Tag Archives: feminism

An Open Letter to UNC President Ross and Chancellor Folt: Commit to the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Update: This article is now re-published in the Huffington Post (in slightly abridged form!)

I am writing as a blogger and graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill to express my concern about UNC’s current unwillingness to join with other private and public universities to support tougher safety standards for the purchase of UNC branded clothing. I fear that failure to do so will only rebound to negatively affect our own image into the future. I urge you to require all university licensees to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord.

As you well know, on the evening of April 23, 2013, the eight-story Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500 in what has now been deemed the deadliest garment factory collapse in history. Since then, students across this nation have taken action. Through the hard work of United Students Against Sweatshops, the largest student coalition since the anti-apartheid movement, bringing together 150 University and college affiliates nationwide, twenty universities have signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord. This accord is an unprecedented, legally-binding agreement between apparel companies and global and Bangladesh unions that has been joined by over 150 brands and retailers worldwide. These universities now require that all of their licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh sign the Accord as well, forcing them to take responsibility for their subcontracted factories in a meaningful and committed way that can “transform the garment industry from deathtraps to safe workplaces.”

The universities that have signed the Accord have included prominent private institutions such as Duke, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, and large state schools similar in size and reputation to UNC-Chapel Hill, such as Michigan, Penn-State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and University of Washington-Seattle.

It has been exciting to witness such a diverse range of institutions that have demonstrated an investment in valuing workers’ voices and lives. It has thus been disappointing and frustrating that neither of you, President Ross and Chancellor Folt, has made any kind of similar commitment on this issue.

Since the fall, the UNC End Deathtraps coalition has been campaigning persistently to get Chancellor Folt to sign the Accord. Workers, students, community members, the Chapel Hill Town Council, and the University’s Licensing Labor Code advisory Committee (LLCAC) – a committee composed of faculty, students and administrators – have strongly recommended that the Accord is the best option for both workers and UNC.

Despite this adoption of best practices elsewhere, President Ross, your recent memo, delivered the night before the one year anniversary of Rana, states that licensees producing and sourcing goods from Bangladesh should be given the option to sign on to either the Bangladesh Accord or the Alliance for Worker Safety. But the Alliance is a company-controlled, non-binding agreement that has been critiqued for its exclusion of workers and their representatives and for its failure to obligate brands to pay for factory safety renovations. If licensees choose to sign the Alliance, then they would not be required to make any tangible changes in garment and apparel factory workplace safety. Instead, they would be resorting to the same self-regulatory approaches that have tragically failed workers far too often. They would be, in essence, doing what they have already done.

Allowing brands to continue to supply to UNC whether or not they sign the Accord would allow current suppliers like North Carolina based VF Corp., owner of North Face, Jansport, Vans, and Timberland, to continue to escape accountability for their workers’ safety. VF Corporation has an alarmingly sizeable presence in Bangladesh, sourcing from 91 factories and employing 190,000 workers. Despite its many safety violations that have demonstrated deep negligence and disregard for human rights and safety, including a 2010 factory fire that killed twenty-nine workers in a VF supplier factory, VF is refusing to sign the Accord.

UNC’s failure to insist that all licensees sign the Accord only allows VF’s blatant disregard for worker safety to go unchecked. This not only threatens workers’ lives but also negatively impacts UNC’s image. Do you really want to imagine a situation in which a woman’s body is hauled out of an unsafe factory clutching a garment made by VF Corporation, a company with which UNC has a sizeable contract? I know that you are both people who are regarded as having high ethical standards, and I’m sure you would not want this on your conscience.

The LLCAC has worked constructively to examine our standards. As Dr. Steve May, a professor on the committee put it, “There was no doubt in our mind that the Accord would be the best option for workers and UNC. Our committee saw very few reasons to go with the Alliance and plenty of risks.”

Given that most of the other major licensees with collegiate production in Bangladesh have signed the Accord, including Adidas, Knight’s Apparel, Fruit of the Loom, and Top of the World, this recent decision made by Tom Ross and supported by you, Chancellor Folt, to give brands the option to ‘choose’ between the Alliance or the Accord seems to stem from a reluctance to terminate VF corporation’s contract if it does not join the Accord. What is UNC’s interest in protecting VF’s Bangladesh operations?

On the contrary could you not make an argument that the more UNC supports the Accord, the greater is the chance that jobs might come home to North Carolina’s textile factories that were priced out of the global market by our collective indifference to the conditions that foreign workers slaved in overseas?

The Chapel Hill town council has recognized this. After being approached by University students, they agreed to require that their city uniforms only be sourced from apparel producers that have signed on to the Accord. As Maria Palmer, town council member put it, “I believe North Carolina workers should be able to compete on a level playing field, and for the textile corporations like Greensboro-based VF to take their manufacturing jobs to Asia and pay their workers less than $100 per month and force them to work in dangerous and difficult conditions, and say they can not do anything about it, is a slap in the face of our workers here as well as abroad.”

It is embarrassing that UNC’s leadership has chosen to keep a contract with a corporation that has not only killed 29 people in Bangladesh, but has worsened conditions in the state by abandoning its local workers. And it is beyond disappointing that you both have chosen to side with a corporation over the needs and requests of its workers, your students, and the community in which you both live.

For the last few years, UNC has been plagued by plagiarism scandals and charges of massive Title IX violations. I was encouraged by a recent email you sent, Chancellor Folt, in honor of sexual assault awareness month, in which you stressed the importance of educating “our communities about the impact of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.”

I would love to see the same amount of concern for the mostly female labor force in the garment industry, many of whom are the same age as the students here in Chapel Hill. These young women are often fired, sexually harassed, and even assaulted for daring to speak up against the injustices they face daily. As Aleya Akter, a Bangladeshi worker who visited UNC this month revealed to students, “When I would go home from work, hired thugs from management would harass me on the street and make threats to me.”

President Ross and Chancellor Folt, I urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the highest ethical standards and to demonstrate that our university will never sanction behavior that treats workers as though they were disposable. We are all citizens of the same global community, and this is a pressing human rights issue. As leaders of a major university with a prestigious reputation, you could really make a difference both in Bangladesh and by setting an example for your students. It’s time to do the right thing and require all university licensees to sign the Accord. That is the Carolina Way.

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of ILRF).

At the one year anniversary of Rana (photo courtesy of Solidarity Center).

Are you a UNC student/alum/supporter? Want to let President Ross and Chancellor Folt know that you want them to support the Accord?

To contact President Ross: Phone: (919) 962-9000 and Email: tomross@northcarolina.edu

To contact Chancellor Folt: Phone: (919) 962-1365 and Email: chancellor@unc.edu

Tweet @ChancellorFolt End Deathtraps! Do the right thing for workers and UNC! #SaveLivesAddTheAccord

My Related Posts:

Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

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Filed under Critical Fashion

The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

Sooo (drum roll please) it’s officially time for the list of 2013’s (and a bit of January) fiercest figures, and just in time for the Lunar New Year (we’re going global girlfriends)! And trust, this past year really brought it with the incredible people and movements who didn’t just encompass fierceness, but defined it. As I mentioned in my 2012 round-up, fierceness to me is all about  those “who challenge the norm, go against the grain, and beat to their own drum. It’s standing up for what you believe in, thinking outside the box, and fighting for equality and social justice.” Needless to say it was a little difficult to pick who would appear on this much coveted (at least by me) list, but somehow, I managed to get over my Libra indecisiveness and get. it. done. So, let’s do this.

Fashion:

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Bangladesh workers and United Students against Sweatshops in solidarity (photo courtesy of USAS.org).

Accord on Building and Fire Safety in Bangladesh: 2012 was by all accounts a pretty depressing year for fashion, but in April 2013 the horrifying images of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Savar, Bangladesh seemed to finally shock the world out of its acquiescence. Over 100 apparel corporations from nineteen countries in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia (including H&M, C&A, Zara, Primark and Tesco) signed the unprecedented, legally binding agreement brokered by non-profit advocacy organizations The International Labor Rights Forum and Worker’s Rights Consortium – in solidarity with Bangladesh workers – that required retailers to fund independent safety inspections of their facilities and give workers a voice to negotiate on working conditions and higher wages. United Students against Sweatshops, a college student activist group that knows how to keep shit real, have so far successfully pressured NYU, Temple, Duke, and University of Pennsylvania to stop doing business with companies that produce clothing in sweatshops and refuse to sign the Accord.  They also demanded that the four largest retailers that produce college-logo apparel – Fruit of the Loom, Knight’s Apparel, Adidas, and Top of the World – sign as well. And guess what? They. did. Can we talk?? There’s still plenty of work that needs to be done, as North American companies such as Wal-Mart (ugh, go away already), Gap (your swing dance ads were cute, your constant abuse of child labor? Not so much. Oh and congrats on winning the Public Eye award for the worst human rights and environmental violations. You rock like that), Target, Disney and Children’s Place have refused to sign and offer victims compensation, even pressuring US lawmakers to cut a provision in a bill that would have promoted better labor standards in Bangladesh.  Still, with European retailers signing on and charges being brought against factory owners and government figures, it’s clear that an industry that has always had a tendency to displace accountability is starting to change. Mad props to the mainstream media for keeping not just Bangladesh in the headlines, but for also covering the garment industries in countries like Cambodia, Haiti, and India. And the NPR series that detailed the global industry involved in making one t-shirt? Fab.

The Model Alliance, a labor union aimed to improve working conditions for models, passed an unprecedented labor law in NY for child models (photo courtesy of modelalliance.org)

The Model Alliance, a labor group for fashion models, passed an unprecedented labor law in NY for child models (photo courtesy of modelalliance.org)

New law protects rights for underage models: The Model Alliance, a labor organization founded in early 2012 for fashion models working in the American fashion industry, decided they needed to do something to protect young models from exploitation. So they lobbied Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill guaranteeing underage models the same rights and protections in New York State as other child performers, including regulation of work hours and wage oversight. Susan Scafidi, the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, argued that it was one of the biggest developments in a century in terms of fashion and labor law, “bringing a whole new group under labor protection.” Talk about getting it done.

