Also, congratulations to everyone who is about to graduate!
In love and solidarity (and finals week stress),
Also, congratulations to everyone who is about to graduate!
In love and solidarity (and finals week stress),
I’m sure you’ve all heard the news by now. There is, in this country, at least one woman who paints her son’s toenails pink (and happens to be the creative director for J Crew and therefore has access to national marketing campaigns). Shocking, right? I know I was completely shocked.
While I tend to belong to the camp that believes that if something is seriously no big deal and doesn’t deserve national media freak out, then giving it even more attention to point out how stupid it is will only make it worse (in other news, why are we still talking about Sarah Palin?), I think this whole situation is hilarious so I’m going to offer some of my own thoughts. Also, some of Jon Stewart’s thoughts.
The “debate” on this has been ridiculous. Many national media figures that have jumped on it have asked, in their “I’m-a-very-serious-and-concerned-reporter” voices, what kind of harm this might be doing to the woman’s son. Because as we are all aware, toenail polish is very dangerous and has been known to infect small children with gender identity crises.
Somehow they make the vast rhetorical leap from talking about a picture in an ad campaign to claiming that J Crew celebrates transgender children, or (gasp) gender bending.
As if transgender children and gender bending shouldn’t be celebrated. The implicit argument here is that parents should enforce rigid gender roles on their children no matter what the child wants, and that if they have gender non-conforming children they shouldn’t love them for who they are.
“It’s an attack on masculinity,” says some guy with “Dr.” in front of his name who gets paid to commentate on Fox News.
Not the masculinity! Anything but the masculinity! If these sorts of challenges to our rightful system of gender hierarchy continue undisputed, soon all boys will have to wear dresses, women will be able to own property, go to college, have careers, and vote, and gender non-conforming folks will actually be considered to be real people and not less than human! This must end!
In all seriousness, though, the thing that bothers me about this is doesn’t have anything to do with gender. It’s that the mother and son in the ad are “bondvertising,” as Jon Stewart put it. The photo isn’t just an adorable picture of a mother and a son, it’s a clothing ad designed to sell a product, which to me feels super creepy.
I was a bender from the start: letting my female playmates choose their imaginary personas first, knowing very well they would hop on the opportunity to clinch the “the girl”, “the mom”, “the damsel in distress”, just so I could subtly flex my inner masculinity. Somebody had to be “the boy”, it might was well be me: the matchbox master, the playdough prince, I knew how to be a gentleman. And looking into mirrors I saw muscles, brawn, bravery, a little superhero, as opposed to the sheepish demeanor and delicacy that my “sex” expected of me. The Clark Kent behind the Superman was a little girl who, like everyone else, grew up bound and beaten by heteronormativity. Barbies were dusty while Legos were worn, and despite my claustrophobia in the tight gender dichotomy, I pinched nerves to squeeze into the mold everyone was telling me I was supposed to fit.
Gently, I lowered trembling toes into the ice bath of femininity, hoping this would cure the natural cognitive dissonance that precedes self-actualization. And all I got was a cold: confusion and frustration. Yes, my body was female, but it wasn’t “female”. Somehow, femininity was one person: white, tall, and skinny. Any deviation from this strict model could hardly be considered “female”. So She was who I had to be and every form of interaction with the world confirmed this. Femininity was the standard I had to meet, according to the TV, according to the books, according to my peers. I quickly realized I there were things I couldn’t change about myself, physical things, no matter how “white” I acted or how tall I stood. Losing weight, on the other hand, seemed simple enough. Eat less. Exercise. Piece of cake.
As the kid who spent recess talking to trees and spiders and clouds, I was no social butterfly: making friends was a kamikaze mission. With the little self-respect I had on the line, I waxed and waned, peaking out of my shell every once in a while, only to feel like a Martian child. I saw my quirky personality and misshapen body as failed prerequisites to the normal and happy lives my peers leading. I knew they were happy, because my body kept them laughing daily, weekly, yearly. Fitting in meant the acknowledgement of my existence, even if that existence wasn’t one I identified with. I became fixated on Femininity, “being like all the other girls”, as it seemed like the only escape from the taunting, and the concurrent self-hatred.
