What I’m Reading About the Baltimore Riots

Several months ago, Michael Brown and Eric Garner died during encounters with police. The horrific nature of their deaths, and the fact that they represent just two of the many black men who experience discrimination and violence at the hands of law enforcement, spawned uprisings in Ferguson and elsewhere. At the time I wrote a post about choosing to listen to this important conversation.

That conversation is on-going and I’m still choosing to do more listening than speaking when I can help it. Although discussion never really died down, it was brought to the forefront of consciousness once again when 25-year-old Freddie Gray died of spinal injuries in policy custody in Baltimore. Once again, I hope that my relative silence on social media and this blog with respect to this conversation and these events is not interpreted as indifference. Rather, it is a recognition that there are far more authentic and expert voices out there that I’m listening to.

Having said that, I couldn’t help but tweet this on Monday which is, at least for now, all I really have to say:

Instead of leaving it there, however, I thought I’d share some links to the best stuff I’ve been reading online about the Baltimore riots. Check it out the non-exhaustive list below.

11 Stunning Images Highlight the Double Standard of Reactions to Riots Like Baltimore
Interesting how the Baltimore residents fighting against discrimination and violence are labeled “thugs” but the (predominantly white) people who riot after winning/losing a sporting event are….what exactly? Many have made this point but Mic’s use of images really drive it home.

29 Moments That Show Another Side Of The Baltimore Riots
Buzzfeed is full of ridiculousness – time-wasting quizzes and inane but addicting commentary on random bits of pop culture (that I read faithfully) – but every once in awhile it does some more serious journalism that is usually quite good. The photos curated above are an example of this.

Hillary Clinton Laments ‘Missing’ Black Men as Politicians Reflect on Baltimore Unrest
Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton offered remarks on the Baltimore riots in which she called for an end to the mass incarceration of black men. Sure, she may be pandering to voters but the fact that she made explicit mention to racial fissures and a broken justice system is significant. Especially considering this is the first substantial policy statement she has made since launching her campaign.

The problem with wanting ‘peace’ in Baltimore
One of the most frustrating reactions to the Baltimore riots has been the invocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. to condemn the protesters. This Waging Nonviolence blog post does an excellent job of tearing that critique down. Even better, it’s written by a Kingian Nonviolence trainer.

Nonviolence as Compliance
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n a similar vein, Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a compelling and eloquent explanation of the problem with calling for non-violence in the midst of systemic violence. As usual, Coates is on point.

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I Am A Bad Feminist

Over the weekend I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. It was equal parts affirming and educational and her essays inspired me to think of the ways that I am a “bad feminist.” Here is what I came up with – an incomplete, mostly serious, partly tongue-in-cheek list of the ways in which I am bad at feminism.

  1. I love high heels.
  2. I am skeptical of “manspreading.”  Having spent a lot of time on public transportation in the last 7 years (in 3 major cities – Denver, Montreal, Toronto) I have found that people taking up a lot of space doesn’t conform to a perceivable gender trend. In my experience women seemed just as likely to put their bag on the empty seat next to them as men were to spread their legs.
  3. I am guilty of enjoying dancing to music that includes misogynistic lyrics. I know it’s problematic and yet I can’t deny that it pumps me up when I jog and that it gets me dancing in my kitchen.
  4. I think the “for every dollar a man earns, a woman makes 78 cents” tagline is recycled and not useful.
  5. Feminist circles have been talking a lot about “manterrupting” and I feel embarrassed because a bad habit of mine (that I’m working on!) is interrupting people.
  6. I (sporadically) count calories. And don’t feel bad about it.
  7. I have never and will never burn my bra because they are expensive.
  8. I love plenty of TV shows, movies, and books that fail the Bechdel test.
  9. I have problems with the “body positive” movement.
  10. I am ignorant of the struggles of women of colour and the ways in which mainstream feminism has excluded them. This is something I’m actively working on but I am not excused.

Lest you misinterpret my list as me saying “I’m a feminist but not one of those feminists” let me be clear that the point of this list is to recognize that as a fallible human being I regularly fail to live up to my own ideals. It’s also to point out that the mainstream feminist narrative has been dominated by white, heterosexual, middle-class women and has often failed women of colour, transwomen, and poor women.

I am a bad feminist but I am a proud feminist committed to listening, learning, and advocating. In the words of the formidable Roxane Gay, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

New Cormoran Strike Novel!

Exciting news! J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith has finished the third Cormoran Strike novel!

