Occupying the Crisis of Whiteness

The distinctions between being a white American and the institutional structures of whiteness are important. First, the structures of whiteness are ‘in’ Americans of all ethnicities to some degree, even if only by necessity in order to survive (let alone do well) in today’s hyperdrive commercial/consumer-based society. Second: to understand the difference between the genetic-social fact of being white and the institutional structures of whiteness is to realize that the issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement are not about white Americans trying to get over or above anybody else. Instead, this could be the historical moment when middle-class white Americans begin to demonstrate a widespread cultural awareness that whiteness – both the personal sense of superiority, and as institutionalized in ‘the rules’ – is not fair to anyone.

Zuccotti Park is now complete.

Democracy and Public Policy

“The more a source thinks like you, acts like you and looks like you, the more trusting you are, the more willing you are to accept the story you’re told.”

~ Jones (2010)

Kimmie, involved in making the acclaimed film <em>Precious</em>, came to OWS the first chance she could.
Like me, Kimmie - who was involved in making the acclaimed film Precious - came to OWS the first chance she could.

Michael R Jones is studying public policy narratives. He and his colleagues are not documenting discrimination or prejudice; they are validating common features of human behavior using quantitative scientific methods. As I think about why the Occupy movement is happening now and whether it will be able to sustain itself long enough to have effects on economic policy, one of the background, subjective elements has to involve addressing whiteness.

Saturday, I laughed with a few people I met who also found it amusing but undaunting that our first visit to Zuccotti Park coincided with snowtober. I was impressed by the gritty people (of varied ethnicities but mostly white) who gutted through the freezing wet slush of “the snowpocalypse” – thereby crossing an important hurdle for the movement overall.

That’s whiteness, not being white!

The distinctions between being a white American and the institutional structures of whiteness are important. First, the structures of whiteness are ‘in’ Americans of all ethnicities to some degree, even if only by necessity in order to survive (let alone do well) in today’s hyperdrive commercial/consumer-based society. Second: to understand the difference between the genetic-social fact of being white and the institutional structures of whiteness is to realize that the issues raised by the Occupy movement are not about white Americans trying to get over or above anybody else. Instead, this could be the historical moment when middle-class white Americans begin to demonstrate a widespread cultural awareness that whiteness  – both the personal sense of superiority, and as institutionalized in ‘the rules’ – is not fair to anyone.

Economics and History

"The sign refers to the fact that the banks, underwriters, mortgage salespeople at every point in the chain of origination knew that the deals they were doing we're likely to fail....there may not be a very sophisticated understanding of that but people know who fucked em." ~ a friend
"The sign refers to the fact that the banks, underwriters, mortgage salespeople at every point in the chain of origination knew that the deals they were doing were likely to fail....there may not be a very sophisticated understanding of that but people know who f*cked em." ~ a friend on US/domestic macroeconomics

“The guts to lose a lot of money
carries its own aura.”

~ Derman

Emanual Derman wrote about working at Goldman Sachs from 1985 into the late ’90s. “The capacity to wreak havoc with your [financial] models provides the ultimate respectability” (2004, p. 13).  Derman was simply describing the attitude of the biggest gamblers, but it could just as well have been a prediction.

Jay Smooth talks about the ringers who are now trying to justify authoritarian repression of the movement, describing their desperate attempts to distract attention. His analysis came a week before Dahlia Lithwick made similar points about “the endless loop of media bafflement … and … walloping amount of willful cluelessness.” Among Lithwick’s points:

Revolution: American Style

FACT: The Top 1% "Growth in Real After-Tax Income from 1979 to 2007" is hundreds of times more than everyone else. Chart from the Congressional Budget Office Director's Report
FACT: The Top 1% "Growth in Real After-Tax Income from 1979 to 2007" is hundreds of times more than everyone else. Chart from the Congressional Budget Office Director's Report (October 25th, 2011). NOTE: From WWII to the late seventies, people in each and every quintile moved ahead at roughly the same rate!

  1. Regulation of corporate interests is government’s most basic job.
  2. Progressive taxation is a necessary social good.
  3. Civil rights must translate into economic prosperity for everyone.

In A Letter to the Occupy Together Movement, Harsha Walia writes “we cannot under-estimate the difficult terrain ahead.”  The evidence is already plain. Caitlin Curran, photographed (above) with the sign explaining the financial sector’s bad faith, was fired from her job. NYC’s confiscation of generators occurred a day in advance of the snow storm, a selective application of law ostensibly for public safety. “Enough is enough,” the former mayor [Rudolph Giulani] said. “We can’t allow this to go on forever and ever. It sets a bad precedent … [and] diverts police resources from public safety.” Speaking of bad precedents, “Police fired pepper spray and used pepper-ball guns against demonstrators in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday.”

Jay Smooth, in his video about the ringers, talks about how the movement is both specific enough to express people’s concerns, and vague enough to allow many people to come together under a broad umbrella. Walia expands on this point:

“…Maybe this is how movements need to maintain themselves, by recognizing that political change is also fundamentally about everyday life and that everyday life needs to encompass all of this. There needs to be a space for a talent show across from anti-patriarchy meetings. There needs to be a food table, medics, and a library. Everyone needs to stop for a second and look around for someone’s phone. And that within all this we will keep talking about Troy Davis and how everyone is affected by a broken, racist, oppressive system. Maybe, maybe this is the way?”

Journalist Razvan Sibii, reporting for a Romanian national newspaper.
Journalist Razvan Sibii, reporting for a Romanian national newspaper, "Adevarul" (adevarul.ro).