After worldwide protests when hazardous chemicals were found in children's clothes, Burberry committed to being detox-free by 2020 (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Did you get the memo Burberry? Toxic is SO last season! (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Environmental Exposes: Last year Greenpeace made this list for writing a report that revealed the toxins in our clothes, sparking a global protest movement that effectively led to twelve global fashion leaders like Nike, H&M and Zara to commit to the elimination of hazardous chemicals released into our clothes and water. Yeah GP, you do that. This year they released another report; that “hazardous, potentially hormone disrupting chemicals” were found in numerous children’s brands, from Burberry to Adidas to Disney. After some fierce social media campaigning and live demonstrations, Burberry committed to toxic-free clothing by 2020. While many of these deadlines seem far away (this article breaks down why and how  change can come sooner) it’s clear that transparency in the fashion industry is starting to be taken seriously, and why shouldn’t it be? We only come in direct physical contact with textiles for 99% of our lives! Want to get involved? Check out Greenpeace’s Detox campaign and sign their manifesto. Toxic is so last season.

Carmen Carrera, a transgender model, is auditioning to be a Victoria's Secret Angel (photo courtesy of Getty Images).

Carmen Carrera, a transgender model, is auditioning to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel. You go girlfriend! (photo courtesy of Getty Images).

Carmen Carrera/Elliot Sailors/Casey Legler: All three of these women defied heteronormative views of beauty this past year, with Sailors (a former swimsuit model) and Legler (an artist and athlete) working as male models and transgender model Carmen Carrera making headlines for her campaign to be the next Victoria’s Secret Angel. But as Casey Legler wrote in this fantastic essay, to focus this conversation in a sensationalist way on gender would be not just limiting and potentially harmful to marginalized communities, but would also be ignoring a historical tradition (as this amazing photography series of the ‘modern dandy’ demonstrates)  of others who have come before her. As she put it, “This is not just about gender. It is about being fierce.” Isn’t everything about being fierce? Seriously though, love. them.

A$AP Rocky: Trust. Believe it or not, his collaboration with designer Jeremy Scott has helped to challenge gender boundaries in hip hop in a way that no other rapper has done before. Respect.

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A$AP Rocky and Jeremy Scott’s fashion collaboration may be more subversive than you think…

Bethann Hardison: Fashion model legend Hardison of The Diversity Coalition didn’t just write an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the major fashion cities blasting the industry for its “white-washed model casts,” she also called out the designers who were the worst offenders, sparking a larger conversation about racism on the runways. But as Naomi Campbell put it when she threw it down (as only Naomi knows how) with this interviewer, change isn’t going to happen by pointing fingers. It needs to be systemic. Although the fall shows did include more models of color, there still needs to be a push for what Hardison notes is a failure to commit to consistent change. And that, as scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote in this essay, might take completely restructuring the industry’s dynamics of “race, power, and profit.” It probably won’t happen overnight, but at least the conversation has started, right?

Christian Vs. Barney’s New York: After being arrested by Barney’s for daring to buy a couture belt, nineteen year old student Trayon Christian sued the luxury retailer for racial profiling and false arrest. The media coverage inspired others, including Rob Brown of HBO’s Treme, to reveal their own personal stories of being profiled and arrested by retailers ranging from Barneys New York to Macy’s for what some labeled as simply ‘shopping while black,’ challenging the notion that we live in a post-racial world. And when Jay-Z failed to show solidarity by refusing to cancel his collaboration with Barney’s, the ensuing outrage added another level of complexity to the debate.

The Paul Frank/Native designer collab featured this gorgeous necklace by Autumn Gomez of The Soft Musuem (photo courtesy of cnn.com).

The Paul Frank/Native designer collab featured this gorgeous necklace by Autumn Gomez of The Soft Musuem (photo courtesy of cnn.com).

Native Artisan/Paul Frank collaboration:  I’ve written before how the fashion industry has a history of treating Native people like trends, and the ‘Pow-Wow’ party that designer Paul Frank threw for Fashion’s Night Out was a great example of that. But then, something really rad happened. Paul Frank’s team didn’t just apologize after the ensuing backlash, they expressed interest in developing a capsule collection with Native designers and donating the proceeds to a Native cause! Love me some self-reflection. I mean seriously, how many people in positions of privilege are willing to clock their own T? The amazing ladies of Beyond Buckskin and Native Appropriations, Jessica Metcalfe and Adrienne Keene, respectively, helped to launch this collection, which featured pieces by four amazing designers. And when Paul Frank failed to mention in his press releases the reasons for why this collaboration came about in the first place, Adrienne took to her blog to remind everyone that “remembering the origins reminds us of the inherent power structures in society (and therefore the fashion industry) and that it took hundreds of angry voices.” It is these voices that influenced not just the Frank collection but also brought greater visibility to the issue of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, demonstrating how the power of the blogosphere coupled with community activism can actually spark social change, when it’s done right (I’m looking at you ‘Invisible Children/Kony 2012’).

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Bob Bland of Manufacture NY, which will provide production facilities to local designers (photo courtesy of Ecouterre).

Designers bring back local production: The New York manufacturing industry alone has seen a 90 percent decrease in jobs since the early 1900s. That’s pretty depressing. Which is why it’s so refreshing that designers like Bob Bland, Kelly Jones and Dana Arbib are providing facilities and support in the U.S. for upcoming independent designers who need help getting started in an industry that can be tough to break through. Mad props to these chicas for encouraging local production and consumer transparency. Mad. props.

Fierce People/movements who challenged gender/sexuality ‘norms’:

Students protest outside of the Department of Education, demanding better Title IX enforcement (photo courtesy of Feministing).

Students protest outside of the Department of Education, demanding better Title IX enforcement (photo courtesy of Feministing).

The Global Movement to end sexual violence: There have always been people and movements that have worked on fighting sexual violence, but 2013 was the year that witnessed a true shift in cultural consciousness, becoming blatantly clear that ignoring or brushing aside sexual assault was no longer an option. In the United States, a coalition of hundreds of sexual assault survivors, advocates and allies came together through the ‘IX Network’ to combat campus rape culture, with its mission being to “support all survivors, to change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault, and to change a culture where violence is normalized.” Federal complaints were filed nationwide against universities that had a history of treating sexual misconduct as a less egregious crime than plagiarism, allowing, for example, serial predators back on campus after they had written book reports and purposefully under-reporting the number of sexual assault cases that had occurred in a year. The blogosphere (which has arguably transformed the feminist conversation) expectedly kept up with these stories, but surprisingly so did the mainstream media, forcing this long ignored injustice into the public sphere. And then, there was the outrage over the rape in Steubenville, sparking broader debate about cultural misogyny, rape culture, media framing of sexual violence, and even trigger warnings.

A young woman protests sexual violence after the gang rape in Dehli, India.

A young woman protests sexual violence after the gang rape in Delhi, India (photo courtesy of usilive.org).

These conversations were connected globally after the brutal gang rape of a student from Delhi, India. Even Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat made her voice heard, giving a fiery press conference on the rights of women in her country that was pretty much the fiercest. thing. ever. And of course, who can forget the massive online campaign forcing Facebook to revisit their policies on misogynist hate speech? Changing how our culture treats sexual assault and violence is going to take a lot of work, but I’m hopeful that survivor activist Angie Epifano is right when she said, “I think people will look back in 20 or 30 years and say, ‘This is when things started to improve.'”

Edith Windsor: Her Supreme Court win striking DOMA down guaranteed rights to an entire group of people. That pretty much redefines fierce.

Edith Windsor, redefining fierce after her Supreme Court win.

Edith Windsor, redefining fierce after her Supreme Court win.

Malala Yousafzai: Why is 16 year old Malala on this list? Um, let’s see. Girls education advocate. Survived an attack by the Taliban, and then went on to write a book about it. Oh, and get nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. Whateves. I do that like every day. Not to mention she basically told President Obama drone attacks were fueling terrorism and killing innocent people in Pakistan. As she put it in her book I Am Malala, “We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” Now that’s a guiding post quote for every activist! Check out this interview with Jon Stewart, whose mouth literally drops as Malala expresses her belief that the best way to fight those who are trying to oppress you is not with cruelty, but with dialogue, education, and peace.

Roya Mahboob and Ory Okollah: I’ve written before about how peeps in the West tend to take technology for granted, while those who live in countries where technology is less accessible often use new media as a powerful tool for change. Mahbook and Okollah are no exception, as they are both using the blogosphere to give women a platform in their countries of Afghanistan and Kenya respectively. Their hope is that by encouraging these young women to connect with each other and make their voices heard, they will feel empowered to transform their communities and push countries forward. As Okollah put it, “We talk about African governments like they’ve been dropped from Mars, you know? They come from us.” Truth. 

Ory Okolloh didn't just "put Kenya on the map as a tech innovation hub," she's using her position to empower future female leaders of Africa (photo courtesy of good.is)

Ory Okolloh didn’t just “put Kenya on the map as a tech innovation hub,” she’s using her position to empower future female leaders of Africa (photo courtesy of good.is).

Uruguay: Defying stereotypes, Uruguay passed a bill in favor of marriage equality, adding to Latin America’s reputation as a region that values gay and trans rights as human rights and is more progressive in that sense than the U.S. and many Western European nations (they’ve also edged ahead of the U.S. in women’s political leadership). But because they’re ‘third-world’ they’re totes backwards right? Hmm….

Charlotte Laws:  After computer hackers from the revenge porn site ‘Is Anyone Up?’ stole pictures of her daughter, Lawson waged a ‘war’ against revenge porn creep Hunter Moore, successfully helping to both pass anti-revenge porn legislation in the state of California and launch a FBI investigation that led to his arrest. Guess even Moore couldn’t deal with a bad ass mama taking on the misogynist internet.

