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Archive for the ‘racism’ Category

twinning injustice, one social structure at a time

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 2, 2010

My sister, who just finished absolutely destroying her first year of law school, recently announced an interest in pursuing criminal prosecution. Once I overcame my instant misreading of her announcement (don’t blame me; I’m not a morning person), I figured out pretty quickly that my twin sister and I are pursuing vocations that spring from the same moral impulse. To wit: I must serve and defend people who have suffered or will suffer at the hands of others.

It’s just the name–prosecution–that throws us off, makes us think prosecutors are out to punish the bad guys. In certain respects, of course, that’s exactly what prosecutors do–that’s exactly the power we confer to them. But the public interest in punishing the bad guys is an outgrowth of a deeper public impulse: To maintain the social order, to protect our citizens from injustice and victimization, to fight for the good guys.

Protecting people from injustice and victimization. Fighting for the good guys. That’s pretty much what I like to think I’m doing, too, by working in the service of working class kids and kids who are deeply undervalued and underserved by a system that is not designed to help them. I work in defense of those kids. And another way to frame that work is to say that I am a public prosecutor, building a case against a system that’s criminally unjust, criminally cruel.

But here’s where I think Laura and I part company: I believe we need to demolish the social order. I believe that the public education system is deeply, perhaps fatally, flawed, especially for poor kids and minorities, and I believe we need to work to tear it down. That’s the wheel I’m throwing my shoulder against.

Though we haven’t explicitly talked about this, I’m pretty sure my sister believes the criminal justice system is similarly deeply, deeply flawed (see here, here, here, and here)–but it seems to me that her stance is something like “this is the best system we have right now, the only system we have, so we need to use it to protect the innocents and the victims.”

I’m all, fuck the Man and the horse he rode in on! And my sister’s all, yyyeah that’s nice but lookit all these victims who need protecting and defense right now. And I’m all, Yes! And let’s muster up an army made up of those victims and march with them right to the gates of hell if that’s what it takes! And my sister’s all, um, okayyy but this woman was raped and that guy’s son was murdered and this woman was stabbed by her partner and what if we put aside the anger and try to take care of the people who need us right now?

Details, details, right? Laura and I agree that the world is all effed up, and we agree that we are therefore bound to the work of un-effing up things. The rest is just planning.

Posted in crime, education, human rights, law, politics, public schools, racism, twins | 1 Comment »

as goes Detroit…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 22, 2010

file under: if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.

I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it’s hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I’ve been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.

This is not the Michigan I remember. It’s not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it’s worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It’s not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it’s neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors’ signs.

Recession in Detroit doesn’t only look like this:

 It also looks like this:

And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:

The word “decimated” literally means “reduced by ten percent.” Decimated, therefore, doesn’t begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.

Because it’s not just the economy that’s imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That’s over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.

Detroit isn’t the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it’s the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it’s going to hell these days even faster than ever.

You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn’t know before: It’s not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.

But let’s say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they’re told to do–working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it–still find themselves realizing they’ll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child’s college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.

Let’s say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry’s feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we’re all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don’t have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.

It’s shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?

Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday’s historic vote mandating health care for all. It’s a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.

And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake “good” for “good enough.”

Posted in bigotry, culture, education, elections, jobs, politics, poverty, President Obama, public schools, racism, rage, recession, schools, social justice | 2 Comments »

on ageism, sexism, and bad behavior: what we can learn from Dave Winer

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 11, 2010

Over at, ageism is becoming an issue for Dave Winer.

Here’s how it went down, in Winer’s own words:

Earlier today I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR and heard an interview with Keli Goff from the Huffington Post. The interview started with an explanation that linked Reid’s embarassing words (about Obama’s race) to his age. She went out on a limb, way too far, although later in the interview she walked it back a bit.

This led to an afternoon of heated exchanges on Twitter. Lots of nasty stuff was said about people of my age, most of them untrue. What troubles me is that there is no general acceptance for insults based on race, religion or gender, but age-based insults have no taboo.

Dave Winer got attacked on Twitter today, no doubt about it. But what Winer doesn’t point out here is that he gave as good as he got: He came out absolutely swinging, excoriating Groff and smacking back at anyone who disagreed with him, insulted him, or–and you can imagine the temptation was just too great for some of Winer’s followers–notified him that he’s too old to know what he’s talking about. Here’s a clip of Winer’s twitter feed:

More than one person responded to Winer with some version of this:

I have to admit, it’s kinda tough to disagree with @miniver.