The everyday must include learning in a very fundamental way. The percentage of young Americans completing college these days continues to drop, for reasons as serious as our economy is flawed. There are so many things that people just do not know, which both supports and complicates the many things that people do know – whether they have completed a college degree or not. Walia again:

“..this is what Occupy Wall Street is right now: less of a movement and more of a space. It is a space in which people who feel a similar frustration with the world as it is and as it has been are coming together and thinking about ways to recreate it. For some people this is the first time they have thought about how the world needs to be recreated. But some of us have been thinking about this for a while now. Does this mean that those of us who have been thinking about it for a while now should discredit this movement? No. It just means that there is a lot of learning going on down there.”

Scaling The Learning Curve

My favorite scene in Eight Mile is when Cheddar Bob seems to slip up before Rabbit’s rap battle against his main rival by asking isn’t Rabbit afraid of the awful things Papa Doc is going to say? Although Cheddar Bob is shushed by the rest of his friends, Rabbit takes inspiration and turns the apparent faux paux to winning strategy, saying every bad thing about himself to leave Papa Doc with an empty mouth.

Craig Schneider writes, “A movement born of anger over the gulf between the rich and the rest is only gradually attracting the very groups who have felt the brunt of economic inequality, both historically and as a result of the Great Recession.” I find it encouraging that such strong voices as Jay Smooth and Harsha Walia are doing their best to teach and guide, admonish and nourish, criticize and refuse to compromise. Regardless of what I think I know, I have to admit also how naive I still am.

For instance, how could I not have known, while growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the scope of brutal violence?  The recently released Swedish film, The Black Power Mixtape, reconfigured memories of my childhood. How could I have thought all that ugly stuff ended after King and the Kennedy brothers were killed?  Details of family life, my father’s job, and drifting undirected through elementary school composed the extent of my exposure to the larger world. It was the moment of desegregating the public schools in Denver, and I heard other kids’ awful rumors that the black kids who would soon be bussed in would be “coming with knives” – obviously something not okay was going on! But the threat remained in the realm of words other people said; I made friends across the color line and, while puzzled, never gave the ugly talk much thought.

Now, looking back, I recognize the mental and emotional cushioning as another lesson in white privilege. Admitting the scope of my ignorance is not pleasant, but it is necessary.

Resisting Reduction: Whiteness remains only one facet among many

Traditional policy analysis, rooted in market models and instrumental reason, fails to accurately capture the subjective nature of political reality (Deborah Stone, 2002, cited in Michael R Jones and Mark K McBeth’s 2010 public policy research introduced at the beginning of this entry). This subjective nature – differences of knowledge, experience, history, outlook, and viewpoint – is Occupy Wall Street. Confused media ringers are sidestepping and obscuring the simple narrative structure: a clear villain, a singular hero, and a victim who inspires empathy. The villain is clear:  government’s failure to regulate. What we are witnessing and participating in is a great democratic experiment: what happens when the hero and the victim are one and the same? The American people are rising together to confront and correct great wrongs done to the American people.

Developing Leaders: Dynamics and Dilemmas

Springfield youth were asked to come up with ONE WORD to describe everyone in their randomly assigned group.
Springfield youth were asked to come up with ONE WORD to describe everyone in their randomly assigned group.

A Taste of College:
Youth Leadership Development Retreat

Amherst MA

Whenever I work in teams, I always mention the significance of following. It is rare, however, to be able to carry that conversation forward. I hope this time is different. Following is something all good leaders do: they understand when to follow someone else’s idea – in other words, effective leaders are highly attuned to time/timing as well as to the content or substance of conversation and group dynamics.

The “Taste of College” Retreat is over, but the dynamics it set in motion are barely begun. Will the emotions raised during those three days become a ripple that soon fades or a wave that builds to a powerful crest? Will all of those emotions simply add to past history, reinforcing understandings and relationships as they are already established within the larger structure of our society? If the emotions grow and build, what shore will the wave crash into and wipe clean?

Filling the Void of “Silence”

Silence (when you're used to constant stimulation - talking, activity, music, etc) can be uncomfortable!  <em>(Image borrowed from a tutorial on making a Prezi)</em>
Silence (when you're used to constant stimulation - talking, activity, music, etc) can be uncomfortable! (Image borrowed from a tutorial on making a Prezi)

One of the young people who attended the Retreat noticed how hard it is to facilitate when “no one is talking.” Being comfortable with silence, waiting for someone else to think of something to say, is one of the hardest aspects of leadership. Within the planning team for the event, I didn’t always do the best with this myself.

The manager in me was hyper-conscious of timelines for decision-making, as well as how much participation, input and feedback is necessary to create a quality program. In the end, on the surface, we had a successful event. The youth all got along with each other, named something significant that they learned, and many expressed the desire to come back again next year. The “Public Service Announcements” regarding their visions for the future of Springfield are creative and compelling.

Behind the scenes, however, a few things happened that did not – and still don’t – feel good. The wave – or the ripple – from the Retreat will be influenced more by how the background issues get handled than by the visible surface of shiny videos and memories of fun times.

Diversity: Tensions and Loyalties

Youth brainstorm traits, skills, and examples of leaders & leadership.
Youth brainstorm traits, skills, and examples of leaders & leadership.

Everyone always has their own perceptions of their unique experience (what I called “biography” in the opening presentation). At the same time, people share perceptions of experiences that feel common (the “social identities” part of the opening presentation). These commonalities usually fall along

  • the lines of the body (how one feels about the way they are treated by others depending upon how they look) and
  • the lines of the mind (how one thinks about the usual ways of talking and making sense of things that happen).