Charlotte Laws took on revenge porn creep Hunter Moore...and won.

Does Hunter Moore regret the day he tried to mess with this Badass mama?

Sarah Slamen and Wendy Davis:  After Wendy Davis pulled a marathon filibuster to stop a restrictive anti-abortion measure in Texas, Sarah Slamen testified at a state Senate committee and was thrown out by troopers after she called out Texas’s hypocrisy in upholding the death penalty and refusing to teach sex education in schools. The Texas legislature received widespread criticism over the stifling of citizen speech, and her powerful statement of “Excuse me, this is my government, ma’am. I will judge you,” was reblogged and tweeted like crazy.  Talk about shutting. it. DOWN.

The Selfie: Ok, so I know a lot of people groaned when ‘the selfie’ was picked as the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary, claiming that young teen millennials (specifically girls), had reached a narcissistic, desperate low. But I loved this article that argued for a smarter conversation than always viewing young women as passive victims (imagine that!) and not as agents of their own lives. As this blogger put it,

“The act of women taking selfies is inherently feminist, especially in a society that tries so hard to tell women that our bodies are projects to be worked on and a society that profits off of the insecurities that it perpetuates. Selfies are like a ‘fuck you’ to all of that, they declare that ‘hey I look awesome today and I want to share that with everyone’ and that’s pretty revolutionary.”

Beyonce isn't just a feminist, she's a fierce feminist. Which is the best kind there is, right GFs?

Beyonce isn’t just a feminist, she’s a ‘fierce’ feminist. Which is the best kind there is, right GFs?

Feminism became cool again: Any movement promoting equality should automatically get respect, but feminism has often suffered from political (thanks Limbaugh), social, and media backlash that has resorted to sensationalist depictions of feminists as ‘bra-burners’  (which never actually happened btw) or worse. In past years we’ve heard from singers like Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson who have resisted the feminist label, which is why it was so refreshing to see so many embrace it this past year. There was Beyoncé mentioning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk “We should all be Feminists” as an inspiration for her video series on imperfection accompanying her latest album. Sixteen year old music sensation Lorde openly spoke about her feminism, not backing down when Selena Gomez fans attacked her for criticizing the pop singer’s sexist lyrics. John Legend, after performing at a charity event for Chime for Change, stated his opinion that “All men should be feminists. If men care about women’s rights, the world would be a better place.” Can I get a PREACH?! Even Miley Cyrus claimed in an interview “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world cause I tell women not to be scared of anything” (yes Miley, I was totes afraid of twerking until you ‘introduced’ it to us…thank you for showing me the light!). Amy Poehler and Ellen Paige also weighed in, questioning in interviews why some celebrities balked at the term. As Amy Poehler put it,  “That’s like someone being like, ‘I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.'” True. dat.

#solidarityisforwhitewomen: This hashtag went viral, reminding us that while feminism is dope, it needs to be intersectional to really work.

Subjectified and Do Tell: Melissa Tapper Goldman’s documentary and the blog project that came out of it offers authentic, uncensored personal stories about women’s sexuality that we too often ignore in a society that is in turn both sex-saturated and silencing of honest (sexual) experiences. Thank you girlfriend.

Evan Rachel Wood: Speaking. of. that. This statement by actress Evan Rachel Wood. Omg. THIS.

Laverne Cox: One of the stars of  the new series “Orange is the New Black,” Cox has become a transgender icon and activist who with co-guest Carmen Carrera schooled (in the most gracious way eva) Katie Couric for expressing a fixation with gender reassignment surgery. As she put it:

“The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average; if you are a trans person of color, that rate is four times the national average. The homicide rate is highest among trans women. If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.”

Germany offers third gender option: Every year, there are children who are born of indeterminate gender. Instead of parents being forced to choose their gender identity for them, Germany has given a third option on birth certificates so parents can leave it up to their child to decide whether to identity as male, female, or neither. Heyy Germany, we see you!

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host the Golden Globes: Sarah Silverman is probably right that making a big deal about women in comedy is a little passe, but Tina and Amy rocked it in both 2013 and 2014 and proved themselves to be two of the best hosts of any award show eva. I mean seriously, this video deserves to be on this list for that Leo DiCaprio dig alone (you know you loved it).

Media and Culture

Sorry Murdoch, you didn't win this time buddy.

Sorry Murdoch, you didn’t win this time buddy.

FCC ditches media mergers: This was SO huge. I’ve written before about how an increasingly corporatized media landscape that puts the vast majority of media into the hands of the few is challenging our democracy. So it was pretty depressing when the FCC announced they were considering changing the one rule that was preventing Rupert Murdoch from buying out pretty much every media outlet. But hundreds of thousands of peeps took action and stopped Murdoch in his tracks in a citizen protest that was pretty much epic. Love.

Occupy’s Legacy: Speaking of citizen protests, whether or not the members of the movement are still camped outside of Zuccoti Park in New York is irrelevant. Their economic framing of the 1% vs. the 99% has resonated with the American public, completely changing the conversation at home, in workplaces, newsrooms, and the political sphere. Language matters.  And by reframing the discourse on inequality, they also broadened the conversation beyond just Wall Street and economics.

The tents have gone, but the language has stayed.

The tents have gone, but the language and impact has stayed.

Comics take on racism/privilege: Speaking of that. Did anyone else get this sense that American media and culture was discussing privilege and racism in a way that we’ve typically been reluctant to do? Whether we were debating the outcomes of the Trayvon Martin trial, the ‘Affluenza’ defense used to excuse a wealthy teenager’s crimes, and the data revealing that African-Americans are far more likely to be singled out for drug arrests and random frisks, it was clear that Americans were finally starting to acknowledge that we hardly live in a post-racial world. Going through all the media coverage would be a bit much (I mean, this post needs to end at some point, right?), so I’ll highlight three comedy routines that really captured our current cultural moment. This ‘Key & Peele’ sketch on the hoodie, this Louis CK routine that perfectly explains the historical context of racism, and this routine by stand-up comedian Aamer Rahmen where he covers issues like inequality, colonization, slavery, war, and internalized racism as a way to break down why the idea of ‘reverse racism’ doesn’t work. In like, three minutes. You do that.

Edward Snowden: You know how he do. Exposed the massive surveillance program conducted by the U.S. government. Sparked a national privacy debate. Raised questions on the constitutionality of the program that might rein in the ability of the executive branch to conduct surveillance. From an ideological position, whether I’m condoning or condemning him is not the issue. The issue is whether he meets this blog’s definition of fierceness, and based on that I think to not include him on this list would be a straight up act of treason (oh no. I. didn’t. Oh yes I did! Snap!)

Colbert’s report on Mayor Johnny Cummings: This profile on Vicco, Kentucky, the smallest town in the nation to pass a non-discrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation, was hilarious and a wonderful turn on Appalachian stereotypes. And I might have cried just a little bit (shhh…don’t tell).

Antoinette Tuff: The stunning 911 tape of bookkeeper Tuff, who worked at an elementary school in Georgia, talking a gunman into surrendering to police went viral because of the compelling way she used empathy and compassion to connect with a mentally ill man who was in despair. Tuff not only shared her own stories of her struggles and attempted suicide during the call, she even told the young man that she loved him. Her story is a testament to how, as scholar bell hooks put it in her piece “Love as the Practice of Freedom,” the “moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.” Amen. And on a related note…

bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry OMG: Did these two really just sit down and cover politics, race, black womanhood, media, and love in one conversation? And was it even more brilliant, honest and critical an analysis than I expected it to be? Yes, they did, and yes, it was.

Misee Harris – the first Black Bachelorette: So you don’t  think a reality television show has a place on this list huh? Why don’t you read this post and get back to me. You back yet? Ok chill, now that we’re on the same page (obvi), I think we can agree that starting your own campaign as a response to the racial exclusion of minorities on a popular television show and forcing a conversation about racism into the national spotlight is pretty. damn. fierce. The pediatric dentist/model/philanthropist is still in the spotlight, and has recently patented her own line of athletic mouthguards, advanced in casting for the show Shark Tank, and is also working on her own reality show that will present black women beyond the simple caricatures that are too often on our TV screens (I’m looking at you Atlanta Housewives)  Love. her.

Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2014/01/02/2953484/windsor-snowden-became-big-names.html#storylink=cpyMedia Mergers, not happening. (Big win: FCC Ditches Media consolidatiAppalachian stereotypes-Jon Stewart

Music/Theater/Dance:

Cyndi being Cyndi after her big Tony win!

Cyndi being Cyndi after her big Tony win!

Broadway makes history: The Tony Awards in 2013 were pretty epic. Four African American actors won awards, with 88 year old Cecily Tyson making history as the oldest person to win a Tony for a role that wasn’t originally written for a black woman. Not only that, but the two directing awards both went to women, including my girl Cyndi Lauper. Sure sometimes girls just wanna have fun, but sometimes they wanna win awards and make history too.

Pussy Riot/Riot Grrrls: This punk rock band from Russia makes the list again, for clocking the T on the Kremlin when they accused them of pulling a ‘publicity stunt’ for finally releasing them from jail…right before the Winter Olympics. Also, shout out to fellow riot grrrl bands The Shondes and Kathleen Hanna (the queen mother of all riot grrrls) and her band The Julie Ruin for their fierce new albums. Oh and we can’t talk about punk and not mention Rupaul, who spoke so much truth in a recent interview with Rolling Stone when he said, “Doing drag in a male-dominated society is an act of treason. It’s literally the most punk rock thing you can do.” And we’re done GFs, DONE.

BRITAIN LONDON PUSSY RIOT PROTEST

You gotta think twice before throwing shade at a riot grrrl….

Janelle Monae: We all know Monae’s music is off the hook (I mean her song Q.U.E.E.N. with Erykah Badu??), but it was her interview below that really gave me life. It’s here that you get insight into Ms. Monae’s true philosophy and vision. I loved when she talked about her ‘androids of the future,’ which she envisions as “the new woman, the new minority, the new gay” who are “deeply connected and committed to community.” I. die.

