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Monday, December 20, 2010

Straight to Hell


By Sikivu Hutchinson

What is it about “death with dignity” that Christian fascists don’t understand? Recently the ultra right wing crackpot at the blog American Power came out swinging against dearly departed Satanist Elizabeth Edwards. Apparently the ailing Edwards wasn’t clear about her submission to God in her deathbed message to family and friends. In a final Facebook posting before her death on December 7th Edwards said that she was sustained in life by “three saving graces—my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope." Blasting her “nihilism” Power wrote that “Edward’s non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists.” Of course, “neo-communists” are the ones that molest children and cover it up, bash gays, commit acts of domestic terrorism, and loot millions from poor people on Sundays in the name of…atheism. Not content with the patriotic tradition of burning blasphemers at the stake, now Christian fascism demands that an individual’s own reckoning with death be policed in the cutthroat blogosphere. But the bashing of Edwards is just a footnote to the larger trend of right wing demonization of secular and left forces reignited by the Tea Party. This trend builds on Cold War “better-dead-than-Red” hysteria equating patriotism and “authentic” American citizenship with being god-fearing. In this universe, communism, totalitarianism, and atheism are the same anti-American McCarthyist mish mash all over again.

Good patriots can never be atheists. Not even football playing alpha males like Pat Tillman, the soldier and atheist whose “friendly fire” death was infamously covered up by the U.S. Army. Tillman made the grievous error of being a dirty infidel and a critic of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. During a September interview on the Bill Maher show, Tillman’s brother Richard blasted folk who’d given his family religious blessings and bromides about Pat going to heaven.

Non-believers, skeptics, and humanists have always been conflicted about declarations of how the (“virtuous”) dead will be speedily dispatched to heaven. Ultimately, the so-and-so is going to heaven or being called “home” claptrap is a lazy way of legitimizing the brutality and finality of death. It is a craven deferral of the hard questions about how chance, circumstance, and randomness inform living in the rude, crude, unjust, savagely precarious wilderness of planet Earth.

Wandering through the savage god-fearing wilds of evangelical America in his book Republican Gomorrah, journalist Max Blumenthal recounts how James Dobson, psychiatrist and oracle of the Religious Right, courted serial rapist and killer Ted Bundy for a Death Row conversion. According to Blumenthal, Bundy’s leap onto the Jesus train was a crowning achievement for Dobson — a man whose greatest Christian therapy was beating the crap out of misbehaving children. Dobson’s obsession with corporal punishment and zero tolerance child-rearing methods is part of a continuum in the near epidemic of pedophilia, sexual abuse, marital infidelity, and domestic violence that “upstanding” male Christian and Catholic leaders have been embroiled in. While all of these behaviors are about violence, power, and heterosexist social control, if you have the power to define, police, and control the boundaries between self and other then your crimes aren’t really transgressions but distorted entitlements. The transgressions of male offenders can be magically purged by repentance to a forgiving Jesus. Jesus after all, is one of them; tough, hard, manly or, as Blumenthal notes, “a stern, overtly masculine patriarch charging into the fray with his sword raised against secular foes.” As long as the high profile male offender is literally and figuratively on top, and goes through the proper channels to repent, moral order is restored.

While heaven is overpopulated and over-mortgaged, hell’s cultural capital has declined somewhat. Public or graveside damnations of evildoers to a robust churning hell are less profitable these days. In an era of pseudo-scientific religious cosmology evocations of hell seem to have lost their purchase with all but the most florid fundamentalists. In an open homage to hell, Jerry Falwell famously declared the 9/11 terrorist attacks God’s revenge on a spiritually corrupt U.S. overrun by moral degenerates like gays, lesbians, and feminists/abortionists. Now, a smugger Christian fascism, far more insidious than the televangelist performance art of Falwell and Pat Robertson has prevailed. The fall of the former Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has bolstered a kind of Christian fascist triumphalism that is not just hell bent on imperial domination but on Orwellian thought policing. The mainstream view that the U.S. is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles reflects Middle American ethnocentrism about the synonymity of democracy and Christianity. And since nationhood and religious belief are still so closely intertwined in the fevered American psyche, even spiritual “equivocators” like Elizabeth Edwards are fair game. As for us unrepentant atheists, we can make room in hell.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Beyond The Sacrificial Good Woman: Freethinking and Black Feminism



By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the 1997 film The Apostle Robert Duvall plays a white Southern Christian fundamentalist preacher and murderer on the lam seeking redemption. The film is literally cluttered with images of devout blacks, from black women swaying in the breeze at a big tent church revival to a particularly indelible church scene of dozens of black men chanting “Jesus” in rapturous response to Duvall’s pulpit-pounding call. I found The Apostle perversely fascinating because it trotted out this totally revisionist romanticized narrative of black obeisance to yet another charismatic but flawed white renegade savior figure in Louisiana (where, contrary to Hollywood flim-flammery, most of the congregations are racially segregated). These popular fantasies of black religiosity always seem to revolve around images of good, matronly black women eternally quivering with a strategic “Amen” or “can I get a witness;” subject to break out into a Blues Brothers back flip down the church aisle at any moment.

It’s a caricature of black feminine servility—in homage to the Lord, the good book and the white renegade—that exemplifies what Toni Morrison has characterized as the “serviceability” of blackness and the black body. In her 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison argues that blackness and the black body—or what she dubs the Africanist presence—have historically functioned as vehicles or props for white subjectivity. In 18th century America, the Africanist presence allowed the new white man of the emergent slave republic to pose and explore fundamental questions about what it meant to be free, what it meant to human and what it meant to be a citizen within a founding “democratic” society. In 19th century Europe, the Africanist presence was literally articulated through the exhibition of black bodies, most notably that of Saartijie Baartman, aka the so-called Venus Hottentot, a young South African Khoi woman. Baartman was paraded all over Europe and displayed in salons in museums by the European scientific establishment. For the hoards of gawking white spectators who paid to see her “perform,” her “grotesquely exaggerated” anatomy demonstrated that there were clear boundaries between the civilized self and the savage sexually deviant Other.

Caught in the crossfire of science and superstition, black femininity has been critical to defining Western notions of “the human.” Negotiating the journey to the human on their own terms has been a centuries’ long quest for black women freethinkers, veering between religion and skepticism, faith and humanism. Bringing a black feminist secular humanist freethinking tradition “out of the closet” requires an assessment of the way black women have intervened in their historical construction as racial and sexual Others.

For example, when preacher and abolitionist Sojourner Truth purportedly rolled up her shirt sleeve during her historic 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech before the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio to show how many rows of cotton she’d plowed, she simultaneously rebuked notions of genteel white womanhood and degraded black femininity. By celebrating her flesh as a field slave and mother of several children “who didn’t need to be helped over ditches,” she was challenging the gendered division between body and intellect, men’s space and women’s space.

Black feminist secular humanism emerges from the legacy of Truth’s humanist intervention into the dualities of Western empiricism and Judeo Christian dogma. Enlightenment and Judeo Christian ideologies of black racial otherness and black sexuality reinforced each other. Blackness was outside of the human, the rational, the sovereign, and, of course, the moral. While white women have traditionally been placed on pedestals, and idealized as the ultimate symbols of feminine virtue, worth and desirability, black women have been demonized as hypersexual Jezebels or asexual Aunt Jemimas. The historical association of black femininity with amorality, promiscuity and fallen womanhood makes the stakes for and investment in black female religiosity higher. Christianity was a means of redeeming “fallen” black femininity.

Truth, of course, was also challenging the authority of white male preachers who muscled in on the Akron Convention to remind the sinful women activists that females who spoke in public were guilty of heresy. In her rebuttal she proclaimed: “Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” Tweaking biblical literalism with her own feminist spin, Truth bequeathed us the paradoxical figure of the defiant black woman of faith, ever-ready with a bit of scripture (ala the take no prisoners Lena Wilder from Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun ) to verbally smack down Christian fundamentalists and heathens-in-the-making alike.
Truth’s example influenced a long line of activist women of faith, from the radical journalist/newspaper owners Ida B. Wells and Charlotta Bass, to civil rights firebrand Fannie Lou Hamer. Wells and Bass drew on humanist freethinking principles in their exhaustive exposes of lynching, racial terrorism and residential segregation. Hamer, an astute critic of the contradictions of Jim Crow “democracy,” was beaten and jailed like a dog for fighting for the right to vote. Yet, in the post-civil rights era, these hybrid models of faith-based and humanist social justice activism have been largely eclipsed by that of the good woman of faith as backbone of an increasingly socially conservative, insular Black Church. Steadfastly devout, black women power all the numerous Pew Research studies which indicate that African Americans are one of the most religious groups in the country.

Black adoption of Christian dogma brought African Americans into conformity with European American sexist/heterosexist models of gender hierarchy. As historian Paula Giddings notes, the Black Church played a key role in enforcing black patriarchy because it “attempted to do this in much the same way that Whites had used religion, by putting a new emphasis on the biblical ‘sanction for male ascendancy.’ This “new emphasis” meant that black men could be rightful patriarchs despite the yoke of slavery and Jim Crow apartheid. Contrary to the popular belief that black men were “emasculated” under slavery because they did not have unfettered access to and “control” over the bodies and destinies of black women and children, women were still socialized to fulfill gender hierarchical responsibilities like cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.* Black women were still regarded as the primary caregivers of the family, the protectors of home, hearth and the wellbeing of their male partners and their children. Black women were the repositories of moral and social values, entrusted with transmitting them to children.