History (things that have happened in the past) is a kind of container for biography. “We all carry our racial identities on our shoulders,” as a friend of mine put it. Or, “Acting white in Springfield will get you killed,” as a youth in the Retreat said during the “fishbowl” activity on code-switching. “What does it mean to act white?” another youth asked in response. As I recall, there was no specific answer provided at the time. Talking about whiteness is a challenge many of the adult staff have been trying to meet for a long time.

Acting White

Since I was in a leadership position before and during the Retreat, most everyone probably noticed some of the things I said or did. In general, it is fair to say that I “acted white” most of the time, during planning (in advance of the event) and during delivery (the three days of the workshop). Let’s break it down from the outside (what could be observed by others) and from the inside (my self-perceptions and conscious reasons).

Distribution of 'agreement' and 'disagreement' activity: Do Leaders follow or challenge norms?
Distribution of 'agreement' and 'disagreement' activity: Do Leaders follow or challenge norms? (Unasked: Whose norms establish the point of reference?)

First, by virtue of my body (now, as an older white woman) and the socioeconomic class that I grew up in (new middle-class), I am in a position to be a link to the resources of a university. As an activist in a white body, I have assumed personal safety and low risk for most of the social justice causes I have endorsed. Throughout my life, I have exercised the privilege to go wherever I wanted to go, pretty much whenever I wanted to go there. This includes not going to places where I didn’t want to be – both physically (as in, certain neighborhoods) or mentally and emotionally (as in, exposing myself to the suffering of others not as lucky as me).

In counterpoint, I’ve labored hard for some twenty years to un-do the entrained attitudes of privilege and counter the desire to stay safe within the psychological space of what is familiar. Nonetheless, I am still embodied and enculturated as a white American. I tend to prefer structure, order, and predictability – even if only to push against or work around! Leave me in a vacuum long enough, and I’m going to do something! In retrospect, maybe I could have waited longer and/or done less, in order to enable others to step into the empty space and do more.

Structure: Change or the Status Quo

Here’s the thing. Structure pretty much rules. We are all caught up in a system that has roots going back centuries. The way governments, money, the military, science & technology and the arts work today is institutionalized in layers upon layers of law and custom. In practical terms, everything a person does as an individual gets swallowed up by the system. Lots of individuals doing the same kinds of “individual” things (such as, everyone trying to be a leader) is what savvy marketers and politicians exploit: they hook us around selfish needs and desires, things that make me feel good about me.

Lyrics to a rap by youth for the Future of Springfield
Lyrics to a rap by youth for the Future of Springfield

The only excuse I have for the design of the Retreat is knowledge. “I’ve been to a lot of retreats,” someone said, betraying (from my perspective) low expectations. I heard through the grapevine about someone else whose expectations were (perhaps!) set too high: that the Retreat would be “a life-transforming experience.”  My ambition was more in line with the latter. There was no reason for this not to be life-changing for everyone involved, except for the absence of adequate planning time before the Retreat, in order to forge more fundamental trust in the agreements we made with each other.

This means the knowledge I applied was riddled with things I did not know. Some of what I didn’t know I could have learned from co-organizers and facilitators in advance. Some of what I didn’t yet know was told to me both before and during the event, but I was not able to understand what it meant until after the fact. There are many more things that I do not know: either I have not yet realized the lesson or have not been exposed to enough variations to recognize the pattern. I still want to learn, so I can follow better and thus improve my own ability to inspire by recognizing when to follow and choosing to follow when following matters most to accomplishing effective leadership.

Acting into the Future – On Purpose

Between these two extremes of expectations that are “too high” or “too low” is the hard (sometimes even boring) work of co-creating new relationships based on the belief (one could call it faith) that humans can break free of the patterns of the past and become better at getting along and sharing the good things of life with each other.  If only it was so easy! I have not yet met anyone who was able to leap into the future without

  • regurgitating a bunch of past experiences  (such as, making assumptions about others on the basis of stereotypes,
    Harder than it seems: Treating others with Respect & Learning each other's Languages.
    Harder than it seems: Treating others with Respect & Learning each other's Languages.

    projecting a resemblance from someone else who wasn’t nice, etc.), &/or

  • learning that what I know as polite and respectful is not necessarily understood that way by others.

Revisiting the “commonsense” guidelines shared by youth at the beginning of the Retreat, the example foremost in my mind is about the early curfew on Saturday. I sensed widespread exhaustion in the room, and had observable evidence to support it.  I did what I would want someone to do for me: set a limit so people could get more sleep. Turns out it was the adults who were so tired, not the kids! The “evidence” I observed from them had another cause. Unfortunately, I was not able to interpret their language quickly enough, and even when I became aware of a misjudgment I could not generate a remedy as fast as would have been ideal.

Sure wish I was better at adapting instantly to the need to change me! Finding myself caught up in patterns of behavior that look like the same old white ways truly sucks! I definitely missed a couple of special chances during the Retreat when I could have broken the mold, but they were not within my awareness at the time. Hints and wisps of feedback filtered into mind, but they all required the reinforcement of repetition before they could break through to realization.

It isn’t that learning is hard – our brains are wired for this. What is hard is letting go of what we already think!

The kids kept right on, though, putting what they need and understand into terms designed to show us grown-ups that the path toward a brighter future doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes make it out to be:

This equation was designed by a group of youth working exclusively in Spanish.
This equation was designed by a group of youth working exclusively in Spanish.