Beginning in innocence, I took up sports in middle school. It was a great way for me to express my true gender in an acceptable way, and, as a side effect, it was way for someone who was legitimately overweight to exercise. My parents were excited for me to have an opportunity to make friends, but friends weren’t made and, given my obsessive nature, exercising became a perpetual preoccupation; it was “all in the name of the sport”. Any free time I got was dedicated to working out. The minute I got home I would make any excuse to go up to my room to pump out 3 sets of 20 push-ups. I spent the hours leading up to soccer practices sprawled out across my bedroom floor stretching muscles I didn’t know I had. And I would make sure to get to practice early and stay late after to run laps. As soon as I got home I would shower and change, only to sweat all over again. Sets had to be done in odd numbers and reps had to be done in multiples of 5 greater than 10, incomplete sets would have to be redone, and the rules were ridged and infinite. It was insanity. I would work out until I cried, and it was never enough.
Before I got into high school I had moved across the country. Having thought I left my sports and obsessive exercising behind, I felt the need to compensate by controlling my food intake. I had no friends to hold me accountable for what I was doing, and I thought nothing of it. Why would skipping lunch be of any concern? I gave myself excuses to justify my behavior: I had homework to do or I needed to study. It wasn’t all bad though; all the time spent not eating was spent writing. It was as an outlet for my mental misconduct. I would spend a lot of lunch periods alone scribbling burning frustrations, angers, and sadness into overused notebooks. This regurgitation of pure emotion was keeping me grounded as I melted into a deep and long episode of depression. I spent many afternoons and evenings after school sleeping or lying in bed staring at the wall, sometimes missing dinner. I was constantly exhausted, and as it took its toll on my energy levels, I found new methods of manipulation. I would chew entire packs of gum, hoping to curb my hunger. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the main ingredient in that chewing gum was a laxative, and it secretly contributed to my obsession. I would negotiate with myself, punishing myself through self-mutilation and self-destruction whenever I broke my self-imposed discipline. My body was a slave to my mind.
When I finally decided to get back into sports, my obsessive exercising became justified again. In fear of fainting on the track, I would take my 100 calorie pack into the bathroom stall right before practice and eat as quietly as I could. I couldn’t stand to eat in front of people, as if eating was a physical projection of the mental view I had of my own body. My wounded self-image continued to lead me astray, and by the time I graduated I had failed a class, gotten caught smoking at school, experimented with drugs, and was dangerously dependent on alcohol. I had gained and lost weight continuously through high school, and no matter what I looked like or how much I weight I still wasn’t happy. My methods of coping only made matters worse.
What began as quest of self-discovery, ended up as a journey through hell. Gender and self-image became my Goliath, and the controlling nature of my lifestyle gave me comfort, falsely reassuring me that the battle could be won through pure determination. When I knew Femininity had no space for my child-like ambitions and my playground creativity, the starving didn’t stop and my self-love was obsolete. Despite my fair share of warning signs over the years, passing out, throwing up, losing and gaining massive amounts of weight, I was unaware of the severity of these issues up until a few months ago. My image of masculinity never included eating disorders, I just couldn’t see the heteronormative booby-traps that were set out on my exploration of body and gender. In this story, there are no superheroes. Reclaiming my body would be a never-ending war waged between me and myself.
Role models are something I think about a lot, especially when I’m thinking or talking about leadership. I’ve been in various positions of leadership throughout my life (including on various sports teams, within student governments, as a mentor, etc.), and as I’ve grown older and more reflexive I’ve started to feel more responsible as a leader to the people that I am supposed to be leading. This is why I have always striven (strove? this word is so awkward in past tense) to be a good role model to those people I am fortunate enough to be leading, especially if they are younger than me.
I have seen too many people who are looked up to betray the trust that has been given to them, either by simply being lazy/apathetic, or by behaving irresponsibly. These attitudes show both a lack of understanding about the trust and responsibility they have been given and a lack of compassion about caring for that trust and influencing others in a positive manner.
This is why I try to do a lot of self-inquiry about how I am caring for the space that I inhabit (most frequently this space being the Q Center or someplace that I would like to have the Q Center’s values) and about how I am caring for the people around me. I think of this less as self-policing, although there is some internal censorship involved when something that is definitely not ok tries to escape out my mouth anyway, and more as caring for others, and through that caring for myself. Because, for me at least, there is a lot of self-care involved in how I think about/try to change how I affect others. How can I love myself if I am unconsciously or through ignorance (or, with the same effect but worse to my thinking, consciously) contributing to someone else’s oppression and marginalization? Too few people, in my opinion, have this internal responsibility.