So because women are responsible for transmitting moral values to children and families, breaking from deeply ingrained Christian ideology, culture and community ties is problematic. In African American communities where devoutness is the “default position,” the presumption of female religiosity, reinforced by cultural representation, is a binding influence that makes public skepticism for women taboo.

For observant women, questioning much less rejecting, religion would be just as counterintuitive as rejecting their connection to their lived experiences. In this regard religious observance is as much a performance and reproduction of gender identity as it is an exercise of personal “morality.” Many of the rituals of black churchgoing forge this sense of gendered identity as community. From the often elaborate pageantry of dressing for church, to participation in church leadership bodies, to the process of instilling children with “proper” “Christian” values in church-affiliated day care centers and schools—the gendered social contract of organized religion is compulsorily drilled into many black women.

Perhaps no modern black woman writer and skeptic captured this more vividly than Nella Larsen. In her 1928 novel Quicksand , Larsen chronicles the claustrophobia of domesticity, religiosity and female self-sacrifice in African American community. After a long personal journey from skepticism to religious acquiescence, Larsen’s mixed race protagonist Helga, a pastor’s wife, eventually rejects the existence of God. Helga’s internal conflict over the dominance of religious belief in the black community reaches a fever pitch after a long painful convalescence from childbirth. Throughout the novel, Helga frequently disdains blacks’ passive acceptance of “the White man’s God.” For Helga “Religion after all, had its uses. It blunted the perceptions. Robbed life of its crudest truths. Especially it had uses for the poor—for the blacks.” Helga’s observations have particular relevance for the lives of black women, whose servility and self-sacrifice she both admires and abhors. In one exchange with Sary, a mother of six, she wonders how women are able to bear the burdens of all their family and domestic responsibilities. Sary believes that one must simply trust in the “savior” to be delivered in the afterlife. This recurring theme of suffering, female self-sacrifice and deferment repels Helga, ultimately leading her to conclude that there is no God.

Larsen, as well as writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, provided a black feminist humanist context for rejection of organized religion and Christianity that don’t rely on revisionist acceptance or soft pedaling of the Bible’s brutal misogyny. Larsen’s critique is achingly relevant in the midst of an anti-feminist backlash that has been partly fueled by the Religious Right and the global regime of corporate media. The emergence of anti-abortion fetal “civil rights” laws, the proliferation of hypersexual media imagery promoting violence against women (from rape video games to the sexualization of female preteens in marketing and advertizing), and rising HIV/AIDS and STD contraction rates among young women of color underscore that women’s right to self-determination is increasingly under siege. In mainstream media, popular culture and black communities, black women have been targeted by both Puritanical policing and pornographic fetishization of their sexuality. Over the past year, black nationalist and black religious organizations have renewed their attacks on abortion and reproductive justice as a form of “black genocide.” In some instances they have aligned with the Religious Right on anti-abortion billboard campaigns and draconian anti-abortion legislation that targets women of color in states like Georgia. These forays once again establish black women’s bodies as contested moral battlegrounds. Reproducing more black babies becomes a means of moral and racial redemption. Patriarchal and religious control over black women’s bodies is reasserted as the linchpin for black uplift. And in this universe, only race traitor women, in collusion with white supremacist abortion providers, would dare to selfishly “kill” their babies and sacrifice the perpetuation of the race. Good women, on the other hand, learn to sacrifice and be sacrificed. And it is this theme of the good woman that keeps black women dominating the pews and auxiliaries of black churches, while the official face of black church leadership remains male.

The struggle to connect black women’s self-determination with the larger issue of human rights enfranchisement is still radical in the 21st century U.S. And 155 years after the white atheist suffragist abolitionist Ernestine L. Rose was smeared as being “a thousand times below a prostitute” because of her atheism, feminist humanist non-believers are still in a state of radical moral combat. And in an era in which, to paraphrase black feminist writer Gloria Hull, all of the women “freethinkers” are white, the challenge, for some of us, is to be brave, and to bring the sacrificial good woman out of the closet once and for all.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies. This is an excerpt from her forthcoming book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars (Infidel Books, January 2011).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

American Terror


By Sikivu Hutchinson

“God hates fags,” says the face of terror. It is the now repugnantly familiar slogan of the Westboro Church, a clan of white Christian fundamentalists recently in the public spotlight for a Supreme Court free speech case on anti-gay protests at military funerals. This particular brand of free speech is pure stars and stripes terror, easily repudiated by the enlightened, easily placed in that special category of sweaty troglodyte extremism. Over the past several weeks the impact of anti-gay vitriol has grabbed headlines, from the bullying-related suicides of several young gay men to the snowballing sexual abuse allegations by teenage male parishioners against professional homophobe Bishop Eddie Long. These tragedies have renewed national conversation about the pervasiveness of bullying in schools. Bullying is vicious, unconscionable and life-threatening. Yet reactive public condemnations of bullying often foreclose real analysis of the systemic mechanisms that institutionalize violence and terror against gay, lesbian and gender non-conforming children.

As a straight middle class girl in a homophobic heterosexist school community I was trained to dehumanize gay kids. After all, God, as we were fond of jeering to the suspected “fags” at my elementary school, created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. Historical leaders were straight, public figures were straight, normal families were straight, laws sanctified straight families, law enforcement protected male dominance over women and children in the home, and the exotic world of romantic love pulsed to the tune of boy conquers girl. This was our creed, our lifeblood, our moral universe, our cultural license for terror. This was the moral universe that claimed the life of Carl Walker-Hoover, an eleven year old African American Massachusetts boy who committed suicide in April 2009 after the adult leaders at his school failed him. Like scores of youth who are targeted for being gender non-conforming, Hoover-Walker’s pleas for help from school administration went unanswered. Coverage of his death barely made a dent in the mainstream media. Coverage of the bullying-related suicide of a white Massachusetts high school girl during the same period made national headlines. In 2008, the murder of gender non-conforming middle school student Lawrence King by a fellow classmate in Oxnard California put anti-gay bullying in the public spotlight. Prior to Lawrence King’s murder, homophobic violence in schools elicited little media attention or national outcry.

Like most children growing up in the U.S. I was systematically taught to view lesbian and gay people as deviant, unnatural and immoral. Because heterosexuality was the “norm,” the absence of LGBT figures of color in textbooks and media reinforced the righteousness of my straight identity. It conferred me with an automatic self-esteem and self-image advantage LGBT youth did not have. Because I looked, talked and generally played the part of a boy-obsessed straight girl I was not ostracized for my attraction to the opposite sex. And because I lived in a community where the presumption of heterosexuality and hetero-normativity always trumped other gender identities I was not targeted for social “extermination.” At my elementary school a boy named “Luke,” who was obsessed with Mrs. Beasley, a doll featured in the 1960s sitcom Family Affair, was mercilessly harassed for being effeminate and mentally “off.” Luke became a cautionary tale for little black boys bold enough to be themselves. For in this state of identity warfare, we were constantly reminded to enforce clear lines of demarcation between male and female, to inflict terror. Children who blurred gender lines like Luke were deemed less valuable, less normal, and, by extension, less human. Girls who didn’t express a preference for and show some interest in deferring to boys (vis-à-vis appearance, flirtation and giving the impression of being receptive to male advances) had questionable gender identities. Boys who didn’t exhibit an overt interest in girls—who didn’t flirt with them, compete for them or harass them—were nerds/outcasts from the fraternity of male hardness. Gender variant or gender non-conforming boys were social suicides.

Why isn’t it considered immoral when gender non-conforming children have no space in our culture? Are reviled for the toys they play with and the clothes they wear, while their straight peers reap the social benefits of being silent, of being normalized? And why isn’t it a moral issue when LGBT youth don’t see themselves represented in school textbooks and media? Power is “moral” when it is arrogated by authority figures that uphold these gender norms and boundaries as an unimpeachable truth claim. A secular morality should be based on the premise that homosexuality has value as part of the range of human sexual orientation. Gay identities have moral value both as part of the range of sexual identity and in their difference from the compulsory heterosexual norm. This is decidedly different from the Kumbaya bromide of “tolerance” and respect for “difference.” On the right, family values charlatans decry the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and preach a vanilla brand of “tolerance.” On the left, liberal educators advocate inclusion and recognition of “diversity.” Mere tolerance for difference essentially neutralizes difference by reinforcing culturally prescribed norms. Respect for difference without the foundation of value says that I can acknowledge your right to exist without understanding why your identity has been culturally defined as oppositional to mine. Respect and tolerance without critical consciousness means that I won’t understand why my identity (as normal and naturalized) can’t exist as normal and naturalized without this oppositionality.

Although some school districts have adopted their own anti-bullying policies there is little systemic district-mandated LGBT youth oriented training or resources for adults and parents in K-12 schools. The Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has been a national advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act, a federal bill that would require comprehensive anti-bullying protections in schools. Both GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have developed educational professional development guides that address such themes as family diversity, anti-bullying and gender non-conformity. The HRC’s Welcoming Schools guide has been successfully adopted in school districts in Minnesota, California and Massachusetts.

