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Category Archives: Pop Culture

(Politics) For The Culture

Politics 150The culture wars have been raging for a little while now, on all kinds of different fronts in so many different ways. We’re fighting about the idea of “white culture”, the cultural appropriation of Native Americans and black Americans, how to clearly and succinctly define what’s offensive about one thing while another thing is given a pass. The very idea of “culture” is such a nebulous concept that it’s hard for us in the US — the great melting pot country — to think about it in a way that conversations about culture make sense. I wanted to talk for a minute about culture as I see it, and why the flashpoints of the culture war matter.

So just what is culture, anyway? If we’re going to debate about it, we have to make sure we’re working from the same definition. Here’s one that I like: culture is “the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group”. It feels simple, yet all-encompassing, and points to just why it’s so difficult to talk about culture as a concrete idea. When something can be used to talk about the entire breadth of an entire group, it can be hard to pull back enough to see it all clearly. Most of the time, we’re debating something we can’t get an objective perspective on because we’re way too close to it.

A specific culture is easier to identify when the nation, people, or social group that claims it is relatively homogenous or well-established. That’s why we have a fairly good image of, say, Japanese or Irish culture and we’re less comfortable on, say, African cultures or various minority cultures within the United States. Africa is a vast continent home to hundreds of different groups that have existed for varying lengths of time, in different environments, with different pressures exerting influence to determine the rate of cultural shift. Minority cultures in America are made up of patches consisting of the most distinctive bits of home and the things in our host country that exert the most powerful influence. The closeness of so many other cultures means there’s a lot of bleedthrough; black American culture has been influenced by Asian-American culture and vice versa. In such a dynamic, constantly shifting environment, without the anchor of a widely-known history or a stable social niche, minority cultures can feel fleeting and ephemeral. But they are very solid and very real.

Let’s talk about black American culture, because it’s the minority culture I’m most familiar with. My culture stretches back to the days of slavery in colonial America; the constant pressure of racism has been one of its most consistent influences. As a Black American, so many things about me are political: the music I like, the people I date, the places I live, the jobs I strive for and ultimately land. But it goes so much deeper than that. My skin, my lips, my name, my hair — my whole body — is political. That influence from the “dominant culture” — the American culture of US exceptionalism, self-made men, chain stores and cowboys — has shaped my culture in ways both subtle and explicit.

So much of black American culture is rooted in a response to the pain of our history and the ongoing mistreatment we endure from the institutions that are supposed to look out for us. Hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks, and braids that center our natural texture are an attempt to reclaim our self-esteem after centuries of being told we’ll never achieve an American standard of beauty. Our music — blues, hip-hop, rap, and rock — are expressions of the tension we hold within us and feel steady through our lives every day. Our dances can be linked through the decades all the way back to the celebrations and rituals of our ancestors, the meanings of which have been forgotten but the movement of which we have retained. Despite being ripped from our home and forcibly separated from our culture, our ancestors found ways to hold on to what mattered to them and express them in new ways.

Black Americans aren’t the only minorities who’ve done this. Native Americans are fiercely protective of their culture after being systematically dismantled by European settlers and ultimately perverted by descendants who want to identify with something “exotic” but also “real”. Asian-Americans balance the traditional beliefs of their native cultures against the pressures of American society to blend in properly. Latinx Americans bring their own history, experiences, preferences and relationships from Central and South America. I realize that these are all hopeless simplifications of these cultures, and that’s precisely why it’s so hard to have these conversations. To properly understand another culture, you have to understand so much about where it came from; not just the people within the culture, but their history, art, values, philosophy, and interactions with others. Just understanding the context of one aspect of it (like hair) could take much more study than the average person would be willing to put up with.

So, what about the white culture that the alt-right and other supremacist groups claim to care about preserving? Why is that such a bogus claim? Well, it’s because white culture simply doesn’t exist — not in the way it’s meant. Let’s refer back to our definition of culture: the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. What specific examples for custom, art, social institution or achievement could be classified as simply ‘white’ and refined no further? What kind of distinctly “white” expression is in danger of being lost? White Americans can trace their lineage back to a host of European cultures, the places that their ancestors emigrated from. There is English culture, Irish culture, German, French, Russian, Scandinavian culture. But “white” culture, everything that’s happened once the United States was formed? That is American culture, and it belongs to everyone who helped form it — from the European immigrants who formed the first government to the native Americans they displaced to the Africans they kidnapped and forced into slavery. American culture belongs to the Asians who were exploited for labor, the Latinx Americans who themselves descended from the messy, violent past of European settlement and native genocide, the Jewish and Pacific Islanders. If America is truly what we say it is, then the culture comprised of so many different groups is part of that — and that means no one group can claim sole ownership of it.

