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Elite white feminism fail: Barnard president’s disastrous attempt at viral marketing

Date: February 22, 2014

I received this email this week:

Barnard spam

When I saw the title “Great post!” I thought of two possibilities: it could be someone who really liked one of my blog posts, or it could be a spam. But I didn’t think that it was an email from an Ivy league college promoting its president’s new book and podcast, asking for me as a “feminist thought leader” to provide free platform without offering any reciprocity. It might make sense if I was running a big mainstream feminist site, but it feels arrogant and entitled that they would approach me this way.

I posted the screencap on facebook, and quickly found out that a couple of my friends who are also radical Asian women writers have been contacted by this Barnard College person. So it wasn’t a fluke that they contacted me; they are actively seeking non-mainstream, radical women of color writers to promote the work of Barnard College president, a highly successful white woman.

I decided to investigate further: I looked to see if anyone has accommodated their request to publicize the book and podcast on their blog, but found something more interesting. Not only is Barnard sending emails to its chosen “feminist thought leaders,” they are also posting unsolicited, unrelated comments on dozens of other people’s blogs that is indistinguishable from spam comments.

In one of the pages Barnard spammed, Feminist Forte, author Molly responded to Barnard’s spam comment:

From what I have gleaned online, Debora Spar seems to be aligned with mainstream, white, NYC-centric feminism. In other words, her feminism isn’t my feminism, so I’m going to decline.

That was exactly my thought when I saw the email, but Barnard had no response.

They even posted the same spam comment on The TERFs, a site dedicated to opposing a version of radical feminism that discriminates against trans people, but apparently the moderator did not approve their post. So they tried again (it says “I do apologize – this is my second attempt to comment”), and was approved.

Barnard is obviously trying to tap the power of viral marketing, but they are failing miserably: despite many spam comments and emails, very few blogs seem to have accommodated their request to publicize the book and podcast. Of course, part of the problem is the idea of the book itself: we are just not interested in hearing a highly privileged woman’s view of what “young women today” need or want. But it is also about how they chose to promote the book, attempting to exploit other women’s platform for their own gain without offering anything meaningful in return.

(Hey, by the way Barnard, thank you for the great idea for my blog!)

This is how uncomfortable I get when I ask for your help to be invited to speak at your school.

Date: September 17, 2012

A new school year has began, and I am asking for your help. If you are affiliated with a college or university, please try to get me invited to come and speak at your school.

It’s so simple to write that paragraph, but it was very difficult for me to write it, partly because of my own personal baggage (i.e. low self-esteem making me feel unworthy of help or invitation, difficulty asking for others’ help, etc.), but partly also because I don’t actually believe in this college speaker circuit. In fact, I think there is something deeply problematic about it.

Readers may not realize the extent to which the college speakers’ circuit has become an industry. I wasn’t either, until Nomy Lamm, a fellow activist, writer, artist and popular college speaker, told me about a trade show for college circuit speakers and performers. Apparently there are these industry “conventions” around the country several times a year, in which would-be speakers (self-identified motivational “gurus,” feel-good “diversity trainers,” semi-celebrities from reality shows, etc.) come to learn new buzzwords and marketing gimmicks. They also staff their booths in the exhibit hall as bored college administrators walk through, picking up brightly colored glossy brochures for their “services.” Inspirational! Energetic! Engaging! The promotional materials scream.

It’s easy to recognize that these college circuit speakers use buzzwords, exaggerated enthusiasm, and flashy colors because they have no substance. But these gimmicks work, in part because that is what college administrators are looking for: administrators often do not treat students like grownups. They often act as if students need to be constantly “inspired” and “energized” with oversimplified sloganeering, whether it is for personal growth or for revolution. (Oh, and by the way, if any administrator is reading this, I’m obviously not talking about you. I’m talking about some other administrator!)

I’m not one of these speakers. I don’t have a brochure or even press photo for myself; I just have a website and lots and lots of writings that tend to promote better understanding of complex realities in which we live, rather than offering simple solutions or positions that readers can click “like” in facebook and forget about. I know that I don’t inspire or energize majority of average American college students, because to do so I would have to betray those students who find the constant celebration of positivity and optimism (common theme among speakers who are considered “inspirational”) rather depressing.