According to Little Brown, the book is called Career of Evil and will be published this fall. The title is derived from a song by Blue Oyster Cult (although sadly I was too slow to nap that signed copy).

That’s all we know so far. Get excited Cormoran Strike fans!!

Why I Don’t Care About the Historical Accuracy of Historical Fiction

When I was in elementary school, I bought the first two books in The Royal Diaries series at the Scholastic Book Fair. Each book is written like the fictional diary of a real-life royal figure as a young girl. The first book was written from the perspective of a young Elizabeth I and the second from the perspective of a teenage Cleopatra. The end of each book included historical notes on the book’s subject as well as historical photographs and drawings. I devoured the books and became instantly obsessed with both the series and historical fiction.

My penchant for reading historical fiction has followed me into adulthood (I turned 26 last week so I guess I have to grudgingly admit that I’m now technically an adult). I love that the genre allows me to explore historical time periods in a way that is fun and accessible. I love learning about history this way and yet I don’t care about historical accuracy in historical fiction. Don’t get me wrong, authors who can weave the relatively un-embellished facts into a compelling narrative should be recognized for their monstrous achievement (bonus points for you, Hilary Mantel). But authors who take creative liberties, even sweeping ones, should not be condemned (I got your back, Philippa Gregory).

So why don’t I care about the historical accuracy of historical fiction?

1. Historical fiction is educational

I learn a ton from reading historical fiction. I have had a weakness for Tudor-era England ever since I read Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, the first book in The Royal Diaries series. At age 10 I could recite the names of all the wives of Henry VIII, their children, and their fates. I knew that Catherine of Aragon’s parents were Isabel and Ferdinand and that they sent Christopher Columbus on the journey during which he discovered America and I had a decent understanding of the English Reformation for an elementary school kid. I knew all of this not because I was especially bright or because I was learning it in school. I learned it all through reading. I doubt I would have picked up any of the non-fiction books on Tudor history that I’ve read as an adult if I hadn’t been introduced to the era or its characters through fiction.

Although I’ve long outgrown The Royal Diaries series, I continue to learn history from historical fiction as I’m introduced to new places, people, and time periods and inspired to learn more about them.

2. Historical fiction rescues interesting characters from obscurity

Many historical fiction novels elevate supporting characters to starring roles. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, for instance, offers a fresh perspective on the drama of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by telling the story from her sister’s perspective. The relatively minimal historical record on such figures means that in order to develop them into well-rounded characters authors must do some inventing. Staying within the confines of established history means that these characters are either presented as shallow caricatures or ignored altogether. I doubt either of these sad alternatives appeal to readers or history buffs.

3. Fact-checking historical fiction is fun (or am I just super nerdy?)

I happen to think that historical fiction is best paired with historical non-fiction. Having an understanding of the facts, at least as historians understand them, enriches the historical fiction reading experience because it allows the reader to spot when the author is adding their own flavour to history. Historical reality in tact, a reader can then venture confidently into the gray areas of history and chew on the food for thought provided by the author. Also, there is something delightful about fact-checking what seems like an impossible detail only to discover that truth really is stranger than fiction.

If nothing else, nerds like me may enjoy the ego boost derived from the uncovering of historical anomalies in fiction.This gives us a chance to bust out our interesting trivia at appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) moments. Did you know that despite making a menstrual tent the symbolically important setting her book The Red Tent author Anita Diamant acknowledges that there is no historical evidence to suggest that they even existed in ancient Israel/Iraq?

4. Historical fiction is fiction

The purpose of imagining the motivations behind historical figures’ choices is not merely an exercise is examining or re-examining history but also an exploration of human nature. Sure, unlike other genres, historical fiction more obviously derives inspiration from real events and real people but fundamentally historical fiction has more in common with its fictional counterparts than with history books. Evaluating its quality according to its historical accuracy then, rather than its literary merit, is nonsensical and boring. If historical fiction was meant to be completely historically accurate it would be shelved in the non-fiction section.

We love books because we love great writing, interesting characters, thoughtful commentary of human nature, intriguing plots, and, perhaps above all, imagination. I read historical fiction not because of its strict adherence to historical fact, but because of its loyalty to these significantly more important criteria.

Less Inspiration Porn, More Jean Little.

