Thursday, February 28, 2008

Susan Faludi Referenced My Writing!

Writing is a solitary business. Everyone knows that. In fact, even when I write for publication, I can't help but to wonder if anyone's reading. Turns out, when I worked for the El Paso Times in West Texas, someone was reading--Susan Faludi!

Yes, you read that correctly. I found out this afternoon that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Backlash cited one of my articles in the Terror Dream, her latest book. I've yet to read it, but, from what I can surmise, the book examines how the events of 9/11 reshaped America culturally, particularly with regard to women.

The article she referenced of mine is called "Army Gear." A short, quirky piece with lines that make me cringe, "Army Gear" explores the connection between fashion and war.

Apparently, Faludi devotes an entire section of her book to pop culture and terror, and my article, which came out March 26, 2003, is mentioned there. Read it in full below, if you like.


For years, camouflage, combat boots and more have drifted in and out of designer collections. With the war in Iraq, military-inspired pieces are becoming more in demand.

Just hours before the United States would strike Iraq March 19, the Guess online store sold out of its cargo cadet pants.

At the Guess store in Cielo Vista Mall, sales representative Mariaelena Delgado said she suspected the war might draw people to military fashions.

This was the case with Gulf War veteran and Eastsider Ron Groves. While demonstrating to show his support for American troops, Groves donned a military jacket he had last worn while leaving Saudi Arabia 13 years ago.

Groves said he disapproves of people who never served in the Armed Forces wearing military apparel but does not object to military-inspired outfits, noting that there are some “pretty camouflage” designs available.

With her DKNY line, available at Dillard’s, designer Donna Karan is taking military chic to new heights. Check out Karan’s combat dress, a cotton twill strapless concoction that a bold high-school girl might wear to prom. The DKNY line also includes a combat-washed crepe jacket and a combat-shrunken jacket.

With its men’s canvas messenger bag, Old Navy is peddling military chic to guys. “Military surplus-style for your action-packed days!” Old Navy says of the bag on its Web site. In addition to a flap and numerous pockets, the bag comes “with army-style numbers and letters and metallic dog tag on adjustable strap.”

Of course, people in search of authentic military gear can shop at Army-surplus stores like Eagle Military, where owner Ron Williams said that basic brown T-shirts have sold out in the past few weeks. Also popular have been boonie hats, desert fatigues, desert boots, khakis, duct tape and gas masks.

El Paso Community College student Esmeralda Rodriguez said that she has seen a few people wearing camouflage and “pants with a lot of pockets and zippers.” As the war progresses, she expects to see more people doing so.

But Alonso Torres demonstrates that sometimes fashion is more about convenience than making a statement.

Asked why he recently wore a camouflage jacket, Torres explained, “I thought it would rain and this (jacket) has a hood.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Back to Black

"You told us all along that we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don't have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege." –Danzy Senna "Mulatto Millennium"

With the release of her debut album, Amy Winehouse decided to go back to black. Now, in a guest column for the New York Times, K.A. Dilday makes a case for doing the same. An ex-pat living in Britain, Dilday—who, unlike Winehouse actually is black—argues that it's high time we do away with the term African American.

I, for one, am in total agreement. It's not that I find African American to be an offensive term. I use it myself. It's that I find the label to be problematic, inauthentic and just plain confusing at times.

For instance, why should blacks, such as my father, who know their country of origin, call themselves African American? What's more is that, while blacks in the U.S. are of African descent, they are not culturally African in the same way that, say, Asian Americans are. They speak no native language, have no relatives (that they know of) in the Old World and share few cultural practices with Africans. All things considered, the term African American has never rung true for me.

I'm not building the case for going back to black simply on why I find the term African American to be problematic. I'm also building the case on what I find to be so wonderful about the term black.

For years, black was something that nobody wanted to be. This well-known rhyme says it all: "If you're white, you're right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, stay back."

So off-putting was the term black that many of my race clung to the term "colored," long after it passed its prime. Thus, when the Black Panthers and other groups embraced the term black, it was truly a radical act. The "Black is Beautiful" movement took off, encouraging us to take pride in our hair, skin color and other physical features. The feelings of shame that the term black had once invoked began to fall away.

Now that African American is the standard term for us, I fear that black will once again be associated with shame. That's because, oftentimes, when whites use the term in my presence, they behave as if they've said something wrong, as if black is a four-letter word. I want to tell them that it's okay. I like being called black. It's a lovely term, a historically powerful term.

But the history of black isn't the only reason I prefer it. There's also the fact, as Dilday points out, that black is a more unifying term than African American is. Black unites me to all people in the African Diaspora, be they from Cameroon, Cuba, England, Jamaica or Brazil. The term also unites me to those individuals who aren't part of the African Diaspora, such as the Aborigines of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand and the dark-skinned of the Indian sub-continent and Pacific Islands. They, too, are known as black.