I speak, primarily, to a narrow constituencies of students and others who find the ordinary campus life unbearable: queers and genderqueers who aren’t “getting better,” crips and gimps who are invisible, kids from immigrant or poor families who somehow went astray into weird academic departments like Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies against their communities’ good sense, survivors who have trouble distinguishing campus from a war zone, students who do sex work to pay for the salary of professors who categorically deny their experiences. I was all of the above myself (and more), after all.

I do believe that my voice has something to contribute to the campus life, not just in the sense of validation and support for the students who fit the descriptions above, but also for others who need to be challenged and pushed further: that seems like an important part of college education for any student. But it is difficult for me to promote myself as a college speaker (outside of the formal structures of academia) when I know that the market is saturated with speakers who are better at promoting themselves, and especially when I feel so inadequate at doing what college administrators (again, not you–the other administrators!) expect speakers to do.

Another reason I resent the college speakers’ circuit is that it is hard to feel that my voice is worth the price I am charging. When I began speaking on college campuses years ago, I only asked for $200 because that seemed like a fair price for a gig involving travel. But I was treated very poorly by the administrators (and by some student organizers, when I was visiting elite schools) during my visit, which they did little to promote. Over time, I realized that people not only respect me and what I have to say more, but also pay more attention to my visit when I get paid more.

But is my presentation really worth that much? I once went to a lecture by world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which I had been really excited about prior to the event. But his lecture, for which he was paid in the tens of thousands of dollars I assume, was disappointing: because he was speaking to the general public, his audience included enough people who did not believe in evolution in the first place, forcing Dawkins to explain very basic justifications for the theory of evolution. Much of his lecture could have been given by any high school biology teacher, or by me for that matter: I did not feel that I learned anything new from the highly anticipated lecture of one of the world’s leading biologists and atheists.

Even though I am paid far less than Dawkins, I still worry that I am not offering enough value for the buck. After all, most of my writings are available for free on my website, where you could probably find online 90% of what I say in my presentations. It might be more worthwhile if students would read my writings prior to my visit, and are prepared to ask hard questions about them when I get there, but that hardly happens: most students have not even heard of me until I show up.

It took me time to feel somewhat comfortable with asking for more money, and I used several arguments to rationalize it to myself: First, the money for the speakers (often student fee funds) is already there, and I certainly feel that I offer something more valuable than many “motivational speakers” or “diversity trainers.” Second, speaking honoraria allow me to use my time and energy on doing more activist projects instead of using all of my energy on merely surviving, and it promotes social changes that I am advocating for. And third, we need a model of supporting independent activists and artists who work outside of existing structures of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, political lobby groups, and academic institutions.

Having the college speakers’ circuit subsidize independent activists and artists may not be an ideal solution: in a way, the more recent development of crowd-fundraising schemes may offer a more transparent and democratic structure. In fact, I’ve been half-joking with friends about starting a Foundation to Sustain Emi to solicit ongoing pledge donations to support my work. But it can also fall into popularity contest and celebrity worship rather than creating a sustainable structures to enable movements for social justice. On the other hand, administrators of “college speakers’ circuit” could be viewed, at best, as curators of activists and artists who do not receive mainstream recognition and support in a popularity contest, but offer something unique and valuable to the intellectual and activist dialogues.

That I have to write this lengthy apologia for my role as a college speaker shows how uncomfortable I feel about asking for your support, but I need it. For one thing, my two main sources of income have been speaking honoraria and sex work, and the latter is becoming more difficult due to my age and disabilities. But of course it should not be about just helping me out: it is also about what I can bring to the campus and to the movements for social and economic justice. If you are reading this blog, I assume that you value my work. And if you value my work, and if you are able, please help me continue to do that, while raising awareness at your campus at the same time.

(Of course, your zine purchases and donations also help, too! Also, while I’m at shameless self-promotion, do follow me on Twitter or Facebook.)

Danielson’s “Homecoming Queers” details 2000 panel by Raging Exotics: Women of Color Caucus at PSU Women’s Studies Department

Date: June 10, 2012

Recently I came across Marivel T. Danielson’s book, “Homecoming Queers: Desire and Difference in Chicana Latina Cultural Production.” The book draws heavily on the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, who is not just one of my favorite authors, but the single most important influence in my own development as a feminist theorist and writer, so it was naturally very interesting to me.