Bullying is not merely an issue of “intolerance” but a symptom of dehumanization and othering. And it is only when activist school districts, parents and communities move beyond a reactive focus on bullying to the root causes of terror that the lives of our most vulnerable children will be protected.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a board member of the HRC’s Welcoming Schools advisory council.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I Wanna Be A Macho Man: The Prosperity Gospel According to Eddie Long




By Sikivu Hutchinson

Who was it who said that it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a filthy rich pastor with a $350,000 Bentley to get into the Kingdom of God? And how long will it be before the Lord, working mysteriously, delivers New Birth Missionary Church Bishop Eddie Long--Bentley ditched for a Pinto--sobbing Jimmy Swaggart cum Ted Haggard-style in a warm lather of repentance on cable TV?

Accused of sexually abusing young men in his congregation, arch homophobe and macho man mentor of boys Long would seem to be the devil’s latest casualty.

In a week in which “God” has been routinely invoked to immunize crooks from criminal investigation and social condemnation, the Long allegations are yet another shining example of the sexually, morally and fiscally corrupt business of organized religion. In the scandal-plagued city of Bell, California an indicted City Council member/pastor trotted out his belief in God as a cover for alleged misconduct. In an investment fraud case reverberating through the Los Angeles Police Department, victims cited the “Christian” orientation of the suspects as the primary motivating factor for their trust. Arguing for clemency, supporters of Virginia Death Row inmate Teresa Lewis piously vouched for her Christian prison “conversion.”

Having learned zero from the global pedophile priest scourge, our stridently Judeo Christian culture still routinely uses the assignation man or woman "of God” to shut down debate or consideration of how religion and religious authority gives license to those who act immorally. Indeed, how many times have we heard that a certain person could not have committed 'that there' serial murder because he was a good man of God, a devout Christian and a churchgoer who could regurgitate scripture on demand? And how many times have predators and hardcore career criminals been given a figurative pass or viewed as above suspicion because they were churchgoing Christians doing the Lord's (dirty) work? Conversely, how many times have we heard the caveat that a certain person could not have committed 'that there' serial murder because they were a humanist, atheist or agnostic?

The ATL’s very own ringleader of the prosperity gospel, Long has blazed a trail as an anti-same sex marriage Christian soldier and self-proclaimed “spiritual daddy” to a nationwide army. After the death of Coretta Scott King in 2004, Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes that, “Long's anti-gay phobia was so virulent that then NAACP president Julian Bond publicly declared he would not attend (her) funeral service at Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.” A prominent supporter of George W. Bush and his anti-gay policies, Long and several other prosperity gospel predators were the subject of a 2007 federal probe on fiscal mismanagement of their tax exempt status. Launched by the U.S. Senate, the investigation was spearheaded by the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit “religious media watchdog” dedicated to exposing fraud and financial improprieties within the billion-dollar megachurch industry.

Long’s empire of niche ministries, books, gospel shows and seminars powers a robber baron’s lifestyle of expensive cars, homes and private jets. One of these niche ministries involves spiritual counseling for young men and “delivering” men from homosexuality. According to a former New Birth parishioner, Long evoked themes of hyper-masculinity and required obeisance to himself as divinely ordained patriarch. The trespasses of Long and other good Christian evangelicals was scrutinized in Sarah Posner's 2008 book God's Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. Yet while the sex abuse epidemic in the Catholic Church has received much coverage, similar epidemics in Protestant churches have remained underreported. Commenting on the 2008 Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse incident black feminist anti-violence activist Kevin Powell recounted how he’d been approached for advice by a young woman who had been sexually abused by her pastor since she was five years old. Similarly, a young woman of my acquaintance related that she had been repeatedly molested by her pastor after her parents had entrusted her in his care. Clearly, sexual abuse is an endemic social issue that is not peculiar to organized religion. However, the mindset of the religious sexual predator is markedly different from one operating in a secular context because of the presumption of righteous morals and a higher calling. Further, religious hierarchies (be they Muslim, Christian, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, etc.) delineating masculine roles, responsibilities and privileges perpetuate a culture of patriarchal entitlement and heterosexist control. The Bible’s sanction of violence against women (e.g., rape and forced marriage) provides theological justification for viewing and treating women like property. If women are deemed to be second class citizens in scripture, and consigned to helpmate roles in the church, why wouldn’t male clergy act with impunity when it comes to sex and power? And if the culture of compulsory heterosexuality demands that men hew to rigid gender norms, it stands to reason that some closeted gay clergy will abuse their power by sexually abusing young male parishioners. Indeed, the heterosexist cult of the exalted pastor is based on the belief that “real men” should be inscrutable in their exercise of power and authority. Thus, the religious sexual predator may rationalize his behavior as being “ordained” by God. God confers him with ultimate authority and moral license. “His” ways are part of a divine moral order that mere laypeople don’t have access to.

From the time African American children become socially aware, the dominant culture reinforces the heterosexist perception of male clergy’s invulnerability and “above the law” status. Preachers are revered as founts of knowledge, wisdom and “reason.” In middle to working class black communities the absence of formal religious training or education is no barrier to having the title “Rev” “Dr.” or even “Reverend Doctor” slapped in front of one’s name. Consequently, the strong preacher (father) figure is one of the most universally respected models of masculinity in African American communities. Available for counsel and succor to male and female parishioners, the "daddy" pastor’s biblically sanctioned faith pimping spiritual ministry translates into emotional manipulation, psychological control, and sexual exploitation.

In America being a macho man and a professional homophobe is big business, one that jeopardizes the lives and mental health and wellness of thousands of gays and lesbians. Regardless of whether the allegations against Long are true or not, his prosperity gospel of gay-bashing and robber baron profiteering at the expense of poor black people is another indictment of the moral injustice that happens on "God's" watch.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Howard University: Science and Faith in the Black Community




Dialogue of Reason:
Science and Faith in the Black Community
Tuesday, September 28, 6:30 pm
Cramton Auditorium, Howard University, Washington, DC

Faith has traditionally played a significant role among African Americans, while science has been marginalized. It is time to confront the issues that have kept Blacks out of the halls of science and confined to the pews. Richard Dawkins along with Anthony Pinn, Sikivu Hutchinson, and others will meet at Howard University to discuss the issues surrounding science within the Black Community as well as the impediments imposed by superstition and religious dogma.

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. With his strong, determined, and tenacious advocacy of science, he has taken on his critics with wit, humor and, most of all, evidence. Among his books are The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ancestor’s Tale, The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Unweaving the Rainbow, and The God Delusion.

Anthony Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. He is the executive director of the Society for the Study of Black Religion. His teaching interests include liberation theologies, black religious aesthetics, religion and popular culture, and African American Humanism.

Sikivu Hutchinson is a writer and intergroup specialist for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. She is the editor of blackfemlens.org, a contributor to the New Humanism magazine and a Senior Fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies. She is currently working on a book entitled Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.

Todd Stiefel is a secular humanist, an atheist and full-time freethought activist. He is the founder and president of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation. His mission is to gain respect for freethinkers and ensure the complete separation of church and state. He serves on the development committee of American Atheists and the advisory board of the Secular Student Alliance.

Candace Shannon Lewis is a lecturer in the Communications department at Howard University.


There will be a book signing immediately after the lecture.

This free public event is sponsored by the Department of Physiology & Biophysics of Howard University, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Secular Students of Howard University, African Americans for Humanism, CFI On Campus, Secular Student Alliance, and other local and national secular groups.

Ordering Tickets:
Tickets are available at the Cramton Auditorium box office, local Ticketmaster outlets, and Ticketmaster online. To order tickets for the Dawkins/Tyson event, click here. For tickets to the Dialogue of Reason panel, click here. There is no charge for admission, but Ticketmaster outlets and online charge a service fee.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Manifest Destiny Revivalism


By Sikivu Hutchinson

During the 19th century the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States was one of “God-ordained” expansionism. African slaves, indigenous peoples, Mexican nationals and other “non-Europeans” were deemed aliens and enemy combatants, anathema to the democratizing force of America. Using that “old time religion” to shepherd the flock on the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington Glenn Beck’s “Divine Destiny” revival deftly mines this history. Beck’s decision to hold the event on the March on Washington anniversary has elicited outrage amongst civil rights organizations who accuse him and the radical right of hijacking the legacy of the civil rights movement. Reeking of sulfur, hubris and the visionary charlatanism of 1920s revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson, Beck claimed that the Divine Destiny event will provide “an inspiring look at the role faith played in the founding of America and the role it will play again in its destiny.”

Decrying the cultural primitivism and backwardness of the Muslim world, twenty first century Christian zealots seeking to preserve human rights as the province of white supremacy continue to put the lie to American exceptionalism. Over the past week the Islamphobic vitriol of demagogues like Beck, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have paid off in cold blood. The recent stabbing of a Muslim cabdriver in New York and the hate attack against a Fresno, California Islamic center (by an organization calling itself the American Nationalist Brotherhood), are the tragic but all too predictable results of the nationalist chest beating that masquerades as empathy for the victims of 9/11.

