Tamara K. Nopper
September 19, 2010
One of the first books I read about Asian American feminism was the anthology Dragon ladies: Asian American feminists breathe fire. In one of the essays, author Juliana Pegues describes scenes from a “radical Asian women’s movement.” One such scene involves lesbian and bisexual Asian and Pacific Islanders marching at Gay Pride with signs reading “Gay white soldiers in Asia? Not my liberation!” and “ends with the absence of all soldiers, gay and straight, from any imperialist army.”
Although it has been over a decade since I read this passage, I return to this “scene” as I watch far too many liberals and progressives praise the possible repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) as well as the possible passage of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act).
In some ways, I understand why people are supportive of such gestures. The idea that certain identities and status categories, such as gay or lesbian or (undocumented) immigrants are either outlawed or treated as social problems has rightfully generated a great deal of sympathy. And the very real ways that people experience marginalization or discrimination—ranging from a lack of certain rights to violence, including death—certainly indicates that solutions are needed. Further, far too many non-whites have experienced disproportionate disadvantages, surveillance, and discipline from both DADT and anti-immigrant legislation. For example, Black women, some of whom are not lesbians, have been disproportionately discharged from the U.S. military under DADT. And anti-immigrant legislation, policing measures, and vigilante xenophobic racism is motivated by and reinforces white supremacy and white nationalism.
Yet both the repeal of DADT and the passage of the DREAM Act will increase the size and power of the U.S. military and the Department of Defense, which is already the largest U.S. employer. Repealing DADT will make it easier for gays and lesbians to openly serve and the Dream Act in its present incarnation may provide a pathway to legal residency and possibly citizenship for some undocumented immigrant young people if they serve two years in the U.S. military or spend an equal amount of time in college.
Unsurprisingly, the latter, being pushed by Democrats, is getting support from “many with close ties to the military and higher education.” As the Wall Street Times reports:
Pentagon officials support the Dream Act. In its strategic plan for fiscal years 2010-2012, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness cited the Dream Act as a ‘smart’ way to attract quality recruits to the all-volunteer force…
‘Passage of the Dream Act would be extremely beneficial to the U.S. military and the country as a whole,’ said Margaret Stock, a retired West Point professor who studies immigrants in the military. She said it made ‘perfect’ sense to attach it to the defense-authorization bill.
Louis Caldera, secretary of the Army under President Bill Clinton, said that as they struggled to meet recruiting goals, ‘recruiters at stations were telling me it would be extremely valuable for these patriotic people to be allowed to serve our country.’
Additionally, in a 2009 Department of Defense strategic plan report, the second strategic goal, “Shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force,” lists the DREAM Act as a possible recruitment tool under one of the “performance objectives”:
Recruit the All-Volunteer Force by finding smart ways to sustain quality assurance even as we expand markets to fill manning at controlled costs as demonstrated by achieving quarterly recruiting quality and quantity goals, and through expansion of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program and the once-medically restricted populations, as well as the DREAM initiative.
What concerns me is that far too many liberals and progressives, including those who serve as professional commentators on cable news and/or progressive publications (and some with a seemingly deep affinity for the Democratic Party) have been praising the passage of the DREAM Act. Unsurprising is that many of the same people support the repeal of DADT. While a sincere concern about discrimination may unite both gestures, so too does a lack of critical perspective regarding the U.S. military as one of the main vehicles in the expansion and enforcement of U.S. imperialism, heterosexuality, white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and repression against political dissent and people’s movements in the United States and abroad. Far too many liberals and progressives, including those critical of policies or the squashing of political dissent, take an ambivalent stance on the U.S. military. It is unclear what makes some of these folks unwilling to openly oppose the military state. Perhaps it’s easier than dealing with the backlash from a variety of people, including the many people of color and/or women who are now building long-term careers in the military. Or maybe it’s more amenable to building careers as pundits in both corporate and progressive media, both of which may be critical of some defense spending or “wasted” (read unsuccessful) military efforts but not necessarily of U.S. militarism.