And, now, I’m ready to heed Dilday’s call and join them once and for all.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Culture Crash

“Issues of gender, class, nation, race, religion and sexuality all meet, and sometimes crash, at the intersection.”
-Ella Shohat, Talking Visions

I’ve only seen the film “Crash” once. But one viewing was all it took for me to realize how much I disliked the 2005 Academy Award winner for best picture. While the acting was spot on, I found the narrative to be contrived and sensationalistic and the characters to be so self-involved that they bordered on autistic. To boot, the film seemed to reinforce many of the stereotypes it seemingly sets out to counteract.

Despite my strong feelings against the film, I admit that I’ve had moments in which the Los Angeles portrayed in “Crash” surfaces. In this Los Angeles, it’s not just every man for himself, but every minority group for itself also.

I most recently felt myself being sucked into the Los Angeles of “Crash” about a week ago, when a middle-aged white gay man I know (I’ll call him Paul) approached me to bemoan the fact that an employee at a hotel we’d just visited didn’t speak a word of English. There was no venom in his tone, just exasperation that this particular employee couldn’t direct him to the bathroom because he lacked the language ability to do so.

In response, I shrugged my shoulders, but our young Chicana acquaintance (I’ll call her Liberty) chipped in, “What’s wrong with that?”

That’s when things began to get uncomfortable. Paul started to fidget in place, perhaps realizing that his remark wasn’t just an observation of sorts but a judgment or, better yet, a complaint that extended beyond the hotel worker and to entire groups of people. The complaint’s underlying message? “I’m sick of these people inconveniencing me by not speaking English.”

In response to Liberty’s question, Paul stammered out, “Nothing.” And to diffuse the tension in the air, I asked Paul if he knew any Spanish. He didn’t need to know a whole phrase, I assured him, but useful words. Had he known the Spanish word for bathroom, for example, the man would have done what he could have to help him, I said.

I know that some will argue otherwise, that this is America and everyone here needs to speak English, but that’s a debate I’ll save for another time. Suffice it to say now that I believe that the bridge goes both ways. America did not start out with an official language and considering that the country’s global competitors produce citizens that are often quadrilingual, it would behoove us to have some familiarity with other languages.

Liberty agreed with me that knowing a word or two of Spanish would have likely helped Paul out, that the hotel worker wasn’t somehow conspiring against him by not speaking English. Then, suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“Yeah, you try speaking Chinese,” Liberty told Paul, proceeding to lapse into sentences of ching-chongery that would have boiled the blood of the blogger over at

After unleashing one ching-chong after another, Liberty started to imitate an Asian nail manicurist. “I do yo nail fo five dollah,” she said in her best broken English.

By this time Paul had lost interest in the conversation, but my eyes began to bulge in surprise that Liberty could have gone from correcting Paul for being culturally insensitive only to exhibit behavior that was arguably more so.

Is the Los Angeles depicted in “Crash” not so far off the mark, after all? Yet, it was in this city and not my native, notoriously segregated Chicago that I learned, as critic Ella Shohat posits, “genders, sexualities, races, classes, nations, and even continents exist not as hermetically sealed entities but rather as parts of a permeable interwoven relationality.”

What to make of it then when scenarios such as the one above occur here? Is ethnocentrism responsible or is ignorance, othering or plain old hypocrisy? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I didn’t call Liberty on her behavior. And, by doing so, by giving into a mixture of apathy and a desire not to ruffle any more feathers that day, I missed out on the opportunity to crash not in a way that would result in cultural divisiveness but in a way that may have resulted in cultural connection.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Beyond the Politics of Abortion: "Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days"*

It’s tempting to file away “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” as an issue movie. But Cristian Mingui’s film about two college women’s attempt to illegally terminate a pregnancy stretches beyond abortion. Set in the communist Romania of 1987, “4-3-2” never gives any indication as to whether abortion should be legal. Instead, using the procedure as a focal point, the film paints concise but intricate psychological portraits of its key players.

Unpredictably, the expectant Gabita is not the film’s protagonist; her friend Otilia fills that role. Gabita, in fact, is not even a trustworthy character, a quality to which the film’s title pays homage. Helpless, irresponsible and manipulative, she stands in contrast with the heroines of films such as “Juno” and “Knocked Up.” Mingui’ s film also varies from recent American films about unplanned pregnancies in that it offers no information about how Gabita came to be pregnant. There’s no drunken miscommunication about condoms or sexual initiation on sofa chairs รก la “Knocked Up” or “Juno,” respectively. The absence of a back story robs the viewer of the opportunity to make a sexist judgment of sorts, to designate Gabita as either a good girl whose limited sexual activity landed her in a quagmire or a promiscuous bad girl who got what she deserved. That said, there’s indeed judgment of Gabita’s pregnancy—from her directly. When abortionist Mr. Bebe hints that she and Otilia will have to have sex with him before he performs the procedure, Gabita says that the guilty have to pay.