Culture, of course, is not strictly defined by race or nationality. Any social group can have its own culture, provided that the community that creates it is tight-knit enough and lasts long enough to develop a set of attitudes and expressions that can be passed from person to person. Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet belong to a culture; those of us who built careers in huge corporations belong to another. There’s comic-book culture, cinephile culture, wine culture, maker culture, gym culture, bibliophile culture. Our hobbies, professions and interests can each own their own specific culture, even though these tend to be fairly loose, obscure and relatively low-key. Most of us move through cultures all the time — the culture of our racial or national background at home, the culture of our professional career at work, various cultures online and in-person. Very few of us embody just one culture because as human beings we contain a multitude of thoughts, emotions and relationships.

So, if culture is so permeable, why is cultural appropriation such a bad thing? I have to admit, it took me a while to figure this one out. But I think I have it. Here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine you worked on something for a very long time that you felt was a direct expression of the deepest, most vulnerable part of you. It could be a novel, or a song, or a dance, or a computer program. Whatever it is, whenever you talk about it you’re shut down by most of your friends. Everyone you know discourages you from making it, telling you that it’s garbage or it doesn’t matter, or that it’s stupid and backwards. Over time, you’re forced to choose again and again — your friends, or your project. You want friends, but you can’t resist the call of what you’re creating. You can’t give up who you are just to be near people who don’t actually like you. So you become more isolated, and angry, and afraid, and that channels into your work too. And, after a long time of bruising work and rejection, your creation is complete, ready to show to the world.

Suddenly, those same people who were clowning you take a look at what you’ve done and decided they like it. So they take bits of it for their own — leaving out the symbolism you painstakingly weaved into each piece of your project. Some aspects of your creation are taken just because they look or sound nice, or because someone else decides they want it to mean something you had never meant. Over time, your work is everywhere, but the meaning behind it and the expression you hoped to put across is absent. The thing that meant so much to you is fragmented and distorted until it’s unrecognizable, subsumed by the people that never wanted you to make it in the first place.

That’s cultural appropriation. It’s taking an expression of someone else’s culture — something that wasn’t meant for someone outside of that culture, with no perspective of its history, meaning or importance — and deciding to use it in a way it was never intended. It’s stripping a deeply meaningful symbol of its meaning and making it a fashion statement.

I think this is why most objections of cultural appropriation come from minority cultures that have been persecuted by a dominant culture. Each culture will have different attitudes about cross-pollination or expressing an aspect of it within a different context, but for those of us with cultures that have been formed by enmity and repression, it’s a little hard to take when the culture of your oppressor decides that something that links you to your people is a fashion statement. The appropriation of a symbol associated with great pain and historical struggle can come across as further insult and belittling for the culture being taken from.

That can be a hard thing to grasp for people who don’t belong to a culture that’s been subjected to that kind of treatment, or where the wounds of history are allowed to heal. For many of us in communities of color, however, that’s simply not the case. History is very much alive through institutional equality and cultural diminishment; the same dominant American culture that dismisses our protests by finding fault in our culture steals the fashion, art, slang and self-expression generated by it.

This is a crude construction of culture, built by a layman so that other laypeople can understand a perspective different from their own. It’s by no means exhaustive or infallibly accurate, but hopefully it helps you understand what we think about when we talk about culture and why we say the things we do in debates and arguments. For those of us who have been marginalized for generations, our culture is a significant means of self-determination. It is a precious thing for us. For others who feel more comfortable with their social status, the pressure to belong or express a culture may not be understandable. I get that. Not everyone is going to take the cultures they belong to seriously, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be so flippant. Respecting the boundaries other people set for their cultural expression would go a long, long way towards building a harmonious relationship with them — and it may be the thing that encourages more open cross-cultural exchange.

 
 

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(Geekery) Serving Our Stories, Ourselves

Myth 150We don’t live in times where self-reflection is encouraged often enough. I mean, I understand why it feels so hard to take a moment to check in with ourselves and make adjustments where needed; making sure we’re living up to our own values feels awfully self-indulgent when so many people around us feel as if they’re under an existential threat to their existence. But even now, with the world on fire, it’s more important than ever to examine the narrative we’ve given ourselves to see if it’s helping us or holding us back.