Which brings me back to role models. I had a lack of role models growing up who were like me (read: queer). Even before I was consciously queer I sort of had the feeling that no one who I knew who was grown up was very much like me. This isn’t to say that I had no role models (shout out to my very awesome mom!), but that I didn’t see myself in many of my relationships with adults. I think this is why I latched onto one of the first adults that I found who I related to and saw a little bit of myself in, as a role model. She started teaching at my high school during my junior year, and I got to know her a bit although she was never one of my teachers. Looking back, she is not someone who I want to model myself after partly due to the fact that I know something she did that very few other people know, and which I consider to be a very serious breach of professional ethics (though she’s a great teacher and very nice, just to be clear, but that doesn’t excuse her behavior). But I latched onto the idea of her as a role model for a long time because she was pretty much all I had.
Not so anymore! I’ve been fortunate enough to meet/learn of lots and lots of amazing peeps who not only are “like” me (a category that I have now extended beyond the basic qualification of being queer to include people who are strong allies to me) but who also do some awesome work! The idea for this post, by the way, was inspired by this article from Colorlines called People I Love: South Asian Women Who Make Change, which features Pramila Jayapal, local Seattle activist and founder/director of OneAmerica, where I currently am an intern.
So in the spirit of celebrating rad role models, here are some of mine! Some of them I’ve met, some I haven’t, but they’re all real people* and they’re all super awesome.
Jen Self. Because she’s the raddest of them all.
Rachel Maddow. Because I not-so-secretly want to be her. Also, to be her friend.
Estefanía Yanci, Julie Severson, Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Haunani-Kay Trask, Leslie Feinberg, Ellis, Audre Lorde, Hannah Volkman, Hala Dillsi, Tyson Johnson, Sabrina Fields, Archita Taylor, Teo Popescu, Cassie Hoeprich, Barbie-Danielle DeCarlo.
Of course there are many more, but seeing as it’s nearly finals week they’re going to have to go unnamed (but not unloved) for now.
In love and solidarity,
*although I realize having an asterisk next to ‘they’re all real people’ seems kind of silly, what I mean to say here by ‘real people’ is that they’re not superstar athletes or famous rock stars or huge celebrities of some kind (I exempt Rachel Maddow from this statement, since I wouldn’t call her a huge celebrity) who are famous for being famous. They’re real people who do real things and who you can (or could, if they’ve died) really talk to or see evidence of their work. Thinking back, I’d modify my original statement about lacking role models when I was younger to say that I was lacking role models who were ‘real people’ – everyday people with real, tangible relationships.
A few weeks ago, at a place in downtown Seattle where I volunteer, a man walked in the door and asked where he could set up his prayer mat. He was wearing a traditional Muslim cap and a long white dress with pants underneath, similar to some traditional clothes often seen worn by Muslim men. Upon hearing his question, I immediately understood what he meant. Having grown up in a majority Muslim country and having been brought up learning about Islam, I knew what he was looking for. I told him that he could pray right there in the room. I even took out a compass I had with me to tell him where East was. He thanked me and proceeded to pray. After he had finished, I announced to the office that I was going to the coffeeshop downstairs to get coffee. The walk-in man offered to go with me. He was fascinated by my strange name and my apparently not-exactly-white-looking features and asked me where I was from. I replied that I was originally Iranian. He then asked if I was Muslim and I replied that even though I was born Muslim, I no longer believed in god, so no I was not Muslim per se. I usually don’t engage people I don’t know well in conversations about their background but since he had begun the questioning, I allowed myself to return the questions, so I asked, “What about you? What’s your ethnic background?” He looked a bit surprised by the question and said, “African-American.” It probably took me a second, but I quickly responded, “Oh, so you converted to Islam?” And he affirmed that indeed he had. We got our coffee and returned to the office upstairs.
I have to admit that I was extremely embarrassed by this entire exchange. I had made so many assumptions about this man that I normally did not allow myself to make about people. So I chided myself: just because he’s black, doesn’t mean he’s not American! Just because he’s Muslim, doesn’t mean he’s from some North African country! The point is I had truly expected him to reply that he was FROM a certain African country BECAUSE he was Muslim, even though he was just an African-American who had converted to Islam. How could I, who so often gets angry about people who make these assumptions about my background, make the exact same assumption about somebody else? The implication is: if you’re Muslim, you’re not American. If you’re brown/black, you’re not American. If you’re a brown/black Muslim, you COME FROM some place else; you’re an immigrant.