Prancing Elites: A few months ago, one of my homegirls sent me the video below as a congrats when I met a big deadline. An hour later, I still couldn’t get enough of this gender-bending dance troupe from Mobile, Alabama. Dancing in the ‘J-Setting’ style, which was popularized by the Beyoncé video, “Single Ladies,” the fearless group members have been celebrated by their hometown and even on the show ‘The Real’ in Los Angeles. So happy they met their Kickstarter…can’t wait to see them werk it out in 2014!

Six year old B-girl Terra: This girl is SO dope. And Badass. And fierce. And yes, I’m inspired by and look up to a six-year-old. Suck it. Be sure to check out her Facebook page!

Becky G: Much like Kitty Pryde, Mexican-American teenager and rapper/singer Becky G gained recognition when she posted remixes of songs on YouTube. Her song “Becky from the Block” was released in 2013, and the video features a shout-out to her Latin culture and plenty of bravado as she raps, “Right now its just who is that girl? But one day Imma be all around the world.” This. Girl.

Jenny Suk: Another YouTube sensation I can’t get enough of. Her cover of Justin Bieber’s ‘Boyfriend’ actually made me appreciate the song and Bieber (trust), but it was this cover of the song ‘Wildfire’ that made me a hardcore fan.

Valerie June: I’ve always loved peeps who can’t be put into a box, and I think after watching this teaser of her upcoming album you’ll agree that pigeonholing this Tennessee blues/country/folk/gospel singer would be pretty much impossible. Obsessed.

Qaadir Howard: Speaking of out of the box. Qaadir (aka Timaya) certainly isn’t new to the Youtube game – he’s  been putting out videos since 2007.  But I’ve been pretty much addicted to his channel since he kept it real in 2013 with this video about the shady politics of YouTube. He serves a little bit of everything – music, sketches, inspirational videos, and really, really hilarious rants. It literally hurts me to pick just a few of my favorite videos, but I would def check out  “The Wal Mart Terrorist,” “Get off My Phone Sanjay Gupta,” (Sanjaaaaay!!! LOL), his sketches on Nicki Minaj and “Gary Mars The Space Alien, his beautifully spiritual and humanist video “I Was Homeless For a Night,” and when actress Tracee Ellis Ross hilariously bombed him in her own video.  I also love me some inspirational Qaadir, like his videos on “Making Lasting Change” and the one posted below. Thank you Q, for always keeping it real and teaching us all how to “clock the T where it needs to be clocked!”

Can’t wait to see what this next year brings us! Does anyone else get this intense vibe that 2014 is going to be the year? For all of my girlfriends who have joined in the conversation and shared links with me on Facebook and Twitter, thank you. You have really enriched my knowledge of the world and I’m so grateful to all of you. Here’s to the fiercest. year. EVER!

And let me know in the comments below if there’s anyone else who should have been added to the list –  I’d love to hear from you!

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2012: The Year’s Fiercest Cultural Figures

 

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Bangladesh Factory Fires: Why Brands Are Accountable and Must Compensate Victims Now

Dhaka_Savar_Building_Collapse

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than a 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500.

On the evening of April 23, 2013, garment factory employees of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, pleaded with management to take notice of the sudden cracks that had appeared in the walls and foundations. Their requests for evacuation were ignored on the basis that the building owner, Sohel Rana, had just hired an engineer who had pronounced the building safe. The mostly female labor force, who were threatened with losing a month’s pay if they did not return, were ordered to work the next day. As they arrived at the building, the first thing they heard over the loudspeaker was this: “All the workers of Rana Plaza, go to work. The factory has already been repaired.” Just half an hour later, the eight-story building collapsed, killing over 1,000 people and injuring more than 2,500. Local workers and relatives were some of the first on the scene, digging out mutilated bodies, including those of children who had been staying at the building’s day care center, from the rubble.

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Never again. Two victims hold each other amid the rubble of the Rana Plaza collapse (photo courtesy of Taslima Akhter).

And then, there was that picture. That haunting image of two people clinging to each other for survival, with their lower parts of their bodies buried under concrete and a tear of blood running down the man’s cheek. This photo served as a harsh reminder of what happens when we treat humans as just numbers, or as simply ‘cheap labor’ within a global supply chain that feeds the consumption patterns of the United States and European Union by delivering low-cost clothing from Bangladeshi factories to stores in the West. It is an industry that operates according to a logic of distance, in which a consumer is so removed from the condition under which a producer labors that they are less likely to have awareness, let alone any motivation to protest. The consumer was suddenly forced to get close and personal as people around the globe were confronted with the image of that heartbreaking final embrace.

Deemed the worst garment factory disaster in history, it implicated not just the lax regulations of the Bangladeshi garment industry, but companies such as Wal-Mart, The Children’s Place, H&M, Mango, Primark, Joe Fresh, and Benetton which used Bangladesh as a source of cheap labor. There were of course initial attempts to deny responsibility, with Wal-Mart claiming that they never contracted with the factory, and Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith dismissing the collapse as “not really serious” and, an “accident.”

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‘Accidents’ don’t happen again..and again. Bangladeshi Army personnel walks through the rows of burnt sewing machines in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire, which killed at least 117 people in November, 2012 (photo courtesty of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images).

The factory collapse of Rana was not an accident, as various government officials, corporations, and even certain media outlets have described it. An accident is something that is unexpected, that occurs infrequently, but also is something that is not necessarily preventable.  This tragedy was not an isolated event. It was, in fact, one of several hundred other factory incidents that have killed over 1,000 workers from 1990 to 2012 in Bangladesh, a country that employs four million garment workers, 85 percent of whom are women, in its growing garment industry. And, like the dozens of other factory fires that have been reported across the industry in countries like China, India, and Pakistan, it could have been prevented with proper safety measures and a workplace in which factory managers listened to workers’ concerns.

Walmart Bangladesh factories

Garment workers in Bangladesh, 85% of whom are women, are paid $37 a month…far below the living wage of $120 that is needed to survive. Unions, which can give workers a collective voice, are all but outlawed (photo courtesy of Reuters).

Ultimately, these deadly fires only reveal the exploitative working conditions of an industry that treats its workers as disposable items.  In Bangladesh, a country rich with culture and natural resources but ridden with poverty, the government has long viewed the garment industry as the path to improving a grim standard of living. Currently garments represent nearly 80 percent of the country’s manufacturing export income of $19.1 billion between 2011-2012, making it the second largest exporter of apparel in the world. Yet despite the industry’s rapid growth in the last thirty years, Bangladeshi workers are still the lowest paid garment workers in the world, earning a minimum of $37 a month – far below the living wage of $120 that is needed for basic household necessities. Workers’ efforts to organize for better pay and safety regulations are all but outlawed, and a new labor law that was passed in July has been criticized by labor advocates as actually weakening, rather than strengthening, protections for workers.

Politically connected owner (photo courtesy of AP)

In Bangladesh, factory owners are often entrenched in the political elite. Due to global outrage after the Rana Plaza fire, factory owner Sohel Rana was arrested (photo courtesy of AP).

This isn’t surprising, given that Bangladesh’s legal system has remained largely unchanged from the British imperial era, in which laws were designed to uphold the colonialist power structure and control the population. In fact, many factory owners and members of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) are heavily involved in the political elite, often holding government positions that allow them to wield enormous political influence. Given the tremendous emphasis on maximizing wealth in the global economy, it is thus not surprising that governments of poorer countries like Bangladesh often sacrifice human rights at the consummate altar of economic ‘development.’

(photo courtesy of AFP)

Bangladeshi labor activist Kalpona Akter found Wal-Mart brands such as Faded Glory in the remains of the Tazreen factory fire. Brands place immense pressure on factories to produce cheap clothing on short deadlines (photo courtesy of AFP).

At the same time, the Bangladesh government may feel trapped when companies such as Wal-Mart and other big retailers place immense pressure on factories to produce forever falling prices by selling cheap and producing quickly on shorter deadlines. Low prices in the garment industry are, after all, the country’s best selling point in the global economy. So suppliers cut their prices at the expense of their workers, who are paid poverty wages and made to work excessive hours. Factory owners, squeezed by their buyers, often find their efforts to invest in factory safety undermined by the pressure to reduce costs.

Companies in turn claim that social auditing programs are an effective way to monitor working conditions in their factories, but these programs have been criticized as corporate-funded, voluntary, and a public relations cover. Who can forget the massive factory fire in Pakistan that killed more than 260 workers last year, which just three weeks before, had been granted certification by the social auditing group, Social Accountability International. Of course, companies could have saved lives by releasing their audit findings to the government and sharing them with Bangladeshi unions and labor rights groups, but they are under no obligation to do that given that these audits are confidential and are treated as their own private intellectual property. Instead, workers’ input is rarely taken into consideration, and those who do dare to complain are often harassed or even terminated.

As Mafusa, a survivor of the Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed at least 112 people last November, revealed:

 “We never got our salary on time. We were always informed one day before foreigners came for an audit. We had to clean, make everything neat and we were given instructions about what we had to say like that we get our salary always on the seventh of the month and about our working hours.”

To make matters worse, the global demand for cheap clothing forces many factories to subcontract their work to other suppliers, making it difficult for brands to trace who is making their clothes in an increasingly complex supply chain.

The ever increasing global demand has led to another flagrant human rights violation. Although child labor is illegal, recent reports have revealed the use of children as young as nine working in many of these factories. This reliance on child labor is the devastating consequence of not paying adults a living wage. Yet, instead of investing in workers’ rights and safety upgrades, apparel consumer companies will often choose to run from these factories once they learn that unauthorized work was used to produce their clothing, as Wal-Mart did after the Tazreen factory fire in Bangladesh.

Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh works undercover in a Bangladesh garment factory with a nine year old girl as her boss:

Several years ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a now controversial piece arguing against the ‘anti-sweatshop’ movement, claiming that for many workers, sweatshops were the only viable option for making a living. He argued for labor advocates to fight for more sweatshops as the best option for workers in the Global South. In Bangladesh, women do indeed come to the cities from the rural areas to work in factories after fleeing environmental destruction and repressive family structures in their home villages. Yet, does that mean they should be forced to endure harassment and abuse from their predominantly male bosses? Or rely on precarious employment in which they are often paid less than their male counterparts, despite being the sole or primary breadwinners in their families? Shouldn’t they have a right to a workplace that doesn’t push their bodies to the point of exhaustion, that doesn’t fire them once they get pregnant, and that gives them a voice and treats them with a measure of dignity?

Morium Begum lost her baby (photo courtesy of thestar.com)

A Bangladesh factory that sews garments for The Gap and Old Navy was implicated in abusing their pregnant workers. Morium Begum, shown here with her husband Golzar, lost her baby after being forced to work 100 hours a week (photo courtesy of thestar.com).

Kristof may have been well-meaning, but his argument didn’t address the true intent of the anti-sweatshop movement, which is to progress the cause of workers’ rights and advocate for living wages by pressuring multinational corporations to improve factory conditions. The international climate is starting to change as people wake up to the fact that they shouldn’t put clothes on their back that were made in conditions that have not been seen in the West since the Industrial Revolution. Currently, over 100 apparel brands and retailers in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an unprecedented legally-binding agreement that was created by Bangladeshi and global trade unions in alliance with leading NGOs and the International Labor Organization (ILO) to ensure safety in Bangladeshi factories.  This five-year contract will require independent safety inspections of their facilities, public reporting, safety upgrades financed by brands, the integration of workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, and higher wages.

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“There’s an abundance of wealth in the industry, so why can’t we have fair treatment for workers?” – Sarah Ziff, model who protested with Bangladesh activists at Nautica’s Spring 2014 show.

The Accord has been hailed as a transformative move away from the corporate-controlled social auditing programs that rely on largely “voluntary, confidential, and top-down” initiatives. It has also been supported broadly, with senators, students, and fashion models protesting brands that have failed to commit to the agreement. And just recently, the Accord publicly disclosed information about the building safety of the 1,600 factories covered by the pact, bringing a measure of openness, transparency and accountability to an industry that has been shrouded in secrets.

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A safety effort proposed by North American retailers has been criticized for not being legally binding (photo courtesy of Inhabitat).

While notable (mostly European) companies such as H&M, Inditex (Zara), and Primark have signed the Accord, there are still a number of North American retailers that have been unwilling to join the agreement. U.S. industry leaders such as Gap and Wal-Mart launched the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative in July, a comparatively weak agreement that promises safety upgrades, a hotline to report complaints, and regular inspections without any legal commitment. The need for a legally binding agreement is even more pressing when considering that the $42 million raised by the companies involved in the initiative to improve factory infrastructure is paltry compared to the actual estimated cost of necessary improvements, which is $300,000 to $500,000 per factory. The companies that reject the accord cite concerns that the provision for legal enforcement through arbitration makes them more ‘vulnerable’ to class-action suits. But two law professors writing for the Los Angeles Times disputed this claim, stating that the only legal liability for signatories would be to abide by its terms. They further argue that in fact, Gap and Wal-Mart sign legally enforceable agreements all the time in their global business dealings, and that their reluctance to join the Accord stems from its purpose, which would be to help protect worker’s rights rather than simply facilitate the buying and selling of apparel for corporate profit. As they put it, “underlying the American firms’ objections, it appears, is the fear of both financial and moral responsibility.”

Relatives of Rana Plaza disaster victims form a human chain in

Relatives of Rana Plaza victims demand compensation from Wal-Mart, which along with other U.S. retailers such as Gap, Sears, and Children’s Place, have refused to pay compensation (photo courtesy of Abir Abdullah/EPA).

Even more distressing is that very few companies have initiated concrete proposals to secure compensation for the victims of either the Tazreen or Rana Plaza factory fires. The UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights dictates that companies must go beyond simply defending human rights and actually take action in remedying these tragedies. And an internationally-recognized formula that has been implemented in compensation plans after numerous other building safety incidents and fires has determined that brands and retailers are the most accountable for the failings that led to the disasters. Companies that had a direct or indirect relationship with the Rana Plaza factory or Tazreen are thus responsible for paying a full and fair compensation to the wounded workers and the families of those who were killed, so that they can access the medical care they need and continue to help support their families. This is especially important in Bangladesh, where the lack of a safety net such as social security, unemployment, or medical aid exacerbates the poverty wages and miserable living conditions for workers.  Just recently in September, the Rana Plaza Compensation Coordination Committee consisting of various apparel brands, the Bangladesh government, local and global trade unions and NGOs, met to develop a mechanism dubbed the “Arrangement” by which compensation for the families of the disaster could be determined. Although some progress has been made, with brands like Loblaw and Primark just recently committing to long-term relief, far too many have failed to join the Arrangement, leaving workers with little hope for palpable improvement in their dismal conditions.

As Liana Foxvog of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) stressed,

“When global apparel brands establish factory inspection programs that are confidential and voluntary, they communicate to Bangladeshi managers that they see no reason for workers to be informed of workplace risks. When global brands create programs that circumvent union initiatives – as many of the North American brands that have created the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety are doing – they perpetuate the understanding within Bangladesh that solutions do not require workers’ having an independent voice and an equal place at the bargaining table. And when global brands don’t participate in the compensation for victims, they signal to Bangladesh’s leaders that it is okay to put workers lives at risk and walk away from the consequence.”

The time is now for multinational corporations to stop hiding behind deceptive and dishonest corporate social responsibility schemes that rely on corporate-sponsored monitoring and ‘codes of conduct’ plastered on their websites to mask worker abuse in their supply chains. If Gap Inc. is truly ‘committed’ to Bangladesh worker safety as they state on their CSR page, then why haven’t they made a commitment to renovate one factory? Why did they violate their own codes of conduct by sourcing out to a factory in which their workers are forced to labor over 100 hours a week and some pregnant women are illegally fired and denied paid maternity leave? If U.S. retailer Children’s Place is “deeply saddened” by the Rana Plaza factory fire, then why have they not agreed to compensate the victims, many of whom are orphans who lost their parents in the fire? Shouldn’t a clothing line that caters to children feel a certain degree of responsibility to the children on the other side of the supply chain?

Retailer Children's Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

Retailer Children’s Place refuses to pay compensation to the orphans left behind after the Rana Plaza fire (photo courtesy of orphansplace.com).

These tragedies have ultimately implicated Western buyers as complicit in the apparel industry’s dark side. However, contrary to what Nicholas Kristof and others may believe, what labor rights organizations are advocating for is not an end to this relationship between brands and the countries from which they source. In fact, the hope here is that by deepening their engagement, these companies could be the best hope for transformative change in the industry. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity stressed in a recent interview with The Nation:

“If consumers stop buying, that is like a boycott and a boycott doesn’t help us. Instead, we want people to write letters to Walmart, talk to their communities and friends about what is happening, raise their voice and protest at the stores with their physical presence. We want US consumers to say, “‘We’re watching you and we demand that you pay attention.'”

This is an appeal for all the apparel companies sourcing out of Bangladesh to not just join the Accord but to contribute to the process of compensation for the victims and their families, so that the nearly four million women who make our clothes can get a sustainable living wage and be treated with dignity. Furthermore, there needs to be a sustained conversation from brands about how to change the industry that goes beyond just apologies and knee-jerk CSR responses. In an industry where labor costs represent one to three percent of the retail price, the validity of a living wage needs to be on the table. Since, adjusting for inflation, clothing is far less expensive now than it was fifty years ago, prices need to be adjusted. Most importantly, companies need to invest in a long-term commitment with their factories instead of leaving when something goes wrong. Brands like WalMart need to acknowledge when they have lost control over their supply chain instead of displacing blame onto others.

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(photo courtesy of justmeans.com).

Finally, the media and consumers need to make a continuous and consistent call for change in the industry, so that the victims of these tragedies are not dismissed as merely collateral damage in an ‘unfortunate accident,’ but as fellow human beings who live, breathe, have children and go to work. Seeing, after all, isn’t always believing. Sometime we have to believe, so that we can see.

Bangladeshis show photos of missing relatives after building collapse

We must never forget these faces. (photo courtesy of Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Take Action:

Tweet! Want to take part in a twitter campaign to pressure retailers like Walmart, Children’s Place, The Gap, and Sears to sign the Accord and pay compensation to victims’ families? Here are some examples you can use:

Sign a petition! Demand that retailers end deathtraps and pay compensation to victims and their families. Here are the links for petitions to Gap, Wal-Mart, and The Children’s Place

Share: Both of these videos (here and here) interviewing survivors of the Rana Plaza fire are a must-watch.

Get involved! Check out United Students Against Sweatshops campaign to get universities to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. They have already had a few victories! Also check out the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the Clean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights ForumJobs with Justice, United with Respect, and SumOfUs.

Get inspired: Read about Cambodian factory workers winning a settlement against Wal-Mart, how workers defied Wal-Mart this holiday season, and how university students successfully pressured Adidas to sign the Bangladesh Accord!

Want to learn how an apparel factory in the Dominican Republic is making a profit while paying its workers a living wage? Stay tuned for an upcoming post on this amazing company!

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Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

For many people, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) evokes images of poverty, suffering, and violence. And indeed, for the last two decades, the country has been plagued by conflict and bloody civil wars. It is currently among the poorest in the world, with 80% of its population living in poverty.

Is your mobile phone, computer, iPod, and gaming system fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

Are these minerals in our mobile phones, computers, iPods, and gaming systems fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

But the country is also incredibly rich in resources, especially in the eastern region. Home to some of the world’s rarest minerals including gold, coltan, carbonite, tin, and tungsten, the DRC supplies many of the key elements that are essential to our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic goods. One would think that a country so rich in valuable resources would not be mired in violence and the resultant poverty, but in fact, it is these very minerals that are fueling this conflict and financing African militias, who are then selling them to middlemen who supply these key ingredients to companies world-wide.