I was blown away several days ago by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special, Nanette. Like most Americans, this is my first real exposure to the veteran Tasmanian comic — and if she’s serious about following through on her decision to give up comedy, that’s a shame. The first 15-20 minutes reads like a retrospective of the material she’s known for, gentle and self-effacing reflections about the pain of growing up lesbian in small-town Australia. But then she declares that she might need to quit comedy and the set becomes something else entirely — a deconstruction of her career and the failings of comedy (and society) to heal the trauma endured by the marginalized.

One of Gadsby’s central arguments in Nanette is that repeating the story of her traumatic experiences in her routine has encouraged her to focus on the wrong parts of it so she can’t take the lessons from them she needs to. Worse still, when she shares her story that way the impact of them only serves to cement the shame and humiliation she’s internalized from being told that she was “wrong” at a very early age. What she shares with her audience stops at the punchline, which is only there to release the tension that’s built by talking about disapproval from her family and neighbors for being gay, or the confrontation she has with a gay-bashing man late at night. While the diffusion of that tension is fuel for her comedy, it also forces her to focus on the parts of the story that denies the closure she needs to make peace with her past.

So she gives us the full context of her stories and forces us to sit with the full weight of the tension she’s been dealing with her entire life. This is what it’s like for those of us on the margins of society, she says. All that pain and anger and confusion swirls inside of us with no outlet beyond the one we make for ourselves, and even then we have to diminish it, round off the sharp edges, and sweeten it up to make it palatable for mainstream audiences. Those of us in the minority build a life swallowing our own shame and anger in order to prioritize the comfort of those who’ve never had to experience it. Her refusal to do that any more, even in the space of a single stand-up special, forces us to reconsider the way we tell our own stories and the effect that decision has on us.

Taking ownership of our own story is one of the most powerful things we can do. In Nanette, during one particularly fiery invective, Gadsby says “There is NOTHING stronger than a woman who’s been torn apart and put herself back together again.” The latest pod of episodes for Steven Universe season 5 is an amazing example of how empowering it is to recontextualize the story of your past. By focusing on the parts of the story that gives you the most strength, you free yourself to choose what you pack in your own personal baggage.

After the latest revelation — that Rose Quartz and Pink Diamond are actually the same being, and that Pink’s shattering was staged so that the Earth could be free from the rule of the Diamonds — the Crystal Gems struggle to reconcile with the fact that everything they thought they knew about fundamental parts of their history is a lie. Rose, their leader in the revolution, is actually the “tyrant” they were fighting against the whole time. Garnet, the fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, takes it especially hard — Sapphire runs off devastated, saying that her relationship to Ruby was built on a lie this whole time.

In their time apart, both Ruby and Sapphire take the time to absorb this new information and consider what it means for them. Sapphire, in learning the truth about Rose/Pink and how she was inspired to fight the Diamonds because of Garnet’s (then) unheard-of fusion, decides to recommit to her relationship with Ruby. Ruby, on the other hand, decides to make a go of being her own person before realizing that the person she wants to be is the person that chooses Sapphire.

To celebrate their refusion, Ruby, Sapphire and Steven plan a wedding, and it’s the first half of “Reunited” (the season finale?) that serves as a tremendous capstone to their journey. Steven’s song, “Let’s Only Think About Love,” instantly lodged in my brain as a panacea against the panic inspired by the overwhelming litany of problems we have to face in this day and age. Garnet’s decision to focus on the parts of her new story that forges a connection becomes a rallying cry for everyone in Steven’s family to do the same. It’s a beautiful sequence that reminds me of how important it is to celebrate the love we have in our lives. Yes, there’ll be time to fight the evils of the world but we also have to give ourselves room to remind ourselves of what we’re fighting for. We fight for the ability to celebrate our resilience and our diversity and our hard-won joy. We fight for the chance to make sure others don’t have to fight so hard to be happy.

Both Hannah Gadsby and Garnet take stock of their lives and the narratives that have sustained them as a means of figuring out how they relate to themselves and the world around them. Gadsby decides it’s necessary to discard a huge part of her identity in order to move forward, while Garnet decides to remain who she is. Both of them come out of the exercise with a much clearer sense of themselves and their purpose, and watching them go through that painful work is engrossing, angering, exhilarating.