In a climate in which the militant right wants to dismantle civil rights freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, Beck’s evocation of “divine destiny” is all of a piece. Throughout American history, recourse to the transparent word of God has always been the last refuge of scoundrels wielding the Bible and the bayonet as protections from the ungovernable horde. Thus, it is fitting that this naked evocation of the language and legacy of Manifest Destiny comes during a period when the right has launched a campaign to repeal the 1868 14th amendment, which was originally initiated to confer citizenship onto freed African slaves. As Kevin Alexander Gray writes in Counterpunch, “in the Reconstruction period, as now, racism and white supremacy loomed large in public debate. Back then, opponents of the amendment talked about ‘public morality’ being threatened by people ‘unfit for the responsibilities of American citizenship.’’ Now the self-appointed defenders of public morality have come full circle, drunk on a cocktail of xenophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria and jingoism.

Vaulting ahead of the pack, former Republican Congressman Nathan Deal, one of the staunchest critics of the 14th amendment’s provision of birthright citizenship, introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009 into the House. The statute would deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented women, stripping away yet another civil right that ostensibly distinguishes the U.S. from fascist governments. Deal’s legislation is a reminder of the connection between slavery and expansionism. In the 1840s, the concept of manifest destiny was used to justify the U.S.’ brutal occupation of Mexican territory. Cultural propaganda demonizing and dehumanizing indigenous Mexican populations provided American imperialism with the aura of moral righteousness. Commenting on the U.S.-Mexico War, it was no less than “radical” poet Walt Whitman who stated: "What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!"

Back in the good old days of docile slaves and vanquished savages, there were no ambiguities about who deserved to be accorded rights. God ordained the universality of European American experience, civilization and moral worth. Non-white peoples either submitted to the Enlightenment principles and values of the culturally superior West or were extinguished. States rights were citizens’ last vestige of protection from the trespasses of big government. So it is no mystery then why the ideology of 19th century expansionism and evangelical Christian revivalism has gained fresh currency amongst a “reloading” white nationalist insurgency. As the freshly inked graffiti on the vandalized Islamic Center in Fresno proclaimed, “Wake up America, the Enemy is here.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Friday, August 20, 2010

High Stakes Teaching and the "Value-Added" Sham



By Sikivu Hutchinson

In one of the more ham-fistedly symbolic episodes of the 1960s Twilight Zone series, a Kafkaesque tribunal declares people to be “obsolete” based on their allegiance to "outmoded" cultural practices like literacy and critical thought. Operating in the same vein, the L.A. Times’ recent publication of the so-called “value-added” assessments of Los Angeles Unified elementary teachers was another “legitimizing” victory for the destructive regime of high stakes testing and a blow for "outmoded" practices like literacy and critical thought. Puppets in a virtual tribunal, LAUSD educators who have spent years creating classroom environments that challenge and engage students suddenly woke up one morning to find themselves stamped “ineffective” or “effective” based solely on their students’ standardized test scores.

Nationwide, many teachers oppose the value-added model on the grounds that it reduces teacher performance to one decidedly narrow, politically and culturally suspect criterion. Test scores measure how well students can master the culturally prescribed knowledge assessed on standardized, norm-referenced tests, not their critical thinking skills. The regime of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has institutionalized the practice of teaching to the test, such that culturally responsive approaches to curriculum and instruction are few and far between.

In light of this dynamic, the Times article was noteworthy for its egregious omissions — namely, its failure to provide an analysis of the concrete specific teaching "methodologies" that supposedly inform student testing gains. By smearing one empathic, engaged and highly regarded teacher from Third Street Elementary School as “ineffective” because of her low test scores, the Times undercut its ostensible motive for this expose. Publishing the value-added results has been defended as a way to “empower” parents, yet the reductive criterion of success in high stakes testing tells us absolutely nothing about whether a teacher is critically conscious about how students’ differential access to power and privilege influences their learning outcomes. It tells us nothing about whether a teacher has tailored her instruction to value and incorporate the cultural capital, lived experience and cultural knowledge that diverse students bring to the classroom. Moreover, it tells us nothing about whether or not that teacher has organized her class to creatively affirm authentic student voices, develop her students as leaders and foster an environment in which cooperative non-hierarchical learning strategies are privileged over drill and kill intellectual taxidermy. Time and again studies from such organizations as Californians' for Justice, Harvard Civil Right’s Project and UCLA’s Institute for Democracy have demonstrated the danger of relying upon standardized tests as the sole criteria for student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The strongest determinant of whether a teacher’s practice is effective is how well they develop culturally respectful relationships with students, create a caring yet rigorous atmosphere for critical inquiry and critical literacy, connect with students’ home cultures, and employ multiple teaching strategies such as instructional conversation, sparing use of lecture, extensive group work and creative and expository writing.

Yet, the Obama administration’s fetishistic emphasis on test scores as the major barometer of teacher effectiveness, a linchpin of its “Race to the Top” initiative, is especially insidious for students of color. For example, the disproportionate suspension of African American students is a national epidemic that has been exacerbated by the NCLB high stakes testing regime. Disengaged from school curricula in which they are not meaningfully reflected, African American students have become ensnared in a public school disciplinary apparatus that fuels the nation’s prison complex. In some LAUSD schools the percentage of African American students who have been suspended is often two and three times greater than their percentage in the general student population. According to the 2001 Indiana University study “The Color of Discipline,” black students were disciplined more harshly than white and Latino students who committed similar infractions. Students who are repeatedly suspended are more likely to drop-out, and are in turn more likely to be funneled into the prison pipeline. A recent report by the Los Angeles-based Advancement Project concluded that the intersection of high stakes testing and zero tolerance discipline policies have created a perfect storm for black and brown students already deemed expendable by teachers and administrators. Wedded to the bottom line of generating better test and Academic Performance Index (API) scores, schools are increasingly motivated to move “problem” students along to alternative schools and GED programs. Indeed, “zero tolerance and high stakes testing have followed the same path on the way to being…frequently substituted for real education reform.” The value-added sham won’t help parents and communities of color struggling to achieve educational equity for youth who have already been intuitively assigned a jail cell by a public school culture marching in lockstep with the teach to the test ethos.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Angels and Innocents


By Sikivu Hutchinson

I have a vivid memory of the first time I became aware that children could die. It was early evening in the leisurely dusk of summer, and after eating with my mother at a local coffee shop, we passed by a newspaper vending machine outside. A child victim, kidnapped, murdered and disposed of like garbage, stared ominously out at me from the front page of the paper in grainy black and white. I remember my sense of horror when my mother told me that the child, who was approximately my age, would never see his parents again. Associating death with old people, I was stupefied by this seeming contradiction. Although raised heretically in a secular household, I had been corrupted by the prayer-saturated social universe of waxen blue-eyed Jesus’ plastered on my friends’ living room walls. Alone in my bed that night, I wondered how “God” could have countenanced such unspeakable evil.

Decades later there is an aching space where this child’s life would have been, his personhood “frozen” at abduction. Violent death by homicide at an early age is a grim reality for many youth of color. Gangsta rap romanticizes it and dishes it up for the voyeurism of white suburbia. Mainstream media ignores it or relegates it to social pathology. Every semester when I ask my students if they’ve had a young friend or relative die violently at least half will raise their hands. Their tattoos, notebooks and Sidekick phones are filled with vibrant mementoes for the dead. It is not necessary to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other theatre of American imperialism to experience the devastation that the killing fields of disposable youth inflicts. Yet, God takes care of children and fools, or so the shopworn saying goes. In the midst of sudden death there is refuge in the belief that the Cecil B. De Mille epic doomsayer of the Old Testament must have a special place in his heart for this tender constituency. Pied Piper religionists pat children on the head and whisper into their dewy ears that the murder of an innocent child is part of some grand design. They dish up the concept of divine providence like hard candy. They lure sweet-toothed youth with a ready “antidote” to the quandary of trying to make sense out of the senselessness and randomness of evil. The Wynken, Blynken and Nod bedtime story of grand design is chased down with the simple carrot of eternal reward for slain innocents. The inexplicable is assimilated. Senseless evil, evil that befalls the good and stalks the innocent, is legitimized as part of the divine’s hardscrabble boot camp for the living.

If it can be understood, it isn’t God, said Augustine. In ambiguity then, prayer is the great equalizer and potential redeemer. As American children we grow up with recurring images of kneeling girls and boys, hands clasped solemnly in prayer. These images propagandize faith as a normal, natural phenomenon. The magic bullet of prayer is trotted out as an escape hatch from the small indignity to the unspeakably cruel act of wild-oats-sewing youth. Bad kids pray obsessively for forgiveness. Good kids pray strategically in crisp starched pajamas for family members, friends, and Fido to be delivered to the top of God’s check list. Sinful thoughts can be defused by requesting a special audience with God. Good thoughts can be “deposited” into one’s virtual piggy bank of moral worth.

Blasting the hypocrisy of this brand of yo-yo morality in the Doors’ song “the Soft Parade,” Jim Morrison bellows:

When I was back there in seminary school, a person put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer…You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!!!

Morrison’s fierce monologue highlights the absurdity of prayer as a form of negotiation. Clearly, the more meditative personal and intimate benefits of prayer can be therapeutic to the believer. Yet, the assumption that prayer can be a bargaining chip in moments of crisis merely allows individuals to refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Children who are indoctrinated into this escape hatch mentality are forced early on to reconcile an out of control, evil, morally rudderless world with the illusion of a forgiving tailor-made God that they can summon like hocus pocus. Picking and choosing morality and dividing the world into the Christian “us” and the immoral, unwashed secular/Muslim/Hindu/“them,” “faith-based” children are socialized to see and enforce hierarchies of personhood rather than embrace fellowship.