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

How do these militias secure control of these mines and trading routes? By looting villages for resources, displacing communities, killing the men who were the providers of the families, and using rape as a war tactic to control and suppress the women.

Described as ‘the rape capital of the world‘ by the United Nations, more than half a million women and girls have been raped in the last ten years alone.

So, what can be done?

Here’s the problem. It is very difficult for consumers to gauge whether their purchases are funding armed groups that are committing such atrocities, given the lack of a transparent minerals supply chain (Sound familiar? Fashion isn’t the only industry that suffers from ‘transparency problems’). This is why activists like Amani Matabaro and John Prendergast from the Enough Project have made it their focus to educate citizens about the conflict, and have recently released a company ranking system as a way of empowering consumers to make more responsible purchasing decisions regarding conflict minerals.

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

And what about the people, mostly women, who have survived the horrors of war, who are displaced and lacking the community that previously existed in their villages? This is where non-profit organizations like Mamafrica, are making a difference.

The women of Mamafrica!

The women of Mamafrica!

Mamafrica is a woman’s sewing cooperative based in Bukavu, a city on the border of the DRC and Rwanda that has become a refuge for “internally displaced persons.” When Ashley Nemiro, an aspiring Ph.D in counseling and psychology, started her work at the Panzi hospital in May of 2012 to conduct research on the efficacy of group therapy treatment for women who had been victims of gender-based violence, she was distressed not just by the trauma these women had gone through, but by the limited opportunities there were for them to support themselves and their families. It was then that she was fortunate enough to meet Congolese activist Amani Matabaro, who founded a program (AFBEK) supported by the community development organization Action Kivu, which funds sewing cooperatives and micro-finance loans for women as a means by which they can support their small businesses and take care of their families. Through her conversations with Amani the idea for a holistic organization that would empower women by providing education, a healing arts programs, and economic opportunity, began to develop. Amani in turn introduced Ashley to Aline Malekera, a Congolese woman with a B.A. in English and a powerful voice in the community, who became a partner and was instrumental as a translator and Finance Administrator. The two formed the cooperative from three sewing collectives: Centre Ushini, AFBEK, and Action Kivu. Mamafrica now serves over ninety women in Bukavu, most of whom have fled from the violence of rural eastern Congo.

I was able to interview Ashley Nemiro in person and Aline Malekera via email about their work in the organization, and how they hope it will improve women’s lives in Bukavu:

Nadia: So Aline, could you give us more background about the conflict in the Congo and how it has affected women there?

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

Aline: Before the war started in 1996 everyone had farms and fields to cultivate, animals to raise, and parents were able to feed and pay school fees for their children. But when the war started, most of people’s means were stolen, their houses were burned, their husbands killed, and their villages and communities destroyed. Many of these women are rejected by their husbands, family, and community if they are raped. And even though they have no support, they have to be strong, be everything, for their children.

Nadia: Why did you want to get involved with Mamafrica?

Aline: I have lived through many years of war, and I wanted to empower these women who have been displaced and rejected by their husbands and families. I feel determined to help these women understand that they can do something in their society, that their lives can change, if they are determined.

Nadia: Ashley, can you describe a little more in depth what you mean by a ‘holistic’ program?

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley: Basically, Mamafrica is a three-phase program. When the women enter the program, they attend a six month healing-arts intensive course, which incorporates group trauma healing, meditation, counseling, yoga, and song and dance. They then complete a series of life sustainability education classes, where we teach nutrition, cooking, maternal child health, birth control, literacy, and financial responsibility. Then, we teach the women how to sew, tailor and embroider so that they can be employed by Mamafrica, where they make beautiful dresses, table cloths, and even yoga bags! And I should note that we allow the women to be independent and encourage them to be self-sufficient, so it is up to them how much time they want to invest in these programs.

Nadia: You mention self-sufficiency often. Do the women really have no other means of employment?

Good intentions gone wrong. Thrift stores like Goodwill are pumping clothing into Africa, making it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Good intentions with unintended consequences. Thrift stores like Goodwill make it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Ashley: You know what’s interesting? You know how a lot of the women make money here? By selling the overstocked items that are donated by Goodwill in the West to churches in the DRC. A lot of these items are soiled clothing or just junk, stuff that the women can’t even use. And so the women take these items and sell them in the streets, and while it’s true that they can make money that way, it is also difficult for people in the DRC to manufacture their own clothes and export their products when you have that kind of flooding of [free] products from the West into the country. And 99% of the fabric is imported from China, which is why it is important for Mamafrica to use fabric manufactured in Africa, that is from Nigeria, DRC and Ghana. We purchase this fabric in bulk from a fabric vendor in downtown Bukavu.

Nadia: So when we talk about ‘sustainable fashion,’ how are you trying to make Mamafrica sustainable?

Teaching the women how to sew!

Teaching the women how to sew!

Ashley: We are really trying to create a new generation of leaders. In our new healing arts program we talk so much about being a leader, and what it means to be a leader. Because in my mind, when people ask how to change the Congo, it’s not up to the US or USAID, it’s changing the leadership inside the country. It’s about Congolese people changing the system. And that isn’t going to happen if the women don’t have any means of empowerment and can’t support their children. In Bukavu it cost $10 per child a month to attend school and this creates a challenge since many women have more than 7 children and the average wage is .20 cents a day. With the wages that the women make at Mamafrica, they are able to afford to send their children to school, pay rent for their homes, and feed their families. Aline travels to each school and pays the school fees each month to ensure that all our Mamafrica children are attending school. Our hope is that by changing these women’s lives, that positive change will trickle down to the children and change a community.

Nadia: Do the women just make clothes for women in the West?

The women also make dresses for the community's children!

The women also make dresses for the community’s children!

Ashley: No, they make them for women in the DRC as well. We have a shop where many women in the community come to have clothing specially sewn for them including: school uniforms, wedding dresses, and children’s clothing. So many of these women love bright prints, perhaps because wearing these colors brings happiness to their lives. And since we have to tone down the colors a bit when we market to the West, it seems that these women really enjoy making brighter clothes for each other.

Nadia: Aline, do the women enjoy the sewing work?

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Aline: Sewing is a craft that a lot of these women connect to, so it’s wonderful that they can make clothes as a way to be independent, earn money and buy food for their children. In addition they are getting training that helps them to be independent, and their children who were unable to go to school are now attending school. They are getting food for their children and families after being paid each month. Also they are making friends and connecting with other women by working in groups.

Nadia: Could you share a success story?

"I was forced to flee my village three years ago and resettled in Buakvu. I was never given the chance to attend school or learn any vocational skills. I am a single mother with five children and thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

“Thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

Aline: Yes! Cibalonza is a woman with 5 children, and her life was honestly horrible before joining the center. Her husband abandoned her when he took another wife and left her to raise her 5 children alone. She was homeless and often times went days without feeding her children and herself. Since attending Mamafrica, Chibolonza has been able to earn money for her family, send her children to school and has made friends at Mamafrica that help her to care for her younger children when she is working. She rents a home for $10 a month and is able for the first time to provide for her childern. In October we referred Chibolonza to a partner organization where she started to receive microfinance loans and has been selling charcoal, avocados, and onions in the market and earning a living that is more than she could ever have imagined in the past. I visited her children just two months later and was shocked by how much weight they have gained. To my mind, this is a true success story.

Nadia: Any last words ladies? Anything in particular you would like readers to be aware of?

Ashley: When people buy these products, I want it to be not just because of the cause behind it, but because they really love our product. We all want good quality products that will last, and that are made with love. These women have come so far, and our products truly reflect that.

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting 'Fair Trade Tuesday' (my hat is not fair trade, but I'm a work in progress girlfriends!)

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting ‘Fair Trade Tuesday’ (my hat is not fair trade, but I’m a work in progress GFs!)

Since starting Mamafrica and traveling to the DRC I have become overly conscious about every purchase I make while in the DRC and back in the United States, which is why we decided to describe Mamafrica on our website as ‘consciously connecting.’ I think it is important, especially during the holiday season, to think about the people that are suffering when we unconsciously consume clothing or the latest technology. We need to raise awareness about companies that directly help the lives of others, and to make a concerted effort to support them. At Mamafrica we want everyone to know that when they buy our products, some woman’s life has been changed. If you check out our site which details how we invest the money we receive, you will see that your purchase helps send a child to school, and helps put food on the table.

That’s a powerful and ethical way to consume. When we talk about ‘ethical consumerism,’ it is ultimately about being conscious of what you are purchasing. It goes so much more beyond the fabric that is laying on your body.

Aline: I want people to know that I am determined to help women in the Congo, but I also need other people to understand why there are so many problems here, and why we need support.

I really wish the West knew why the people in the DRC experience war everyday and how severely affected we are by this. Even if we are not directly in a war zone, we are suffering from the effects of a country that has been in civil war since the 90’s. I have lived in Bukavu my whole life and I have seen things that you could never imagine.

Women in Bukavu do not have the education or the vocational skills to allow them to earn an income. These women have suffered greatly and they really need to make their lives better. This can come from support from the West by purchasing our products! When we receive support, we can continue to teach women new vocational skills, purchase sewing machines for them, and allow them to work independently and once again gain confidence in themselves and their ability to provide for their children and give them a different life. I truly believe that if these ‘mamas’ are successful, that their children will have a better chance and the cycle of violence will be broken.

Graduation day!

Graduation day!

Mamafrica is currently looking to expand to a bigger building, which will allow for free drinking and bathing water, and more programs! Want to help? You can shop the boutique, make a donation, and contact the team for more information on how to get involved.

Would you like to learn more about the mamas behind the products? Click here to read about their amazing stories!