I’ve long been a proponent of setting aside my feelings on a political issue in order to try to meet people where they are; I still believe that the only way you get someone to shift their beliefs is by making sure they’re comfortable enough to be flexible. But at the same time, it’s so important to make sure we express ourselves in a way that asserts and affirms our humanity and our right to exist. It does us no good to perform as the meek and unthreatening minority when all it does is undermine our sense of self-worth; it’s not our lot in life to be the stewards of comfort for those with the privilege to look away from the inherent tension in our lives. Making sure we’ve taken care of our own stories, that we’re telling them in the way that helps us and people like us, allows us to connect in ways that are fundamentally important to our well-being and helps us erase the history of shame we carry with us.

That is worth so much more than the conditional approval of someone too fragile to be comfortable with diverse perspectives and the tension present in anything different. We’re worth so much more than that.

 

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(Politics) Fighting to Save the Things We Love

“That’s how we’re going to win: not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” – Rose Tico, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Gaming 150Last week, the actress who played Rose, Kelly Marie Tran, deleted her Instagram account after months of harassment rooted in racism and misogyny by trolls who hated her inclusion in the Skywalker Saga. Tran became the first Asian-American woman to join the main cast of a Star Wars film (in the ninth film of the franchise); she was the first Asian woman on the cover of Vanity Fair when the magazine did a cover story that also featured costars John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. This woman, who was the first in her family to attend college in America, who is the daughter of immigrants fleeing the Vietnam War, who got to break barriers in a franchise she had been a fan of her entire life — this was how she was accepted into the Star Wars community, with months of racist attacks from people who should have been celebrating her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kelly Marie Tran and what happens to the trailblazers who try to take a place at the table of fandom. Leslie Jones — the actress and SNL comedienne who joined Paul Feig’s all-woman Ghostbusters reboot — experienced much the same thing in 2016 after Milo Y. began tweeting to her directly and sharing fake posts supposedly from her account. She, too, was chased off social media for a time.

These are just the most prominent recent examples of a toxic fandom killing the joy of creation and inclusion for people. It’s happened in the fandoms for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Steven Universe, Doctor Who, and Star Trek — all genre staples for an entire generation that gives us messages of acceptance and brotherhood as part of their core tenets. Instead of proving the message of the show in their communities, the people who populate Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr and various message boards have shown time and again that they would rather punish women and people of color for being visible in their fiction than the showrunners and community leaders who have been responsible for some hideous abuses to those of us who are most vulnerable and voiceless.

It’s been a frustrating thing to watch. At precisely the point we should be celebrating the explosion of diversity in the science-fiction and fantasy fandom, we have to watch the folks gaining visibility for us for the first time get harassed out of public spaces from people who feel like only they (and the folks like them) get to own it. These folks will attempt to frame the conversation through disingenuous means and rhetorical tricks, as if the violent, emotional response to inclusion can be couched in “logical debate” and a “reasonable difference in opinion”. I think it’s important to call these reactions what they are: greed, bigotry, and hypocrisy. It’s also important to state — in no uncertain terms — that this kind of hate has no place in a fandom that’s been dedicated from the beginning towards the resistance of a tyrannical, racist power structure deciding who does and doesn’t matter. And it’s important to fight against that hate as much as we can, so we don’t allow it to take root and fester within our fandoms.

But I would argue it’s more important to support and lift up the people who’ve uplifted us within the fandom. It’s more important to let Kelly Marie Tran know that there are many, many more people who support her than it is to give visibility to the people who have worn down her love for Star Wars and its fans. It’s more important to support Leslie Jones and the new Ghostbusters by talking about why we loved it than it is to push back against the fans who can’t deal seeing women taking the helm of a favorite franchise. It’s more important to show up for the creators who are putting themselves out there, willing to be visible and show us something different, who are stepping up to represent us at a time that’s so desperately needed. I think to really turn the tide and save the reputation of our various fandoms, we need to make our love louder than their hate.

This is more than performative action. Focusing on the things we love — and expressing our support for them — changes the tone of the entire conversation. It reminds us daily why we spend so much time and energy in these spaces, keeps us focused on the positive things that fandom has brought into our lives, makes us more resilient against the never-ending tide of negativity that can overwhelm us on the Internet. Keeping the lessons of the stories we love and the attributes of our favorite characters close in our hearts can show us the way towards responding from a more positive place: we can condemn the actions of terrible people from a place of love for what we’re protecting, not hate for the people sullying it. That matters, because it leads us to make better choices in our response. It helps us to internalize the principles these stories mean to instill in us.