Since God sees and “forgives” everything that is petitioned, the moral universe of children is a tiny, confining funhouse of mirrors. In communities where death at an early age is considered unremarkable by mainstream media and policymakers, the deferment demanded by faith is an insurance policy against social oblivion. When death is near, it is easy to arm a child with the “faith” that their 15 year-old cousin, killed in a drive-by shooting, has gone on to a “better place.” When death is near, the fear of retaliation for being a “snitch” compels crime witnesses to remain silent. As a result, homicide cases remain open indefinitely while perpetrators walk around free and clear in the same neighborhoods. Yet faith allows victims and witnesses to rationalize this seeming contradiction. God will take care of the evildoer in the afterlife, whilst granting the departed everlasting peace and deliverance in heaven.

And for the parents of a dead child it is said that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Having lost a child to a congenital disease, this is bitter refuge and rank fraud. This reductive homily has been especially tailored to domesticate and seduce women, saddled with a thousand obligations, the primary care of children and infirm relatives, dead end jobs with marginal pay. It is God’s will that you be eaten alive by the “womanly” stress of always being expected to defer, sacrifice and persevere. And it is God’s will that you must bite back your Eve-bequeathed rage in silent complicity.

In my infant son’s final hours, I stared down at the phalanx of tubes that separated him from death. Soon, they said, he will be an angel. I could feel nothing but the obscenity of divine providence, the mockery of robust babies whisked from the delivery room to pink and blue splattered nurseries without incident, innocent of the antiseptic drone of the neonatal ICU.

But then, there is the stripped-to-the-bone eloquence of women waiting for deliverance; like that depicted in a story I read recently about a homeless Haitian single mother’s heartbreaking quest for permanent shelter. Desperately she waits for God to “put something into her hand,” to perhaps give her a sign that she won’t be like scores of parents fated by this rudderless God to outlive their young children.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.

Friday, July 16, 2010

DNA and the Banality of Evil


By Sikivu Hutchinson

The intersection of Figueroa and Slauson in South Los Angeles is an unremarkable one, a mundane swath fronting a gas station, an old train right of way, and a Harbor freeway overpass. It is the site of a spate of serial murders committed during a ten year period by serial rapist and murderer Chester Dwayne Turner. Like the Grim Sleeper serial killer, Turner, aka the South Side Slayer, stalked South L.A. from 1987 to 1998 in pursuit of African American female victims. Turner’s background fit the banal profile of the misogynist sexual predator operating right under the nose of local law enforcement. He was a “cipher” who bounced in and out of menial jobs; unstable, irresponsible, abusive towards and financially dependent on the women in his life. While Turner was an obvious miscreant, Lonnie David Franklin, the recently arrested suspect in the Grim Sleeper murders, was a bit more complex. Neighbors have described him as a stable, congenial Mr. Fix-It type whose only known “quirks” were “issues” with women (including, apparently, showing off nude pictures he’d taken of and underwear he’d collected from various women) and a nebulous criminal record.

Franklin’s street was not far from my own, in a generally quiet well-kept area of single family homes that lazy mainstream media hacks are fond of dismissing as “gritty” and crime-ridden. Franklin’s arrest was made possible through the decades’ long struggle for visibility waged by the victims’ families and community activists like Margaret Prescod, who founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders in the 1980s. The LAPD’s identification of the serial murder pattern was first reported in a 2008 article by white LA.Weekly journalist Christine Pelisek, who dubbed the killer the “Grim Sleeper.” Shortly after Franklin’s arrest Pelisek stated that she had been deluged with film and TV queries about the case. Pelisek’s comments on the budding media interest are telling. As of this date, there have been no TV movies on the South Side slayer case nor, for that matter, any mainstream dramatic treatment on serial murders of black women. Given this disparity it is not difficult to see a big budget Nancy Grace-style treatment with Pelisek at the center. Because Franklin and Turner are black male killers of black women it is safe to say that there will be no cable-ready film made psychoanalyzing their childhoods, no Lifetime channel melodrama on the lives and last days of their victims trumpeted in flashy national billboard campaigns, and no pathos inspiring media blitz chronicling the anguish that these murders elicited in South L.A. communities.

Rather, what has captivated much of the mainstream media is not the hide-in-plain-sight atrocity of a prolific killer of black women puttering innocuously about his well-maintained single family home, but the 21st century “marvel” of familial DNA . Without the familial DNA piece it’s doubtful there would be any continuing national coverage of the story. Sensing a national angle and an easy way of redeeming its image as a print relic repository for the white Westside, the L.A. Times has outdone itself with daily coverage on the case’s DNA trail. Mainstream media fixation on the DNA evidence has eclipsed focus on the victims’ families as well as consideration of the case’s double-edged implications for communities of color in the U.S.

According to Brandeis law professor Jeffrey Rosen, “African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the United States population but 40 percent of the people convicted of felonies every year.” The wholesale over-incarceration of African American communities means that many African Americans are related to someone who has been convicted of a felony. Right wing pundits and champions of unregulated familial DNA use would argue that since blacks are committing a disproportionate number of felonies they have every right to be subjected to the heightened scrutiny of DNA profiling. Yet national data on sentencing indicates African Americans are over six times more likely to be convicted of and harshly sentenced for felonies than are whites who commit similar crimes. The proposed expansion of California’s DNA database to include the DNA of arrestees—the database is currently comprised of DNA from convicted felons—would further criminalize blacks and Latinos. Unchecked law enforcement use of familial DNA is almost certain to be a bellwether of civil liberties infringement for innocent people of color.

The initial marginalization of both the South Side Slayer and the Grim Sleeper cases were brutal testimony to the devalued lives of women of color in the mainstream media regime. With the arrest of Franklin, the grieving families of Janecia Peters, Valerie McCorvey, Princess Berthomieux, Alicia Anderson, Lachrica Jefferson, Mary Lowe, Bernita Sparks, Barbara Ware, Thomas Steele, Henrietta Wright and Debra Jackson might be able to achieve some degree of closure. In the ultimate yet uniquely American irony, science has fleetingly “humanized” the lives of victims deemed expendable by the media regime. Yet uncritical embrace of familial DNA will potentially reinforce the very disenfranchising conditions that allow a vicious predator like the Grim Sleeper to “sleep” for two decades.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pink Princesses, Blue Commandos



By Sikivu Hutchinson

My daughter is no princess. Loud, assertive, and headstrong, she would just as soon as stomp on a castle drawbridge with her big size six feet than pine coyly from it, twirling a dainty lock of hair waiting for a Ken doll suitor. Yet the multi-billion dollar media marketing regime is poised to shoehorn her 2 year-old self into being one. As any parent with eyes and a pulse knows, a trip to Americana’s favorite non-unionized big box retailers is a crash course in the enduring power of gender segregation. Trundling through the “girls’” toys aisle, maneuvering the explosion of pink frilliness, one expects to bump into June Cleaver or Donna Reed. Baby dolls, play ovens, play houses, strollers, dress-up kits, make-up and the ubiquitous princess accessories, addle the senses. Around the corner in the boys’ commando-in-training section, trucks, balls, science kits, building sets, Legos, blocks, action figures, guns and other rough n’ tuff paraphernalia signal a return to the jungle of discovery, adventure, violence and enterprise.

In the ostensibly secular democratic West, this surfeit of consumer options represents “choice,” rather than cultural indoctrination. Parents can just vote with their pocketbooks and not buy these products. Unlike in the fundamentalist monolithically gender repressive Middle East little American girls certainly aren’t programmed to be subservient. Women in power broker positions abound and capitalist consumption is politically "neutral."

Indeed, proponents of shattered glass ceilings point to recent job data that suggest American women are actually making bigger employment gains than are men. The decline of the construction and manufacturing industries has severely limited men’s job opportunities. Coupled with the higher proportion of women in four year colleges, American women would seem to be making out like gangbusters.

There are serious flaws in this premise. First, the gender wage gap shows no signs of narrowing. According to the Center for American Progress, women are the primary breadwinners in over 1/3rd of American families. Women are still relegated to the lowest paying service industry jobs in child care, clerical work, domestic work, and teaching. And black women, who are more likely to be single working parents than are women of other ethnicities, remain at the bottom of the gender wage ladder. Secondly, and most egregiously, the new job data fail to account for the double and triple burden of women’s work. Regardless of whether they are custodians or corporate execs, women continue to be saddled with the majority of child care, housework and adult caregiving. The minute a working mother hits the door down time and breathing space are sacrificed for an array of cleaning, parenting, cooking and counseling duties. Sacrifice is a woman’s creed and to-die-for duty. And it is this message that the big box retailers’ flotilla of pink baby dolls, strollers, play houses, et al. are designed to instill in little sacrificial princesses in training.