Laughter is Important

United in Hope:
Celebrating Literacy through a Community Voice

Springfield, MA
14 November 2010

Wally Lamb emphasized the significance of humor responding to a question from an audience member about his new book, Wishin’ and Hopin.’ The United in Hope community event promoting literacy sparkled with humor, inspiration and poignancy. The program was anchored by the words of women prisoners writing about their lives. Lamb was introduced by Tim Black, who explained a process of selective attention:

“We don’t see the signs of pain and suffering…

We don’t understand the consequences of pain and suffering.”

Tim acknowledged that everyone encounters and experiences pain, asserting: “We’re all experts of our own lives.”  Tim made it clear that he is not discounting anyone’s pain – still, he suggested that we usually “don’t understand pain and suffering” (emphasis added).

Breaking the Wall of Mistrust

Wally Lamb spends a day a week leading writing workshops for women in prison.  These are women who know the meaning of “doing time”  (something I learned while reading Tim Black’s book, When A Heart Turns Rock Solid).  I wonder how much the acute awareness of time and space feeds Lamb’s motivations for establishing and maintaining his weekly routine and its associated relationships. Relevant relationships include (not only) the women writers but also the prison guards, other prisoners who aren’t writing, and his own sphere of friends and family who are effected (to greater or lesser degrees) by his commitment. He shared with us the story of “Natasha,” who insisted (at first) on a pen name and refused to allow her work to be shared. Then – suddenly – she decided she wanted to read her own work out loud, and began to claim authorship using her real name, Diane. Diane’s act of courage signaled a momentous shift in the early days of Lamb’s work at the York Prison: in his words, “the women’s writing started to flow.”

Lamb read us several short works or excerpts of the women’s writing. I was not able to catch all of the titles or author’s names, but here are some:

  • Dancing in Leg Irons,
  • something by Shannon Roche describing herself as an “inmate” and “a woman of the world,”
  • Under-Where? by Lynne M Friend, and
  • Flight of the Bumblebee, by Kathleen Wyatt.

As I told Tim afterwards, my eyes teared up about seven times. “Their words must have touched you,” he said. Yes, and it is the timing – the juxtaposition of their words now, the invocation of images from their lives intersecting with memories and current realities of my own interacting to generate the heartfelt response.

A Second Start

My emotions were more than personal, however – they were inspired by the context and setting. Lamb read Robin Ledbetter’s work about her grandmother and forgiveness.  The topic of starting over (or otherwise finding ways to carry on) was fitting in this high school auditorium full of young people, their parents, grandparents and other family members, and a diverse range of community activists and committed citizens.  The collective effort to remain open and hopeful toward all the possibilities yet to come, to refuse to surrender to whatever grim goblins of despair haunt dreams of healing and wholeness – for individuals, communities, even the entire city – requires energy, dedication, and focused effort.

“…the heartache it surrounds…”

This phrase floats in my notebook, unattached.  The “it” has lost its referent, becoming ’empty’ – ready to be filled by whatever I might put there.  What shall it be?  Does the City of Springfield embrace the heartache of its residents? I bet Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Alan Ingram thinks so! “Get involved in schools in a meaningful way,” he exhorted us. “Challenge the naysayers, see Springfield’s glass as half-full – not half-empty.” Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe spoke in compelling terms about law “enforcement with decency.”  I (unfortunately) arrived late and missed the opening talk by Springfield  Mayor  Domenic Sarno and also Gianna Allentuck, the United In Hope founder and key promoter of this particular event. The program itself is testimony to her passion. I enjoyed several student performances, as well as a reading from audience member Lisa Wood.  Then I went downstairs to check out the Community Resource Tables.

“Seeing a question mark, [then] trying to understand the question”

I had a series of terrific conversations with half-a-dozen awesome people who are trying to surround the heartache. It was great to see a few familiar faces and touch base. The conversations I had with people I met for the first time also got me buzzing.  Irene from the Community Accountability Board filled me in on some of the infrastructure  under Sheriff Ashe, complementing information I learned from Stephanie (of the awesome name) from Dunbar Community Center about the Shannon Project. The hands-down winner, though, in terms of making a connection and cutting to the chase, was with Emmy from Teatro V!da.  We had a conversation about communicating across language difference. Emmy said:

“The real language is the language of the soul.

Not English.

Not Spanish.

My soul speaks for me.”

I’m like, go grrl go! There are so many different ways that understanding can cut – according to this or that “language.” The language might be spoken or signed (think American Sign Language), fluent or not so much, written according to all applicable grammar rules or not.  Maybe the language is the same but the field or context is different – I’m from the West, you’re from the East, I study Communication, you study Biology, you excel in music and pop culture, I think maybe I heard of that band!

What matters is that moment when, in Tim Black’s words, you “see the question mark.” Oftentimes, in this crazy-with-going-fast world, there’s no time to even register the presence of a question, let alone slow down enough to try and figure out where the other person is coming from, what they are wondering about, what ‘gap’ is being made visible which could – in that moment, with a little attention and a bit of care – become a bridge for connection rather than a chasm of separation.

All around me, those few hours at the High School for Commerce in Springfield, MA, I was surrounded by people who were willing to take the time to notice. Not only that, they’re willing to work with what they notice in order to turn it into something good.


Read women’s writings from prison in “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution” and “I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the women at York Prison.”

Redemption lies in us (not Avatar)

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itskoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

4-dimensional timespace

I got excited by the January 20th NYTimes movie blogentry, “You saw What in ‘Avatar’? Pass those glasses!” because I scooped Dave Itskoff by two days. Really!  He wrote:

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated…

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

I wrote:

A Window upon Us?