Before I go on, I want to cop to my own bad behavior with respect to ageism: In the past, and on this very blog, I have offered up Rupert Murdoch as “further proof of why old people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates.” That was blatant ageism, pure and simple, and it was wrong, and it’s not okay, even when used as a rhetorical device. (In retrospect, I should have offered up Rupert Murdoch as further proof of why hopelessly avaricious people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates.) I am sorry. I promise to try harder from here on out to avoid such wrong-headed attitudes and discriminatory language.

Now then.

In some ways, ageism is similar to sexism in that it’s brutally apparent to those who are the victims of it, even if others (non-victims) don’t see how a person might take offense. (I imagine, but don’t know for sure, that the same comparison could be made to other forms of prejudice–I’m just sticking with what I know best here and leaving the rest to others who know better than I.) People who react with anger to sexism, as to ageism, are treated like they just have their panties on a little too tight. “It’s just a fact that women are better at raising children.” “It’s just a fact that older people don’t understand the digital revolution.” Both disempower the target. Both are destabilizing. And both are treated as socially acceptable in lots of situations where everyone should know better. (By the way, here’s the mp3 of the Talk of the Nation conversation–Winer’s right to take issue with what’s clearly blatant ageism.)

Oh, but while I’m at it, I should also mention that women are exposed to sexism throughout their lives, so they’re used to it and develop strategies for coping with it as it happens and afterward. But ageism is perhaps as startling and frustrating as it is for the simple reason that its victims are experiencing a prejudice that’s entirely new to them. Of course, women who are the targets of ageism get hit with the double-disempowerment that comes with not only being female but being an old (read: asexual and therefore irrelevant) female. I can’t imagine how the prejudice gets compounded when the target of ageism is nonwhite, nonstraight, or otherwise out of the mainstream.

Winer self-identifies as white and he’s presumably straight (though a significant web presence has insinuated that he is, among other things, gay–about which more in a second), which perhaps explains his extreme outrage at the ageism directed straight at him today. (I agree with Anil Dash, who offered Winer this advice via Twitter:

@davewiner The way you are saying what you’re saying is undoing the argument you’re trying to make. Take a deep breath, come back in a bit.)

If you’ve rarely, or never, experienced the prick of arbitrary bigotry, then the first prick stings perhaps all the more deeply, scalds all the more powerfully. I still remember my first encounter with sexism, when my fourth grade teacher told me I couldn’t climb the playground swingsets to unwind the swings because I was a girl. It never gets less galling. It’s just that we do our best to get better at responding, in word and in deed. The fourth grade me, surprised, gave in and went inside. The 32-year-old me, by contrast, might climb the swingset anyway, in direct defiance of her teacher. (The 32-year-old me may, incidentally, actually be worse at getting what she wants.)

There’s a side note to this story, an interesting one: Dave Winer apparently carries a reputation for bad behavior in online communities. I didn’t know this until this evening, when I started researching Winer’s backstory for this post. I started following him on Twitter because of his status as a pioneer in weblogging, and until today knew next to nothing else about him. But here’s a sample of what I learned about how Winer responds to criticism:

  • Software developer and writer Mark Pilgrim decries Winer’s propensity for personal attacks against those who criticize his work (here’s What’s your Winer number? an algorithm for determining how your experience of Winer’s verbal abuse compares to the experiences of the hordes of others who have fallen victim to it, and here’s a post where Pilgrim makes public Winer’s response to the Winer number post–take a look at Winer’s comments below the post).
  • Here’s Matthew Ingram on Winer’s response to public criticism of a post Winer wrote called “Why Facebook Sucks.” When Stowe Boyd disagreed with Winer’s post, Ingram writes, Winer apparently called Boyd “a creep” and “an idiot.”
  • Here’s Jason Calacanis, who names Winer as a friend but still offers his experience of “getting Winered” during a public presentation.

The list goes on. The ridiculous “gay” insinuation–well, that sort of bad behavior is what people resort to when they feel people in positions of power are acting in violation of the public trust–when they see arrogance, pettiness and rudeness from someone who has no reason to act so poorly.

There are at least two lessons to draw from the Winer / ageism story: First, that the worn grooves of prejudice and discrimination are so, so easy for humans, flawed as we are, to fall into, and that it is our responsibility to guard against taking that easy path; and second, that bad behavior in communities of practice is still not okay, no matter who you are. The difference these days, of course, is that reputation not only precedes you but follows behind you like a little yipping terrier. It’s getting harder and harder to walk into a room you’ve never entered without everyone noticing the constant bark of that little dog.