Looking for other ways to connect with Mamafrica? Check them out on Facebook!

Want to learn more about how the Congo’s conflict minerals make their way from the mines in eastern Congo to the cell phone in your pocket? Watch this informative video below that outlines how consumers can help end this violence:

Additional Resources:

  • Looking for an overview of the Conflict Minerals Crisis? Check out RAISE Hope for Congo’s page here.
  • Watch this inspiring TEDx talk by Congolese activist Bandi Mbubi, on the importance of pressuring companies for conflict-free phones.
  • Want to take action? Click here and here for the different ways YOU can help, including how to make your town and campus conflict-free!
  • Learn how the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires electronic companies who purchase minerals from the Congo to declare it clearly on their audits.
  • Check out the film Stealing Africa, a 55 minute documentary that details how multinationals like Glencore are ‘sucking the continent dry.’
  • Want to learn how the IMF and World Bank were involved in the sale of the mines that led to this conflict? You can read more here (‘Impoverishing a Continent’) and here (‘Why is the IMF Controversial?’)

My Related Posts:

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The Real Housewives, Part I: A Queer Critique of Marriage?

Ok peeps, it’s time.  I know I have been teasing this for awhile, but I have decided to finally write a post on one of my favorite guilty pleasures, the Real Housewives franchise.  It was in my first post on why I blog about gender that I revealed my addiction to the show, and how it could be argued that engaging with such a problematic text contradicts my feminism. After all, this is a program that features women of um, privilege, who routinely get in vicious cat fights with each other and display uncontrolled materialism in their consumption of all things designer, birthday cakes, and Botox. It is, at first glance, misogyny on a stick.

So here is the thing. I am picky with my Housewives (I do have standards, after all). I personally find the OC women to be too boring (and I can’t tell them apart). The New York women come off as strong and independent, so I should love them, but their voices grate on my nerves (Ramona’s walk down the runway though? Classic). The Atlanta wives come off as too staged to me, though Kim and Sheree’s wig fight was a true media event that rivaled, in my opinion, the best hot-mess moments of Jersey Shore, Being Bobby Brown, and Hey Paula, combined. For me, those three franchises are like Nestle, while the flava’ of the fiery Miami ladies, heavily-filled lips and ostentatious wealth of the Beverly Hills women, and family drama and table-flipping of New Jersey, are organic, fairly traded, dark-chocolate bars.

Yeah, I’m a culture snob. Deal with it. 😉

‘These Straights be Cra-Cra!” (photo courtesy of Perez Hilton)

I was actually inspired to write about the series during the latest reunion episodes of the Jersey Housewives, in which the entire cast of women came together to rehash the events of the season. These reunion shows usually lead to emotional outbursts of anger that Andy Cohen, the host and only man on the stage, is often forced to subdue. The sexist implications of having a male voice of reason in between all of these unhinged women has always made me uncomfortable (hey, I have to insert my feminist objections somewhere!). But this past season, the husbands of each of the women came on the show, and as the couples hurled their accusations of divorces, debt, and foreclosures at each other, I found myself watching an openly gay Andy Cohen and thinking, “Ok homie, are you seriously trying to insert a scathing critique of traditional heteronormative marriage in a reality show? You mean, I can’t just zone out while posting my latest ‘Even More Fierceness!’ album up on Facebook? I’m going to have to write a two-part series on a show that everyone mocks and that I actually feel guilty about watching? You’re really doing this to me?”

Yup, he is. So get ready peeps, get ready.

Heteronormativity is the ideology that privileges heterosexuality as the norm and holds that people fall into distinct binary gender roles. The idea that men and women are ‘naturally’ more capable of doing certain things has historically been ingrained in our societal, educational, and religious institutions and reiterated in our media in countless ways. Most notable is the idealization of the  traditional family model in television that centers the working dad,  domestic wife, and two children on the one end, and erases from mainstream media visibility people within the LGBTQ community on the other. Queer is a term that refers to people or institutions that do not subscribe to these dominant cultural ideologies of gender and sexuality.

Jack and his Cher Doll. The infantilization of the feminine male.

While the media landscape has changed somewhat in recent years, it should be noted that even these seemingly progressive shows that offer more queer representations of gender and sexuality, such as Will & Grace, Modern Family, and even The Mindy Project, still must work within these dominant frameworks. In Will & Grace, the stereotypically feminine Jack was always contrasted with the more masculine Will as less competent, smart and successful, thus demeaning femininity. While Modern Family‘s gay male couple is in many ways a progressive example of mainstream queer visibility, they still seem to be working within heteronormative constructs that demand marriage as a legitimization of one’s romantic relationship, and the assigning of traditional binary roles when assigning tasks for raising their child. And Mindy Kaling’s smart, successful character at the heart of The Mindy Project is 31 and refreshingly single, but always talking about how she is single while fantasizing to Rom-Coms. But that’s for another blog post (I do actually really love her show and am already a Mindy/Danny shipper – so I’m totes part of the problem, girlfriends!).

This privileging of heteronormativity would lead one to assume that the heterosexual marriage in which men and women subscribe to traditional gender roles is what is truly ‘natural,’ but in fact, we know that this is not the case. Many heterosexual marriages end up in divorce, countless children are abused and neglected by their straight parents, and domestic abuse is all too rampant. If heteronormative practices were truly intrinsically right, then why are they often so flawed?

Theresa’s husband Joe is caught off-camera calling his wife their ‘pet’ names.

This point is driven home during the Housewives series again and again. While we are introduced at the beginning of each program to characters who seemingly live a fantasy life in their mansions and designer closets, the show slowly unravels the numerous ways in which this domestic bliss is just a mirage. Subverting the image of the ‘happy housewife,’ we are instead introduced to a wide range of characters navigating through, and often leaving, truly dysfunctional relationships. There’s Taylor from the Beverly Hills housewives, who alleged that she was abused by her husband and “didn’t feel safe” until he committed suicide a few days before the second season aired. There is Sheree, the Atlanta housewife whose messy foreclosure and custody battle was covered by numerous national media outlets.  And how can I not mention Theresa, who, kept out of the loop of her husband’s business dealings, is now dealing with bankruptcy and her ‘Juicy Joe’s’ pending jail sentence due to financial fraud? Of course, children are not left unscathed from their parents’ evictions and family drama. Who can forget Theresa’s daughter Gia crying while singing a poem to her mother and uncle, pleading with them to make peace? (yeah I know you forgot, but I didn’t, ok?)

A woman’s duty to shop! (1950s advertisement)

What is so interesting about the Housewives series is the way in which it seems to really provide a pointed critique (or at least, examination) of the role that many American women adopted after World War II, that of the domestic shopper. Although during the war women took on different professions that were left behind by their husbands, society then encouraged women to abandon these jobs and return to the domestic sphere once the war ended, while advertisers targeted them as professional homemakers whose jobs were to shop not just for their family, but for national economic prosperity.  Excessive consumption is never more apparent than on the Housewives, where the women spend thousands on designer shoes, lip fillers, and birthday parties for their children. Furthermore, this crass consumerism could also be attributed to these women’s flawed assumptions that they are ‘secure’ in their spending, either because they trust the personal and economic stability of their relationship, or because they believe that they will be protected financially if the marriage does end.

A foreclosure is just a bump in the road for Theresa, and she’ll need these high heels to jump over it!

However, as Leslie Bennetts’ excellent book The Feminist Mistake addresses, dependency can often jeopardize the lives of women and their children, as the newest alimony laws have made the futures of stay-at-home mothers increasingly tenuous after a divorce. This is what Theresa Guidice, who famously boasted in the first season of being able to buy expensive furniture in cash, discovered in the wake of her husband’s failed financial dealings which left her family bankrupt.

Is it any coincidence then that amidst the foreclosure accusations and stripper allegations hurled among these heterosexual couples and family members during the recent season of the Housewives of New Jersey, there was a beautiful civil union ceremony between Caroline’s brother and his spouse? Or that one of the most touching moments came from Rosie, Kathy’s lesbian sister, when she came out to her niece and nephew and discussed with them how difficult it was to accept herself in a society that made her feel like an outcast? Or how about when Andy Cohen actually inserted himself into one of the episodes to explain why Joe Guidice’s repeated use of gay slurs was hateful and wrong? By revealing the dysfunction of these heteronormative institutions, is the show more easily able to legitimize, and perhaps even center, queer issues and relationships?

Seriously, leave it to us gays to get it right! (Caroline’s brother and spouse, newly married)

For me, the most interesting conversation around gay rights was on the now defunct Real Housewives of DC, where a couple of the wives and their husbands were talking about the issue of marriage equality. One of the gay ‘sidekicks’ on the show, celebrity stylist Paul Wharton, was also in attendance, and he explained his belief that when you give one group of people rights and deny them to others, it makes it that much easier for day-to-day discrimination to happen. When one of the couples said that they “weren’t homophobic, but were against gay marriage,”  Wharton quickly retorted, “it does make you homophobic, you just don’t want the label.” SNAP.

Ok, let’s be honest here. How often in the mainstream media do you see this kind of discussion that really digs deep into the complexities of bigotry and how it can be manifested in more subtle ways? The absence of this kind of dialogue in mainstream news outlets can perhaps be attributed to the more masculine space of the public sphere that tends to view issues like gay rights through the lens of policy. Very rarely are we allowed insight into the more personal, but still very important, conversations that take place in the domestic, private sphere of our daily lives.

Ok seriously, are you kidding me straights? (Wharton with the DC housewives and husbands)

Many critics have lambasted the Housewives as a show that is regressive for women, and I certainly understand why many of the characters’ adolescent behavior should not be held up as role models for young girls. And while the gay characters on the show are often depicted positively, they are still one-dimensional personalities who are not really central to the series. Furthermore, the gay men in both the Housewives and other shows on Bravo are usually limited to stereotypical professions (hair stylists, fashion designers) and fall into what I refer to as the “Gay Helper” trope, meaning that their central role as a ‘gay sidekick’ is to constantly support the straight characters in their lives without question and to reassure them of their fabulousness, despite their many flaws (I’m looking at you, Rachel Zoe).