A few years ago, superhero movies were so concerned with spectacle that the stories forgot about the people meant to exist within those set-pieces. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed by an alien invasion or scientific accident or mythical end-game, and the camera followed each punch and counter-punch between the hero and the big bad on screen; occasionally, we could see fleeting glances of ducking, panicked citizens fleeing in the background. Once the criticism against this got loud enough, there was a (perhaps slight) course-correction: we saw more scenes of superheroes saving people, making sure the innocent were OK before going off to stop the bad guy. It’s a small detail, but it’s so important. We can’t forget why we fight. We can’t be so absorbed in defeating evil that the innocent people around us fade into the background. We can’t ignore them precisely because they’re supposed to be the most important piece of this puzzle. This is why we’re fighting in the first place.

There is no shortage of people who need to protected these days. There are people of color, LGBQTIA+ people, immigrants, the poor, the homeless, people with disabilities, children in the care of an incompetent and uncaring government. While we should absolutely be protesting the government’s policies that fail these vulnerable populations, we should also be working to help them however we can. It’s not enough to fight this administration to keep from doing harm; we have to help those who are most affected by its callous treatment. What are we doing on that side of the coin? How do we check in to make sure they’re OK?

It might not feel as glamorous or as visible or even as easy as protesting, but it’s absolutely the most important thing to do right now. Support Kelly. Support Leslie. Support one another. That’s how we win without losing ourselves.

 

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(Buddhism) We’re All Mad Here

Buddhism 150I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.

First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.

This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.

One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.

Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.

It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.

I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.

It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.

This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.

Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.

This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?

 

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(Movies) Oscar Season

Entertainment 150Yesterday the Oscar nominations were released, signaling the beginning of the Academy Awards season! There’s a small subset of us who love this time of year; in the months leading up to it (beginning in December), my ears perk up to see what’s opening — especially in limited release — to get a bead on what studios hope to qualify for an award. I collect accolades from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors’ Guild, the Directors’ and Producers’ Guild of America, and best-of lists from major critics to see how the race is shaping up; it’s interesting watching movies rise and fall from the pack, and after a few weeks you hear the same actors, directors and films again and again.

Then, some magical early morning in late January, the nominations are released and we begin the breathless conjecture about the surprises and snubs, who will win and who should win, or why certain baffling choices were made. The Oscars are a big deal for cinephiles, is what I’m saying, and this year is shaping up to be really interesting based on the nominees alone.

The first big shock is the film that received the most nominations — The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro’s indie fantastic romance got 13 nods, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (for Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor AND Actress (Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer), Best Screenplay and a bevy of technical nominations. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a summer blockbuster I slept on earlier last year, came in second with 8 (including Picture, Director, and Score). An interesting fact! Christopher Nolan has NEVER been nominated for Best Director before, despite four nominations from the Directors’ Guild of America for previous work.

I did not see The Shape of Water coming. My understanding of the chatter was that del Toro would likely get in for Best Director and Sally Hawkins was a dark horse for Best Actress, but the amount of love the movie got on Tuesday morning was really something. I haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but great things — it’s definitely bumped up several notches on my ‘must-see’ list. It’s really cool to see a movie like this become a flag-bearer for quality cinema in 2017, and I’d like to think diversifying the voting body of the Academy had a lot to do with it.

Get Out, the ground-breaking horror film from Jordan Peele, was nominated for four Oscars — Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay. Peele is only the third person ever to have nominations for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay after their first movie, which is mind-blowing to think about. In fact, the whole Best Director field is a crazy one this year. Greta Gerwig is only the *fifth* woman to be nominated for the award (Lady Bird, which also has a Best Picture nomination); there’s Nolan and del Toro picking up his first nominations; and then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson with his second nomination for The Phantom Thread. It’s truly strange to have such an accomplished group of neophytes, especially where two white guys feel like underdogs.

Denzel Washington, the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, picked up his eighth nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. (who?) while Daniel Kaluuya picked up his first nomination for Get Out; this is the first time two black actors have been nominated in the category since 2001, when Denzel beat Will Smith (Ali) for his performance in Training Day.