The drama of Avatar is less about the movie itself than how it serves as a blank screen for viewers to project a firestorm of passionate support and cynical disdain. There is a principle of feedback usually applied to interpersonal communication: whatever someone tells us about ourselves is more informative about the feedback giver, a window upon their perception – such as what they value and what assumptions they use to interpret behavior – than it is about ourselves as the target of feedback.

Itzkoff did more homework than me: he provides three categories of protest and lists about a dozen specific critiques offered by particular groups or individuals representing diverse perspectives.  I have one bone to pick regarding the quote he uses from Annalee Newitz in which she seems to back off from the strength of her critique, “When will white people stop making films like ‘Avatar’?

“Just the idea of whiteness is a local phenomenon,” she said. “It’s certainly not in parts of the world where white people are not dominant.”

Newitz confuses whiteness with skin color and Itzkoff goes right along. Whiteness is an ideology that imbues an attitude of privilege in most people with white skin, but the assertions, aims, and theories of whiteness can be found in people of any ethnicity in any part of the world. Perhaps not often in some places, but commonly enough in many. In general, whiteness is associated with “white people” but not exclusively: to assume an automatic equation between ‘being white’ and ‘whiteness’ would be stereotyping.

Avatar as a different kind of opportunity? Really?

“I read your blogpost,” a friend confided recently. “I can see that academics would be pissed.”  Another friend continues to critique what he calls my ‘rescuing’ of the film, explaining that all cultural products provide that same kind of blank screen/projection effect, so this fact hardly makes Avatar special. But so many people are engaged with it, that’s my point!  Bah, he shrugs it off. “That’s just because of the hype.”  (shhhhh…I suspect some academics are pissed because they fell for the hype; we’re supposed to know better. Dammit.) At any rate, Itzkoff’s interview with Gaetano Vallini confirms the hype factor. Vallini writes for the Vatican, and also seems to backpedal a bit from the assertions in his critique of Avatar:

[Vallini’s] assignment to write about “Avatar” was not an attempt to advance a particular agenda, he said, but rather “a compulsory choice” given the anticipation surrounding the film.

The western tendency to valorize “understanding”

I don’t assume that friends in fields other than Communication would be aware of this, but I’m surprised how many of my colleagues seem to be operating under the assumption that we can only talk with each other if we already share a known, recognized basis of understanding. Chang’s Deconstructing Communication makes a compelling case that misunderstanding is also a legitimate starting point for communication. And who could forget Professor Cronen’s story of the couple who consistently misunderstood each other and because of that were able to maintain their relationship?!

My thesis is that the challenge presented by Avatar is not how well or poorly so many groups come to use, misuse, or abuse it, but what we do – specifically how we talk with each other – about the fact of such diversity. If the assumption is that no conversation is possible without a priori or telepathic understanding, well that’s the end of it, eh? But if some curiosity could be cultivated, perhaps some new connections could be forged. Not theoretical linkages (although these may be there, too) but bonds of human relations arising out of the material use of a common reference point – egregious though it may be.

Meanwhile, back in school…

A friend shares:

“I haven’t seen Avatar yet. Speaking of imperialism, capitalism, private property and China, I heard and found it disgusting that in China it would cost 200 RMB, more than US$30, for one to see this movie. That is about a seventh of the monthly pension of my father, who had worked more than 30 years in Socialist China and who thus fares far better than the worst cases.”

And another sends a link to Avatar: The Abridged Script: “Sure it’s easy to poke fun at Avatar.  But it’s so entertaining!” The abridgement does dual oxymoronic labor: transforming “lazy screenwriting” into pop cultural commentary while laying bare a host of scientific contradictions and technological implausibilities. It is fun! But – – a dead end if a few good laughs is all it gives.

Finally, on the first day of classes this semester, in an engineering course on manufacturing processes:

“Don’t pick unobtanium as a material if its only available in North Korea.

We don’t get along very well.”

How does race matter?

pedagogical investigations
University of Massachusetts Amherst

It is a brilliant question.

Not “why” does race matter, but how?

Nearly 400 undergraduates have participated in three dialogues on race this fall.  I was fortunate to be invited in as a last-minute substitute for one of the final sessions. Some of the facilitators met for an hour in advance to try and anticipate challenges with delivering the curricular design (see the facilitator’s blog). We engaged the thorny problem of how to teach about whiteness without contributing to self-fulfilling prophecies about the presence/absence of racism.

Two tensions emerged in the discourse dynamics among the facilitators. One involved the tension between supporting/embracing students ‘where they are’ and the need to intervene when ‘where they are’ is patently offensive or otherwise misinformed.  We are teaching, after all, but if we fall into rote instruction we lose the students’ attention (if not also their respect), yet if we don’t trust students to find their own way through the confusing process of coming to grips with uncomfortable knowledge then we’re simply trapped in the communication paradox: if we don’t talk about race we ensure structural inequality is never addressed, but if we keep talking about race then we risk never being able to move beyond it.

What struck me the most was – not competition, that reduces the complexity way too much – but the desire of facilitators to exert control over how the process will unfold.  Energy in the room increased significantly while brainstorming strategies for moving students from new learning into the remaining task of application.  What action can students take, using hard-won new knowledge in ways that really make a difference?  For perspective, realize we are not talking about revolutionary change, but the immediate implications for individual identity and the kinds of relationships possible with others.

Differences in pedagogical philosophy, the use of tactics, and long-term strategies were on display as facilitators advocated for ‘this’ or ‘that’ approach, sharing examples of successful interventions (when the usual pitfalls were avoided) and also describing missed opportunities (those moments that always happen when one is caught off-guard or events are moving too quickly to formulate an appropriate response). The mix of generosity and humility among this group of dedicated educator/activists was impressive. I learned a lot in a very short time!