But then, to focus solely on these critiques is missing the point. While I hesitate to offer the Real Housewives as a progressive text, that does not mean that it isn’t saying something interesting. The show’s main concern is with marriage, and given that the franchise does feature some successful marriages and a gay civil union, it doesn’t seem to be necessarily arguing against marriage, but rather for a more egalitarian vision of marriage that empowers women and includes the gay community. This notion that gender and queer rights are not mutually exclusive is reflected in both the societal shift in favor of marriage equality, and the lower divorce rates among the younger generation that can be attributed to the greater acceptance of the two-income mold for couples, as well as the sharing of housework.

The purpose of the Housewives series then is not to demean women but to reveal how ridiculous women behave when they are tied to archaic and power-based institutions of marriage, which privilege men over women. Take Camille Grammar of the Beverly Hills Housewives, whose messy divorce to Kelsey Grammar was on display during the first season, following the revelation that Kelsey had cheated on her with a much younger woman. Now dating a younger man who she adores but is reserved about marrying, she notes in her second-season intro, “Diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend, Freedom is.”

You go, girl. And thank you for giving me an intellectual reason to write about you and your friends, in all of your botox-ed glory.

Does Alexis Bellino from the OC Housewives really have the right to speak out against marriage equality when she has been divorced already? These bloggers don’t think so:

Stay tuned for part TWO of this series, which will focus on the show’s centering of female spaces!

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Can We Really Label Racist Teens as Racist?

A few days ago, online feminist magazine Jezebel decided to publish an article for their racism column that exposed all of the tweets sent by high-schoolers across the country that used the n-word after Obama’s re-election. Jezebel followed-up by contacting these teenagers’ high schools to determine whether they had a policy about hate speech, and decided to out these kids by publishing their full names online. So, done. We’ve got a black president, and we can move on knowing that racism is solved, right?

I know my peeps are with me when I say, ummm. NO.

Is this really how we have resorted to addressing racism in our country? By simplifying such a complex institution into the use of a single racial slur? By slandering the names of kids whose life experiences might not have given them the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions, or in this case, hashtags?

Of course I am not condoning the behavior of these students, but I’m going to keep it real here. We, as a culture, do not know how to talk about systems of oppression. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, despite teaching some exceptionally bright and compassionate college students in my years of teaching, I have been surprised to find that many are pretty ill-equipped to discuss issues of race. Very few come into the classroom well-versed on the racial history of this country. They may know about Martin Luther King, but struggle to understand the larger Civil Rights movement for which he fought. When we discuss the racist implications of using cultural artifacts like feathers and headdresses as a guise for multi-culturalism, many grow defensive and protest that this is a form of cultural celebration. Yet, very few have ever been exposed to voices from these ethnic communities who make these protests.

Is this completely their fault?

It is true that Americans value the individual, but is it fair to imbue even young people with a foresight that is supposed to overcome their institutional limitations? Granted, I do think that some people are naturally a little more sensitive, a little more thoughtful, a little more critical and self-aware of their privilege than others. But I also know that one of my good friends, who is an exceptionally sensitive person and an advocate for human rights, grew up in a tiny, segregated, rural community where racial slurs were commonly spoken, and it wasn’t until he left his small town and interacted with different groups of people did he gain full awareness of just how much these words hurt.

I remember reading another post on Jez last year titled the “complete guide to hipster racism” that lambasted white kids for wearing ‘Indian headdresses.’ While I agreed with the sentiment, I had an issue with the paternalistic tone and the focus on individual behavior that seemed to imply that these ‘hipsters’ should know better because well, they’re hipsters, and that means they’re ahead of the curve, right? As I wrote in myrecent post on fashion’s problematic relationship with race:

“For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for  Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.”

When it comes to issues of oppression, we need to start shifting our focus, and subsequent criticism, from individuals to institutions. To the parents who fail to have these important conversations with their children (you’re a mom who grew up in the 70s and can’t talk to your kids about a movement that gave you rights? I’m sorry, but that’s one big struggle). To our educational system that fails to incorporate these important conversations in our mainstream history texts, instead relegating them to the dusty bookshelves that are only taken out during ‘African-American history’ and ‘Women’s history’ months. To our culture that celebrates Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, but focuses little on the suffering caused by European colonialism. To our neighborhoods that have become increasingly segregated thanks in part to ‘white-flight,’ making it almost impossible for so many American kids to go to school with and live near people of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. To the public policies that have increased the gap in wealth between middle-class white and black Americans, thanks in large part to the limiting of value property in these racially segregated neighborhoods. To our media institutions that marginalizes the voices of women and people of color in the newsroom on one end, while depicting them as looters and welfare queens on the other.

I believe that we as a society need to focus on these larger, more important issues of oppression, instead of a few ignorant tweets. And rather than pointing our fingers solely at these teenagers, it would serve us better to also address the societal problems and institutional policies that helped shape their behavior, and in which we are all implicated.

White Flight, defined.

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Political Apathy and why I’m SO not feeling it.

So I’ve had a few readers ask me why I haven’t really blogged about the election, and I think I need to clarify that I am absolutely NOT apathetic about politics. I follow the news, subscribe to the Economist, as stressful as that is (one issue a week is a bit of an overkill, just sayin’), and generally try to stay as informed as possible. I’m just not a political blogger. There are already a ton of policy wonks writing about politics and doing it way better than I ever could. My interest is in culture and media, and when I have written about politics on this blog, it’s always through a critical cultural-media lens. That is why when I interviewed a woman on development in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I focused on media coverage and gender issues. And when I addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I didn’t really take a side on the issue but instead critiqued the erasure of such an important topic in our public space. And I did attempt to tackle an election debate by questioning the narrow scope of the corporate media’s coverage and arguing for why we need independent media and third-party candidates.

As I wrote in my first post,  I’m uncomfortable with the divisive nature of partisan politics, the Bill O’Reilly vs. Chris Matthews screaming matches that our news media has fostered, and the corporatization of our culture that is diminishing our public space. I agree with rapper Killer Mike that our country tends to think in ‘teams,’ and ultimately, I believe that change comes from the people. That’s one of the reasons why I was behind so much of what the Occupy movement did. It’s also why I absolutely loved this article on how a performance-poetry group who have cared for their children through extreme poverty are now working with the Occupy movement and other advocacy groups to teach people about poverty. It makes sense that poor people would actually have the best anti-poverty ideas. If only policy-makers and politicians would listen to the people more, and if only the news media would represent these groups instead of constantly interviewing elites with the same recycled opinions. It’s frustrating, and it needs to change.

But here’s the thing. I DO think elections matter, and very few things annoy me more than apathy. And this is where I’m going to abandon all of my Kumbaya inclinations of always wanting to bring people together by avoiding divisive talk, and I’m just going to BUST. Because I have come to the realization that people who make arguments like ‘the president is just a figurehead’ or “Obama did nothing these past four years, he’s no different than Bush,” are really annoying and need to be called out. Honestly, I don’t care who you vote for. But if you’re a liberal who is ‘disappointed’ with Obama’s presidency because he didn’t get as much done as they wanted, well…he ended up with a Republican Congress!! What did you expect him to do?? The government got gridlocked because of that. That’s the way politics works in this country people. Did you miss the massive health care bill he passed? Or how he ended torture? He bailed out the auto industry (I have friends and family who live in Ohio and Detroit who have seen real effects from this…ie, no economic meltdown). He protected women’s reproductive rights and passed the historic Lilly Ledbetter bill that protects women from discriminatory pay. He got rid of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and vouched his support for marriage equality. Oh, and he got us out of Iraq and caught Bin Laden. So people are pissed because he didn’t do every little thing he wanted to do. They wanted public health care. They’re mad that he cracked down so hard on immigrants. I get these concerns, but here’s the thing, change doesn’t happen overnight. I think a lot of people in my generation were raised on these ridiculous expectations a la Veruca Salt of “I want the world to change overnight NOW DADDY!” And that’s not how the world works. How many years did it take for women to achieve the right to vote? For the Civil Rights movement to win their demands?

I’m going to argue that Obama was effective in planting the progressive seeds that, if given the opportunity, he and other presidents afterwards will help shape. Whether you agree with those politics is neither here or there, but for everyone who says crap like ‘The president is just a figurehead…” PLEASE SPARE ME. Maybe you should check out this link from ‘On the Media’ that discusses Kennedy’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know, like how it was basically him against his cabinet. How he won out. How a president DOES shape policy.

I am done with apathy and cynicism. DONE. And I’ve never bought it. Your cynicism does not make you superior to me because I actually fucking care and am fighting to make this world a better place. It just means you aren’t informed. Yeah that’s right, I said it. You’re LAZY. You haven’t done your research. You’re using your holier-than-thou attitude as a guise for your ignorance. And your apathy insults me. Yes, this is what a Nadia bust looks like. I’m sorry, but as someone who has lived and voted in swing states for the last decade, who realizes the importance of every little vote, I am really losing patience for this kind of attitude.

Do I believe that change comes from the people? YES. Am I frustrated with the two-party system, with the gross amount of money that is pumped into political ads when there are so many people living in poverty? YES. But that doesn’t take away from my belief that politicians and elections matter. Don’t kid yourself by believing that your vote doesn’t make a difference. Do you really think a Bush presidency was identical to an Obama one?! Really?? If so, then maybe you should stay home and not vote. Yup, now I’m being rude. Again, I don’t care who you vote for, as long as you stay engaged and realize that your engagement matters. And there really is no excuse anymore to not stay engaged. I’m going to end with Saturday Night Live‘s brilliant parody on ‘the undecided voter.’ Because I’m done. I’ll be back tomorrow blogging about all things culture and engaging with peeps who actually give a damn and have some faith in the power of their voices.

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