But what I found most curious about the book was that it refers to the student organization I co-founded while attending Portland State University, Raging Exotics: Women of Color Caucus at PSU Women’s Studies Department. In fact, Danielson concludes the book with a story about a panel Raging Exotics presented at a women’s studies conference at University of Arizona, which was nightmarish. It’s re-traumatizing just to read her description of the incident, but I’m glad that someone put into record what happened, because we were too stressed to write about it ourselves.

Below is an excerpt from “Homecoming Queers” that describes what happened. In the book, she discusses the incident further using concepts she introduces elsewhere, so please take a look at the book if you are interested. (By the way, I believe that the French woman mentioned toward the end was Monique Wittig. Can someone confirm?)


Excerpted from “Homecoming Queers: Desire and Difference in Chicana Latina Cultural Production” by Marivel T. Danielson, p. 184-190

One group of students engaged in such a critical, political, and creative revolution of hegemonic academia emerged from the Women’s Studies Department at Portland State University under the self-proclaimed title “Raging Exotics: Women of Color Caucus.” In the fall of 2000 at the University of Arizona, founding members of Raging Exotics alongside Women’s Studies students from the Tucson campus offered a workshop at this conference proudly entitled “The Future of Women’s Studies Conference.” The panel detailed the student organization’s history, goals, and personal experiences and traumas lived by women of color students within Women’s Studies academic departments as well as the field in general. Although the group offered copies of their work in print, the most vibrant form of theorizing occurred as the panel and audience performed the lived experience of collaboration and confrontation in this “live” venue.

[…]

Over the course of their panel, “Raging Exotics” members Monica Steen, Lamya Chidiac, and Emi Koyama, joined by two local University of Arizona Women’s Studies students, would present their own experiences, each reading a prepared statement” about the unique forms of racism and ignorance with which she grapples on a daily basis as a student in the Portland State University’s Women’s Studies Department. In addition to their panel presentations, the students offered copies of their independently published zine. In this publication, the “Raging Exotics” established their goals as well as demands of audiences and readers alike: “The issues we are talking about are still very traumatic for us, so we may get emotional in the course of the presentation. Do not freak out or use our emotions as an excuse to devalue our words. And if you are white, take responsibility for your discomfort upon hearing our very difficult stories. We are not talking about skinheads or KKK; we are talking about perfectly well-intentioned feminists who end up hurting us due to their ignorance and prejudice” (Raging Exotics Zine).

However, before they could begin their presentation, the validity of their experiences and theories would be performed as a profoundly troublesome introduction. That afternoon I entered the tiny, almost empty classroom with an Anglo female friend who insisted on sitting silently in the back row. When I suggested we move closer to the front of the room, she shook her head and pointed to a sign written in large letters on a blackboard at the side of the room: “This is a space for Women of Color to speak and express ourselves. If you are not a Woman of Color please keep your comments brief. If you do not respect this request we will tell you to stop. This workshop is not about you.”

I sat and watched as women entered, filling the room, reading the sign, and reacting with varying degrees of melodrama, outrage, indignation, fear, righteousness, humor, and fierce accord. One older woman appeared disturbed and seemed to scoff at the sign’s request. She strolled calmly into the classroom, claiming a seat in the front row directly across from the panelists, as if initiating a duel. Before the speakers began, the woman rose from her seat and walked to the center of the table where they had placed a stack of their self-created zines. She first read a sign indicating that the publication was free to women of color and five dollars for allies. In a loftily sarcastic voice, the women challenged, “What if you’re 1/16 Cherokee. Does that count?” Clearly upset, one of the panelists managed to state firmly, “I find your statement offensive. I think you should leave.” The woman offered that she was just joking and, if given the benefit of the doubt, could have been lightly directing an anti-essentialist nudge at the workshop organizers’ establishing statement. When she was met with only stunned silence, she turned to face the now nearly full and shocked audience and implored, “Do you think I should leave?” No doubt expecting a warm and supportive match to her own indignation at the situation, she received, instead, only our own awkward silence and stares. Another panelist quietly argued that perhaps she should be allowed to stay, but the stand-off would not so easily be diffused. Finally, incredulous, the woman turned, gathered her things, and exited the room as the rest of us watched speechless. Perhaps none of us had ever observed a scene where an older Anglo professor, with clear institutional knowledge and authority, had been shut down by a young woman of color student. Perhaps we had never seen or experienced a space in which insensitive quips, derogatory joking, and carelessly tossed racist statements were neither tolerated, nor reciprocated. Perhaps we had only dreamed of such spaces where women of color took precedence even in the company of other dominant groups. And we sat speechless now, not realizing these spaces could actually exist, that we would ever be fortunate enough to locate them, to situate our- selves, our bodies, voices, and experiences within such a site.

