The Michael Brown Problem

Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Siberia for the past few weeks, you know that unarmed, black, 18-year old Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th. The police officer’s name was not released until a week after the incident, during which time it seems that the Ferguson police had been trying to concoct a ridiculous story that they still weren’t even able to get straight, including a version of events in which Brown physically attacked the officer, something that every single eye witness has refuted.

The police officer, Darren Wilson, has still not been charged with anything. The murder, and the subsequent lack of legal action, has led to unrest in Ferguson, with the National Guard being sent in and pointing guns at unarmed, peaceful civilians. (The National Guard left after being completely incompetent in doing their jobs.)

The shooting of Michael Brown, and the ensuing media circus, show the painful reality that black people in the United States are not human beings. (John Stewart has done a wonderful job of explaining this.)

The New York Times called Michael Brown “no angel.” Sean McElwee at Demos compared this to the way the humanizing, generous way that the same paper described convicted, white serial killers.

I’ve written before about how men of color are victims of gendered, racialized violence because of how they are perceived. The perception affects every aspect of the lives of people of color. It’s why when I complain about people touching and making comments about my hair, I’m not talking just about having “unfair” beauty standards placed on me, I’m talking about people seeing my existence as being less than human. It’s why when Richard Sherman talked loudly after a football game, white people started screaming about what a thug he was, as though no white athlete has ever screamed trash talk. It’s because he’s not seen as human. It’s why unarmed black people can be killed by the people who are charged with protecting them, over and over and over again in the “greatest country in the world”, and will most likely never see justice. In the past month, Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Eric Garner, were all murdered by law enforcement.

What kind of justice is there really for Michael Brown and his family? Even if Wilson is charged, prosecuted, and convicted, this boy still lost his life for having the audacity to exist in a black body. What justice is there for anyone who is murdered senselessly because of what s/he looks like?

Black people are not seen as human beings in America.

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Suck my chick lit

I am a big fan of chick lit. I’ve always been an avid reader and and I have a soft spot for fiction. I discovered chick lit seven years ago, and have enjoyed it ever since.

According to Wikipedia, chick lit is

“Genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly… Although it sometimes includes romantic elements, chick lit is generally not considered a direct subcategory of the romance novel genre, because the heroine’s relationship with her family or friends is often just as important as her romantic relationships. Chick lit typically features a female protagonist whose womanhood is heavily thematized in the plot. Though most often set in a contemporary world, such as in Waiting to Exhale, there is also historical chick lit. The issues dealt with are often more serious than consumerism. Marian Keyes’s Watermelon, for instance, features a protagonist who wrestles with how to be a mother in a modern world. There is a growing market for religious chick lit. As with other types of genre fiction, authors and publishers target many niche markets. Protagonists vary widely in ethnicity, age, social status, marital status, career, and religion.”

So… basically chick lit is just fiction with a female protagonist and set in modern times (and for some reason, usually in either London or New York.)

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about how I like chick lit and I said some of it covers some deep themes. This woman, a self-professed Pan-African feminist, laughed in my face and said “Which of them explore deep themes?” There’s something wrong when a self-identified feminist finds it hilarious that a book written by a woman, about a woman, and set in modern times, can have deep themes. You have to think not very much of women to think the idea that contemporary fiction by and about women, by definition, can’t explore deep themes.

When I was staying with a family in Ghana, the oldest son saw Song of Solomon in my room. He said he was surprised that I read books like that because “most books that are written by women are romance novels.”

One of the greatest American novelists, known for addressing complex issues of race, gender, and institutional discrimination having her entire body of work dismissed because she is a woman. (Shouldn’t the title alone have been a giveaway that it wasn’t going to be a romance story?) Song of Solomon doesn’t even fit into the (admittedly loose) definition of chick lit, but if it did, would that suddenly mean that it couldn’t be an important piece of literature? Would that fact alone make it worthy of derision?

Chick lit isn’t super easy to identify, if that Wikipedia definition is anything to go on. Chimamanda Adichie’s books are written by a woman and take place in metropolitan cities, in modern times, feature female protagonists, and often feature romantic relationships. Her work fits the description of chick lit, but is more commonly called “African literature” (another problematic designation. Have you ever heard of something called “North American literature” or “European literature”?). Authors like Marian Keyes, Anna Maxted, and Jennifer Weiner, and Dorothy Koomson are defined strictly as chick lit authors, but is there really a difference between the types of books that these authors are writing? These authors write about domestic violence, sexual assault, pregnancy, grief, human relationships, race, gender, class, and discrimination. But one of these is an author of “African literature” and the rest are authors of “chick lit.”

Madhulika Sikka, writer and executive editor of NPR, says “Men write novels, women write chick lit. This reductionist approach to the world of fiction has been so dominant in the last few years one could be forgiven for thinking that it is true, so often has it been repeated.” She has a point, although there is a corresponding men’s genre which some refer to as “dude lit”. Unfortunately, the authors of this type of fiction are given far more respect than their female counterparts- no doubt in part because of the common assumption that there are people, and then there are women.

