work, I read about a lot of horrible things, some of which actually happened.

As a doctoral student in English literature, whose research focuses on representations of sexualized violence, I study both fictional (novels, plays) and non-fictional (memoirs, auto-biographies) accounts of these crimes. Ultimately, my goal is to understand how writers and readers, and how survivors and witnesses, all make sense of the experience of sexual violation. At best, my job allows me to see the ways in which language, even language that is disturbing, raw, and graphic, allows the reality of sexualized violence to be made visible, to break free from the shackles of silence and stigma. At worst, my job forces me to think about the stories and the languages of sexualized violence that are used as weapons, that are turned back against survivors. Whether they come in the form of humour, in the form of gleeful boasting, or in the form of callous indifference, these stories always manage to hurt. 

One such story, one such incidence of the absolute violence of words, is one that was recently told by graffiti artist David Choe, on a podcast that aired in March of 2014.

I will be brief, and, I hope, not too graphic in my recapitulation of what Choe said. Over the course nearly half an hour, Choe recalled having repeatedly forced a massage therapist to perform sexual acts on him. Along with denigrating and fetishizing this woman, whom he calls “Rose,” on the basis of her racial background and her profession, Choe expressed both nonchalance and absolute merriment at having carried out these assaults. His co-hosts, who, while they called Choe’s behaviour out for being the actions of a rapist, nevertheless engaged in banter and joking about it. Choe showed absolutely no remorse, and seemed to take only mild offense at being termed a sexual predator. According to Choe, what he did was “rapey,” but he is not a rapist.

As if this apparent admission of rape were not horrifying enough, Choe took a somewhat predictable, if no less disturbing tactic in response to his critics.

According to Choe, none of this actually happened.

Choe, the one-time protagonist in his seemingly heroic tale of raping a woman, claimed that it was simply “bad storytelling,” and an extension of his art practice. More specifically, Choe wrote, in a response on his podcast’s website: “I never thought I’d wake up one late afternoon and hear myself called a rapist. It sucks. Especially because I am not one. I am not a rapist. I hate rapists, I think rapists should be raped and murdered.”

Now, can’t say that I’m surprised. Choe’s further defense of rape as a mere subject for his dark humour,is one that has been trotted out by comedians such as Daniel Tosh, in a now-famous controversy. [For an excellent discussion of ways in which Tosh’s joke in no way performs the often-recuperative function of humour, see Elissa Bassist’s article from The Daily Beast here.]

To be very clear: I am not suggesting that violence and humour are utterly incompatible, nor am I suggesting that violence and art are utterly incompatible. Obviously. I study violence that is featured in works of art every single day. I have often used humour in order to deal with my own trauma. There are some jokes about rape culture that are so spot-on and scathing in their critiques of  the problems in society. What I am suggesting, however, is that if one’s humour or one’s art are virtually indistinguishable from actual practices of violence and exploitation, especially when one is placing oneself in the position of the perpetrator, there’s a big problem.

The thing it, it’s all too easy to just shrug off these problematic positions with any number of excuses, which is precisely what Choe does.

It’s JUST art.

It’s JUST a story.

It’s JUST harmless fun.

I’m JUST kidding.

All of these “justs,” all of these excuses that people make, whether it’s for assault or rape or harassment or whatever, these are precisely the hallmark of rape culture. They’re used by bystanders who wish to shame, blame, or silence victims, and they’re used by perpetrators themselves. Here’s the thing: David Choe didn’t merely engage in a brief, off-hand joke, that could be possibly construed as thoughtless. This was nearly a half-hour of consistent, un-ending descriptions of sexual assault, that placed him at the centre of it all. That’s a lot of effort to put into “just” a story.

from RAINN.org

from RAINN.org

Men’s Rights Activists, who trumpet endlessly about the numerous false allegations made by rape victims against innocent men every year, point to the ways in which “it was just a story” or “I made it up” gets in the way of the pursuit of justice. Now, it’s important to remember that victims sometimes recant their testimonies precisely because they are terrified of any number of consequences: of not being believed; of retaliation on the part of the perpetrator; under pressure from families, communities, or institutions. Not all claims of “it was just a story” are made equal. So, too, does a lack of a conviction not mean that an assault did not happen: a case may not be brought to trial, or a defendant may be acquitted because of a sufficient lack of evidence. Assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, but this is NOT because assaults are not, in fact, occurring.

