Bossypants’s racial blunders slipping under the radar

Photo from Michelle Wright at Flickr

Enthusiastic reviews–both cynical and laudatory–of Tina Fey’s memoir, Bossypants, have come to feminist blogs in droves these past couple months. Many feminist bloggers have been hard at work, criticizing Fey for not committing to any one stance surrounding feminism, defending Fey’s covert, easy-to-swallow brand of feminism, and celebrating Fey’s discussion of gender discrimination in comedy and her comfort with the word “feminist.”

I finally got around to checking out Bossypants for myself, and I really liked Fey’s disclosure of the blatant cases of sexism she’s encountered in the field of comedy, sharing with readers ugly-but-humorous comments from colleagues and anonymous hate mail writers. The stance she gradually establishes as a mild-to-medium feminist throughout the book is what I had expected from someone who feels passionately about fighting gender inequality, but also wants to keep her mainstream fan base.

Overall, I have no reason to complain about Fey’s views on sexism and her relationship to feminism. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, and several chapters in, I was finding Tina Fey’s memoir to be a funny, feminist book.

This made it all the more disconcerting when I found that inappropriate little one-liners about race kept popping up as I read on.

The first comes when Fey is documenting the fierce, wise, old school character that is her father, Don Fey, whom she admired through her childhood. She recalls that Don Fey used to warn her to put her bicycle in the garage whenever she saw two black kids riding one bike in their Philadelphia neighborhood, and then justifies his assumption: “This wasn’t racism; it was experience. Those kids were coming from West Philly to steal bikes.” She also shares with us this gem of an anecdote:

Don Fey, who is never late for anything, got to the airport just before dawn. As he popped on his sweet lid and walked across the deserted parking lot toward the airport terminal, he saw two black gentlemen approaching from far away. He played it cool to hide his apprehension. He was in New York after all, one of the world’s most dangerous cities if you’re from any other city, and from far away in the dark he couldn’t tell if these guys were airport employees or loiterers.

As they got closer, he noticed they were staring him down. He continued to play it cool. Don Fey had grown up in West Philly, where he lived comfortably as a Caucasian minority. Of course these guys couldn’t know that.

Photo from Charleston's TheDigitel at Flickr

I particularly enjoy that Tina Fey attempts to soften the racist blow by referring to these black men as “gentlemen,” to detract attention from her and her father’s assumption that these men are either working or loitering (couldn’t possibly be that they were picking up a passenger like Don Fey was, or that they were getting on a plane themselves; how in the world could a brother afford a plane ticket?!).

One can see, from the context of these quotes, the vein of racism (yes, racism, NOT “experience”) from which Fey’s thinking originates. She aims to convince us that Don Fey is a wary, street-smart realist, and that his racial profiling of black people is necessary when one lives “comfortably as a Caucasian minority” in a big city. It’s functional racism. Totally excusable, right? Not so much.

Personally, I don’t care if 30 different pairs of black kids rode through the Feys’ neighborhood and stole bikes. This kind of crap contributes to our cultural tendency of associating black people with crime more often than any other race in this country. It’s the 21st century, and I still read and hear people ranting about the “stupid shit the local black people do” all the time, everywhere. White people are not held accountable as a race for the crimes commonly committed by them the way that black people are (statistics considered, it’s likely that the Feys had a white, middle-aged neighborhood pedophile; perhaps if Don Fey were truly wary and not just racist, he would have issued some warnings about getting too close to the extra-friendly, child-loving white guys around town).

Fey makes sure to mention that her father had a fair share of black friends, in some feeble attempt to counterbalance the sweaty palms he got around unfamiliar black people, a tactic that reminded me of my high school girl friends who would say, “I’m not racist or anything–I have loads of black friends–but I wouldn’t date a black guy. I’m just not attracted to them.” Regardless of one’s experiences with people of certain races or ethnicities in the past, these fears, dismissals, and generalizations of black people represent textbook racism.

Does Fey ever redeem herself for her presentation of black people through such a narrow lens? Does she ever attempt to balance it out? No. Actually, Fey goes on to echo my high school gal pals, who thought that they could blame biology for their lack of attraction to people of color. In later chapters, she makes weird comments like that she discovered in college her preference for white guys and that “Being skinny for a while (provided you actually eat food and don’t take pills or smoke to get there) is a perfectly fine pastime. Everyone should try it once, like a super-short haircut or dating a white guy” (and let’s not pretend that the way she addresses skinniness here isn’t horribly problematic, too).

Yikes. Am I missing something here? Because I’m finding this business of trying to convince people to date white guys for a change a little absurd. As if there aren’t plenty of white people in this country who shun the thought of dating outside their race. I would even venture to bet that most of the white people in my life–whether they’re willing to admit it or not–would not date outside their race. Of course, Fey could be aware of this and aiming to make fun of it, but the way she celebrates the white guy above all others in other parts of the book suggests otherwise. People will claim what they will when it comes to rationalizing special racial preferences in their love lives, but I steadfastly believe that the only things that shape racial preferences are the social mores people have accepted or refuted.

Fey’s failures at addressing race in a thoughtful way ultimately drove me to put down the book before finishing it. Not that Fey’s comedic memoir owes us a full assessment of modern racial attitudes, but it justifiably angered me that she put so much energy into condemning forms of social oppression from which she has personally suffered (I use “suffered” in a mostly sarcastic sense, because while she has faced serious sexism, she’s enjoyed the luxuries of being white, thin, conventionally attractive and middle/upper class every day of her life), and then snubbed the issue of racial discrimination in the U.S., as it does not affect her in the same intimate way. She even mentions that she has felt like a second-class citizen before because of her brown hair (!), since blonde hair tends to be worshiped by our culture. She’s got no compassion for those bike-thieving blacks, though, since they clearly earn their position as second-class citizens. Tsk-tsk.