Why are people so quick to dismiss this entire genre? My sister said she doesn’t read chick lit because she’s read some and found it to be lacking. She does read sci-fi and fantasy, and I asked her if she didn’t think there was bad sci-fi or fantasy. Her answer: “A lot of it is really bad.” And yet, that hasn’t put her off the genres entirely.

The sweeping dismissal of chick lit is just another form of sexism- if it’s by a woman, features a woman, and written with women in mind, then it must be frivolous and useless- just like women.

Waiting on my emperor

I’m not a relationship person. I’m 30 years old, and have been in one relationship.

I’ve dated, or at least attempted to date outside of that one relationship, but most of those situations have been unmitigated disasters, the most recent of which was my then housemate and her boyfriend setting me up with his housemate who turned out to be a disgusting, misogynistic creep. It was an awful experience. So, I’ve removed myself from the dating scene for now. Frankly, aside from emotionally, I’m also not geographically in the right place to find the type of person I would like to date.

Something that I keep hearing from African men is say that “a woman is supposed to cook.” A woman is unmarriageable if she doesn’t cook. And to be fair, it’s not only the men that say it- women perpetuate these gender roles. I was with the a couple of diplomats this week, and they said that “no Ghanaian man would marry me” and that “as a woman, I have certain gifts that enable me to cook” and that my husband “pays the bills, so I have to cook.”

Obviously, I did not react well. Aside from the assumption that my greatest ambition is to have a Ghanaian husband (WTF?), men also have hands, and if a man has managed to make it to the age of 25 or 30 or 35 without me cooking for him, why on earth would I suddenly be responsible for his nourishment? I have a Masters degree, and I work- and I… don’t pay bills? Is my money not good enough for bill paying because I’m a woman?

I’m sure this will come as a surprise to no one, but I’m not interested in being in a relationship where my partner doesn’t view me as a human being. I’m certainly not interested in being in a relationship where a partner expects things from me- cooking, cleaning, making less money than him, shaving my legs, being a SAHM, wearing makeup, an engagement ring, or skirts, changing my last name- that he wouldn’t even consider doing himself. I do not believe in “letting the man lead.” And I’m certainly not about to have a man “teach” me that I’m should be submissive to him, because why on earth would I listen to the oppressor telling me that I’m meant to be oppressed by him? I’m aware that I’m limiting my choices in partners by doing that, but I’m damn sure not about to limit my choices in life to please some man’s sexist preferences.

I am interested in a relationship where someone’s expectations of me aren’t based on stereotypes and restrictive roles- one where he would expect me to treat him with respect and compassion, and he would do the same for me.

There was an episode of Sex and the City where Jack Berger was hanging out with Carrie and Charlotte, and said “So basically, guys are just fucked?” when Charlotte said she hated carnations, and Carrie said she loved them- and that Carrie would dump a guy for wearing boat shoes, but Charlotte thought they were cute. A guy is only screwed if he views women the same way humans view dogs- as creatures that universally love having their genitals scratched and eating their own feces, rather than people with distinct preferences, flaws, and strengths.

This metaphor is getting away from me.

My point is that men and women should view each other as equals.

There aren’t a whole lot of models of feminist relationships out there- so when I look at who I would like my ideal relationship to be modeled after, I look to the most egalitarian society that I know of: The emperor penguins.

Admittedly, I am no relationship expert. But I do know what I want in a relationship- and that is a partner, not a master or a dependent. The emperor penguin is the most non-sexist animal species I know of. (There are some matriarchal animal species as well, but I’m more interested in the idea of sharing lives than one sex being subordinate to another.)

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Emperor penguins

I think these arctic birds are a pretty inspirational model for how to treat one another. Before sex, the male bows to the female and she bows back. When she lays the egg, the male incubates it for the winter while she goes off to feed herself- laying an egg takes a lot out of you. He takes care of it for over two months! If the penguin hatches before the mother returns, the papa takes care of it, feeding it with a liquid produced in his esophagus (the penguin equivalent of breast milk) and keeping it warm.

When the mama comes back, she takes over the childcare responsibilities, while the male penguin goes to sea to regain his strength (childcare is exhausting stuff).

I get that penguins are not humans, and that there are physiological differences between us that make certain things impossible- we’re mammals after all, and women gestate fetuses until birth, and men don’t produce breast milk. Still, I don’t see why we can’t take a cue from our tuxedoed cousins and split things more equally– both men and women putting in the work (even the not so fun stuff) to make their lives run smoothly, instead of arbitrarily gendering responsibilities and calling it a day.

So unlike Monique, I’m not looking for a king to whom to submit. And I’m not looking to be treated like a queen. (What does that mean, anyway?) In all honesty, I’m not looking for anything right now, but when someone the time does come, I will be ready for my emperor.