I am often confronted by a variety of assumptions about my identity, my positionality, my beliefs, my values, my social roles, and my relationships due to the color of my skin. So I thought that if I was able to perhaps list the myriad of assumptions that I’ve experienced in the United States regarding who I am, perhaps I might be able to prevent myself from acting on my own prejudices, assumptions, and privileges, and to liberate myself from my own internalized racism and whiteness.
So here is a list of assumptions made about me because I am Iranian/Middle Eastern/Brown/Person of Color. People assume:
1. That I’m Muslim.
2. That I’m straight.
3. That I don’t speak English well.
4. That I don’t understand American idioms and expressions.
5. That I’m filthy rich.
6. That I’m dirt poor.
7. That I know how to bellydance.
8. That I’m gender-conforming.
9. That I speak Spanish.
10. That I speak Arabic.
11. That I come from an impoverished country.
12. That I come from a war-torn country.
13. That I’m not American.
14. That I’m not a US citizen.
15. That I’m religious.
16. That I’m a FOB.
17. That I’m privy to secret information about the “situation” in the Middle East that no one else has access to.
18. That I always feel oppressed or discriminated against.
19. That I benefit from Affirmative Action.
20. That life is easy because I benefit from Affirmative Action.
21. That because I’m a brown female, I’ve been “oppressed” by brown males and am waiting for white males and white female feminists to “liberate” me.
22. That I hate America.
23. That I am Arab.
24. That I would only date within my own ethnicity.
25. That I know every other Iranian in this area.
26. That I know everything about the history, culture and politics of Iran.
27. That I’m exotic.
28. That I’m not familiar with American pop culture.
29. That I’m the spokesperson for everything Iran or Middle East.
30. That I know everything about the history and all sects of Islam.
31. That as a female living in Iran, life was difficult and horrible.
32. That I grew up without any concept of and access to technology.
33. That as a female in Iran, I’ve never done any sports.
34. That I’m a terrorist.
35. That I support the Iranian nuclear program.
36. That I don’t like people from other ethnicities.
37. That “my people” are backward.
38. That “my people” are homophobic.
39. That “my people” are sexist.
40. That I have a people.
41. That I will always defend Iranian politics no matter the policy or the situation.
42. That I’m anti-Semitic.
43. That I hate Israel and want it seen “wiped off the map”.
44. That I “should go home”.
45. That I automatically have a sense of identification with all Muslims, Middle Easterners and other brown folks.
And last but not least…
46. That I’ve ridden camels…everyday…to school.
This list is not meant to be comprehensive or to encompass the experiences of all Iranian/Middle Eastern/Brown/People of Color, but quite the contrary, it’s meant to show how often experiences of people of color are homogenized, uniformed, and marginalized.
Just for interest, indicate the ones you’ve personally experienced and please feel free to add your own in the comments section below.
I have always been in search of words to describe myself. Usually I’ve found the words to be too limiting, too uniform. It has been only the past few years or so that I have had to confront my social identity, my relation to others, my past and eventually my future.
Born and raised in Iran, I could never deny my Iranian-ness. But even in Iran I didn’t completely fit in with everyone. I knew I was different. I did not act like other girls and did not hold exactly the same thoughts and values. When I went to college in the US, I became more engaged with my sexual and gender identity. I ascribed my difference in relation to other girls as a difference in gender. I refused to ascribe to a violently limiting binary system of genders. I began to view gender as a spectrum. But little by little, I disposed of the spectrum idea, founding even that to be limiting. Thus, I came to the conclusion that each individual person has their own gender, which is an ensemble of a variety of things such as their biological sex, their gender expression, their culture, their own self-identification, the identification by others, their class, their race, their religion and so many other factors that affect our notions of gender. But I have to wonder now: this could not possibly be all that differentiated me from other Iranians? Even as mere children in Iran, we knew deep down inside how the world functioned, even if we didn’t have the words to describe it. And sometimes the words were too painfully precise. Yes, I was too American, a remark that many of my Iranian friends did not fail to point out at times. I accepted their haphazard observation and even took pride in it. But for the most part it was a source of play and joking. When I moved to the US at the age of 15, I did not fail to mention to my newly found American friends that I was Iranian – a fact in which I took great pride. At first, this phrase was pronounced with much nuance, with almost a sense of provocation. Were they going to be mean to me? Were they going to make fun of me? Were they going to be surprised? Or simply indifferent? The response most often consisted of an initial surprise, a series of questions posed out of curiosity and ignorance and eventual indifference.