Octavia Spencer is joined in the Best Supporting Actress race by none other than Mary J. Blige(!!!) for Mudbound, a Netflix film that serves as the streaming channel’s breakthrough to the big dance. Mudbound also boasts the first woman ever nominated for Best Cinematography (Rachel Morrison, who also filmed Dope, Fruitvale Station, and BLACK PANTHER), as well as the first black woman ever nominated for multiple awards in the same year — that’s right, Mary J. picked up another nomination for Best Original Song. Fun fact! Rachel Morrison, in addition to being my new favorite cinematographer, is in a same-sex family with her wife and son.

There are so many other nominations to be excited about. While The Big Sick only picked up one nomination, it netted a big one: Best Original Screenplay for Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. Gary Oldman might finally get his long-overdue award for his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour; Willem Dafoe has his third nomination for The Florida Project; Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf scored Best Supporting Actress noms with portrayals of difficult mothers; Logan(!!) picked up a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, making history as the first screenplay adapted from a comic book to do so.

I’m really looking forward to watching as many of the Oscar-nominated movies as I can, speculating on what will win, debating which movies I like best with my husband and friends, and hosting a party to watch the ceremony in just over six weeks. I’m deliriously happy that our activism for diversifying the Oscars — both the Academy membership AND the nominations and awards — is starting to pay off with exciting filmmakers being recognized for telling exciting, unique stories. There’s still a long way to go, mind — representation for Asian, Native American, LGBQT (ESPECIALLY trans people), and people with disabilities is still an issue that needs to be addressed. But this year the nominations aren’t a parade of period pieces or biographies; the Best Picture line-up of the last several years have really broadened to reflect the best (and even most popular) films of the year.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post thoughts about the Oscar race, especially as I see more and more films. I hope you don’t mind me geeking out about movies, because that’s what’s happening next.

 

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(Fandom) Afrofuturism and Furry

Fandom 150Over the weekend I attended Further Confusion 2018 with over 3,400 other furries in San Jose, CA and let me tell you, it was a pretty great time. I got to catch up with a lot of friends from all over the country and meet a few new ones, including folks I’ve had an internet crush on for a good little while now. Nice seeing all of you, and I hope you folks come back next year!

The highlight of the convention for me was getting to run my very first “Afrofuturism and Furry” panel on Sunday. I had a good little group come in to listen to me jaw on about the Afrofuturist movement, its history and purpose, and why it actually makes a good fit for furry fiction. Whenever I talk about race in furry circles, I worry about the pushback — it can be a surprisingly touchy subject for those of us who pretend to be talking animals, especially in this political climate. Everyone was awesome, though, and I appreciate the openness and respect from the audience as they asked questions and related some of their hesitations about tackling things. When the panel was over, I promised the folks in attendance that I’d write up a follow-up here so they could grab additional resources if they wanted.

First, here are a few good places to go if you want to learn more about just what Afrofuturism is:

Now that you’ve got a primer, here are a couple of places you can go to sample Afrofuturist music:

If you’re interested in a few essential Afrofuturist stories, don’t worry man — I’ve got you covered:

And finally, a few furry-specific Afrofuturist stories:

  • Elephantmen! (Image Comics) – I included this here because of the many parallels between the titular genetically-engineered chimera and the historical experience of black Americans; brought to a strange country for a specific purpose that has now ended, with a history forged by the theft and ruination of black bodies and a present that alienates and disrespects them.
  • The Pack (Midas Monkee) – This is a comic about a pack of Egyptian werewolves, which is LIT AS FUCK
  • Yohance (Midas Monkee) – Space opera with a purely African aesthetic and absolutely amazing art.

Afrofuturism deals with the alienation of belonging to a group that has been historically segregated; the reclamation of an identity that was lost long ago; the water that both erased our cultural connection and serves as a fertile environment to uncover new life; and how being who you are disgusts or angers people who have nothing to do with you. It is longing and sorrow, hope and determination, anger and defiance, provocation and self-reflection. It asks us to know who we are, know how we work within a culture that is hostile but promising, what values we want to take with us into the future. It challenges us to question so many of the assumptions we’ve made about science-fiction and storytelling in general. There’s so much that can contribute to furry writing and deepen the themes we deal with in our fiction. I highly recommend checking out a few of the links above; there’s bound to be something for just about anyone!

 

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(Politics) What I Want From White People

Politics 150When I write about contentious subjects here at The Writing Desk, I try to make sure that I use a tone that comes across as collaborative and inclusive. I know what a minefield sociopolitical topics are — especially on the Internet — and you can find someone shouting another person down anywhere you can find a comments section. But in order to engage in an actual dialogue, where people actually listen to one another, you have to find a way to show there’s no need for defenses; things that are hard to talk about get easier when you’re talking about it with someone on your side.