The fact that actual false assault allegations constitute a small percentage of reports aside, why would anyone in their right mind want to further muddy the waters of justice by pretending to have committed a rape when they hadn’t? Why would you want to place any doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not you condone rape, find it funny, or heaven forbid, may have actually committed a rape yourself? 

I think one of the things that bothers me most deeply about this incident is that as a researcher, I think it is vitally important to hear perpetrator narratives. If we want to understand how and why perpetrators rationalize their actions, or groom their victims, if we want to see them not as outliers, not as monsters in the night, but as human beings who do horrendous things, these are stories we need to listen to, as fundamentally disturbing and horrifying as they are. I have listened to perpetrators speak in some fairly eye-opening documentaries, and while it is confronting, it is a source of valuable information.

Whether or not “Rose” exists, and whether or not David Choe committed a rape is still unclear. I have my own hunches and beliefs about this, and I am suspicious of his feigned innocence. Regardless, this story has given us at least two pieces of valuable information: 1) that rape culture and rape as a source of humour (in which victims are the target) is still well and alive; 2) that even if this story was a mere piece of fiction, a mere fantasy, a mere figment of the imagination, that there will always be doubt in many people’s minds as to whether or not Choe committed a crime, and he alone is to blame for that. I have no pity for Choe, and no sense of sympathy for his pleas of understanding and to not be labeled as a potential rapist. He alone is responsible for the trust he has broken, for the survivors he has triggered, and for the contributions he has made to rape culture. And, if he has committed a crime, he alone is responsible for it: not the victim.

Many words and stories, like so many crimes, are not victimless. They hurt. They have a tangible impact on people’s lives. As Denise Riley so eloquently states in her book Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke UP, 2005), “in its violently emotional materiality, the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us—often long outstaying its welcome” (9).

Thanks to David Choe, every survivor out there has just received one more unwelcome blow, yet one more hurdle to face in their attempts to be heard and to seek justice.

“Bad storytelling,” like assault itself, can have a lasting, if not a lifelong, impact.

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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.

Running the Gauntlet: Thoughts on the Legacy of the Montréal Massacre

Marker of Change Women's Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Marker of Change Women’s Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Today, Canadians mark the 24th anniversary of the day that a gunman walked into the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montréal and carried out a brutal massacre that left 14 women dead, and another 10 injured. Like the numerous school shootings that have followed in the intervening years, both in Canada and in the United States, the gunman’s actions demonstrated a shocking level of violence and callous indifference to life, though what made the École Polytechnique massacre unique was the gunman’s explicit hatred of the gender of his victims. His suicide note, which was only released to the press months after the incident, clearly revealed the anti-feminist reasoning behind the attack: “Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons…but for political ones. […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” It was revealed, too, that the perpetrator had been previously rejected from the École Polytechnique, and especially resented women who occupied fields that had been traditionally dominated by men, such as the numerous young female engineering students who were the casualties of his assault.

The Montréal Massacre left an indelible mark on Canadian history, and sparked national conversations about gender violence. The national day of commemoration—known as the Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—recalls the tragic deaths of these 14 women in order to bring attention to a variety of forms of gender violence, from domestic violence to sexual assault, from workplace harassment to the murders of sex workers.

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As a scholar who studies sexualized and gendered violence, the École Polytechnique massacre has always held a particular professional interest for me. As a young female academic, however—now around the same age as many of the victims were at the time of their deaths—I find myself inevitably reflecting on the legacy of gender violence that still haunts post-secondary institutions in Canada, a legacy that directly impacts the lived experiences, as well as the professional pursuits, of both myself and my female colleagues. While this is a subject that should merit reflection at any given time in discussions of post-secondary education, literary production, or intellectual life, this particular historical and cultural moment has been saturated with incidents that have renewed and intensified the discussions around gendered oppression, unequal representation, sexism, and misogyny. This September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, undergraduate students at frosh week events participated in chants that made light of the rape of underage girls. Weeks later, Canadian writer and instructor David Gilmour stirred up controversy when he declared that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them, that if [students] want women writers, [they can] go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” And, perhaps that which is most unsettling and representative of the legacy of December 6th, over the past six months, a series of sexual assaults on female students at The University of British Columbia has served as a reminder that aside from the intellectual or social forms of oppression, there are ongoing violent physical assaults perpetrated against students on the basis of their gender.

december6_DSC_2918And so, on this day of remembrance and action, I sit with the following questions: what are the ways in which female students and scholars still face gendered violences or oppressions? In which spaces, and by which means are these violences enacted? How are women made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or devalued? 