In this pivotal moment, graduate students, young and largely queer women of color, assembled a space of their own along the lines of similarity as well as shared difference from larger dominant spheres. They defined this sitio with specific boundaries to indicate whose participation was relevant and permissible. The attention to voice, la lengua, was also imperative, as they were clear in their desire to allow the words and experiences of women of color to not only emerge but also to dominate or at least saturate the discursive focus of the workshop. In addition to invoking such voices, the members of “Raging Exotics” attempted to remove any dominant voices deemed distractionary, demeaning, or dismissive. Even seemingly supportive gestures were deconstructed into their most basic dominant parts, as when one white French woman began to cry as she expressed how upset she was that someone would think her oppressive when all she intended to do was help. After continuing to speak between tearful gasps for roughly a five-minute uninterrupted stretch, one panelist responded dryly that this workshop “was not about her [the French woman].” Whether intentional or not, the woman’s emotions shifted the panel’s intended focus from the unique experiences and needs of women of color in academia to the guilt and indignation of Caucasian female scholars. Rather than rush to the side of this woman, the students simply recognized the attempt to shift attention and refocused on their own critical agenda. The attempt, of course, was to cease what Gloria Anzaldúa calls reactive communication, where a struggle takes the form of action/reaction where all critical thought is focused on combating the ideas of others, rather than offering up new and original ideas of one’s own. For the “Raging Exotics,” the goal was to act and speak, rather than respond to the issues and inquiries of another. Yet Pérez deems such a sitio strategic, since even the original thoughts and speech presented in the room that afternoon were responses to actions and words of the now silenced Anglo women. Painful exclusions, bitter dismissals, and tokenized treatment marked most of the experiences shared that day. Though the imposed Anglo silence rule removed these women’s discourse from the hour or so of discussion-following the conflict and indignant ejection of one woman–the sitio was provisional, not permanent or lasting in its ability to silence or remove the structures of power present among feminist scholars.

[…]

New button for college instructors

Date: February 4, 2012

RTF Syllabus Button

Pedagogy of the Bound and Gagged: Teacher as a Dominatrix (memo)

Date: November 1, 2011

This is actually a serious pedagogical paper I was going to write many years ago, but a pedagogical conference rejected my abstract and I never ended up writing. I just re-discovred it in my hard drive, and I thought you might find it interesting…

1) Traditional feminist pedagogies:
– create “safe space” for women where personal experiences can be shared, honored, and placed in sociopolitical context.
– foster egalitarian relationship among students as well as between students and the teacher.
– personal awareness connected to political action.

2) Problem with the traditional feminist pedagogies:
– creates pretense of egalitarian relationship, when in reality there are definite power imbalances not just between teacher and the student, but also among students along their respective social locations.
– notions of “safe space” privileges women who are oppressed only because of sex (i.e. white, middle-class, able-bodied, etc.)

3) “Safe, sane and consensual” S/M pedagogy:
– explicit negotiation of power within classroom which outlines rules and responsibilities
– exercise of power is consensual and designed to maximize equity and learning (e.g. use of teacher’s power to interrupt oppressive patterns and model anti-oppressive behaviors)
– positions as “teacher” and “students” played as roles, rather than something inherent in the individuals or the relationship
– use of “safe words” to time-out

An Open Letter to Oregon Commentator, a UO publication that called me an advocate for sex trafficking

Date: May 23, 2011

I knew that something like this was bound to happen, but here it goes: Oregon Commentator, a conservative student publication of University of Oregon, alleges that I “advocated sex trafficking” in my May 19 presentation at the Eugene campus. Criticizing The Student Insurgent, which hosted my presentation, Oregon Commentator Editor-in-Chief Lyzi Diamond writes:

The Student Insurgent, in a surprising turn of events, is actually doing something. I would be proud, if their actions weren’t entirely asinine.