Yet, it is Otilia who arguably pays the most. Because Gabita is too irresponsible to even bother securing a hotel room for the abortion, we see a desperate Otilia haggle with and lie to the personnel of two different hotels to obtain a room. We see Otilia secure the funds needed for the abortion and her first meeting with Mr. Bebe, a meeting for which Gabita should have been present but declined to show. Despite these acts of devotion to Gabita, it appears that Gabita lies to Otilia about what exactly needed to be sacrificed to make the abortion happen. As it turns out, Otilia is the first of the women to sexually service Bebe. A scene in which she washes her vagina and brushes her teeth indicates exactly what she had to part with to aid Gabita in her quest.

“4-3-2” makes a point of portraying vaginas on screen. There are full frontal nude scenes involving both Otilia and Gabita, but vaginas in the film are not fodder for entertainment, as they are for the group of geeks in “Knocked Up.” Rather, they and, by extension, women’s bodies are purely functional. To remove any hint of eroticism, no other parts of the female anatomy are shown on screen, sans an anonymous backside in a shower scene. The intention not to eroticize is stressed when Otilia changes shirts with her breasts turned away from the viewer. The result is that it is all the more unsettling when vaginas are depicted, be it when they are being cleansed or penetrated.

Also unsettling is that it is Otilia’s responsibility to discard the aborted fetus, a crime that could land her in prison for years. The scene in which she first catches sight of the fetus is the closest “4-3-2” comes to making an indictment of abortion. It is the first fictional feature film (that I know of, anyway) to depict an aborted fetus. Initially, the viewer watches Otilia’s reaction to the fetus, a mixture of wonderment and horror on her face. Then, the viewer is allowed a look. The camera lingers long enough to reveal that Gabita was so far along in her pregnancy that the fetus resembles not a sort of sea creature but a very tiny baby covered in a bloody, applesauce-like goo.

It is as memorable of a scene as Hitchcock’s close up of Janet Leigh’s lifeless eye in “Psycho.” But it is one that Otilia is determined to forget. She tells Gabita that they are never to discuss the events of that night again. Even if that promise is kept, there is little doubt that Otilia will relive those events for years to come.

The question that remains at the end of the film is what motivated Otilia to play such a large role in Gabita’s quest for an abortion. In a callous move, Otilia leaves Gabita in the hotel room alone during the abortion to attend a birthday dinner for her boyfriend’s mother. Once there, she tells her boyfriend that she has been helping Gabita get an abortion and explains that she could count on Gabita to do the same if the roles were reversed. Given how irresponsible Gabita is, this is doubtful.

So, what is Otilia’s motivation? Is it that, as is revealed mostly during the birthday dinner, that she has a rural, lower class background and knows that an unplanned pregnancy would derail her one opportunity to transcend it? Is this why she goes to such lengths for Gabita? Or is that Otilia’s maternal exhibitions make her ripe for martyrdom?

The viewer can’t be sure, and this is one of the reasons why “4-3-2” works. As in life, the characters can’t be boxed into tidy little packages. Precisely because of their complexities and flaws, we ache when they do.

*Contains spoilers

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On All Fronts: Black Women and the Vote

Throughout the primaries much has been made about where black female voters stand. There have been endless debates about whether race trumps sex, cringe-worthy interviews of black women in beauty salons and old wounds reopened between white feminists and black feminists. Now that Sen. Obama has won his tenth consecutive contest, it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of black women have opted to vote for him rather than his white female competitor. This has led some to conclude that black women are more invested in their race than in their sex.

For weeks now I’ve been questioning myself about where my loyalties lie. Am I rooting for Obama primarily because he could be the first U.S. president of African descent? I believe that Obama’s blackness is only part of the equation for me. I am drawn to him because, like me and countless other post-Baby Boomer African Americans, his blackness has been called into question simply because of his upbringing. The Illinois senator has blacks and whites, alike, in his family. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia rather than on the mean streets of the inner city or in the rural, poverty-stricken South as the black leaders before him did. His father wasn’t American but Kenyan and raised in the Muslim tradition rather than in the Christian faith. When, in 2006, I first heard the charges that Sen. Obama was not authentically black because of the circumstances of his birth, a maternal feeling rose inside of me. I wanted to protect him. How many similar charges had I heard leveled against myself and others simply because our narratives diverged from the ones America has come to most commonly link with blacks? Why was it that those blacks who told tales infused with poverty, violence and virulent racism were the only among us considered to be authentically black, especially when large numbers of African Americans don’t have such tales to tell? It seemed a strange kind of racism to suggest that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of Martin Luther King’s dream were somehow non-black.