I have had the strange feeling, at times, that because women are not currently being murdered on our campuses, and certainly not targeted in mass murders, that it is easy to believe that they are safe and welcomed into institutional spaces. It is easy to believe that if women comprise 50-60% of the post-secondary student population, if they are occupying spaces in classrooms, in offices, in workshops, at conferences, presidential positions, and on athletic teams, that they are not under siege. But perhaps the greatest disservice of the legacy of the December 6th massacre is precisely to ignore the myriad ways in which women’s safety or welcome in academia continues to be compromised, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Too often, I have spoken with students and colleagues who have a spectrum of stories to share, whether they are about being silenced in the classroom, being made to feel uncomfortable in social spaces, or being subjected to outright sexual harassment and belittlement. Whether it is a pregnant faculty member whose body has been appropriated for public commentary at a conference, where fellow scholars elide her intellectual contributions, a graduate student who is assaulted by her classmate, an instructor who is sexually harassed and objectified by her student, students who are subjected to hearing rape chants, or any number of female scholars who are called “passionate” instead of “compellingly argumentative”, who are patronized, patted on the head, and shrugged off. Queer women, trans* women, and racialized women face further marginalization and oppression within these spaces. The stories of violence, of dehumanization, of humiliation, of frustration, of belittlement are seemingly endless.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the most egregious acts of oppression occur within the institutional and social spaces we have often considered to be the most sacred, the least likely to be sites of violence. We cannot continue to be surprised that such incidents occur in academia, as if somehow our educational spaces are immune from the problems that plague the rest of society. We cannot continue to label inequity, casual misogyny, and violence as “isolated incidents” on our campuses.

I have to break my composure here to admit that at times, I am very frightened. I am frightened about the state of higher education and its social and institutional policies and practices regarding gender. I’m frightened that our sisters in the United States, who are filing Title IX complaints, are having to fight tooth and nail against administrations that covered up numerous sexual assaults and rapes. I’m frightened that sisters like Malala Yousufzai are under threat of death for even pursuing education. I’m frightened for many of my colleagues, with whom I have conversations about the incredible frustrations they have faced on the basis of their gender. I hear the stress, the sleepless nights. I hear the righteous anger. I’m also frightened for my students. I want them to go through their educational careers unscathed. I want to them to maintain some of that idealism, to pursue their goals, to thrive. I want them to feel as though they have voices in their classrooms, and that their ideas will be judged on their own merit alone, rather than on the gendered (and sexualized and racialized) bodies from which they spring. I’m frightened for myself. I have days where I am incredibly skittish and fearful on my campus. I sometimes sit in the common room where I was assaulted, and I feel unbearably sad that a place where I now experience so much joy and connection with colleagues is also a place where I once felt utterly petrified and helpless.

But I believe that change is possible. I see it happening. There are so many absolutely incredible acts of activism that are being undertaken for women’s rights in academia and in intellectual life.

Following the rape chants at SMU and UBC, numerous campus activists, with support from the community, and from many faculty members, have organized rallies and and community events to address sexual violence on campuses, to petition school administrations, to call for more safety initiatives. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a team of activists have finally secured support and funding (after a nearly seven-year fight) for a sexual assault centre on campus. And these initiatives are not limited to oppression on the basis of physical violence. For instance, for the past two years, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) has undertaken a count that documents gendered representation in literary arts and literary publications; their timely work seeks to address the gender gap in Canadian review culture, and to create strong critical communities and alliances for female scholars, critics, and writers working in Canada.

And beyond these larger acts of solidarity, I am grateful, each day, for the sisterhood and solidarity that I have found. Brave women, phenomenal women (as Maya Angelou might say!), women who remind me not only of how hard-won our places in the ivory tower have been, but also of the contributions that we are making. These are the women with whom I collaborate, who I learn from, whose shoulders I cry on, whose laughter I share, whose sorrows I share, whose words I treasure.

1441307_10151724417901829_1385872681_nBut ultimately, today, I am thinking of the fourteen women who were murdered on that day in 1989. I think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. I think of how, in their memory, I must never take for granted what it means to be a woman, a student, a feminist. I sit with sorrow for their lives cut short by cold-blooded violence, with sorrow for the knowledge that for so many, the threat of violence is always present, by virtue of the bodies we inhabit. I think of their families. I think of their classmates, those who survived.