Brains: “an entity yet to be seen in world politics”

International Relations Theory
(political science)

The quote above is from a comment by blenCOWe to a blogpost, Theory of International Politics and Zombies, by Daniel W. Drezner. Drezner’s blog entry is an example along the lines of this youtube video, Gay Science Isolates the Christian Gene, and a powerpoint presentation made by MJ Bienvenu at the recent biennial convention of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in which she offered deconstructions of audism from the organization’s official website. For example:

“English is not ASL on the mouth.”

The pedagogy of this style of teaching is aptly captured by Erin in her comment to Drezner:

“As Daniel Nexon and Iver Neumann write, “The mirror approach is broader than simply deploying popular culture artifacts as a teaching aid. IR scholars can examine popular culture as a medium for exploring theoretical concepts, dilemmas of foreign policy, and the like.” (12).”

The mirror approach operates on the simple principle of substitution: take an existing discourse, and

    a) reverse the key tropes (as in “Gay Science” or unveiling audism in “The Heart of the RID Organization”),

    b) replace the key actors with an abstraction, or

    c) combine both.

A View from Communication Theory
The engagement spawned (ha) is impressive. A communication theorist has many choices for analysis: as a media text, from the viewpoint of audience, in terms of effects, as a language game (Wittgenstein), as a social use of information and communications technology, not to mention the rich data seeded throughout regarding regional, national, and gendered points of view (classist, ableist, etc), and the production of online identities. It can be critiqued from a variety of viewpoints, including (for instance) political economy, pragmatism, or cultural studies, and at differing levels, such as mass media or interpersonal communication.
My own take is to regard the entry and comments as an instance of discourse: academic, specific to one discipline, and (probably, as goes the zeitgeist) rooted more in space than time. The use of wit (humor) to display breadth, depth, and precision of one’s knowledge in fast repartee is the most valorized contemporary mode of intellectual engagement. Everyone who can find a way in, does, and those who can’t find their way quickly enough, don’t. By the time the entry point clarifies into a path (or the perceptible path finds its entry point), the exchange is over, the event is closed. The instigators and participants have moved on to the next sexy thing. The normative behavior is that the immediate “space” occupied by this interaction has been effectively controlled: everyone (who matters?) has had their say in shining flashes of inspiration.
What strikes me, as an action researcher and a constructivist, is multileveled. First, unadulterated admiration. I envy the lightening comprehension and instant formulation of coherent, contextualized, educative information. Second, awe. We know so much. Ok, so I’m liberally folding myself into the “we,” but seriously: look at the range of knowledge pouring out! It isn’t as if there aren’t tons of “us” out here who understand the historical momentum of the social forces we’re working with – or against, as the case may be. blenCOWe continues:

In terms of his liberal institutionalist and constructivist analyses, Drezner is counting on the fact that the zombies would have the cognitive ability to calculate the benefits and drawbacks to collaborating with other actors. As such, any ideas of building an international organization, including the presence of zombies, to deal with the presence of zombies or to build a world state inclusive of zombies appears to be quite impossible.

Lastly, when he addresses neoconservatism he recognizes that the zombie threat was an existential threat, noting that the threat from zombies is from their jealously over our freedom and not from their desire for our brains. Like the faults with the other theories, this analysis is based on the faulty assumption that zombies have the ability to make cognitive decisions like that. The unavoidable fact is simple, zombies pose a threat to humans because of their desire for brains and for no other reason.

Zombies pose a threat not only because of their desire for eating brains, but – crucially – because that primal desire is coupled with an accompanying lack of brains. The implicit message in the IR discourse about Zombies is that there are, already, zombies among us. I suggest there are three broad types:

  • the undead who have accepted a singular social and ideological “programming” as the one and only way to make sense of their lives,
  • the undead who have embraced a particular intellectual framework in order to cope with existential anxiety and/or the evolutionary pressures of anarchy, and
  • the undead who have selected to master the terms of the zeigeist, “Let’s get cynical!”

Now what?
With the “what” of varying ideological understandings so thoroughly grasped in the space of two days’ interaction, enter the dimension of time. I’m speaking of deep time (esp. deep history), small time (i.e., Bakhtin), and time inclusive of the future. Politically, time is apprehendible in norms of culture and forms of institutions. Simply, what changes and what stays the same? As the Human versus Zombie IR debate unfolds, applications are posed or elaborated, such as two-level game theory and accepting Zombies as a new class to be integrated into the existing global structure. Erin, quoted above, offered

“a brief survey (n=3) I conducted in the last 5 minutes unanimously suggest[ing] that zombies should probably be considered alongside Kosovo to understand IR theory.”

She also adds “an important caveat,” to her random sampling:

“…2/3 of respondents volunteered that they conditioned their response on zombie attacks, unlike extraterrestrial visitations, remaining confined to the realm of hypothetical thought experiments.”

While I agree with the pedagogical impulse, the effect of continuing to deploy only such discrete strategies extends temporally into the future, replicating the same momentum of monological thought that substantively prevents us from finding collective means for creatively managing the diversity of human ways of being. In other words, will the brilliance of insight and potential demonstrated by Drezner & Company be translated into wisdom with a voice?
Engaging intellectual battle in the abstract can be deeply satisfying and even entertaining, the case of Zombies in point. But what about those of us who don’t speak that language? Why must we continue to demarcate the differences in such ways as to reinforce the space of separation between them? This is an illness of extreme disciplinarity. There will always be gaps. Can we ply them creatively? To do so, I suggest we need to consider multilingual models, in particular the potential of interpreted interactions. In The Language Barrier as an Aid to Communication, Rodrigo Ribeiro argues the importance of not understanding in a case study involving the steel industry, technology transfer, and Japanese and Brazilian forms of life

the ‘language barrier’, which is normally thought as a problem, can aid communication by preventing people who hold potentially clashing concepts, beliefs and customs from directly confronting each other.