Posted in bigotry, celebrity, feminism, gender politics, lame, politics, racism | 3 Comments »

who you calling ‘we’?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 15, 2009

In general, I like Nicholas Kristof’s work for the New York Times, and I basically agree with his argument in today’s Times that when it comes to education reform, Democrats are too easily cowed by powerful teaching unions and too willing to let underprivileged kids languish in impoverished learning environments.

I only take issue with the implications hidden in Kristof’s analysis of why this is so often the case, midway through the column:

as long as the students in question are impoverished and marginalized, with uncomplaining parents, they are allowed to endure the kind of teachers and schools that we would never tolerate for our own kids.

Who’s the “we” Kristof is talking about here? The suggestion appears to be that the Democratic Party is made up of those whose children are not forced to endure despicable learning conditions. It’s a double fallacy, since even the children of the affluent are too often ill-prepared for doing anything other than school and–more importantly–not all Democrats look, act, and believe like Nicholas Kristof does.

This is, in fact, an all-too common double-silencing effect: As Kristof points out, underprivileged kids and their parents are forced to put up with underqualified teachers and subpar learning conditions, without much recourse or say in the matter. And then, to add insult to injury, education writers like Kristof build a “we vs. they” approach: “we” would never tolerate the kind of teachers and schools that “they” have to put up with.

It’s not accurate, and it’s not right, and it’s certainly not fair, to imply that the most significant, vocal, or powerful Democrats, on education or other issues, are those with whom “we” most easily identify. Certainly the mainstream of the Democratic party is made up of affluent white men and women, but perhaps that’s because “we” spend so much time assuming that these are the Democrats whose voices matter most that “we” forget how to listen to people who don’t fit that mold.

Posted in bigotry, education, human rights, public schools, racism | Leave a Comment »

fyi, I was wrong about district 9

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 9, 2009

Several weeks ago, I posted a negative review of the sci-fi alien-apartheid flick District 9. In brief, here was my take on this particular movie:

Maybe someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to combine a touching story of refugee camp residents with the excitement of an alien invasion. It turns out that whoever came up with that brilliant idea was wrong.

I’ll tell you what, you guys: I’m the one who was wrong.

I stood strong on my anti-District 9 stance despite rave reviews–both online and offline–from people whose opinions I deeply respect. (Click here and here, for example, to see reviews from media scholar Henry Jenkins.) Then I read this review (warning: spoilers) by Andries du Toit, which was followed up a week later by an even more insightful set of “further thoughts” on the film.

du Toit, in this post as well as in a follow-up, picks up on the very issues that made me dislike the film. Of course, he did so much more thoughtfully than I did. My biggest problem with the movie was apparent racism in its depiction of black Africans, made more frustrating when contextualized within a movie that ostensibly wanted to problematize that very issue. Here’s how du Toit, apparently a white South African living in Cape Town, explains it:

I do think that the representation of the ‘Nigerians’ is the one place in the film where the movie falters in its ability to unpick the workings of racist ideology. Because, for all of these interesting complexities, the reality is that the movie does not obviously withdraw or complicate its apparent endorsement of the African stereotypes. There are ironies and complexities – but they are evident only to a fairly sensitive and conscious viewer. In fact, the film actively pushes these complexities in side. The crucial flaw, in fact, lies lies precisely in this: it relies for its narrative drive, for its satisfaction of the ‘adventure’, on the antagonism against (and the extermination of) the ‘Nigerians’. So even though the real villains are all white, and even though the movie subtly mocks xenophobic discourse, many audiences will no doubt identify with this ‘othering’, and will cheer when Wikus’s alien exoskeleton kills them all so picturesquely.

With that one caveat, however, du Toit finds much to value in District 9. He calls it

the best movie I have yet seen about South Africa – and specifically, one of the most penetrating, disconcerting and subversive meditations on the nature of racism and repression in the post-colonial world. District 9 is fresh and transgressive, hilariously funny and absolutely horrifying: brutal, sly, streetwise and in your face. It’s not a voice from the ghetto – it is, completely and incontrovertibly, a white voice – but is a voice from the postcolonial periphery; a voice speaking harshly, grittily and urgently about the surrealism of racism and the confluence of violence and normality here at the edges of the West’s old empire.

du Toit has convinced me when nobody else could. Therefore, I strongly recommend you disregard my negative review and go see the movie. Wait until you get home to read du Toit’s review–it contains spoilers–but do read it. It’s perhaps the smartest recent film review I’ve seen anywhere, online or off.

