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White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

On the potential of color talk

“Why you and Ms. Shannon both light-skinned?” asked Alicia (not her real name) last Wednesday. Shannon is one of my employees. I’m white and she’s black. Not only that, I’m about as white as white can be– Irish descent, fair skin that sunburns in minutes, bright blue eyes, dirty blond hair (currently dyed brunette). Shannon has light/medium brown skin and dark brown African American hair. I think some would say she’s light-skinned and others wouldn’t. But, there’s really no need to examine our skin shades further; the point is that while Shannon and I may have any number of things in common, skin color is just not one of them.

—Long post! Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: education, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Society, , , , , , , , , , , ,

American Conversions to Islam

A week or so ago, I began to write about how converting to Islam sometimes presents African Americans a way to create a more specific non-American ethnicity and/or a way to rebel against the oppressive European Christian society thus further solidifying their identities as black. So, starting from the point that converting to Islam can in someway present black Americans the opportunity to be less a part of white society and therefore more or more distinctly black, what can be said about the unusual case of Jihad Jane?Understandably, many reports of this story have emphasized the idea that our stereotypes of what a terrorist looks like have finally been disproved. But not so many stories have examined Jihad Jane’s whiteness in comparison to other instances of domestic terrorism, as Renee Martin of Ms. Blog does here. As Martin writes:

But when LaRose took the name Jihad Jane–thus identifying herself with Islam, a religion many westerners view as violent despite its core teachings and the behavior of most followers–she disassociated herself from Whiteness. And that made it impossible for commentators to once again apologize for a White American who commits domestic terrorism.

Martin’s thoughts about J Jane and whiteness prompt me to examine how white conversions to Islam compare to black conversions. However, I think it’s unfair to the many white people who convert and do not embark on violent jihads. Also, I’m not sure that I want J Jane’s race to be emphasized more– I think she deserves to be treated as harshly as the others involved in the terrorist plot. While agree with Martin that it’s problematic that American culture views Islam as antithetical to whiteness, I don’t want J Jane to benefit from the insanity explanation given to other white domestic terrorists.

Filed under: News, , , , , , , , ,

Ms Magazine Blog!

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for quoting Annie Shields’ comments about the Ben Roethlesberger rape charges, and thereby reintroducing me to the stellar feminist media that is Ms. Magazine.

Filed under: Internet/Blogosphere, Media & Culture, , , , ,

Gabourey Sidibe is not a healthy weight.


On Monday Howard Stern said of Gabourey Sidebe, “There’s the most enormous, fat black chick I’ve ever seen. She is enormous. Everyone’s pretending she’s a part of show business and she’s never going to be in another movie[.]” Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily true that she’ll never be in another movie ever again. Apparently she’s cast to be in a Showtime series along side of Zoe Kravitz, and I think that if her performance was as good as everyone says it was, it’s likely that she’ll continue to get roles.

Stern and his co-host Robin took issue with Oprah’s support of Sidebe in the following exchange:

“And Oprah’s lying and saying you’re going to have a brilliant career,” said Robin.
“Oprah’s another liar, a filthy liar,” said Stern. “She’s telling an enormous woman the size of a planet thhttps://sanscilice.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?preview=trueat she’s going to have a career.”

Again, I don’t agree that Sidebe’s weight will eliminate her career possibilities. I support Stern’s comments though because I think they shed some much needed realism on the hypocrisy of Oprah’s relentless support for women’s health initiatives and efforts to promote healthy female role models while ‘wooing’ Sidebe. I don’t take issue with Sidebe’s talent or beauty or acting skills in Precious; I take issue with her health. I’m always happy to see models and actresses surpass a size 4 and I think it’s great that the fashion industry is finally acknowledging the real danger of anorexia. However, I’m not convinced that Oprah’s glorification of true obesity promotes a realistic dialogue about bodies. I can’t think of another American woman who has done more to promote weight loss and health than Oprah so I’m surprised that she has not been more up front about the role that Sibede’s weight has played in her rise to stardom.