It’s important to me to talk about the political situation we find ourselves in because it directly affects me. It’s important to me to be heard because my background and community are far too often ignored. I’m black, I’m gay, I’m Buddhist, and there are a lot of things I see from outside the dominant culture that needs to be talked about. It’s hard for me to speak up because I abhor conflict; but it’s necessary because I want to help make the world a better place and that won’t happen by staying silent.

Over the past year, I’ve had a number of contentious conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about all kinds of things — but mostly about race. I’ve learned a lot through those conversations, even though it’s been hard for me to absorb and apply those lessons. Race is still a hard thing for people to talk about, especially white people, because there’s a misunderstanding about the goals we ascribe to each other when we talk about it. I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — white people feel guilty when the subject comes up and you think that we want you to feel guilty. As a black man, I’d like to tell you now that’s just not the case.

So…what do people of color actually want when we bring up race in a conversation? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I want when I bring up race. I’m hoping that this is a good starting point for a conversation about conversation. We need to step back and take a look at how we think about discourse so we can jump into the hard stuff secure that we’re trying to hash things out in good faith. I know that a good deal of my white friends are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and having someone take offense, and I get that. The Internet be scary! But here are a few things that might help make sense of my perspective — and others’ as well.

A couple of caveats first: I’m speaking from my experience of a cis black gay man, but that doesn’t mean I speak for ALL cis black gay men. Black culture is not a monolith, and what I say here may not apply to every black guy you see. If you have friends of color, talk to them about what you read here if you have questions to get their perspective. It’ll likely be different, and that’s a good thing. Having a broader range of perspectives allows you to find what’s consistent and what’s different.

Just as I expect you to know that not all black people are the same, I also know that not all white people are the same. I’m going to use the term ‘white people’ here to categorize a small subset of the white people I’ve interacted with — I know not all white people think a certain way or do things as described here. But I’ve had enough experience with white people to feel pretty confident that most do. If this doesn’t describe you, consider this a pre-emptive acknowledgement alright? Don’t come into my comments with anecdotal counterexamples, because I’m just going to point you to this paragraph.

Cool? Cool.

One of the hardest things for white people to do is to simply admit that racism as an institution exists and it still affects the lives of people of color to this day. But guys, I’m going to need you to acknowledge this is reality. Here in the United States, racism has been a huge part of our social fabric since before the founding of the country. European settlers decimated the Native American population, took the land, and brought over my ancestors from Africa to till the soil and grow the crops that made the US rich in those early days. That history of exploited labor has touched just about every other ethnicity, too — Chinese immigrants worked to build infrastructure for trains to bring people and supplies to the West; Mexican and Latin American immigrants are an essential part of our food production right down to this day; people in Asia, South America, and Africa work on poverty wages to build our clothes, technology, and baubles.

Even though slavery has ended, institutions designed to disenfranchise black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants have been in place ever since. In the south during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (and right now), barriers have been in place to make sure people of color either can’t vote or have an incredibly hard time doing so. The justice system targets people of color much more often for infractions and punishes them far more harshly when they’re convicted, and this has been the case for decades. Banks and businesses are far less likely to hire people of color — especially in positions of power — or give them loans that might help them build successful businesses. The historical redlining of America’s cities have segregated communities of color into the worst neighborhoods with the lowest property values, which means that children of color are forced into underfunded, overcrowded schools where they receive substandard education. It’s harder to learn the skills needed to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; it’s harder to build successful businesses or influence industry; it’s harder to exert political will to actually change the policies that make this so.

Racism affects almost every aspect of civic life for black Americans. Harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by politicians and media; our attempts to correct these problems are dismissed and deflected; our increasing anger is used as justification to keep ignoring us. It’s not OK to be forced to present proof of our own oppression in a manner that white people find acceptable, especially when the goalposts keep moving.

So white people, the very first thing you can do for me is to just admit that racism isn’t over, it’s never been over, and a lot will need to change before it CAN be over. Trust me, I’d LOVE to stop talking about race and I’m pretty sure other black people would love it too. But we didn’t make everything about race in the first place; white people did, and still do, and won’t even acknowledge it happening so we can move on to dismantling racism.

One of the reasons white people have such a hard time even acknowledging racism is a lack of perspective. So many of the conversations I’ve had went nowhere because white friends have not been able to step outside themselves to see what the world looks like to someone who isn’t them. It can feel like you’re saying “I’m not racist, so therefore racism can’t be a problem” or perhaps “If it’s not a big deal to/for me, it really shouldn’t be a big deal to/for you”.