Whatever the case, the inclusion of more gays and lesbians and/or undocumented immigrant youth in the U.S. military is not an ethical project given that both gestures are willing to have our communities serve as mercenaries in exchange for certain rights, some of which are never fully guaranteed in a homophobic and white supremacist country. Nor is it pragmatic. By supporting the diversification of the U.S. military we undermine radical democratic possibilities by giving the military state more people, many of whom will ultimately die in combat or develop PTSD and health issues and/or continue nurturing long-term relationships with the U.S. military, including a political affinity with its culture and goals. We will also have a more difficult time challenging projects of privatization, the incurring of huge amounts of debt, and the erosion of rights and protections in other countries—efforts buttressed by the threat of military action—which ultimately affects people in the United States.
I wrote this in 2008, before I had my own blog; Kenyon Farrow graciously posted it on his blog. To deal with the stress of the situation I detail, I wrote notes and ideas on the little white bag provided in the seat pockets to passengers during my flight. I couldn’t write my way out of the situation I experienced but I knew when I got off the plane that I was going to go home and write this essay.
“Southwest Airlines & ‘The Souls of White Folk’”
Tamara K. Nopper
March 2, 2008
In his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois raised the question: “‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’” Answering his own query, Du Bois responded, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
A recent incident I had while flying on Southwest Airlines demonstrates Du Bois’ point. I therefore detail the situation here both to document it and to theorize its relevance for understanding contemporary white supremacy.
As is practice with Southwest, I had boarded the plane when my category of seating was called. Having been lucky enough to download the boarding pass for category A, I was among the first to pick my seat. Shortly after sitting down, an older white man sat in the seat next to mine. He then proceeded to spread his legs wide open as if, to quote a wise person I know, “he thought he had balls the size of pumpkins.” In response to the uninvited pressing, I requested room for my legs. The man then proceeded to imperiously point his finger to the floor to emphasize that his feet were within the boundary of his seats. He never addressed the fact that his legs were spread beyond them so as to invade my space and press up against my body. Instead, he said to me, “You’re a big girl.” Talking on my cell phone, I interrupted my conversation to calmly tell the man “Don’t fucking talk to me that way.”
With his right hand, the man reached across himself to grab my left arm. With my arm in his grip, he looked me in the eyes through his glasses and replied, “I’m going to slap you in your mouth.” I freed myself from him and then stood up. I called out to the steward at the front of the plane that I needed assistance since I had just been grabbed by the person sitting next to me. Hurriedly, the man bolted out of his seat, muttering that he would move. As he exited the row he made it a point to emphasize that I had cussed at him, neglecting the fact that he had made the comment that initiated our negative exchange.
I turned around to be met by a young, white woman steward named Crystal G. Webb. When I told her that I had been assaulted by the man who was now making a mad dash for a seat a few rows back, she began to laugh. As she bit her lip, a smirk escaped. I informed her that I did not appreciate her laughing and that I did not pay to be assaulted on a plane. She then asked me if I wanted to speak to her supervisor, to which I said yes.
Ms. Webb returned with an older white woman named Ms. Terri Parker. Wearing a Southwest uniform that was more official than that worn by Ms. Webb, she led the two of them as they approached my seat. Before she reached me, another older white man had sat down in the seat that had been vacated by my assailant.
I repeated my story to Ms. Parker, adding that Ms. Webb had laughed at my concerns. Ms. Parker asked me if I would like to press charges. I said yes. However, I changed my mind when I learned that it would require me to get off the plane with the man who had assaulted me and be placed on a later flight.
White men under attack: Reverse “yellow fever” from “just an (Asian) girl in the world”
Tamara K. Nopper
June 7, 2010
One of my guilty pleasures is the show Law & Order. I say guilty pleasure because its premise—a cop show—is nothing short of repulsive as are the requisite story lines, characters, and narratives regarding the state and criminality.