The ubiquity of this social programming inspired two British women to start the Pink Stinks campaign, which targets retailers who market gender segregating toys and accessories. Yet the flip side of pink stinks is the dominion of blue. When my students presented a workshop on gender stereotypes in retailing to a group of their peers, the sole male participant commented that he had been targeted for not conforming to the model of “hard” masculinity because he liked to do hair. For young men, any activity that is remotely associated with caring or nurturing is feminine and therefore “gay.” As feminist writer Derrick McMahon notes in his article “Boys and Baby Dolls:” “Boys who wish to play with baby dolls are seen as punks, sissies, and weak…parents are quick to tell little boys that they have no business playing with baby dolls.” While young girls who “crossover” and express interest in traditionally masculine pursuits like car maintenance or science are tolerated as tom boys going through a phase, boys are punished with the heterosexist stigma of being less “manly.”

The consequences of this are exemplified by the epidemic of black male homicide. Trained to be hard, swaggering, aggressive and indifferent to the value of each others’ lives as mere “niggas,” young black males are inured to the violence they inflict upon each other. What would it mean then for the future of African American communities if there were a paradigm shift, and boys were raised to be caring and nurturing? Biological determinists argue that boys gravitate to cars and guns because they are genetically hard wired to do so. In her groundbreaking book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, neuroscientist Lise Eliot debunks this assumption through painstaking analysis of scientific studies on alleged innate sex differences. She argues that there is “little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains” and that adult perceptions of gender difference strongly influence children’s behavior.

As my daughter begins to navigate the minefield of gender norms and expectations she’ll be constantly told what is proper for a girl. She’ll be hounded by peers, adults, the media and organized religion to be sexually desirable to men on the one hand and chaste and virginal on the other. In a nation of liberated “post-feminist” women, she’ll be propagandized with the contradictory message that romancing kitchenware, cooing after baby dolls, and being a precious, sweet “daddy’s angel” are the keys to fulfillment. And as a third generation feminist she’ll be ably equipped with her loud mouth and big feet to storm the drawbridge of gender conformity.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Little Surfer Boy


By Sikivu Hutchinson

They look over their shoulders before they take to their boards. Watch for the girls huddled in juicyfruit gum popping reverie, the kids beating sand castles into corn mush, the butt-cheek flashing old timers settling down for a flame-broiled snooze under big yellow umbrellas. They steady themselves then take flight, working the waves into submission, salt clogging their nose, mouth, eyes, thrusting them into blindness, into the watery graves they’d been dreaming of, been memorizing from the first time they learned to surf as small boys enraptured with the rip curl gods.

They watch for cues from Jake, rising imperially from the water in a Neptune arc. Suction cup feet steadied on the board like some kind of evolutionary marvel, like some kind of special dispensation from the Lord. Our Jake held the record for staying up the longest before the waves smacked him down on his ass. A lecher exhibitionist toying with each little ripple in the ocean divinely served up to him in a neat little bow. Lucky fuck had never had his neck twisted and wrung out trying to execute. Lucky fuck delivered into this world by a midwife with a fistful of Mr. Zogs easing him out the womb. His bull necked royal highness, all bee stung lips and hot ‘roid lust. We creamed to see him sucking his stomach in concave in the weight room mirror when he thought no one was looking. Smacking fair Wilson on the ass with a wet towel.

They watch for the shoreline audience. Male surf groupies arriving on foot, spilling from the streetcars that dammed up at the beach terminus every hour, leaning out of cars idling for some place decent to park. Wolf packs dodging the bruised roller skating legions of little girls chopping through the dregs of June gloom on this first day of summer.

And Jake’s crew liked that stretch of beach because the wave span was neatest, the elemental Milky Way glide of paranormal orbit in the split second suspension between air and water. The sand castle mushers keeping score with their shovels. The flame-broiled snoozers shaking up their domino bags for the next game. The sweet sixteens talking mad shit about the crew’s bodies in lip-smacking 3-D detail.

They could stay out all summer, basking in 24-7 wall to wall seaweed funk. None of them had jobs except for Wilson; that white trash fucker bussing tables like a fucking Mexican, Jake snickered. The newly minted breadwinner for his mother, laid off from her nursing job, as his father rode off into the Akron sunset for fresh pipefitter leads. Only Wilson had regular money in his pocket. The crew bumming it off him for cigarettes and rubbers and all you can eat hoagies dripping with cheese from the boardwalk stand. It was the last teenaged summer when they could do that shit and have it still be considered cool, shuffling between bouts of community college, applications to Del Taco. The last gasp of the day was hanging around Jiffy Lube for the chance of an opening if ambition hit them. June, July, August were theirs to waste with grand abandon, spreading the seed of the crew all over town, tagging their handle in the beach bathroom, the basketball court, the trash barrels in the sand, staging sloppy drunk pantomimes over the mugs of the surfers’ pantheon painted on the Laundromat wall.

It was Wilson who noticed it first. The shoreline inched up to the street. The arcade, pub, and the laundromat whited out. All of the buildings of his teen dreams swallowed up now in a slow procession of open top cars. Toy Model As honked strung together by a child’s hand. Wannabe flapper girls with their whiter than white skinned arms peeking out of full body swimsuits and bullet caps. Big band swing blaring from the sludge of black vinyl. Passengers spilling out of the red cars in ant streams. A new revelation from between the waves, rising and falling as he adjusted his goggles, the other boys having swum ahead to catch the twin terrors, the warm smack of mega surf that came in late afternoon on the night of a full moon.
He paddled, coasted, paddled, coasted. Ignoring their sass about how much of a pussy he was for hanging back, neutered and spineless, lacking proper reverence for the occasion of the full moon. He’d begun to drift eastward to the section of beach near the dividing line of the next community, the snootier, ritzier, heavily refinanced side dominated by salmon toned McMansions and trust fund babies reeking pot. He tried to paddle back but his board resisted, lifting him off and into the water headfirst. His goggles slid down to his nose and he gagged, snorting saltwater, the shore dipping from view. He reached out for the board and came up empty, blearily watching it float ahead of him. The crew just ribald specks of vertiginous light, ducking and twisting with each wave.

Top of his swim classes, kindergarten to senior year, when he bested the Swiss boarding school wunderkind in the 100, his gills getting stronger with each meet. Imbibing the family legacy of being able to hold their breath underwater for death defying lengths. It was their only distinguishing feature, both sides of his clan stamped 3/4s white trash with a little “Cherokee” composted in. Or so one version went. He basked in the glow of dusk to dawn access to the city pools, to the beach, to the water parks whenever he could scrounge up the ten dollar admission fee.

The board was almost a yard away. He could feel everybody on the beach watching him. Wasn’t his imagination, but damned if the flapper girls weren't jockeying for a better view, calling him Romeo. His chest swelled like a red robin's. If only the crew could hear.

He saw a hand grip the board. Then a girl’s head rise slowly up from the water. Syl hoisted herself up, lying on her stomach as the waves washed over her. She paddled expertly with both hands, ignoring him as he struggled to get a clearer view. The waves calmed and she kneeled, bracing herself, listening, rigid with the same watchful posture that he’d assumed a thousand times waiting for the right moment to stand up on the board.

The crowd roared and she stood up. She was taller than him by a few inches. Body like it was all spine, arms folded across her chest. She slid into the snaking furl unfurl motion of fresh surf, trying to establish her center of gravity before the next torrent hit.

He could read novices right off, smell their eager beaver first-hand-up-in-chem-class zealotry, their spanking new assembly-line liberated boards stinking up the ozone. The kind of punks the crew would chew up and spit out in one barnstorming orgy in the locker room, their balls contorted in trash talking, swaggering over who had the shiniest designer gear. He’d been with the crew for five months. Watched them shyly from afar as he sucked down a coke and a slice at the boardwalk pizza joint. Fantasizing that they all had their asses wiped and shellacked with one hundred dollar bills. Burning to be one of them. He plotted his initiation every time he stepped around his grandpa, glued to the game shows and crime lab serials from dusk to dawn in their triplex apartment. He dreamed of making elaborate rescues. Swooping in during a showdown between the crew and the Huntington Beach boys, heimliching Jake from drowning in his own drool. All these micro moments when he could have proven himself, and here he was stuck sweeping up his grandpa's toenails from the bathroom floor, parceling out his pressure medicine, his Vicodin. The horror of being a Rip Van Winkle, waking up five decades later, just like him. Shitting when he was told to, laughing on cue at the laugh tracks, hoarding his Social Security checks for the latest soul saving scam in Africa.
For now, the crew was the ticket, the sliver of salvation that he nursed in bed at night as the walls pulsed with the Lotto results. Yeah he had a raggedy board, but he was prime. Shit, they had called him Romeo. Had cum in babbling brooks saying his name. Had said you'll never have to duck and hide taking the family’s clothes to the Laundromat. Never have to gag again on the five night a week pork n’ bean dinners, never get shit on again about your Pee Wee Herman high water pants, passed down from eldest to middle to youngest brother.

With the right clothes, the right hair, the right cadence of speech he could pass for one of them, perfecting his Richy Rich sneer with a hand mirror under the covers, willing himself to be the Swiss boarding school refugee of his dreams.

She looked out into the swamp of white faces and calculated how long it would take her to get to the other side of the beach. The façade of the new Negro resort rippled like a desert mirage in the west. The waiters would be serving lunch right about now. In spotless white uniforms. Napkins draped meticulously over their arms, fresh cut flowers at the ready on each table. They would give the diners a choice of chicken or roast beef, ice tea or lemonade. Lilting on the smell of King Crab specials whipped up for the VIPs at the grand opening.