So, all in all, it wasn’t Obama himself that drew me to him but his detractors. In support of the senator, I began to read excerpts from his speeches and track his appearances, ultimately attending a rally of his in South Central Los Angeles. The location was a strategic move to boost his black cred. Also strategic was the senator’s decision to grant his sole interview during this visit to Los Angeles’ most prominent black newspaper, the L.A. Sentinel. At the rally, during which Obama spoke with a distinctly black cadence, he made sure to draw attention to those in the audience from Occidental College, the school that he attended for two years before transferring to Columbia and my alma mater. Occidental isn’t the only place my path has crossed Obama’s. When I was a child and Obama was a young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, we both attended Trinity United Church of Christ. Two years ago, I was most impressed when the senator stressed to liberals how important it was that they include matters of faith in their political discourse.

Of course, none of what I have in common with Sen. Obama—a college, a church, a city, African Muslim heritage—indicates that he would make a good commander-in-chief. However, when his rival’s platform varies little from his—the exceptions being their positions on the Iraq war and the discrepancies in their health care plans—the personal easily becomes political.

While I personally connect with Obama in several ways, it is more difficult for me to connect with Sen. Clinton on such a level. We are women from Illinois. That essentially sums up what I have in common with her. In recent days, Clinton has tried to align herself with regular working folk by suggesting that she, too, works the night shift. The suggestion rang false to me, the black daughter, niece and cousin of such folk. While I can connect with the Erin Brockovichs of this country, I am hard pressed to pinpoint what I have in common with white women of Sen. Clinton’s ilk, those who have led privileged lives because of their husbands’ accomplishments. None of the editorials I read about the predicament of black women in this election have mentioned how white female privilege figures into the votes that black women cast. Then, I happened upon an essay by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, which addressed this issue with flair.

“Black women voters are rejecting Hillary Clinton because her ascendance is not a liberating symbol,” Harris-Lacewell writes. “Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband’s power and influence, have been complicit in black women’s oppression.”

Harris-Lacewell goes on to remark that black women who choose not to vote for Clinton aren’t ignoring gender issues. Black feminist identity politics is complex, she asserts. “It is not about letting brothers handle the race stuff or about letting white women dominate the gender stuff. The black women’s fight is on all fronts,” she said.

Thus, black women resist male leaders who attempt to silence them or white women who desire the allegiance of black women without acknowledging racism. In short, Harris-Lacewell concludes, “They will not be drawn into any simple allegiance that refuses to account [for] their full humanity and citizenship.”

While I’m not arguing that Hillary Clinton has oppressed black women, in recent weeks, she and her husband have alienated blacks with comments that belied an undeniable racial callousness. I gave Sen. Clinton a pass when she said that it took President Lyndon Johnson to realize Martin Luther King’s dream. However, when she was criticized for the remark and blamed the controversy on Obama playing “the race card,” she began to lose me. Sen. Clinton may be privileged enough to invoke “the gender card”—announcing in debate after debate how having a female president constitutes change—but Obama does not have the privilege of playing “the race card,” for fear of turning off non-black voters. Obama, in fact, has been criticized for not discussing race enough. Accordingly, he did not initiate the commentary on Hillary Clinton’s Martin Luther King gaffe. Newspaper columnists, on the other hand, did.

Weeks after that remark Sen. Clinton and her husband would continue to come under fire for trying to paint Obama as “the black candidate” rather than a president for the people. Hillary Clinton also was dismissive of the fact that the black electorate of Louisiana and the Potomac Primary voted overwhelmingly for Sen. Obama. She implied that it was a given that black females and males, alike, would vote for Obama, that race indeed trumps gender.

In this instance Sen. Clinton not only perpetuated a kind of stereotype but downplayed Sen. Obama’s personal appeal. She suggested that there was nothing unique about the Illinois senator that made African Americans rally around him, that we have only done so because of a shared ancestry. If that were the case, wouldn’t we have rallied around past black presidential candidates with the same amount of zeal? Dismissing the black electorate on those grounds certainly doesn’t earn Sen. Clinton any points with blacks. In fact, she has so alienated the African American community that many have vowed not to vote at all if she is the Democratic nominee.

And why should they? Until white women navigate race in a way that is as just as meaningful as the way they navigate gender, they shouldn’t count on the support of women, or men, of color.