First, they hosted a guest speaker last week who advocated sex trafficking. No joke.

Following this, Diamond quotes the description for my UO lecture from The Student Insurgent blog:

War on Terror & War on Trafficking:
Why Irrational Panic over ‘Modern Day Slavery’ Harms Women

Thursday May 19th, from 6-730pm in Condon 104, University of Oregon.

Presented by Emi Koyama, War on Terror & War on Trafficking examines “facts” promoted by the anti-trafficking groups and “experts,” and exposes how they have distorted our conversations about sex trafficking and prostitution and harmed women, sex workers, immigrants, and others.

The presentation also explores many ways in which the new War on Trafficking resembles the so-called War on Terror in its worldview, approach, and devastating impact on vulnerable communities. […]

Come to find out why:

  • Average age of entry into prostitution is not 12-14 year old
  • 300,000 children are not at risk of being trafficked
  • A third of runaway youth are not trafficked within first 48 hours
  • Super Bowl and World Cup did not contribute to human trafficking
  • Portland is not “Pornland, Oregon”
  • “End Demand” approach targeting “johns” harms women
  • Anti-trafficking “experts” should not be trusted (remember Bill Hillar?)
  • Trafficking is often the State’s excuse to raid immigrants and communities of color
  • Anti-trafficking movement distorts reality and misleads public policy

Diamond’s inaccurate and highly offensive (and libelous) characterization of me actually proves a point I made in my presentation: The “you are with us or with the terrorists” mentality from the War on Terror has permeated the anti-trafficking movement, making it difficult to have a rational conversations about what to do about the issue. But perhaps it’s irrelevant what I said in the presentation, because as far as I know Lyzi Diamond or anyone else affiliated with Oregon Commentator actually did not come and listen to my presentation.

That said, I am sending them the following message as an open letter to Oregon Commentator:

Lyzi Diamond, the Editor-in-Chief
Oregon Commentator

May 23, 2011

I am writing in response to your May 22 blog post, in which you describe me as an advocate of sex trafficking. Such characterization is false and highly offensive, especially since you did not attend my presentation to hear what I actually have to say, and I request that you formally retract it.

Your mission statement states that you “believe that the University should be a forum for rational and informed debate.” Further, it states that you “believe that it is important for the University community to view the world realistically, intelligently, and above all, rationally.” I believe that you have failed to live up to these commitments when you describe me as an advocate for sex trafficking.

The main point of my presentation was precisely that our conversations about sex trafficking had been based on false premises, which precluded our ability to view the world realistically and to enact rational policies and responses to combat human trafficking. For you to suggest that raising such criticism amounts to advocacy of sex trafficking does not help contribute to the rational and informed debate; in fact, it is reminiscent of the same political climate of ideological dogma and mob mentality that you so despise.

Even though I am a feminist and a liberal, one of the things I respect about the tradition of conservative political philosophy from Edmund Burke on is its healthy skepticism toward human perfectibility. Liberals and progressives too often propose laws and regulations to resolve real or perceived social problems without fully recognizing or understanding the long chain of unintended consequences that might prove more harmful than the original problem the policy is designed to solve. My critiques of the anti-trafficking movement are made in the same vein: many policies that are intended to combat sex trafficking are actually counter-productive, despite their good intentions.

In “A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles,” prominent conservative thinker Thomas Sowell argues that liberals tend to associate good intentions with good results, and therefore they attribute negative intentions for those who do not agree with them. Conservative on the other hand do not automatically associate good intentions with good results, so they are more capable of criticizing others’ positions and ideas without accusing them of having ill intentions. I find your assault on my intent (i.e. alleging that I advocate for sex trafficking) rather than my ideas to be characteristically liberal in Sowell’s sense, and uncharacteristic for someone who espouses to be a conservative.

Even though I consider myself a feminist and a liberal, I make a point to try to treat my opponents with basic human respect and dignity, as you will see if you read my blog posts about two conservative rallies that I attended (see below for URLs). I hope that you agree with me that partisan name-calling has no place in a rational and intelligent debate over important social and political issues such as human trafficking, and begin your part by retracting the libelous claim that I somehow advocate for sex trafficking. Once that is out of the way, I would be happy to continue the dialogue over how we should combat sex trafficking in the United States. The University community deserves to hear more than just one side that is advocated by the anti-trafficking campus group.