While I can deconstruct the racial, gender, sexual, and class politics of every Law & Order show I have ever watched, a particular one stands out to me because its main suspect was, like me, an Asian American woman. The episode, “Just a girl in the world” (season 20, episode 2), featured the character Emma Kim, an Asian American journalist who reports being attacked by a cab driver. It is later revealed that Kim reported a false claim in order to throw off detectives from their investigation into the murder of Daisy Chao, an Asian American Crime Scene Unit investigator whose dead body (discovered by her white fiancé) is shown in the opening scenes.
Mainstream media & the spectacle of racism
Tamara K. Nopper
August 12, 2009
The recent media frenzy over the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has helped to reproduce the popular myth that racism is a spectacle instead of a constant thread that informs political and social life. In the case of Gates, the media focused on him because his status as a Harvard professor made him an attractive and “interesting” subject when it came to talking about racism and also because he holds power in spheres of influence. More, the mainstream media was able to use the Gates’ case to talk about whether racism still exists by playing up the idea that racism is simply an issue of (mis)perceptions and (mis)understanding. While the hype over Gates’ case is an example of how mainstream media promotes racism as a spectacle, another way in which mainstream news encourages this approach to racism is by sanitizing aspects of news stories or giving little coverage to incidents of racism. By doing so, the mainstream media contributes to the misguided belief that racism is on the decline, especially in the “Obama era” and that situations like Gates’ case are spectacles deserving excessive attention because they supposedly hardly happen “anymore.” But there are plenty of news and news-worthy stories that have received either limited attention in national (and at times local) mainstream news or barely address how racism played a role in the situation that is being covered. Here are some recent examples:
On Chris Brown, Rihanna, women as suspect, & teenage domestic violence
By Tamara K. Nopper
February 14, 2009
I have been preoccupied by the recent news of music artist Chris Brown’s arrest for making criminal threats against a woman, presumably his then-girlfriend, music artist Rihanna. Chalk up my interest in the issue to both my love of popular culture and my concerns about domestic violence and violence against women.
As a woman who has been thrown up against a wall by my neck and punched in the stomach by a boyfriend, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to survive domestic violence and to have to negotiate all of the assumptions about how women “cause” violence against them. As such, I am of course frustrated and saddened by claims made that Rihanna probably “instigated” the violence against her.
February 1, 2009
The election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency has been accompanied by non-stop reminders of the love between Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and the social significance of the marriage for American racial and gender politics. In short, the relationship is supposed to prove to African Americans and non-African Americans alike that there are 1) Black men and Black women who love each other and have “healthy” marriages and happy nuclear families; 2) that a Black man can love a (relatively dark-skinned) Black woman; 3) that “love” and marriage is “possible” for Black women; and 4) that a relatively dark-skinned woman can be a “good mother.” Such discourse can be found on the airwaves, television commentary, magazines, websites, and the popular buttons worn by many African American women that show the first couple or first family. Read more…
The trouble with transgender politics
By Tamara K. Nopper
August 15, 2008
I have become increasingly interested in and troubled by transgender politics. I first learned what the term transgender meant when, almost a decade ago, I worked with a person who self-identified as trans. She no longer (or perhaps never did) identified with the physical body in which she inhabited. Eventually, she asked us to begin identifying her with male pronouns, altered her name slightly to drop a letter at the end that identified the name as female, and engaged in a series of behaviors that were, to put it mildly, masculine (and at times downright dudish), which, presumably, was to remind us that she was now a transgender man.
I was not yet familiar with the term transgender, something that my co-worker assumed I should have been since I was, at the time, enrolled in a Ph.D. program. According to my co-worker, I should have “known better.” While revealing his bourgeois belief that political enlightenment is actually encouraged in the U.S. academy, I was more intrigued with his assumption that I should politically care about his need to be accepted as another gender than what he had been assigned. I had never really thought of having another gender as a political option. I had only considered how men and women were exotified and disciplined, in a variety of ways, for not having bodies that were deemed appropriate. And given that my own Asian body, what many label as “thick,” was often treated as an illicit spectacle by a multiracial group of observers, I was already aware that a fixation on bodies is very much shaped by racial ideologies about what is viewed as appropriate physiology for one’s race. And I also knew that no one had an appropriate body unless the body was white.