On Reading Sexist Literature

tw: rape mention, racism/sexism mention

I recently picked up a book called Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. He had been talked about in the same vain as James Baldwin, who is one of my favorite authors, so I ordered his book, and just now got around to reading it. A few pages in, I came across this line:

“I became a rapist.”

This, after many gross and vile descriptions of white women.

Part of me was outraged. How could anyone talk about a rapist in the same sentence as Baldwin? How could anyone like him, or read his writing? I’ve changed my mind three times since starting this article: first thinking that I shouldn’t even bother with Cleaver, then deciding to reading it as a historical document, and finally, just reading it.

It turns out, yes, Eldridge Cleaver was a rapist. He also describes himself, after many years in jail, as a new person. Of the rapes, he writes, “I was wrong, I had gone astray…I lost my self-respect. My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse, completely shattered.” Does this absolve him from his wrongs? No. Does it give me the okay to continue reading his work?

I don’t know. But I read his book anyways. Should I cringe at myself for reading any of it? Am I a bad feminist for picking up a non-feminist text?

This problem, this guilt, isn’t new. The Magicians promotes sexism and rape culture. Eleanor and Park uses slurs, and puts down Asian men, but students and teachers alike have praised it, one coworker even saying, “I’ve never had an author so accurately remind me how it is to fall in love for the first time.”

What a beautiful thing to say about a book!

Does, or should sexism and racism stop us from reading, and, dare I say, enjoying books? Is there a certain amount of sexism we can take, and after that, we draw a line? At what point is literature dangerous? Is it more or less dangerous if, as with the Magicians, we don’t notice the sexism at first?

The more intuitive answer to the former is: yes, of course, we shouldn’t read racist/sexist shit. But what good does boycotting a book do, in the eyes of the public? What about Rainbow Rowell? Am I supposed to stop my students from picking up a book they will enjoy, and that, in some aspects, they may relate to? And what about my own reading?

I don’t think boycotting a book will do much good. But what will do a lot of good is illuminating the process we use to find the problematic elements of the literature we consume–whether it be assigned reading or our summer beach reads. And maybe just then, deciding if the annoyance of problematic elements is enough to make us put down the book. 

Catherine Orr, a professor at Beloit College, recently described on NPR’s new podcast “intellectual habits,” which are “a set of questions that are going to work for you in just about every situation.” The more we learn about the intellectual habits of others, the more we’ll be able to talk about race, class, and gender. And one way to learn about those habits? And share our own?

Post about books. Post literary criticism. The more literary criticism enters social media, the more people will start to have those habits.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of literary criticism lately. But I’m a teacher. An English teacher. I notice and seek these things because I want to bring them into my classroom. But literary criticism isn’t in our collective social sphere yet–and I fully believe it should be.

Can we enjoy a book and still be critical of it? Can we love a book and still find aspects of it problematic? Yes, absolutely. The trick is doing both at the same time. I would argue, even, that doing both is the best way to love a book, to engage with it fully and thoughtfully. 

And yes, this blog post is great, but, like any conversation, it is not enough and it cannot exist in isolation. We must bring our intellectual habits and our literary criticism even further into the public sphere.

What are your thoughts? How much can you take when reading a book? At what point do you condemn an author, stop reading, and actively speak out against them? Is there value in reading sexist, racist or elitist texts as historical documents? Is there a line you won’t cross in regards to the authors you choose?

On Appropriating Queerness

When I was in 6th grade, I came out to a friend and later, to my parents, as bisexual. I had a crush on a girl who I’ll call Kay, but had liked boys in the past. I never asked Kay out, because, as are 6th grade crushes, it was old news soon enough. In high school, I dated only boys, but discussed celebrity women crushes often. In college, I hooked up with a girl, and had a crush on another, who I’ll call C*, but I was never sure how to proceed. I wanted to ask C* out but was too nervous that I wasn’t “queer enough”: in other words, I had never dated girls and I didn’t want C* to feel like she was being used for my “experimenting.” I know how I felt, but I remained too nervous, and the friendship faded. I still think of her sometimes, and how different yet similar we were, and think of it as a missed opportunity on many levels.

About a year has passed, or maybe two. I’ve been dating a guy for the past 8 months, and unless I mention it in conversation, my sexuality doesn’t come up. I don’t “look queer.” What’s more: most of the time, I don’t feel very queer. I feel like myself. Someone who is dating a guy but is also into women, someone who is questioning their sexuality, and probably always will be.

I want to make straight spaces, and queer spaces eventually, more open to the “Q” in LGBTQIA. Q as in questioning. I want it to be okay for people to ask “are you gay?” or “are you straight?” and have “I don’t know/I’m not sure” be an acceptable answer.