Filed under: Current Events, Journalism, Movies, Pop Culture, , , ,

Feminism in Black American Islam: Intro

Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam

I’m currently reading Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam by Carolyn Moxley Rouse. I highly recommend it. Everything I had learned about Islam from grade school through college was situated in one of three very distinct settings: the Middle Ages, romanticized portrayals of the Black Nationalist movement, or the United States’ current war with the Middle East. Because of this, my understanding of the religion was neither cohesive nor flexible. Not only has this book taught me more about the “praxis” (in the Marxist sense as the conscious practice of belief or “synthesis of mental and manual labor”) of Islam in a context relevant to my own life, it has reinvigorated and broadened my engagement with feminism. I want to learn more about African American Islam because of its prevalence within the school where I work. As I learn I’ll post new thoughts on the subject. The next books I plan on reading are Black Routes to Islam edited by Manning Marabel and Hishaam Aidi, and Islam and Blackamerican by Sherman Jackson.

Though I’m sure that most of the families in my school are Christian (either in faith or culture), Islam is a very visible part of the community. It is literally visible, in that many of the kids’ mothers wear hijab and/or niqaab, some girls wear hijab and some fathers wear kurtas or dishadashas. I think that those in the community who practice Qu’ranic dress are practicing Sunni Muslims, although I’m not totally sure. I also have the sense that, especially in the realm of clothing, different individuals feel free to apply Qu’ranic advice as they see fit. For instance, I know one mother who wears a hijab but her daughter does not, and another mother who wears a long curly hairstyle but whose daughter wears a hijab.

5 out of the 40 kids I work with have at least one practicing Muslim parent. While I would be surprised if more than 20% of the school’s families are Muslim, the secular/cultural manifestations of Islam are far more prevalent and point to a great variety of degrees to which families are influenced by Muslim culture. 9 out of the 15 boys and 8 of the 25 girls I work with have first names that are etymologically Arabic or Aramaic with European last names. There are also some students in the school who have Arabic first and last names, some of whom I believe are practicing Muslims and others not. The religious lifestyle is even manifest in a secular form; “no pork” is by far the most frequently listed dietary restriction. I bet it is listed on 1/3 of our students’ medical forms.

A few years ago I encountered the idea that for some African Americans, converting to Islam presents an opportunity to adopt an ethnicity or ethnic culture distinct from mainstream African American culture. I’m sure that the religion appeals to converters for a variety of reasons, but Islam–as a religion and way of life– may have special appeal to blacks who seek to differentiate their personal history and identity from the African American identity which has been significantly influenced by white oppression. The trauma of slavery and the ensuing centuries of familial instability have made it incredibly difficult for many blacks to trace their geneology back to a city or country like most white Americans are able to do. And, although there are many sources of pride within the African American culture and history, I have sensed and heard that this culture and history can also be a source of shame. Though I do not blame the problems ascribed uniquely to the black American community, writ large, on individuals’ apathy or moral failures, I can understand why some blacks disavow the culture which produces the individuals who add to negative stereotypes.

Black people searching for a more specific personal history and/or new cultural identity may find conversion to Islam appealing as it can address both concerns. The US is skeptical and fearful of Islam. To most of America–even liberals– Islam is decidedly “Other.” Americans associate it with a totally different part of the world and frequently assume that, as a religion, it is in stark opposition to the “uniquely” Christian values on which the country was supposedly founded. These differences– real or perceived–make conversion to Islam much more than a change in faith or a spiritual re-awakening; the conversion becomes a process whereby one can choose to identify with a part and ethnically and culturally different part of the world while also eschewing the system of values which was imprecated in the construction of the country which racially oppressed black people for centuries.