A report on the Tea Party tax day rally:
http://eminism.org/blog/entry/148

A report on the Oregon Right to Life rally:
http://eminism.org/blog/entry/47

Best,

Emi Koyama
Activist and Writer
http://eminism.org/

Academic parasitism on activists must change.

Date: April 20, 2011

A Boston-area university instructor contacted me to seek permission to distribute copies of my (very old) article, The Transfeminist Manifesto. As you can see on my “readings” page, I have instituted a licensing fee policy: anyone who wishes to redistribute my article must pay $0.10 per page per copy (because there’s no middleman, my fee is lower than $0.12 that copy shops charge for copyright clearance), or give me a good reason for me to waive the fee.

The instructor wrote that she was hoping that I would waive the fee because she would be “using it in the classroom.” I understand that many people consider this a good reason, as education is given a special moral position in our society, but I did not feel it was. Below is my response to her.

* * * * *

Hi *****,

I am sending you a printer-ready PDF file, because my purpose for instituting the licensing fee is not to prevent someone from using my article. I am granting you the permission to print and distribute copies of the article in the class, though not the PDF file itself. This file also includes a “bonus” that explains some of the backgrounds of the Manifesto.

That said, “using it in the classroom” at an institution like ***** is exactly the situation for which the licensing fee is intended. I would challenge your assumption that liberal arts education at an elite private university might somehow deserve to be subsidized by this activist and author whose income is a fraction of the tuition necessary to attend *****.

I would question further: Do students get textbooks for free because it’s for use in the classroom? Are the chairs and other equipment donated to ***** for free because they are for use in the classroom? And of course, do instructors teach the class for free? The answers are obviously “no”–why, then, are materials published and made available online by activists any different?

As you might have gathered by now, I don’t request licensing fees just because I need the money. I do so because I want members of academic institutions to consider these questions and try to build a more respectful toward and mutually beneficial relationship with activists whose work is studied. Scholars and students often rely on countless hours of uncompensated access to activists and their work for information, source material, interviews, etc. to further their careers or degrees, and yet act as if they are actually doing them a favor by paying attention to the issues. It needs to change.

As I said in the beginning, I am already granting you the permission to use the article in your classroom. But if you feel like paying (or having students pay) for licensing, please make (and encourage your students to make) donations, in lieu of the fees to: The Network/La Red in Boston.

(By the way–the article is also available, sans the “bonus”, in the anthology Catching a wave: reclaiming feminism for the 21st century. You would still have to comply with the copyright law, but you can have students find my article in libraries that way. If anyone had to pay fees for copyright clearance, I prefer that the money go toward The Network/La Red instead of some copy shop).

Best,

Emi Koyama

* * * * * (End of email)

In this case, I decided to give her the permission to use the material for free, but only after she is forced to read the above (and hopefully it made her think); I have waived fees in other instances, for example when an isolated trans student contacts me from a small college in the Midwest because she wants to educate her classmates about trans issues in a class presentation.

That’s an example of what I’d consider a good reason for me to waive the fee, because what she is trying to do is a form of activism and it matches what I wrote the article for in the first place. Teachers sometimes think of “exposing students to new ideas” as a form of activism too, but it’s also their job and I expect to be treated professionally in that context–unless of course there are other factors.

Dismissive use of “postmodern” label harms social change movements

Date: March 19, 2010

Alice Dreger, Ellen Feder and Hilde Lindemann have published an update to their article, “Fetal Cosmetology,” in Bioethics Forum that comment on the “responses” to that article, including to my own contribution to the conversation. I am generally in agreement with Dreger et al., but I want to comment on how they respond to my concerns. In the article, “Prenatal Dex: Update and Omnibus Reply,” they state:

In the first published response to our Bioethics Forum essay, Emi Koyama castigated bioethicists in general for not acting to defend the rights of vulnerable persons, leaving us to wonder why our sustained and substantial action was seized as an opportunity to complain about non-action. While we share Ms. Koyama’s concerns about the medical-industrial complex’s take-over of women’s bodies, we rather doubt her postmodern feminist language would have moved the feds the way we have moved the feds. Pardon our pragmatism.