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The latest on Yale’s rape-chanting DKE boys

Yesterday, Lisa W. Foderaro wrote in the New York Times that Yale administration has resolved to suspend their Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity chapter from participating in activities and communication restricted to campus-recognized organizations for five years. The punishment comes from the fraternity’s action’s during 2010’s fall pledge season. To sum, a group of D.K.E.’s members gathered outside Yale’s campus Women’s Center–who, among other feminist causes, seeks to provide a haven for students affected by rape–and shouted a chant undeniably and jubilantly referring to disregard of a woman’s consent in sexual ventures: “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

Photo from Marc_Smith at Flickr

For more information on this fraternity’s history of violence, rape chants, mistreatment of women, and ties to the Bush family, I highly recommend checking out masculinity studies scholar, Michael Kimmel’s, coverage over at the Ms. blog.

My opinion is, especially given that this is not the first time this frat has uttered such detestable chants on campus, the punishment is insufficient. But that’s not the bit of news in the report that’s making my blood boil most. In covering and commenting on this case of barbaric Ivy League misogyny, we must remember that fraternities and sororities are national–and sometimes international–organizations. As such, many very different incarnations of D.K.E. exist within our own country, so until others are proven guilty, we must limit ourselves to criticizing the Yale chapter. However, Foderaro quotes the following gems from Doug Lanpher, the organization’s international executive director:

It’s disappointing for us because we want to be considered a positive contributor to the Yale culture and the whole scene at Yale. We’ve corrected the situation. We suspended their pledging activities for six weeks so we could review their activities with them. Clearly, the chanting was inappropriate and in poor taste, but does it warrant a five-year suspension?

Lanpher clearly prioritizes the image and wellbeing of his fraternity over the issue that DKE’s actions and attitudes condone sexual violence against women. His lack of concern for those hurt and disturbed by the chants is reminiscent of the priorities expressed by neighbors of the 11-year-old girl who was gang raped by 18 boys and men in Cleveland, Texas earlier this year. In early March, nearly all of the interviewees were most upset that the convicted boys would have to live with this for the rest of their lives, and that the “scandal” was destroying their community. There were no mentions of concern for the victim or her family. The primary purpose of punishing these verbal and physical actions is to prevent future victims of sexual violence from becoming victims, and to serve justice to present victims. Any differing priorities represent a lack of understanding of the deep roots of rape culture in our society.

Lanpher proves that his mind is fully submerged in rape culture via his belief that a six-week suspension of the fraternity “corrects the situation.” The situation is that these college men, who are supposed to be exceptionally bright and upstanding citizens, have sick and merciless feelings about the rape of women, feelings that surely do not subside when they part from their frat brothers. The situation transcends the D.K.E. organization; it is bigger than that. If Lanpher or any of the fraternity’s administrator’s cared about those affected by the actions of these men, they would stick the D.K.E. brothers into some sort of attitude rehabilitation boot camp, and would suspend the fraternity for much longer than six measly weeks.

At this point, I believe Lanpher should also issue a personal apology to those negatively affected by the rape chants on Yale campus. If you agree, or you simply want to give him a piece of your mind in response to his heinous misunderstanding of the problems with Yale’s D.K.E. chapter, you can find his contact information here.

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Melanie and Me

“Brand New Key,” as you may already know, is borrowed from a song by Melanie Safka, a phenomenal Woodstock veteran and folk artist. This particular song of hers was banned by a number of radio stations, because critics suspected that lines like “Don’t go too fast, but I go pretty far” and the symbolism of the unity of lock and key in her roller skates represented sexual innuendo. And so, a lighthearted song that we now watch a baby whiz around to on TV was censored at the height of its popularity.

As someone who’s been criticized a LOT for being “inappropriate,” I feel for Melanie’s struggle to protect her art. Granted, when I get criticized, I’m usually not creating art; rather, I’m publishing a new installment of my sex health column in my college newspaper. From my experience, I’ve learned that the worst assumption that people can make about about a woman pushing the envelope is that she’s doing it for “shock value” — that I write about period sex primarily to piss off administration, and that Melanie weaved innuendos into her song just to get people to say “I can’t believe a woman’s doing that!” So not the case. I write about these “touchy” subjects because I envision living in a world in which topics of sexual health do not evoke shock in mature conversation, a world in which sexual discourse is open and doesn’t discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. I hope someday to live in a world in which the same discussion won’t be judged differently if it comes from a woman as opposed to a man.

As such, I hope to use this blog as a haven for publishing thoughtful sexual health discourse that would be pegged as shock value material, smut, or worse if published in other contexts. When necessary, I’ll post extended or alternate versions of the articles that I run in my school’s newspaper. Sexual empowerment is my pet cause within feminism and women’s studies, but I’ll be posting about other timely issues pertinent to feminism and social inequality as well.

I also hope to document the two big projects going on in my life as best as possible. The more pressing project is my race to get into a women’s studies graduate program for fall 2012. There isn’t much out there in terms of tips for picking a grad program in this field, so I’ll be sharing all the tips I can as I discover them.

The other, ongoing project is a nonfiction book that I wrote with my brilliant friend and recent Marist graduate, Heather. It’s about Lady Gaga, bisexual and bicurious celebrities, and female sexual fluidity among American women ages 18-30. I’m not going to publicize our awesome book title yet for fear of bad luck, but I’ll post a summary of our findings soon. Right now, we’re working on polishing the manuscript and finding an interested agent. Fingers crossed.

As for my muse Melanie, she stands by her claim that she never intended to employ lyrics with racy double meanings, but I secretly hope she did.

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