I think oftentimes those Q’s are afraid to label themselves anything–afraid to come out, or be wrong, or afraid to “appropriate queerness.” To say something belongs to you and have people say you’re not queer enough, or not gay enough to be discriminated against–and therefore you can’t enter queer spaces. I shouldn’t have a problem identifying as queer–but pervasive and internalized ideas of “queer enough” make it hard for me to do that, even now.

It’s taken me years to write this. It’s taken me years to pinpoint that I don’t feel comfortable in queer spaces because I appear too straight–years to accept that that is okay. I don’t have to belong to queer communities–maybe some day I would like too, but I’m not quite there. What I can do, or hope to do, is make straight spaces more queer, and queer spaces more open to questioning people.

And it’s hard. Just last night, my boyfriend and his friends and I were all in the office of a summer camp he runs, and one of the guys made a gay joke. I didn’t know what to do, or say, and since I wasn’t close with anyone but my boyfriend, I kept my mouth shut. But that is something, overtime, I am learning to do less. 


Where to go from here

As most of you know by now, the Senate voted down four measures to expand background checks. Update, 7:33pm, Wednesday night: There is a bipartisan effort on the table, proposed by Susan Collins. The House is participating in a sit-in, but the Republicans are refusing to broadcast this, and refusing to take the issue to a vote because they deem it a “publicity stunt.” 

Tuesday morning, I called my senators, trying to glean information about what was happening. During this, I had a conversation with a man by the name of Kenny at Jeanne Shaheen’s office. According to him (not speaking for the senator), there is a lack of willingness to compromise; congresspeople are also nervous to vote for anything divisive because they are up for re-election in November. The rest of the conversation went like this:

“Can I take down a message for the senator?”

“Sure. My name is Julie K_____.”

“And are you calling with an organization?”

“No, just an upset citizen. An upset, queer citizen, if you want to write that down.” 

So, I’m angry, and I’m upset, and I’ve called countless offices this morning, walked into the social studies department at school, and finally, I’m writing this. What can happen? What can change things?

  1. The Senate or House can propose legislation

Now, as we’ve seen, the legislation proposed by the senate got shot down. The house can also propose legislation, but since the house is mostly republican right now, them proposing gun control laws is not likely. There’s a few reasons why they’ve stayed in power, such as gerrymandering, but that’s for another post.

Supposedly, there is a bipartisan effort on the table for vote today. What can you do? Call your senators and make sure they vote for this effort. Again, information is elusive on this, but this bipartisan effort would expand some background checks; in other words, it would help, but not nearly enough. 

  1. Newtown’s lawsuit can go to the supreme court

A couple months ago, Newtown was able to sue the gun manufacturers that made the military-style rifle used in the school shooting in CT. From the article:

“Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who became the state’s leading advocate for gun-control reforms after the Newtown School massacre, said firearms companies should not be allowed blanket immunity from wrongful-death lawsuits.”

If this lawsuit reaches the Supreme Court, and Hillary fills the Supreme Court with liberal judges, we might see a shift in how mass shootings and gun lawsuits are handled. Not a perfect, fast, or all encompassing solution, but something nonetheless.

  1. The house can be re-taken by Democrats, and they can propose/pass gun legislation in 2017.

Again, this is unlikely, but it’s important to remember to VOTE. Keep informed about what you need to vote, where you vote, and spread the word. Laws will try to stop people from voting, and we need to stay cognizant.

  1. Work Stoppage

Now, this is the item I have the least information about, but a coworker told me that nothing would change unless people started refusing to give labor. I’ll be researching this soon and posting when I have more information.

What can YOU do?

Contact your representatives! (links in the bold below!)

I want to stress here, ESPECIALLY if they are republican. Call your reps in your home state, in states you’ve lived in, in the state you live in now. I used my home address when calling NH senators, and my current address when calling Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey. Write them too.

For senators:

Tell them you are FOR gun control laws and expanded background checks. Feel free to use my script: 

“Hi, my name is Julie K_______ and I’m calling from ___________. (I wrote my senator _______ last week and I’m glad/disappointed to see that he/she voted for/against the proposed law for expanded background checks). I would like to leave a message for senator ___________ that I support the bipartisan gun control effort.”

If your offices tell you something different (the reps I spoke to either didn’t know or said there wasn’t one), let me know! 

For Congresspeople:

Tell them you are a democrat/republican/independent who voted for ________ and you would like to the current bipartisan gun control law be passed in the house. Tell them, if you want, that you would love to vote for _________ but have hesitations if they do not support gun control. One call may make a mark, but if hundreds of a congressperson’s constituents start calling, they are going to get worried about November. 