Posted in movies, racism | 6 Comments »

weighing in on the natives / immigrants metaphor

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 13, 2009

Just FYI, “digital” isn’t actually a language, no matter how badly Marc Prensky wants it to be.

Prensky’s notion of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” has gained cultural traction because it gives us a way to talk about the generational differences in approaches to technology. We get it when he writes that

[a]s Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

My mom prints emails that interest her and trusts the information delivered in print form to her front door, but not the information delivered digitally to her computer screen; the kids I work with don’t really bother with email and gather digital data like it’s Super Mario Brothers coins. Ha! we say. Digital immigrants! Digital natives!

Fine. Except “digital” is not a language.

“Digital” is a way of conveying information. “Digital” is a cultural tool for delivering language, not the language itself.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the natives / immigrants metaphor. More troublesome is the question of who gets to decide which of us are the natives and which are the immigrants. We need to consider how this metaphor–taken up so widely in our cultural conversations–continues to reify a divide in participation based on gender, class, and ethnicity.

Even those who subscribe to the Prensky metaphor have to concede that not all young people can be considered “natives” by his definition, and not all old people can be considered “immigrants.” When we make the sweeping proclamation that kids these days are digital natives, what we’re really doing is identifying the type of kid whose practices and ways of being in the world have gone mainstream.

Had we but world enough, and time, this cultural approach, Prensky, were no crime. But what we actually have is a desperate divide: (largely middle and upper class, largely white) kids with excess time and access to resources and support for developing a technological fluency; and (largely lower class, often nonwhite) kids without the resources or support to develop the kinds of social competencies that will enable them to join the larger cultural conversation.

The digital natives / digital immigrants metaphor is yet another tool that gets used, intentionally or unintentionally, to support our culture’s dominant Discourse, dominated as it is by the same members of the privileged classes who have historically monopolized cultural conversations.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the social revolution is its potential to overthrow gender, class, and ethnic divides. So far, we haven’t come anywhere near realizing even a fraction of this potential, and sweeping terms like Prensky’s–steeped as they are in a long history smacking of hegemony–make the revolutionary potential of new media technologies increasingly difficult to realize.

Related posts by other writers:
Marc Prensky: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants–A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids
Marc Prensky: Overcoming Educators’ Digital Immigrant Accents: A Rebuttal
Henry Jenkins: Reconsidering digital immigrants…
John Palfrey: Born Digital
danah boyd:some thoughts on technophilia
Timothy VanSlyke: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants:Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap

Posted in danah boyd, education, language, new media, participatory culture, racism, social justice, social media, social revolution | 4 Comments »

sometimes i forget that i’m a gay lady.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2009

Most of the time, it really doesn’t come up. Every once in a while, I get a lecherous/evil look when I hold my girlfriend’s hand in public; every once in a while, when I’m deep in argument with a male friend or colleague, I or my ideas are brushed off with such a patronizing, cruelly dismissive tone that all bets are officially off. (I like to keep friends for as long as possible, but when I lose one, this is usually why.)

But most of the time, it doesn’t come up. This is mostly because I’m wicked smart, hardworking, and ambitious–and I exhibit all of these traits in ways that enable me to play on the winning team.

By “the winning team,” I mean members of what Jim Gee calls the “dominant Discourse.” Gee differentiates “little ‘d’ discourses” from “big ‘D’ Discourses,” which, he explains,

are ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing, that are accepted as instantiations of particular identities (or “types of people”_ by specific groups, whether families of a certain sort, lawyers of a certain sort, bikers of a certain sort, African-Americans of a certain soft, and so on and so forth through a very long list. Discourses are ways of being “people like us.”

A dominant Discourse, for Gee, is the one that aligns most closely to a culture’s dominant groups. In America, we might say broadly that the dominant group is white, middle- to upper-class straight men, and that they adhere with the least amount of trouble to our culture’s dominant Discourse (because it aligns with the least amount of trouble with them). It’s hard, but not impossible, for outsiders to learn (or fake) this Discourse, which is why it’s mainly but not always rich white straight men at the top.