Much has changed in the past 24 years, but much has yet to be done. We must ensure that the deaths of these fourteen women was not in vain, and that each day we bring their legacies alive again through our desire to make our places of education also become places of refuge and revolution.

Resting in Power: Resisting the Depolicitization of Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

10741303-republic-of-south-africa--circa-1994-a-stamp-printed-in-rsa-shows-nelson-mandela-circa-1994I was sitting at home this afternoon, quietly working, when my Twitter feed suddenly started swelling with grief. Though the world had known that the life of Nelson Mandela would end sooner, rather than later, and that the year had been filled with precarious moments during his repeated hospitalizations, the news has hit us hard. My eyes welled up with tears, and as I communicated with friends, and shared the news of his death, we mourned together, silently. It was as if a hush had come over all of us, a quiet knowledge that with Mandela’s passing, we were witnessing the end of an era, witnessing the death of one of the greatest freedom fighters we have had the privilege of knowing.

And yet, in and amongst the messages of sorrow at his passing, and joy in celebrating his life, were a number of statements about Mandela—both by politicians and by citizens-at-large—that erased an important part of his life: the ways in which he actively fought against violent white supremacy, and the ways in which the global community turned their backs on apartheid in South Africa. Predictably, while it is being remembered with deep sorrow and a deep recognition of history, the death of Nelson Mandela is also in danger of becoming branded and sold, commodified and traded on the public market of memory.

While I do not begrudge anyone their grief, or wish to condemn their expressions of sorrow, of honouring, and remembrance as insincere, I believe that on the occasion of such a death, we must also honour and remember the difficult things, the things that we do not necessarily wish to commemorate.

Photograph by David Turnley.Let us not forget that for all the years of freedom Mandela had, and for all of the years of political change he was able to enact in South Africa, the government of his own country had, with the support of other nations, sought to absolutely destroy the anti-apartheid movement. Let us not forget that politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, labeled him as a terrorist.

Let us not forget that Mandela spent 27 years in prison, forced to undertake hard labour. It is far too easy to forget, perhaps because most of us cannot ever really imagine, nor will ever be forced to experience, what 27 years in prison was like.

Let us not forget that until 2008, when Mandela was 90 years old, he was still on the U.S terrorism watch list.

Like many other social justice activists and freedom fighters, Mandela’s actions, words, and legacy have often been co-opted and folded back into the very systems that continue to oppress racialized communities. Whether spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks, by bell hooks or by Maya Angelou, the words of racialized anti-oppression activists are often stripped of their context, and of the historical and political specificity of their struggle. Their quotes now circulate the internet in numerous memes, deployed, understandably, for inspiration, but it is crucial not to forget under which circumstance words have been spoken. The words of anti-apartheid or anti-racist freedom fighters have been used to inspire workouts at the gym as much as they have been used to sell products and to uphold the greed of capitalism. Forgive my bluntness in saying that the fight against cellulite is not equivalent to the fight against white supremacy, and that for the words of anti-poverty activists to be used as a capitalist selling-point is absolutely reprehensible. And while it may be nice (pleasant, even) to use these words, including those spoken by Nelson Mandela, to sell the illusion of a multicultural society that simply needs to love each other, we often do so in order to turn a blind eye to the violence that continues to rage around us, or to elide our own complicity in systems of racist oppression. The words of anti-apartheid struggle do not belong to us all equally (if they do at all), and we must be mindful of how they are appropriated. Some words may not be ours to use.

Confronting death is difficult, especially when it comes to the deaths of those figures who seemed to embody a nearly superhuman sort of dedication, resolve, commitment, and leadership (though of course, Mandela was a human being, and not a saint). Confronting a legacy is difficult enough without having to look critically at the social, political, and economic problems that still persist, without having to acknowledge that we do not by any means live in a post-racial society, that we do not live in a world where “peace” and “love” can simply transcend or erase racial boundaries, because there are active forms of oppression, apartheid, and genocide in our world today.

images-1For me, confronting Mandela’s legacy means continuing to acknowledge the various privileges that I have in my life, and in the community where I live. It means acknowledging that while I am of mixed race, I still have a large measure of white privilege. As a citizen of Canada, living on the West Coast, it means being critical of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and violence towards Indigenous communities, about recognizing that the country I call home has attempted to wipe out entire Indigenous nations. It means listening to the testimonies of survivors from residential schools. It means acknowledging my status as a settler on unceded Indigenous lands. It means knowing that this violence was no mere accident, and that Duncan Campbell Scott, a Canadian politician and poet, actively called for Canadian policies to “kill the Indian in the child.” This is the work to be done in my country and community: others have their own geographically and socio-politically specific legacies to confront.

To honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy is a difficult task. To do so, we must look around, in our own lives, in our own communities, and know that his work is not finished. Indeed, it is the time to remember that Nelson Mandela cannot be, and never could be, the sole source of courage, of action, and of protest, neither in South Africa, nor in the world at large. We must look at the leaders we have in our respective communities, and we must support those who are fighting for freedom, for equality, for environmental protection, for economic justice. These great tasks are our collective responsibility, one that he has now, in no uncertain terms, left to all of us. We must fight for equality and justice in this lifetime, on this earth, as Mandela did.

Madiba, rest in power. We are grateful for your fight.

“She Asked For It”: Why Campus Safety at UBC Isn’t Just About Security Guards

Buchanan Tower, UBC.

Buchanan Tower, UBC.

The University of British Columbia has been in the local and national headlines a great deal this fall. At the beginning of this term, controversy arose when a group of frosh week leaders were found to have led incoming students in a chant that minimized the impact of sexual assault.

Now, as students are facing the frenzy of mid-term exams, UBC is in the headlines once more for issues regarding sexual violence. In the past three weeks, three separate incidents of sexual assault have been reported on campus. As the RCMP have now declared, it is believed that all three stranger-attacks, which took place on the weekends between midnight and 3 am, were perpetrated by the same individual.

When news of these assaults emerged, I reflected back to the seeming indifference of many of the rape-chant leaders, thinking that if there had been any lingering doubt in our campus community that sexual violence was  not a subject to be minimized, joked about, or taken lightly, that these heinous attacks on women, on members of our university community, would make it very clear that sexual assault is a serious issue.

Yet, while the outrage against the attacker and expressions of fear about campus safety have been clearly expressed, so too have contempt, mockery, and disdain for the three victims.

While the Tweets in question have now been deleted, there have been at least two publicly-visible incidents of victim-blaming stemming from members of our own campus community. Both alluded to the fact that women at UBC’s campus should be smarter (well, more specifically, that they shouldn’t be “dumb”), and one asserted, very bluntly, that the victims were “asking for it.”

It’s horrendous enough to know that our campus is currently in a state of fear because of the actions of one depraved individual, and even more horrifying to know that in 2013, even after the discussions we’ve had on campus and in the news about why sexual assault is not the fault of the victim, that we’re seeing these kinds of statements being made.

But don’t listen to my criticism alone: listen to the woman who was the 2nd survivor in the recent string of assaults. She published a piece in the campus newspaper, which clearly articulated both the frustration of being spoken about like a news story, and the callous indifference with which people still talk about assaults that take place when an woman is walking home late at night. She writes:

Imagine sitting in class and having the professor bring up your sexual assault. I wanted to stand up at say, “Yo, this is my story. Who are you to talk about how I could have prevented this? Don’t I have the right to walk home alone?”

Imagine having to read about this on Twitter. Or in the comments section of a news story. Imagine having to hear your professors or your peers analyzing and scrutinizing your actions, speculating on what you could have and should have done differently. That’s not an indignity that any sexual assault survivor deserves.

Here’s the thing: people who have been affected by sexual violence are all around us. Whether we know it or not, we all likely know at least one survivor of sexual violence. They may be our professors. They may be fellow staff members. They may be peers in our classrooms. They are of all genders, all sexual orientations, all ages, all ethnic backgrounds, all socio-economic backgrounds, all professions. We never know who has been affected by it, and, as such, we never know who is hearing our words or reading them on the Internet.

Campus safety is not merely a question of how many security guards and police officers are on patrol, or of how many streetlights are installed to create visibility. It is also a question of how our campus community chooses to respond to survivors. If we take seriously the assertion that the University of British Columbia is a community of fellow students, faculty members, and staff members, ones who look out for and are concerned with the well-being of others, then it is simply unconscionable that we have members of the community who are actively seeking to blame and shame the victims of what are clearly horrendous and terrifying experiences. 

We can still have conversations about campus safety and precautions, but we can do this without blaming the women who were attacked.

We can still have conversations about our own fears about safety, without suggesting that if only the women had been “smarter,” they wouldn’t have been assaulted.

So long as there are individuals who are blaming women for their own assaults, no place, even a well-respected university campus, is a safe place for survivors.