First of all, my essay was not a response to their piece in Bioethics Forum; it was a response to the “letter of concern from bioethicists” posted on Dreger’s site. In fact, I was not even aware of their Bioethics Forum piece until after I submitted the first draft of the essay, and reference to their article was added by the editor of Bioethics Forum to give readers further context.

I am castigating not just bioethicists’ inaction on behalf of vulnerable populations, but also the limitations bioethics as a field has imposed on itself on the scope of their philosophical and ethical inquiry, obsessing over policies and procedures rather than sociopolitical implication of the increasing role and authority of medicine. I did express my appreciation for the “action” of the bioethicists and other scholars responsible for the “letter of concern,” and at the same time I explained why it had the danger of backfiring, like it did on the controversy surrounding growth attenuation, because they continue to operate within the confines of the field of bioethics as it is today.

Further, I resent their dismissive characterisation of my essay as written in “postmodern feminist language” and the patronising statement, “Pardon our pragmatism.” I would concede that voices of concern from among disability rights and women’s health movements are often ineffective at changing the problematic medical practices by themselves, and we often need certain spokespersons and “experts” that transform these voices into pragmatic strategies, these spokespersons and “experts” must be held accountable to the movements which they represent. Thus, the need for pragmatic strategies is in no way an excuse for dismissing activists’ and impacted communities’ concerns as mere “postmodern” intellectual exercise.

Dreger herself has been labeled “postmodernist” by the critics of her work, and she resists this. On her website, she wrote: “Although I sometimes get labeled a ‘postmodernist’ because I write and speak about the social complexities of science and medicine, in fact I would have to label myself a raving modernist. I really believe in the power of science to improve our knowledge and our lives.” I also write and speak about the social complexities of science and medicine, including the field of bioethics, and somehow she finds it convenient to label me “postmodernist” in a dismissive way.

Finally, I find the suggestion that my “postmodern feminist language” is what prevents me from being able to “move the feds the way [Dreger et al.] have moved, as if we live in a society in which everyone’s opinions are equally respected and judged solely by their content, offensive. There is no question that their success (so far) has been made possible by the number of Ph.Ds and MDs on the “letter of concern” as well as by Dreger’s and others’ officially sanctioned academic and medical authority and connections that arose from these positions, which have been heavily influenced by their class backgrounds, educational and professional opportunities, and other social conditions. These factors inform our political sensibilities and sometimes open or close certain venues of social change.

I am a pragmatic person, and a pragmatic activist. As a pragmatist, I really don’t see any benefit from Dreger et al. and I continuing to communicate this way publicly. But I reject the idea that pragmatism is a justification for dismissing the sometimes inflexible and unpragmatic but principled work of the disability rights and women’s health movements; in fact, pragmatism and idealism are both essential elements of a successful social change movements, and even that of a successful activist.

Presenting at elite universities: a guilty pleasure? And introduction to my next piece on borderlands of gender

Date: March 18, 2010

I just came home from my trip to Providence to speak at Brown University for the second time. My last visit there was in April 2007, which you can read about here.

The title of my presentation (workshop) was “Transgender Inclusion, or Demilitarizing the Borderlands of Binary Gender System.” It is a critique of “inclusion” model of transgender activism, which promotes individuals’ rights to self-define who they are while leaving the larger structure of binary gender system mostly intact, only creating rooms for minor “exceptions.” While self-determination is an important goal, the promotion of individual choice and responsibility in the absence of justice and equity is the hallmark of the neoliberal ideology and needs to be challenged.

As the title suggests, the workshop also introduced the concept of borderlands, which Gloria Anzaldúa describes as “vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” In the book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa presents a parallel view of borderlands in the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the borderlands created by the boundaries of race, gender and sexuality. I’ve been using the metaphor of borderlands to talk about transgender issues for a long time, but I have not been able to present it in a way that was easy for people to understand, but preparing for this workshop helped me to think through how to go about writing a piece that centers on this idea. In other words: stay tuned.

I actually did this workshop at the National MEChA conference at University of Oregon a while back, but that was an audience that was already familiar with issues around borders, borderlands, and immigration. But the highly privileged Brown University crowd would have a very different backgrounds, and I worried that I might not be able to convey my ideas very well.