But racism, especially as an institution, actually has object permanence. It exists even when you can’t see it. Racism isn’t just a white person using slurs against a person of color in a hateful or demeaning way; it’s not just burning crosses or beating up or killing us. Racism is having a double standard for how white and black people behave; it’s taking aspects of different cultures while marginalizing the people in those cultures; it’s a complex network of attitudes and policies that keep us from being treated as equal even though those same policies were built in a framework supposed to promote equality.

Racism is bigger than any one person, and if you have never been exposed to its effects that doesn’t mean those effects aren’t there. It just means that your social position insulates you from them. White experience in America is a fundamentally different thing from black experience; it’s not an accusation, or a judgement, it’s a fact. That’s what we mean when we bring up the dreaded ‘white privilege’. The term doesn’t mean that white people get $100,000 a year automatically and their own team of servants; it means that the system we all live under gives you a different experience than it gives me.

If you’re white, you don’t have to be terrified of the police. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to watch talking heads on TV argue about whether ideology painting you as inherently inferior or sub-human should be allowed in the public square. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to keep up with a list of code words and symbols that might mean you’re dealing with someone who subscribes to that ideology. I do. I could go on, but there are many MANY different aspects of the black experience that are virtually invisible to white people and are never thought of. That’s the privilege.

Understanding this means decentering yourself and trying to see the same situation from a different point of view. As hard as it can be to grasp, a lot of the problems we’re talking about are literally not about you. They’re about us, and what we go through, and why that is. So, unless I’m specifically referring to something you said or did, please try to check the impulse to defend your words and actions and heart. This isn’t about that.

So once you acknowledge that racism is still an active institution, and put aside your experience to engage with someone else’s, there’s one last thing I’d love to see: empathy. Note I didn’t say pity, or guilt, or even anger at the thing I’m angry about. I’m specifically stating that I would like white people to have more empathy for black people and the things they must go through.

Imagine getting up in the morning and having it reinforced — in so many ways large and small — that this culture doesn’t fully accept you because of your background. When you take a shower, shampoo and conditioner might work differently on your hair; if you’re a woman, finding makeup or skin care products for your skin tone is harder. On the news, the President talks about how crime is ‘out of control’ in the ‘inner cities’ and you know the image he’s conjuring — one of young black men in the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta shooting each other. The crowd cheers when he says he’s going to ‘take care of it’. Meanwhile, family in New Orleans or southeast Texas or Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from hurricanes.

At work, you find out you make less than a colleague of another race and you have to wonder if it’s your skillset or your skin color that’s caused that. Throughout the day there are dozens of interactions — with coworkers, service folks, customers and strangers — that might have been peppered with racially-coded comments ranging from innocuous to offensive, but you’re not sure. Instead of talking about it, you decide to let it slide but it still rankles you and you can’t stop thinking about it. After work there’s more news and commentary about your race, mostly from people who are of a different one. The TV shows, movies, books and games you use to have fun or feel better mostly feature people who aren’t like you; on a forum for one of your favorite sci-fi universes, a debate rages on why there needs to be a reason to make a main character someone of your race or else it’s just political correctness being shoved down the collective throat of the community.

Despite all of this, you love your life and you feel lucky to have it. You’re in a stable relationship, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have great friends and so many things you’re excited about. You love the country you were born in, even though there are no authorities you can expect to be friendly or helpful, even though your race hasn’t been treated kindly — let alone equally — by your country in the entirety of its history, even though protests and successes by members of your race are almost always dismissed or rejected or destroyed. You love your country, but you wish your country loved you back, and that your friends understood it doesn’t, it never did, it likely won’t for a long time.

You have a good life, but it’s complicated and painful in ways that most don’t see. And it’s hard to know what to do with that — because illuminating it might just blow it all up. It makes your friends more distant and nervous; it invites hostile and ignorant demands from others; it just makes you feel more alienated, frustrated, sad.

Imagine being that person. Imagine what that’s like. Sit with that feeling; hold it, remember it. Access that feeling the next time a person of color talks to you about race, white people. Treat that person the way you would want to be treated if you felt that way. Can you do that? Because it’s really all I want. Not guilt, or shame, or even an apology; just acknowledgement, perspective, empathy. That’s it.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2018 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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