In 1911 a parcel of beach front land had been set aside for Negroes. With little fanfare, back patting or congratulation, 40 acres were designated by the city father for an enterprising buyer. Only a handful stepped forward, a speculator fraud in black face wanting to open up a chain of naturopath spas for consumptives. An heiress seeking West Coast investment property using stock from her share in American Telegraph. Then the Bruce woman made us a legitimate offer, and permits were filed for the ground breaking.

They trickled in from the South, the Midwest, the East, small tumbleweed towns and big cities. Schoolteachers, clerks, stenographers, the almost black bourgeoisie scrimping for their first real vacation, for a taste of Pacific splendor beyond the bullwhip gaze of white people. For a honeymoon suite with a view, the snap of gray waves, the night sky bleeding into the ocean.

Opening day she had twenty reservations. After dinner they queued up for needlepoint, bid whist, politicking, a quick hand of gin or black jack dealt by Bruce herself. She wouldn't have gambling on the premises. So the closet addicts hunkered down past midnight, anxious to raise the stakes to something more dangerous, rubbing their bets together like firewood under the table, settling instead upon a wager about the number of survivors from a sunken British ship in the Atlantic. Raise you one scullery maid for three bankers.

Over one thousand feared dead. God be with the rescuers in that witch’s tit cold of a mess. It’s just a bunch of rich Brits and their hired help gone down with their loot. Better them than us. They burned us out of Springfield, lynched us like dogs in Atlanta, and where was the world then?

From Marmion Way

Friday, June 11, 2010

Not Knocking on Heaven’s Door:* Black Atheists, Urban America



By Sikivu Hutchinson

Late Saturday afternoon, like clockwork, the street corner preachers on Crenshaw and King Boulevard in South Los Angeles take to the “stage.” Decked out in flowing robes and dreadlocks, they fulminate into their mikes about the universe, God’s will and “unnatural” homosexuals to a motley audience waiting for the next express bus. Members of the Black Israelites, they are part of a long tradition of performative religiosity in urban African American communities. This particular corner of black America is a hotbed of social commerce. Kids who’ve just gotten out of school mingle jubilantly as pedestrians flow past fast food places, mom and pop retailers, street vendors and Jehovah’s Witness’ hawking Watchtower magazines. The Israelites have become a fixture of this street corner’s otherwise shifting tableaux. Exclusively male and virulently sexist and homophobic, they are tolerated in some African American communities in part because of the lingering visceral and misguided appeal of Black nationalism.

While the Israelites’ millennialist “racial uplift” ethos ostensibly fits right in to the bustle of this prominent South L.A. street, other belief systems are not as easily assimilated. Since 2006, the L.A.-based street philosopher Jeffrey “P Funk” Mitchell has been documenting his conversations with everyday folk on questions of atheism and faith. Using the handle “Atheist Walking,” Mitchell also conducts free-ranging inquiries into Christianity’s contradictions with a rolling video camera and a satirically raised eyebrow. Adopting the role of the bemused urban flaneur, ala the commentator- pedestrian immortalized by French poet Charles Baudelaire, he delves into “atheist spirituality,” biblical literalism and the paradoxes of faith. Mitchell is a member of the L.A.-based Black Skeptics, a group that was formed earlier this year to provide an outlet and platform for secular humanist African Americans. The Skeptics are part of a small but growing segment of African Americans who are searching for humanist alternatives to organized religion. In May, the Washington DC Center for Inquiry’s first annual African Americans for Humanism conference drew over fifty participants. Chat groups and websites like the Black Atheists of America have sprung up to accommodate the longing for community amongst non-theist African Americans who feel marginalized in a sea of black hyper-religiosity. Organizations such as the Institute for Humanist Studies cultivate African American secularist scholarship and advocacy.

With over 85% of African Americans professing religious belief, black religiosity is a formidable influence. Racial segregation, the historical role of the Black Church, and African American social conformity reinforce Christianity’s powerful hold on black communities. Indeed, I was recently told that I’d been deemed an unsuitable culmination speaker for a bourgie philanthropic organization’s young women mentees because of my decidedly unladylike public atheism (Perhaps the Israelite’s Old Testament shout-out to silent prostrate women would be more acceptable). Proper role models for impressionable black youth are, at the very least, skillful church lady pretenders with ornate hats in tow. Secular organizations that seek to build humanist community with a predominantly African American base and social justice world view are challenged by the association of charitable giving, philanthropy, poverty work and education with faith-based communities. For many, successfully emulating the strong social and cultural networks that have sustained church congregations is an elusive goal.

And then, there is the deep and abiding desire for belief in the supernatural, the ineffable faith-passion that propels some through the trauma of racial indignities and personal crisis. Yet, humanism asks why we should cede enlightenment and the potential for restoration to the supernatural. Humanism challenges the implication that the sublimity of the natural world, and our connection to those that we love, admire and respect, is somehow impoverished without a divine creator. In one of his bus stop monologues, Mitchell comments, “I want people to look at each other with the same reverence that they look at God and realize that ‘we’ did this, we made this happen.” The “we” represents will, agency, and motive force; qualities that many believers would attribute to God as omniscient architect and overseer. Non-believers are compelled to ask whether individual actions (for good or ill) are determined by God, or whether human beings simply act on their own volition in a universe overseen by God. Since time immemorial, non-believers have questioned whether God exercises control over those who commit evil acts or whether hell is the only “medium” for justice. By refusing to invest supernatural forces with divine authority over human affairs, humanism emphasizes human responsibility for the outcome of our pursuits. Morality is defined by just deeds, fairness, equality and respect for difference; not by how blusteringly one claims to adhere to “Godly” principles.

However, in communities that are plagued with double digit unemployment and a sense of cultural devaluation, notions of self-sufficiency and ultimate human agency may be perceived as demoralizing if not dangerously radical. As a child preacher steeped in the fiery oratory of the Black Church, writer James Baldwin recounted his growing cynicism about spreading “the gospel.” Lamenting the grip of religion on poor blacks, Baldwin said, “When I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to…tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize.” In Baldwin’s view organized religion’s requirement that believers suspend disbelief and submit to “God’s will” is a liability for working class African Americans. Religious dogma anesthetizes as it bonds, a dangerous combination in an era in which the proliferation of storefront churches in urban black communities is a symptom of economic underdevelopment.

Echoing Baldwin, Chicago-based Education professor and atheist Kamau Rashid argues that “Freethought is an extension and expression of the struggle that African Americans have waged for self-determination. In fact it represents a heightened phase of such a struggle wherein one of the final stages of ‘conceptual incarceration,’ the belief in a God or gods, is discarded for a belief in the human potential, for a belief in ourselves.”

And why, in a heritage steeped in the revolutionary thought of such dirty outlaw skeptics as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, A. Philip Randolph, James Forman and Alice Walker, would this be so viscerally frightening?

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org, a member of the Black Skeptics Group and the author of the forthcoming book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.

*With apologies to Bob Dylan

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Expendable Lives, Distorted Images: The Murder of Aiyanna Jones


By Sikivu Hutchinson

When a little white girl goes missing, online news, supermarket tabloids and cable network stations bombard us with up-to-the-minute dispatches on the crime, the victim, her shattered family and anguished community. When a little black girl is murdered in cold blood by a big city police department it is up to the community and those who care about social justice to ensure that the case doesn’t fade into the national obscurity that is usually reserved for the lives of people of color. The recent execution of 7 year-old Aiyanna Jones by the Detroit Police Department during a raid while she was sleeping in her home is the kind of atrocity that makes many people of color view the police as an occupying army. According to news reports, the Detroit Police were conducting a raid that was being filmed for an A&E reality show. Searching for a suspect who lived in another apartment unit, officers fired into the home from outside, then lobbed a grenade into the house, killing little Aiyanna.

By exercising a so-called “no knock” policy in poor neighborhoods, the Detroit Police’s criminal disregard for human life and the civil liberties of people of color have kept the community under siege. According to Ron Scott of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the Detroit Police have been under a federal consent decree but continue to use military style raids that terrorize citizens in its poorest neighborhoods.

Of course, deeply ingrained racist stereotypes and biases against people of color are a major factor in racial profiling and police misconduct. Disturbingly, Aiyanna’s murder also comes in the wake of a recent CNN study about the impact of skin color bias on young children. CNN presented the findings of Margaret Beale Spencer, a psychologist who utilized the same “doll test” technique as that of psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1947. The Clarks’ research documented the destructive impact of racism on black children’s self-image and was used in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education suit.

Spencer asked black and white children to identify the child they believed had negative traits in a drawing featuring children of different skin colors. The majority of both black and white children found the darker skinned child to be the one which possessed negative traits, while they identified the lighter children as those possessing the most desirable traits. The association of whiteness with normalcy, power, attractiveness, worth and desirability is reinforced by mainstream media, the dominant culture, families, and children’s peers. So because there is often little in their home lives, school curricula or peer networks to counter this message, some children of color and most white children receive the constant message that whiteness is superior. White parents who claim that they are raising their children to be “colorblind,” and reflexively dismiss focus on racial or cultural difference as “promoting racism,” simply reinforce the dominant culture’s racist inscription of whiteness as the unspoken norm. Adults who ignore the very real and damaging overvaluation given to white or lighter skin in marketing and advertisements, as well as in film, video and TV shows with predominantly white casts (such as on the Disney Channel and the major networks), ensure that children will be ignorant of the power of white privilege.