While I support Ribeiro’s conclusion of value based on non-confrontation and interpreters’ strategies of mediation, I suggest this is only one manifestation of the intercultural communication practice of multilingual/interpreted interaction. The Japanese and Brazilian interlocutors are learning – through this process – how to be with difference. What we academics need to help politicians create are systems that can deal fluidly with difference – ideological, linguistic, cultural, etc – that are, in essence, multilogical rather than monological. Among the strategies that could work are finding ways among ourselves to communicate with each other across, among, and between our fields of expertise.

Make NERDAs the linguistic minority (proposal)

the future

Building on the potential for a paradigm shift is matter of recognition, marketing, and design. These processes can proactively influence each other, interacting and changing through the development of a project. All are contained within the conception and application of strategic planning.
Strategy has to involve conceptualizing the outcome in two different yet complementary ways. First, you must imagine what you want in terms of place. In the case of the next national conference of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID, US-based), the physical location will be some hotel in Atlanta, GA, but the more important issue is how the space of the place will be designed and implemented in order to generate the desired kinds of intercultural interaction. The second dimension that must be considered is time. By time, I do not mean the logistics of scheduling or considerations about the length of the event or even its parts. These are obviously important logistical factors that require detailed attention. However, the most important temporal factor to consider is how the conference contributes to long-term patterning of habits and attitudes for engaging in intercultural social interaction.

Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult: Buffered by Monolingualism
That would be me, and we NERDAs compose the largest percentage of the membership of RID. Most of us do not understand what it means to be Deaf. We want to understand, and we sure try hard, but our reality as native, hearing speakers of English in the United States is one of extreme linguistic privilege. No matter what other oppressions we may experience, we communicate with the same language as nearly everyone one else around us. NERDAs need to understand that we are affected by living in a society that has done more, historically, than any other country to enforce monolingualism. Unless you live or work in a dense urban city, it is quite possible that you never hear another language spoken in day-to-day living. Most Americans are protected from exposure to even tasting what it might be like to not know the language that would enable you to talk with your neighbor, your child’s teacher, shopkeepers and salespeople, peers in your classroom or a club, not to mention the doctor, police officer, realtor, banker, or the waitstaff at a restaurant where you must guarantee that there are no nuts or shellfish in the dish you want because you don’t want to risk anaphylactic shock.
NERDAs certainly cannot conceive of the intrapersonal, deliberate, conscious planning necessary to predict when and where and for how long we’ll need an interpreter, do not know the calculus of deciding why and for what reasons we’ll need an interpreter, and never have to weigh the costs – time, focused mental energy, unpredictable emotional surges – that come along with deciding, “Yes, in this situation I do need an interpreter,” or “No, in this situation I can manage without an interpreter.” Nor do we have to deal with the fallout from misjudging any of these factors: such as discovering an interpreter is necessary when it had not seemed so, or that the need is much longer/shorter than anticipated, or that the whole effort was a complete waste of time.

Atlanta 2011: Experimenting with New Norms
National conferences of professional associations occur for very specific reasons:

  • to further the organization’s business and
  • to provide members with professional development opportunities that are not available at home.

A critique offered by one of the other participants in the small group DEAF-FRIENDLY brainstorming sessions (described in the August 9 entry, “Embrace Change, Honor Tradition (RID 2009)” was that the conference focuses too much on training. In the immediate moment, I was most aware of the turn-taking dynamic – how her comment did not have any relation to mine – but I soon realized that her observation is significant. Why are we designing the national conference like an extension of an interpreter training program? Granted, many RID members are still in the early phases of their professional careers, but if we design the conference with students in mind, we generate a comfortable and familiar container for learning as usual.

No wonder, then, that many interpreters arrive and proceed to engage in comfortable, familiar, and usual ways! An alternative would be to take MJ Bienvenu’s deconstruction by reversal to the extreme. This would create a professional development experience that would use the capacities of our national organization to the fullest potential. We already have the technology:

  • knowledge of Deaf culture
  • linguistic fluency in ASL and English
  • professionally trained ASL-English interpreters
  • extensive experience with interpreter request systems and accommodation services…

What we need is the will to apply the tools in an altered configuration, and a rationale to convince people to come.

A one-time experiment of mutual discovery
Instead of following the dominant, inherently oppressive model (accessibility provided for the Deaf), we reverse it (accessibility provided for the Hearing). This would generate an experience like none other. In some respects it would resemble an ASL Immersion retreat, and in some respects it would resemble the environment at residential schools for the Deaf. What it would offer is the intellectual and empathy-building experience of being the one who has to ask.
There would not need to be any commitment or promise to continue: we can see what happens, evaluate it, and then decide. If the storming phase re-emerges – so be it, that will be an honest, deep indicator of the organization’s developmental status. If we do establish a foundation for new norms, well, that will be incredibly exciting and everyone who attends will have bragging rights for the rest of their life:

“I was there when…!”