I may be gay, I may be female, and I may have blue-collar roots, but I learned the dominant Discourse early and well. It helps that I’m white, college-educated, and proficient in the finer details of language acquisition and communication. I may have to work extra hard to break into the first string, but I’m doing well enough to get to play–and being second or third string on the winning team is better than being even the star player on the team that (almost) always loses.

I spend so much time thinking and writing about how unfair it is that my team always wins that I forget sometimes that the dominant Discourse of which I am a part does not always work in my best interests either. It’s why I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether my work at Project New Media Literacies exhibits a latent racism without giving a thought for how it may exclude the voices of non-mainstream women and queers. After all, the Teachers’ Strategy Guide I’ve discussed here and here may or may not fail in offering authentic avenues for the voices of ethnic minorities, but we should be just as concerned about how our work marginalizes the voices of women and, even more problematically, in this case, the voices of gay, lesbian, and transgendered scholars, writers, and artists.

I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy thinking of myself as marginalized in any way. I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy the thought that some of the actions that have led to my “success” have worked against my own best interests. I like the American narrative that we can all, every one of us, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps–though interestingly, that idiom was originally intended to suggest an undertaking that’s literally impossible to accomplish.

And part of me wants to step away from what’s good for me and work toward what’s good for all. Here, I rely on what Jim Gee identifies as two conceptual principles governing human discourse. (I’m citing the language from the second edition, instead of the more recent version, of Social Linguistics and Literacies, for reasons I’ll identify below). Here are the principles:

First Principle
That something would harm someone else (deprive them of what they or the society they are in view as ‘goods’) is always a good reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) not to do it.

Second Principle
One always has the (ethical) obligation to (try to) explicate (render overt and primary) any theory that is (largely) tacit and either removed or deferred when there is reason to believe that the theory advantages oneself or one’s group over other people or other groups.

Gee believes that these two principles are so fundamental to ethical discourse that all human beings would, assuming they understood them, accept them both. I agree, and I believe that my work, and the work of anybody working in any aspect of learning or education, is to use these principles to govern all discourse, all research, all engagement with learners and institutions. This is, to sum up an argument I’ve made more than once on this blog, the social justice work of the media literacy movement. Researchers engaging with elements of participatory culture are especially well-poised to break down and reshape the valued practices of new social spaces, to rework the hierarchy that keeps landing rich white straight men at the top.

Though Gee reworks the language, if not the basic sense, of these key principles in his most recent edition of Social Linguistics and Literacies, I greatly prefer the earlier edition. It’s fiery, it’s angry, and the chapter outlining these key principles ends with flagrant courage. After contending that any human being would have to accept the above principles as true, he writes that

failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human,’ in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

In the third edition, Gee continues to assert that if someone refuses to accept these key principles, the argument “runs out,” but he ends the section with this limp handshake:

An unexamined life isn’t moral because it has the potential to hurt other people needlessly.

I kinda want the old Jim Gee back–the one who wasn’t afraid to withhold the title of “human” from someone who refused to accept his ethical principles. Backing off from a fight, if that’s what Gee’s doing here, isn’t doing anybody any favors.

Posted in bigotry, education, gay rights, Henry Jenkins, human rights, Jim Gee, participatory culture, politics, President Obama, Project New Media Literacies, public schools, racism, schools, social justice | 3 Comments »

on multiculturalism and diversity (or lack thereof) in the media literacies movement

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2009

***UPDATE, 5:30 P.M. 6/8/09***
This conversation was picked up by LiveJournal user Ithiliana, who takes up this issue from the perspective of a queer feminist scholar focusing on women of color (as she clearly explains in her blog, “if you tell me I am being reverse sexist, you will be banned”) in “Appropriation, New Media, Currriculum, a Whale of a Post.”

This morning Henry Jenkins posted a response to my response to Liz Losh’s response to Project New Media Literacies’ presentation of its Teachers’ Strategy Guide: Reading in a Participatory Culture. In his post, Henry argues this:

[Multiculturalism] is not a question we ignore in working with these materials. We are trying to bring these issues front and center in the language arts classroom, just as we are trying to get teachers to engage with new forms of creative expression — including remix in hip hop and techno — that build upon materials borrowed, snatched, stolen from the culture and put to new uses. We see these ethical concerns as central to our definition of appropriation which stresses “meaningful remixing” of existing cultural materials, just as we are also introducing issues around fair use, copyright, and creative commons. I am proud of the work our team has done in this area. It’s certainly not above friendly fire and constructive criticism. And if our presentations of these materials don’t do justice to the nuance and care with which we treated these issues, then we have some more work to do.