Counter-programming children of color to believe that they are beautiful, capable, powerful and intelligent requires specific emphasis on the cultural richness of people of color. It requires school curricula that actively incorporate the contributions of people of color to every aspect of American social history, literature, science and mathematics. It requires that conscious white parents have conversations with their children about how race does confer social advantage onto whites and not people of color. And it requires that we continue to tear down the regime of white supremacy that fetishizes little white girls as the national ideal of innocence whilst disposing of little black girls as ghetto expendables.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org. She is working on a book entitled Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Atheism Question.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Faux-reportage: Re-visiting Otherness, through the lenses of “the whitest people we know”




Photo: Kara Mears/The Entry Way
http://laist.com/2010/04/01/the_entryway_draws_criticism.php

By Diane Arellano

As post-race and post-colonial America intersect with the frontiers of multi-media reportage, white privilege re-emerges vis-à-vis “The Entry Way: Two reporters move into a new America.” The two reporters “courageous enough” (according to fawning reviewers and supporters) to move into “the new America” are photographer Kara Mears and writer Devine Browne. They are the self proclaimed “whitest people we know,” who have moved in to the home of a recent immigrant Mexican family to learn Spanish so they can better report on their city and country…and incidentally…develop a web based diary-style reportage project about living with Mexicans in MacArthur Park.

Although living with Mexicans in MacArthur Park may sound like a reality show, it is actually the real life venture of Browne and Mears that has attracted praise, attention, financial support, and criticism. Ironically enough, the birth of socially responsible documentary work came into existence as a backlash to common practices (similar to those implemented by Browne and Mears), which imposed western values and standards on Other cultures, often impeding meaningful cultural comprehension. Browne and Mears claim that they selected MacArthur Park and the home of Maria and Juan, “because we are more interested in what they think of our country than what we might think of theirs…” Nonetheless, the reporters haven’t been able to release themselves from perpetuating the narrative of the roach infested, can’t-speak-English and-refuse-to-learn-it, round-the-clock-TV-watching, impoverished Mexican immigrants:

“For two years I looked for the right family and knew I had found them when I took a tour of their house and saw a chore list on the refrigerator door and a list of rules on the bathroom wall.

No sean puercos! Don’t be pigs!

All over this neighborhood are cockroach infestations and kids who come to school with bed bugs crawling out of their backpacks and so the sign made me feel better; it said to me:

This family cares about cleanliness they cannot live with bugs.”

-Devin Browne on selecting a host family

Prolonged exposure to cockroaches and bed bugs has been proven to lead to health effects such as asthma, anemia and anaphylactic shock. Rat infestations can cause bacterial, intestinal illnesses, and parasitic disease, with greater risks to pregnant woman and children. This is a serious health issue that most severely impacts the health of poor communities (of all backgrounds) throughout the world. Browne however, manages to trivialize this fact by missing an opportunity to reflect on the potential impact on her health, because after all this is a personal narrative project (and not journalism, as she has adamantly stated). Perhaps, after thinking about herself long enough, Browne might have even began to consider and reflect on the health conditions this environment may have on the occupants of her temporary home, who have lived there before her arrival and don’t have an pre-planned exit date or access to housing in the suburbs like Browne does.

Browne and Mears use obsolete lenses to examine and interpret culture, race, class, and gender politics in MacArthur Park. Observations gleaned from Browne’s lens about the host family include, the habitual joblessness of Juan, Latina enjoy sexual harassment because they consider it “…Sunshine,” Latinos living with the reporters are too frugal to purchase communal toilet paper, and Latina mothers don’t want independent children. The observations lack a context in which class, gender politics, causes and effects are discussed. According to the reporters, MacArthur Park is a place full of deficits, “absent of anything white” such as “tampons, chocolate chips, and nuclear families.”

“Most white people with whom I talk about
Maria + Juan + Latino people in America

and it is sometimes that fast that we go from Juan + Maria to Latino people in America

Seem to agree

That if we lived in Mexico for a number of years
(Maria and Juan have been in the United States for three years, Maria and Hilario for eight years) and we did not learn Spanish, we would be very rude”

-Devin Browne

Often times, Browne uses her keen observations to create judgments as in the example above. Personally, I found this passive form of calling Maria, Juan, Maria, and Hilario rude for not having learned English, highly offensive. Browne is the offspring of a middle class family with a college education. If she did live in Mexico for a number of years, she would most likely leverage her socioeconomic background, ensuring that she would not have to derive her entire income from the underground cash based economies of Mexico. Maria, Juan, Maria, and Hilario were not raised cradled by middle class white privilege, and as a result have been relegated to the underground American cash economies. So then, why would Browne draw comparisons to people who lack her educational background and economic status? Another intersecting thought, is that being a monolingual Spanish does not grant a person the same privileges that being a monolingual or English speaker does. Not once have I met a bank teller, teacher, police officer or post office worker who could not speak English. It is beyond obvious that the Latino residents of The Entry Way who don’t speak English and are not legally able to work in this country are susceptible to being underpaid and exploited. They are at a socioeconomic disadvantage, and to passively suggest otherwise is an irresponsible and privileged outlook.

Recently Los Angeles Times journalist James Rainey wrote a piece defending the reporters and expressing his indignation over the treatment of “white women” writing and photographing about “life in a multi-family apartment in the barrio.” Other defenders of Browne and Mears have acknowledged The Entry Way could benefit from less navel gazing, however, this misstep in their eyes, can be attributed to the youthfulness of Browne (27) and Mears (24). Critics have also expressed that if the young reporters were not white, they would not have been criticized as severely or at all. This is a bizarre allegation given that even today the most notable examples of documentary work continues to be produced by white documentarians like James Nachtwhey, Susan Meiselas, and Mary Ellen Mark. However, the common thread in the seminal works of these documentarians seems to be a respect for humanity and a sense of responsibility towards those in front of the lens.

For example, in 1948 twenty year-old photographer Don Normark documented the low-income Latino/ predominately Mexican-American community of Chavez Ravine. The government eventually emptied Chavez Ravine, forcibly removing the last residents. In “Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story,” Normark gives us images that are capable of telling an entire story in one frame. His portraits are of children reading to each other, workmen returning home, sisters combing each others’ hair, men at the liquor store, and a young girl prepared for confirmation. In other words, at tender age of twenty, Normark captured the stuff of peoples’ lives.

The respect Normark had for the community of Chavez Ravine is immediately apparent when one reads accounts of Normark’s impressions. It is obvious that it was a pleasure for him to photograph Chavez Ravine; perhaps it was this approach that allowed him to capture the variety of unguarded moments in this community. Yet, in The Entry Way, either by editing or photographic approaches, the written and visual narratives lack the curiosity or comfort level to portray any notions of individuality. Both Browne and Mears have acknowledged that fears about this community have prevented them from engaging certain people. Perhaps it is these fears that elicit cautious smiles or a notable distance in Mears’ photographs. It is hard to imagine what the work of Normark might have looked like if it had been riddled with fear and hesitation towards the residents of Chavez Ravine. While indeed, Browne and Mears have every right to be curious and investigate whatever subject matter they choose regardless of their racial or economic backgrounds, this is not the real issue. The real issue here is that Mears and Browne lack the cultural competence to execute a project that hearkens back to a time where non-whites were branded as uncivilized or exotic based on the values and standards of whiteness.

Browne and Mears’ irresponsibility is accentuated by a contemporary political climate where individuals can be stopped and questioned if suspected of being “illegal” in Arizona. It is a climate in which Iowa Republican congressional hopeful Pat Bertroche is running on a platform that includes micro-chipping “illegal immigrants.” Browne and Mears, however, would never be micro-chipped, even if they do live surrounded by people who would be the targets for this. No, Browne and Mears are simply reporters embedded in the frontlines, uploading “proof” of the inadequacies of “the new America” using the standards and measures of whiteness, constantly comparing how differently Browne, Mears, and their families do things.

I wrote this piece because I am a photo documentarian and an educator who is also in her mid-twenties. Age is certainly no excuse for developing projects that exoticize people who come from backgrounds that are unfamiliar, nor are they an excuse for economic and racial prejudice. The use of ethnographic methods that centered on “discovering people” and requiring non-western cultures to abide by the standards of the West are outdated. As a photo documentarian I do understand the difficulties of using one’s self as a filter for subject matters that we (documentarians) may not have formal education in. And I also empathize with the desire to provide a voice for a community that is largely under-represented in the media. However, it is precisely because Browne and Mears are working with vulnerable populations that “socially responsible” practices become all the more imperative. If “The Entry Way” is about creating a meaningful discourse, Browne and Mears must re-examine their thesis and be cautious about their tendencies toward exploitive narratives.

Diane Arellano is a photo documentarian and youth advocacy educator based in Los Angeles. Diane’s work examines sociocultural instability and flexibility, the intersections of marginalized communities, race, class, and gender roles. Her latest photographic body of work is “The Toronto Wranglers: Gay Country Line Dancers.”