By thinking about African American Islam in this way, I became more sympathetic to conversion as a legitimate and authentic act of individual agency whereas previously I had only thought about blacks’ conversion to Islam as a largely political statement following the Nationalist movement. Clearly, at that point I knew very little about Islam in America. Even after becoming comfortable with conversion as potentially empowering to the individual who chooses it, I still viewed such a conversion as lamentable (especially for women) and detrimental to feminism much in the same way I lament the existence of conservative feminism; I was glad that women were at least consciously asserting their identities and grappling with the meaning of womanhood (maybe they’ll come around!) but was not in support of breathing new life into traditional gender roles. Conservative Feminism, whose female supporters strive to be exemplars of the subordinate yet (re)productive American housewife, remains anathema to me because I am not convinced by its members’ desire for women’s empowerment (which I believe is the one definite goal of all feminisms) and am disgusted by the way their proud servility feeds (literally and figuratively) white male capitalism.

Reading Rouse’s Engaged Surrender has completely changed my view of black women’s conversion to Islam. Although there are still some gender-related limitations which I think are morally wrong (homophobia in particular) I am very much in favor of the inherently feminist discourse which naturally emerges from the African American Sunni Muslim community. And, now that I have a better idea of the praxis of Sunni Muslims, I believe that feminist praxis has great potential to improve its local community and perhaps the black American community at large. In the next few posts in this thread I intend to examine the feminist discourses and attitudes facilitated by Islam as they have been written about by Rouse. I also intend to deal with other examinations of black Islam in different contexts. I am particularly interested to learn about the experience of black Muslims who were born into the religion and its way of life, as opposed to choosing it as an act of independence.

Please note that, as white atheist or not, I do NOT intend my attitude toward and individual understanding of African American Sunni Islam to be seen as advice to group of which I am not a part to convert to a religion of which I am not a part. Instead, I am working to understand how women in different communities create different routes to empowerment. Though some strains of feminism resonate more strongly with me personally, I believe that the development of a greater variety of effective feminisms will result in a greater variety of empowered women. I do not envision utopias, but I see no logical reason to disbelieve that if one half of our population is granted the same respect, support and validity as the other, much less distrust will hinder our progress and vastly more capable individuals will contribute to the greater good.

Filed under: education, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Society, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Good Hair Comes from India!!!

Chris Rock’s trip to Chennai, India was one of the most intriguing parts of Good Hair. Apparently, the vast majority of hair used in human hair weaves comes from India. Most of it is bought from Hindu temples that perform sacrificial tonsures (head shavings). (An interviewee did speak about the black market hair trade but I found him to be a less than credible source.) The hair is then bought by weave manufacturers who sort it, wash it, comb it and assemble it into tracks of hair.

thanks to sunnyshairandwigs.blogspot.com for the great photo!

I had an unnecessarily negative reaction to this information. Because I associate most products made in India or Southeast Asia solely for American consumption with capitalism, colonialism and destruction of local environments and knowledge, I hastily assumed that evil was at play within this transnational hair trade. After thinking more though, I really can’t see any problem with this. Tonsuring has existed as a Hindu ritual for much much longer than human hair weaves have become a profitable commodityCitizens choose to be tonsured as a self-sacrifice to Lord Vishnu, so one can’t really argue that they forced into this or unfairly compensated. The temples do profit off of hair sales, but the profit defrays overhead costs and supports charitable operations. I suppose the temples are not always upfront with the shavees about the fact they sell the hair, but the hair-buying weave-making industry isn’t underground so no one is being duped. Moreover, Indian people own and operate the weave companies which ensures that the profits go back to the community. Whether or not said profit is fairly distributed, I don’t know, but either way it doesn’t seem to be a capitalist enterprise more evil than any other.

To learn more about the collection, manufacturing and distribution, go to Sunny’s Hair Blogit has a great Q&A by an American online hair vendor traveling to India to see the process first hand.

Filed under: Movies, Pop Culture, , , , , , , , , ,

Good Hair

I just watched  Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair.