In support of his argument, Henry cites materials we included in the “Expert Voices” section of the curriculum. He highlights material we included from Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who is, as Henry explains, “an African-American play(wright) and director, who has staged a contemporary, multiracial version of the classic novel.”

Here’s a snippet of what Ricardo said (the rest is available at Henry’s blog):

When I came in contact with the new media literacies, many of the concepts were new to me, like the fascinating concept of remixing and appropriation. That’s an incredible choice of words to use in this new field: appropriation. I have spent much of my creative life trying not to appropriate things…..

So when I came across the word “appropriation” in the new media literacies I thought to myself, I’m a product of a black culture where so much of what we’ve created has been appropriated and not necessarily for our benefit. The great jazz artists were not necessarily making money off of jazz. The record companies were making money. Our dance forms, our music, our lingo, all of those things have been appropriated many, many times and not necessarily in a way in which we profited. So when I saw the term used I had a lot of concern about it. I still have a lot of concern about it, because does that mean that everything is fair game whether or not you understand its value? Can you just use whatever you want because it’s out there? Before you take something and use it, understand it. What does it mean to the people? Where was it born? It doesn’t mean that it’s not there to be used. It’s like music in the air: it’s there for everyone to hear it. But don’t just assume because you have a computer and I can download a Polynesian rhythm and an African rhythm and a Norwegian rhythm that I don’t have a responsibility to understand from whence they came; if I’m going to use gospel music I have a responsibility to understand that it’s born of a people and a condition that must be acknowledged.

In expanding on what Ricardo says, Henry writes that

the decision (to focus on Moby-Dick) was inspired by the growing body of scholarship which looks at Moby-Dick as a representation of the whaling ship as a multicultural society where sea men of many different ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds came together and worked towards a common goal. As Wyn Kelly, my collaborator, points out in our guide, Melville does not depict a world without conflict but he is honest to the multiracial composition of 19th century American culture.

The focus was also inspired by the imaginative and transformative interpretation of the book constructed by our creative collaborator, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and his passionate belief that Moby-Dick and some of the other classics taught through schools have something to say to current generations of readers and offer resources through which minority students can make sense of their current experience. Certainly there is an ongoing debate about which novels should be taught in schools, but the result of that debate should not simply be the replacement of Melville by Morrison. Ideally, both would be taught in dialogue with each other so that we have a richer understanding of how debates about race run through the American literary tradition and ideally, multiculturalism doesn’t just shape which books we teach but also how we teach them. Someone like Pitts-Wiley can teach us to read Moby-Dick through new eyes and in doing so, help us to better understand what it means to live in a multicultural society.

I absolutely agree with everything included above, and I largely agree with the arguments Henry sets forth in his post. Our effort in designing the Teachers’ Strategy Guide was to highlight and grapple with the issues of race and culture around a canonical text like Moby-Dick, and as Henry writes, “if our presentations of these materials don’t do justice to the nuance and care with which we treated these issues, then we have some more work to do.”

Where I think the new media literacies movement is faltering somewhat is in how it works to address these issues–mainly, that the movement is primarily populated by members of what Jim Gee calls the dominant Discourse of our culture. We’re mainly white, mainly middle- or upper-class–and while our intentions are good, there’s something a little…icky about the fact that we’re the ones guiding conversations about multiculturalism. In designing the Teachers’ Strategy Guide, we worked, it’s true, to include the voices of people like Ricardo and Rudy…but we served as the spokespeople for them, the filters of their words. We made the final decisions about what to include, and how to include it, and which pieces of what they said, did, and wrote mattered most to our work.

This isn’t intentional, of course. I can’t help being a white kid from suburban Detroit. (Even coming from the 313 doesn’t make me less white, less suburban–I mean, just look at me over there.) I can’t help that I care about and want to grapple with racism and multiculturalism despite my whiteness. But in the best-case scenario, I’m grappling with these issues alongside a variety of thinkers, writers, and practitioners who come from multiple ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds.

Despite its best efforts and a lot of headway in this aspect, the media literacy movement–at least, the part of it that works at the intersection of new media and education–is still struggling to attract people from these backgrounds. Until we can find authentic ways to authentically open up conversations that include and integrate multiple and diverse voices, our good intentions will fall short.

Posted in academia, education, Henry Jenkins, literature, Moby-Dick, participatory culture, Project New Media Literacies, racism, schools, social justice, teaching | Leave a Comment »