As an upset queer citizen, I am asking you: Please contact your representatives. If you are nervous or worried or still don’t know what to say, facebook me. Comment here. Text me, if you have my phone number. Let’s talk.

On Rape as a Symptom

By now, you have heard about the Stanford rape case, the shortened sentencing, seen the rapist’s face, seen that men are valued over women in such a disgusting, blatant way.

So I’m not going to talk about Stanford rape case. I’m going to talk about rape as a symptom–not a cause–of oppression against women.

I recently saw a photo with the text, “forget transgender people, this is who you don’t want in your bathroom,” written over the Stanford rapist’s face. However, these problems are deeply interrelated and cannot be teased apart. Violence against women is strewn throughout our society, in a myriad of ways: we have less access to reproductive choices (abortion, birth control), we are paid less, less able to take care of our children, decide how and when we have children, etc etc. The list goes on. Rape, then, is just one way in which women are terrorized, but it is symptomatic of a large scale issue, and we cannot separate it from these problems.

The first person to expose me to this idea was Angela Y. Davis, in her essay “We Do Not Consent: Violence Against Women in a Racist Society.” [I highly recommend reading it; she explains it a lot more fully than I’ll be able to in this blog post]. She discusses multiple, structural causes that interweave race, class, and gender to create these hierarchies that put women at the bottom. I’m going to narrow this down a bit, and discuss the emotional mistreatment of men that leads to the oppression of women (bear with me).

Davis, in her essay, writes “Men’s motives for rape often arise from their socially imposed need to exercise power and control over women through the use of violence. Most rapists are not psychopaths…the overwhelming majority would be considered “normal” according to prevailing social standards of male normality.” Masculinity, then, is a cause of rape. Patriarchy is responsible for the way men think, feel, and interact with each other. 

In The Will to Change, bell hooks beautifully describes the myriad of ways men suffer from the patriarchy, from being told to suppress their feelings. Not only that, but boys are socialized all the time to inflict violence on girls without consequences (“boys will be boys” “he’s pulling your hair because he likes you!”). Hooks argues that this ultimately destroys relationships, and leaves men being unable to love. Even beyond loving, they are not taught to ask for consent.

And why do you think men don’t ask? Because they’re scared the girl will say no, they’re scared to be embarrassed or ashamed. And that is a pretty shitty reason to rape someone, but “there is only one emotion that patriarchy values when expressed by men; that emotion is anger.”. Men aren’t allowed to feel embarrassed or ashamed. They don’t know how, and they can’t talk about it.

Now, I’m not saying I have sympathy for rapists, or that most rapists are just confused men. What I’m saying is that as a society, we haven’t taught men to respect women, and we haven’t taught men to be emotionally open, which respect requires.

So I know this will sound crazy and minuscule, but I think one way we can start ending rape and violence against women is by this: sharing our feelings. Especially men. If we talk more openly, if men learn to discuss emotions, to love openly, and to be an emotionally open role model for the young men in their life, there will be less shame, and less need to cover up insecurity with violence, dominance, and rape.

When someone asks you how you’re feeling, be honest. When you cry over an episode of Game of Thrones, tell someone about it. And when they text you back, saying “don’t be a pussy,” ask them to watch that Hodor scene and not get upset. Or, who knows? Maybe they’ll say that they cried too.

We need to start addressing the structural issues that inflict violence against women in all aspects of their lives. We need to treat the disease and not just the symptoms. I know this is only one part of it. But it’s a start.

Concept Creep and its Implications for the Classroom

In a recent article in the Atlantic, the author, in an attempt to explain Americans being over-sensitive, defines a phenomenon called “concept creep”. The nuts and bolts is this: Many concepts (PTSD, trauma, bullying) have “creeped” to include a larger variety of experiences. While this can be good, because it is giving voice to microagressions and abusive behavior, we don’t have the vocabulary to say “I was bullied, but only a little bit” or “That was racist, but only a little bit.” Because of this lack, people who are labeled Bullies or Racists only know how to be defensive, because their connotations of bullies and racists are so terrible. The logic is this: “I’m not a terrible person, so I can’t be racist.” We don’t have the words to say, “I’m a little racist” because of all the weight that comes with the word Racist. What’s more is that the people doing the labeling only know how to be victims, because once you are abused, you are a survivor. Once you experience sexism, no matter to what extent, you are a victim of it. We don’t have the vocabulary to be “just a little bit of a victim.” And because of this, we lose sight of the power we do have, in the name of making other people see how oppressive they are.

I want to show how this manifests in two ways: in my personal experiences as a woman, and in my experiences as a teacher, but for now, I’ll just focus on the teaching part.