A video is making the rounds on social media featuring a young woman who, after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash, walks down the aisle on her wedding day. It’s a beautiful moment and an amazing testament to the power of determination and love in the face of adversity. While this young woman and her husband deserve congratulations for overcoming the odds, I am troubled by the frequency with which videos like this surface on social media. “Inspiration porn” – the deliberately provocative moniker applied to these types of videos by their critics – appears on social media daily and tends to follow a familiar formula. They briefly interrupt our day to offer warm, fuzzy feelings before we click away to something else. They often involve people with disabilities. They rarely inspire critical thinking. This is troublesome as our reactions to videos like these say much more about our societal perception of people with disabilities than it does about the people featured in them.

Consider this video, which is just one of many examples. The introduction describes the young woman’s determination to walk down the aisle on her wedding day. The voice-over describes that she “willed her body to move,” as if all you need to recover from a spinal cord injury is a good attitude. The video is shared over and over again often with hashtags like #heartwarming, #touching. These reactions reflect, in part, a genuine admiration for how hard this woman worked to regain her mobility. But I think another part of our reaction, one that we are less likely to concede, is relief that the bride once again looks “normal” or at least familiar. She is upright, not “confined” to a wheelchair, and tidily packaged as a woman who overcame a devastating diagnosis and will now live happily ever after. It makes us feel good to watch this 90 second video, but it doesn’t do much to advance our understanding of disability or de-fetishize the people living with them.

But don’t take it from me. While I’m interested in this subject, and have a bit of a background working with children with disabilities, I’m not an expert. Instead, I highly recommend you listen to what the late comedian and journalist Stella Young had to say about the problems with “inspiration porn.” In her hilarious and insightful TEDx Talk called “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much” Young, who had osteogenesis imperfecta and used a wheelchair, recalls being nominated for a community achievement award as a teenager despite “not doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation.” She describes how people with disabilities are routinely seen as “inspirations” but not as teachers, doctors, manicurists etc. In short, they are not seen as real people.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to reduce the objectification of people with disabilities. Young suggests that instead of thinking of disability as exceptional we instead question what we think we know about disability. There are lots of ways to do this: spending time with people with disabilities, educating ourselves about the types of disability, or reading stories with characters that have disabilities. Unfortunately, this last suggestion can be difficult to implement given the dearth of books by and about people with disabilities. Which is why I am grateful to have been introduced to Jean Little by my 4th grade English teacher.

Jean Little is a Canadian author who writes primarily for children. She also previously taught children with physical disabilities and is legally blind. While teaching, she noticed that there were very few stories about children that looked like her students. The stories that did include children with physical disabilities usually concluded with them being miraculously cured (think Clara in Heidi and Colin in The Secret Garden). Little wanted her students to read books with children they could relate to and since she couldn’t find any, she wrote them. Her first book Mine For Keeps is about Sally who has cerebral palsy, loves dogs, and is adjusting to her new school after previously attending a rehabilitation school. Its sequel Spring Begins in March is about the challenges Sally’s younger sister experiences as a sibling of someone with a disability who is also struggling academically. From Anna features a young girl with visual impairment and chronicles her family’s escape from Nazi Germany and resettlement in Canada.

I loved Jean Little’s books when I was in elementary school. She wrote about disability in a way that helped me understand the particular challenges that children with disabilities face while also reinforcing the idea that they weren’t all that different from me. Her characters weren’t particularly heroic, in fact they were often flawed, and they were always interesting. Many of her stories were about disability but they were also about family and friendship, and above all they were exciting, engaging, and funny. Learning about disability through reading helped me, and my classmates, build empathy and understanding. I carried this knowledge with me when I began working with children with physical disabilities over a decade later. I remembered how Little’s characters wanted to feel independent and be taken seriously so I was careful to avoid acting in ways that could be perceived as patronizing. My education in disability is far from over, but I am grateful to Jean Little for providing such an excellent foundation.

When people with physical disabilities are the focal point of inspirational videos and images, they dominate our social media feeds because they make us feel good. But before we assign it a hashtag and further disseminate it across cyberspace, it’s worth taking a step back and critically examining how it may be contributing to the inadvertent dehumanization of people with disabilities. The message conveyed by Stella Young and Jean Little is so basic and yet so rarely present in the way society portrays and reacts to people with disabilities. There is no single way to overcome the well-meaning but misguided and ultimately cringe-worthy objectification of people with disabilities, but reading is a powerful tool to consider. While videos shared on social media necessarily leave us on the outside looking in, reading invites us into the world of its characters and asks us to empathize with them. So when it comes to cultural portrayals of people with disabilities, I propose the following rule-of-thumb: less inspiration porn, more Jean Little.