Despite holding official citizenships of both countries, I never felt myself overly American. Throughout high school and even the first few years in college, I insisted that I was not American, regardless of my social status. Never until now had I ever questioned why I was so vehemently opposed to being American. Furthermore, what does being American even mean? I posed this question to a few of my American and foreign friends but none of whom could provide a satisfactory answer. But one thing was clear: you do not need to be born on American soil to be considered American. In fact it was not until I was doing a study abroad in France that I accepted and made my own the American identity.
During my three months in France, I met and interacted with many different people from all over the world. One of the first things that was always asked in class from professors and fellow classmates was national origin. My initial response was immediately: the United States. If I somehow felt as if I was going to have a longer relationship with this individual I always added: “But I was born and raised in Iran before moving to the US.” However, throughout my stay, my response, even to people with whom I knew I would have no major or very little contact, slowly became: I was born in Iran but I come from the United States. Finally it turned into what I had been feeling for a while but had never pronounced out loud: Iranian-American.
It would be too narrow-sighted and utterly false to claim that going to France was the ultimate experience that pushed me into this brilliant new identity that I had forged for myself. So I retreat. Before traveling to France, I had become relatively active with the Seattle community organization of Iranian-Americans. It was there that I met a lot of Iranians from all walks of life and from very diverse backgrounds. I talked to people who clearly felt one side of their identity weighed more than the other, and then there were individuals who easily described themselves as Iranian-Americans and found no irony or contention in saying so. I knew I was one of them but I felt that I first needed to define being American. But can I even define being Iranian? I would be lying if I said Iran was a homogenous country with very little diversity, hence the question is never posed like it is in the United States. As an atheist upper-middle class Persian born and raised in the city, who am I to ignore or worse – assimilate the experiences of millions who are lower-class, religious, Kurd, Turk, Azeri, Arab, Lur, Afghani, Turkmen, Baluchi, and the multitude of other ethnicities that make up this beautiful country, into my own narrow experience as an Iranian? And I have to wonder: do other ethnicities and classes in Iran make the Iranian identity their own as I do?
It had been some time that I had completely washed my hands off of Iranian politics, even if I followed the news regarding the nuclear program and the 2009 elections very closely over the past few years but I never commented or even allowed myself much thought. Even when talking to friends genuinely interested in international politics, I refrained from getting myself too involved. I could not because it was too painful. I could not be emotionally invested in an issue that was tearing me from within. What I didn’t realize until the last six months was that only by confronting my fears, my prejudices and privileges, and by actively engaging with my Iranian and American identities and communities could I truly heal my wounds. I cannot move forward without confronting my past. And if I am to call myself a true activist and continue on the route of anti-oppression work, how can I simply disregard the political realities of US-Iran relations, the consequences of which affects my identity and my relations to the people around me at every level?
And even yet, my overly active and critical brain does not permit me to read back upon these words and not reproach myself for throwing myself under the ugly and violent grasp of nationalism. Many terrible things have been done under the name of nationalism and it is precisely nationalism to which I am subjecting myself by defining my identities as a haphazard mix of a multitude of cultures, histories, and politics from two different countries I call home. But when I am faced with the threat of the destruction of everything that I hold dear in Iran and in the United States, I cannot help but feel a deepening desperation of clinging onto what little I feel is left of my past for a morsel of stability at present, and hopes of a brighter future. As much as I would like to join hands in the common fight against racism, imperialism, and oppression, without regard to nationalism, I cannot raise myself above the unfortunate realities of borders. My experience of the world is deeply rooted in histories. Thus, I can never own the Iranian-American identity without fully engaging in its politics and the consequences it entails.
 The usage of the word “American” here is meant to refer to the United States. I fully understand the white/north amero-centrism of the usage of this term. With my deepest regards to my fellow Latin/South Americans, the term is used out of ease and to differentiate it from being a “US citizen.”