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
Anaphylactic shock (Embrace Change, Honor Tradition (RID 2009), Reflexivity

back in the valley

Amherst, MA
a.k.a. The Happy Valley

It is cool for summer. In fact, the chill at night feels more like autumn. Otherwise the lush, bright greens (of trees, grass, cultivated crops and wild bush), sky and mountain blues, and varying tones of white in the clouds are as they ever were. I got out on the bike trail yesterday, smelling freshly mown hay and listening to birdsong . . . aaahhhhhhhhh.


Although re-entry is relatively painless, I have noticed slight and subtle differences in the US now compared with when I left nearly a year ago. CNN has a news program, Black in America. Susan told me that standardized test scores for young African-Americans are improving in a crucial way: historically if students were asked to identify their racial demographics at the beginning of a standardized test their scores would be lower than if they were asked to provide this info at the end. Now this gap is decreasing! In other words, flagging racial identity used to work “against” confidence/competence for some black youth; now – after Obama – this internalized self-perception is being transformed.
I was startled, the first day back, when strangers addressed me in English (instead of Flemish or French). Riding in a taxi from the airport to a temporary destination in DC brought me in visual contact with a familiar landscape. I found it comforting to be closed in by tree-covered rolling hills instead of looking out on the centuries-tilled farmland of Belgium – which always somehow conveyed the hint of battle. Not that history is pristine, here. The namesake of this university town in western Massachusetts is infamous for having provided smallpox-infected blankets to the local Indians. Most of the original peoples from the East Coast were decimated in the colonial invasion, although some tribes managed to survive and even establish authenticity in the eyes of federal law (which is deliberately designed to make such claims as difficult as possible while appearing to be fair).
Whiffs of cow manure are occasionally overwhelming.
It’s been windy since I arrived, but Ambarish assures me it is not always like this. I had been quite aware of the wind in Belgium, and it had crossed my mind that this might be a sign of global warming: as the planet’s atmosphere heats up, there might be more likelihood of “weather”. I wondered if, some day in the future, a still day when there is no wind might be a rarity, a phenomenon only remembered by the very old . . .

photo from August 2008 (see more: High Summer)
Lord Amherst and Smallpox
Black in America: The Black Woman and Family
Ombama poster in my apartment

parallel urgencies


Watching the unfolding of social protest in Iran, and still recovering from the large dose of fear I’ve just had to (try to) absorb about climate change, I’m wondering if ‘we’ – populations in the western world – are giving valence (in a group relation’s sense) to the protesters in Iran. Put another way, are ‘they’ acting out not only against the apparent fraud of Ahmadinijad’s re-election, but are they emboldened by the growing sense of urgency among educated people that humanity itself is in a period of crisis?

Valence: second definition, Merriam-Webster:
2 a: relative capacity to unite, react, or interact
2b: the degree of attractiveness … [of] … a behavioral goal

The US did not rise up in protest against the re-election of George W. Bush, even though there were also concerns. Maybe we (Americans) felt (in 2004) that there was still enough time, that we’d get by, get through… are we now hoping to vicariously savor a success by Iranians in a way that we were incapable of even attempting then? And if this movement succeeds, then what?
A political scientist I know says:

it is reasonable to be skeptical about the policy differences between the two candidates on issues that matter. But, having fair elections is important in its own right, and it seems like this could open the door to more political freedom, which can influence a variety of other outcomes…

Jen is right, of course. Fair elections are important in their own right – but we (the electorate) are not willing to fight for them in all times and all places. Why now? Why there? Why with such force? (Note: I am not questioning the actions themselves, I’m inquiring into the motivations.)
What “other outcomes” might be opened up? Or, another way to phrase the crucial question: what deep needs are pushing this expansion of language-based communication? The momentum built up over the last centuries is encapsulated in an instant in this one minute video on the evolution of life by Claire L. Evans. Exerting enough force to alter the current vector is going to take an outcry from humanity several times the size of the protests in Iran.
We (all of us) must comprehend “the vector’s essential properties are just its magnitude and its direction.” And – we can’t give up! Over breakfast this morning, dismay and the sense of helplessness:

“We all know we need to act, but we don’t.”
“If we do it and China doesn’t, what’s the point?”
“We know it is serious, the politicians have to force it.”
“They ring the bell for thirty years. Ring. Then that old man dies. Ring.”

“We need to agree on the urgency.”



“Watching” coverage of social protests in Iran via The Huffington Post
“if this movement succeeds” it will be because of communication technology
“force”: definition-in-context
“deep needs” come from deep time
“expansion of language-based communication” frames this as a case* of Bakhtin’s chronotope (see Michael Holquist, forthcoming: Cronotope’s central role in
*”case” as in “case thinking” ~ see Philippe Lacour, Thinking by cases, or: How to put social sciences back the right way up
a “vector’s essential properties” is quoted from website on Elementary Vector Analysis, Harvey Mudd College.

Enjoy Poverty! (please)


“When you look down,
all you see is your own fear.”

It took guts for Renzo Martens to make this film. The images he presents and the strategies he attempts mirror the white west back to itself, largely in unappealing ways. Exposing the exploitation of poverty implicates himself just as much as it critiques casual disregard for suffering.

By chance, earlier today I came across a quote I’d clipped out of Newsweek a few months ago, from a special they did on women leaders.

“People have to allow fear into the process.
It’s part of creativity, whatever your job.”
Kimberly Peirce

It seems to me that we often avoid looking down. The quote from the film refers physically to the black water of a river, potentially populated by dangerous creatures. Metaphorically, it refers to socioeconomic status. What does it mean to look down, to actually see the suffering of others, to face the fact that our relatively pain-free lives are built on an edifice of others’ deprivation? There are limits to sympathy, indeed: we can only feel so much. But we can do more to change the structural conditions that perpetuate hopelessness.