To my surprise, though, everything went fine. In fact, it turned out great. I have given workshops and lectures at many universities around the country, but speaking at an elite school like Brown (other schools in this category that I’ve visited include University of Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale) is actually very enjoyable and stimulating for me. Students are bright, of course, but they also possess the cultural capital that affords them the luxury of abstract critical thinking and complexity. And at the same time, I feel certain level of resentment at their highly privileged existence and prospect–these are the people who would join companies like Goldman Sachs and get huge bonuses while the rest of us suffer from unemployment and increasingly hostile labour market.

When talking about the binary gender system, people sometimes jump to the conclusion that we should simply “deconstruct” genders so that everyone is free to be who they are. I’ve been told over and over (by bunch of graduate students, scholars, and some highly educated trans activists) that the intersex movement should work on challenging the binary gender system because that is where the oppression of intersex people stem from. I have nothing against that proposal, except for the fact that intersex children are being harmed by the society’s intolerance of their variance every day and need more immediate, practical help now.

I did not want Brown students to go home only with the critique of identity-based argument for transgender “inclusion,” or with a simple understanding that “deconstructing” binary gender system (however long it would take, and however many trans and intersex people would continue to suffer until that magical day) was the way to go. My call for “demilitarizing the borderlands of binary gender system” is distinct from simply “deconstructing” the binary: it starts with an acknowledgement that trans and intersex people live in the borderlands, and take concrete steps to demilitarise their environment that is the consequences of the society’s attempt to draw a clear and unambiguous boundaries where none naturally exists.

More on that coming soon…

By the way, out of 16-18 students who came to my presentation, not one of them has ever read anything by Gloria Anzaldúa! WTF!?

Delightful dinner conversation at the Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College

Date: March 16, 2010

This past week, I attended the 29th Annual Gender Studies Symposium at Lewis & Clark College. Since I am local and available, I seem to get invited just about every single year on various panels, but this year I was invited to speak on the topic of disability and sexuality.

There is also a dinner reception on the first day of this conference for organizers, college staff, and presenters each year. I’ve never actually attended the dinner in all those years I’ve been part of the conference, but this year I thought I’d check it out. So I walked into a room full of people I didn’t recognize, and picked a table to join.

It turned out that all four people sitting at the table I picked were administrators at Lewis & Clark who had something to do with the conference. After a quick introduction, they went back to the conversation they were having before I joined the table, which was about the small swastika drawing inside men’s bathroom at the said campus.

To summarize their conversation, they were talking about how students initially did not take the issue seriously, dismissing the drawing as an isolated incident that didn’t mean anything. But the school took time holding campus-wide conversations about the incident and how it might affect Jewish students, students of color and others targeted by the Neo-Nazis and other white supremacy groups, and many white non-Jewish students began to understand that it meant something to some students and should not be tolerated.

“Can I ask a question?” I asked. “Well I was reading the program for this year’s conference, and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that all main speakers and performers seem to be white this year. I don’t think this conference was like that in other years I came. Has there been any conversations about that?”

Immediately, a couple of the administrators started stressing, “it was not intentional!” “We noticed that after we planned all the main speakers, but we didn’t do that on purpose. We picked our speakers according to their expertise in this year’s theme, and it was a coincidence that they were all white.”

It wasn’t on purpose? Of course it wasn’t! If I thought it was on purpose, there is no way I would step a foot on this campus ever again (and while this isn’t the main point of this blog post, WTF is up with the name of this school anyway?). And am I supposed to feel comforted because even though all of the main speakers and performers in this conference are white, it was not intentional?

The problem, of course, is not the presence of malicious intent, but the absence of anti-white supremacy intent to create a conference whose speakers and performers are not just competent, but also diverse. It is about the lack of willingness on the part of organizers to go a little bit deeper to find and invite researchers and speakers of color with equal level of expertise and knowledge who are not receiving fair share of attention or status either because of their background or because of the focus of research that white academia deems unimportant.

And if the college is not interested in making an effort to not let very predictable “coincidence” after “coincidence” take place not just in terms of the racial breakdown of the main speakers, but in other aspects as well, what’s the point of hosting Gender Studies Symposium anyway? Besides, how did the administrators fail to see the parallel between the defensiveness of Lewis & Clark College students over the swastika drawing on the urinal and their own defensiveness in response to my query?

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