Rock does a good job of exploring the aspects of black women’s hair choices that he finds problematic, especially the fact that most black American women’s styles emulate European hair. The meme that black styles emulate white hair has a legitimately problematic history. The racially fraught nature of the ‘straighter is better’ meme becomes more apparent when partnered with the colorist meme that blacks with lighter skin are more beautiful). At one point in the movie, a hair-stylist mentions that moms want their young daughters’ hair relaxed because its unmanageable. I’ve heard this defense before and it usually strikes me as disingenuous. Thinking about my own hair though, I think the manageability issue has a degree of salience.

I have super thick, coarse, curly, frizzy dark blond hair. It’s not nappy like black hair, but– to give you a sense of how far away it is from being straight and silky– if I brush out my hair (styled in a bob) it will stand on end in what can best be described as a Euro Afro. I’ve always worn my hair curly. I blow dry and iron it straight two or three times a year, but I’ve never had it chemically straightened and am sure that I never will. Though I think my curly hair is beautiful (even gorgeous!) when I wash, dry and style it properly, sleeping on it transforms it into crazy-person hair. It really annoys me that I can’t just comb it in order to make it look sane. I’m about 80% Irish, 5% Welsh, 5% English, 5% Dutch and 5% French and I too have occasional dreams of silky straight shiny locks that lay down.

Filed under: Movies, Personal, Society, , , , , , ,

Dear Mr. President– Yes, You Can!

Ms. Hamedah Hasan’s official plea website.

Filed under: activism, Current Events, Politics, , , , , , , , , ,

Support Hameda Hasan

From Ms. Hamedah HasanHuffingtonPost comes Hameda Hasan’s impassioned plea for clemency from President Obama. She is now serving the 17th year of her 27 (!!!) year sentence for a non-violent, first time, drug-related offense involving crack cocaine which she never used or dealt. As Hasan rightly points out “Had I been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, I would be home with my three daughters and two grandchildren by now.”

Please read Hasan’s whole letter. It is an amazing personal story, one which has moved many organizations, including the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and the ACLU, to act on her behalf. I hope President Obama is compelled. My one fear is that her Muslim name will make clemency a politically unpopular move. Obama and his team (and media outlets other than Fox News) have finally quieted most of the racist and anti-Muslim shit spewed by Tea-Baggers and the like. At this point I’d be surprised if the “secret Muslim/socialist/racist” memes regained strength, but I hope that Obama’s memory of such malicious lies doesn’t interfere with his consideration of Hasan’s clemency plea.

For some background on the issue: Systemic racism is perpetuated by the unequal prosecution of crack and cocaine cases.

Filed under: activism, Current Events, News, Politics, , , , , , , ,

Women CAN be funny (as I’m sure you already know).

I watched entirely to much TV today and came across the very talented Anjelah Johnson on Comedy Central. She can legitimately beat-box too! I know there are many very funny women out there, but they’re a rare breed in stand up. Ms. Johnson’s schtick is far from being the funniest thing that I’ve ever seen, but it was refreshing to see a comedienne who made jokes almost solely at other peoples’ expense. Unlike Janeane Garafalo and a whole slew of other stand up comediennes.

I’m so glad to know that someone else is perplexed when asked “do you like gel for you nail?”

Filed under: On TV, Pop Culture, , , ,

63 year old grandmother charged for staying on exercise bike.

Yes, I think race is a factor here. No, I don’t know all of the details.

Read the full story here.

Carol Shannon, a 63 yr old black grandmom, was violently arrested on February 1st for riding an exercise bike she paid for at a fitness club of which she was a member, and refusing to leave when she was told the bike reservation rules had been changed. The police were called. During her arrest, she was hit with a baton (has bruises to prove it) and threatened with a taser. She is being charged for “aggravated assault, disorderly conduct, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person.”

I wish I could find some follow up on how this case is being handled. I want more from David Gambacorta at the Philadelphia Daily News! Also, WTF, Bally’s Total Fitness? No comment?!?

Filed under: Philadelphia News, , , , , , , ,