Brief Thoughts on Equal Pay Day

It’s Equal Pay Day – a day intended to recognize “how far into the new year the average American woman would have to work to earn what the average American man did in the previous year.” Hashtag activism is surging today via #EqualPayDay. Below is a small sample of Tweets – including Tweets from The White House and the U.S. Labor Department – referencing the gap and demanding equality.

As a feminist, I’m absolutely in favour of the sentiment expressed by these Tweets. But as a feminist, I’m also discouraged by the lack of specificity in these demands. To be fair, hashtag activism doesn’t lend itself well to specificity, but I think we can do better than recycling the “for every dollar a man earns, a woman makes 78 cents” tagline. The statistics regarding the gender pay gap are knotty and not easy to interpret, causing many to declare the wage gap a myth, a bogus statistic. Missing from online activism is acknowledgement that there is some truth to this claim.

Research suggests that women tend to make less than men not because of blatant discrimination but for a variety of other, more complex reasons that are still steeped in sexism but are less overt than the “78 cents” statistic suggests. Issues like society’s perception of women as the default caregivers, lack of paid maternity leave, lack of societal support for paternity leave, confidence gaps, male-dominated professional networks, and occupational choices may account for the wage disparity between men and women. As Hanna Rosin said in her 2013 Slate article, “The point here is not that there is no wage inequality. But by focusing our outrage into a tidy, misleading statistic we’ve missed the actual challenges. It would in fact be much simpler if the problem were rank sexism and all you had to do was enlighten the nation’s bosses or throw the Equal Pay Act at them.”

Which is why I wish #EqualPayDay conversation did more than emphasize the inherent unfairness of pay inequity and instead emphasized the specific changes that are needed to close the gap. It’s easy to talk about the injustice of the wage gap, it’s much tougher to figure out why it persists and take action to change it.

Earlier I Tweeted this:

My point is not to deny that sexism plays a role in the gender pay gap because it does. My point is that we must uncover the particular sexist mechanisms that are causing wage disparity and actively dismantle them. As a starting point, I would love to see #EqualPayDay activists demand not just pay equity but paid maternity leave, support for paternity leave, professional networks for women, or whatever specific proposal they believe to be most valuable. Then the arduous task of turning conversation to action must begin.

It’s Official – She’s Running for President

Hillary Rodham Clinton announced yesterday that she is running for president which should come as a shock to absolutely no one. She made her announcement via the video below.

Some thoughts:

  • If you already like Hillary Clinton then you’ll probably like the video. It’s pretty warm and fuzzy but not too cheesy.
  • As many others have already pointed out, Hillary herself does not appear in the video until 1:30 of the 2:18 minute video. The decision to keep the focus on other people is strategically wise for two reasons. First, it conveys a clear message: Hillary is running as the champion of the middle class and “ordinary Americans.” Second, Hillary has near universal name recognition in the United States so unlike other candidates, she doesn’t need to introduce herself to the American public. It was therefore smart for her to get out of the limelight to reinforce her campaign message.
  • The cast of her video was quite diverse, as it should be.
  • “Little tiny fishiiiiiiiiies…”

  • The logo. Oh the logo. I admit that I find it a little weak. But some of the reactions online are just out of control. No, Wikileaks, she didn’t steal your logo. No, it doesn’t look like a plane going through the twin towers that’s just the way an “H” is shaped (yes people have actually said that but there are multiple links for this one so I don’t want to single one out). No, the fact that the arrow is red doesn’t mean communism for goodness sake. Yes, it points to the right, no, I don’t find that ironic. No, it doesn’t really look like the Cuban flag but if you’re going to point that out shouldn’t you acknowledge that the American flag (and so many other flags out there) looks a bit similar to the Cuban flag? Ugh, enough about the logo.

    Clinton will almost surely get the Democratic nomination even if other candidates emerge but the GOP race is just getting started. As of this morning Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have announced they are running for president. Jeb Bush and Scott Walker seem poised to run while Chris Christie, Rick Santorus, Rick Perry, and maybe Mike Huckabee also seem like potential candidates. It’s not clear who Clinton’s challenger will be but the race should be fierce.

    I’m often critical of the amount of time and money that is spent on US presidential elections, but I have to admit to feeling a bit excited as election activity slowly ramps up. Fatigue will undoubtedly set in but right now, I’m sitting back and enjoying it.