Illuminating concept creep can give us more power, and it can help us to build a better world with our students, if they are aware of the continuum of words.

Implications for the Classroom

I’ve been teaching for about a year now. One of the biggest issues educators face, or at least I face, is figuring out how to talk about race, class, and gender in our classes in a comfortable manner. The fact of the matter is, we are all racist, classist, and sexist in our own ways (more coming on this soon), partially because we benefit from those systems in place and partially because we perpetuate those systems.

The problem with concept creep is that we’re realizing that microagressions are racist. Not, “lynchings in the south racist,” but “a little racist.” However, most of my students associate “being racist” with “being a terrible, no good, horrible human being.” If we say, “that’s a little sexist” we jump to things such as, “I love women, so I can’t be sexist” and “I’m a nice person, so I can’t be sexist.” We don’t have the vocabulary yet for actions that are “a little bit sexist but no Johnny you’re not a horrible person.”

And that’s where it becomes a problem in the classroom. Students get defensive. Now, I’ve never told a student that they’re flat out racist. However, I’ve brought in articles such as “Why saying All Lives Matter is Racist.” And my students still get defensive. It’s okay, I get it. Being a teenager is hard, and having educators tell you that what you’ve thought for the past few years is actually racist (again, racist in the “no Johnny you’re not a horrible person racist” way) is not easy to accept. It’s even harder to accept when our connotations of “being a racist” include villains, terrible people who have no hearts. We are not them. I know that. But I know that because I understand concept creep, and I understand that if I say something racist, I can acknowledge my mistakes, learn from them, and still be a good person at the end of the day.

Maybe this is part of adolescent development. Maybe the abstract thinking needed to see the continuum of racism, and not just the disparate parts of racist and not racist, is something that is still being developed in the young minds I teach. Maybe they will always get defensive.

But I think there are ways to fix this. We live in a culture where you can’t fail. You can’t be wrong. You can’t fail a class or get a bad grade on the SAT. You can’t make mistakes.

If we want to open up honest conversations with our students, and build a less racist world, we need to allow our students be wrong, to fail, to make mistakes. And we need to pair this with some explanation of concept creep. We need to be able to say, “Yes, saying All Lives Matter is Racist, but saying that doesn’t automatically make you a slaveholder. It doesn’t make you a terrible person.” At the end of the day, I believe my students are good people who sometimes say racist, sexist, or classist things. They just have to realize that that’s okay: they can still be good people.

Why I’m Starting This

Or, Why we need more platforms and accessibility to writing post-college that isn’t shuffled into “Academia.”

I’m an English major. I spent 4 years of life my dedicated to writing papers about books. Did I love every part of it? Of course not. But do I still sometimes rant about Marxism in Raymond Carver stories? Or about how Amy Hempel writes from her own life? Or psychoanalytic theory in my favorite movies? Yes. Yes, yes and I love every moment of it.

But since I’ve graduated college, and left seminar classes behind me (for now), I find myself less able to have these conversations in my life. I’m not always intellectually engaged with literature (albeit, I am intellectually engaged with teaching, and I’m very grateful for that). I don’t have a group of friends like Hemingway did with whom I can sit in cafes for hours, on a regular basis, and talk about this stuff. And I can’t write about it, because there’s no professor who will read it. Right?

In college, students are taught to write for their professors. Occasionally, they will send their writings to a literary magazine, or an academic journal. Even more rarely will these articles get published or seen by an audience larger than one or two people. And that’s a shame, because I know my peers had a lot of great ideas. They did close readings and looked at literature in ways I wasn’t able to, simply because of who I am.

And what’s worse: people stop writing after college. They forget about papers. They don’t have deadlines or professors or anything “due,” so they just let it be. That’s also a shame. But, it is also expected. Where would people submit their writing? The Atlantic, great with think pieces, is a revered publisher with a selected, paid staff. Other, smaller magazines sometimes take reader pieces, or ask for contributions, but, sadly, a lot of people don’t think to submit. And those magazines don’t publish, say, “Marxism in the 21st century: Raymond Carver’s Monetary Relationships” or “Why We Should Live With Our Parents Again.” It’s too niche. There’s not a good platform yet for almost-writers, would-be-writers, post-grad-specialized-writers.

At least, not one that I’ve found. So that’s why I’m starting this. I’ll be posting about a wide variety of things: feminism, my life as a teacher, Marxism, maybe. And if you have pieces you’d like to contribute, let’s work together.

Author’s Note: I hope to post bi-weekly, with weekly posts in the summer after I finish teaching. Follow me on Facebook for updates!